Stony Point and the Creation the American Corps of Light Infantry

By David Bonk

In order to tell the story of the American assault and capture of the British base at Stony Point, New York in July 1779 in Men Determined to Be Free, it was necessary to trace the evolution of light infantry formations in the American Army. American commander in chief General George Washington formalized the organization of a corps of light infantry in June, 1779 in preparation for the assault on Stony Point. Up to that point, unlike the British, who early in the war recognized the advantage of utilizing light infantry as a separate, elite force capable of undertaking a wide range of specialized missions, the development of American light infantry followed a vastly different course.

In 1776 Congress passed legislation that formalized the organization of the American Army. The American forces that initially gathered around Boston in 1775 represented a polyglot of varying organization and appearance. The legislation passed by Congress attempted to give structure to the Army, standardizing the size and structure of the basic regiment. At the same time, in addition to organizing the regular infantry formations, they specifically created a ten company force of riflemen. Each company was to include 80 men and the legislation mandated six companies recruited from Pennsylvania, and two each from Maryland and Virginia. The response from Pennsylvania was so great that three additional companies were recruited. While the bulk of the force was assigned to Washington’s Army outside Boston three companies, including a Virginia company commanded by Colonel Daniel Morgan, were detached and assigned to a force led by Colonel Benedict Arnold and sent north to support the invasion of Canada.

Officers tent at recreation of the British encampment at the Stony Point battlefield.

In late 1776 Congress modified their original legislation, reducing the size of individual regiments’ to eight companies, each composed of 90 men. The Pennsylvania rifle companies were organized into a single regiment. Despite the Congressional action individual states continued to organize their forces as they saw fit and Virginia created the ten company 11th Virginia regiment composed of riflemen from Virginia and Maryland. Morgan was assigned command of both the 11th Virginia and a larger provisional rifle corps organized to contest British forces commanded by General John Burgoyne moving south from Canada. Morgan’s force included the 11th Virginia and a provisional light infantry force of 300 men commanded by Major Henry Dearborn.

In August, 1777 with Morgan’s force assigned to the Northern Department Washington ordered the formation of a ‘corps of light infantry’, composed of a 117 man provisional company drawn from each brigade and Brigadier General William Maxwell was given command. Since there was no formal companies or training for light infantry the men assigned to these companies are sometimes referred to as ‘select men’. This designation recognized these men, usually veterans, were chosen for their reliability and experience. Maxwell’s force was expected to support the main army by operating independently, to screen the movements of the main army and monitor the movements of the enemy.

Following the 1777 campaign Washington proposed to reorganize the infantry regiments, and recommended the inclusion of a light infantry company in each regiment. Congress agreed to Washington’s proposal and in May, 1778 specified a ninth company, designated as a light infantry company, be included as part of the regimental structure and stipulated these companies be organized into a corps of light infantry during campaigns.

In response to the British evacuation of Philadelphia in June, 1778 Washington ordered the light infantry companies assembled into a single unit of approximately 1,500 men under the command of Brigadier General Charles Scott. He also ordered that each brigade in the army furnish 25 of their best marksmen to join Morgan’s 11th Virginia Rifle regiment. 1778 ended with the light infantry companies returning to their parent regiments rather than continuing to function as an independent unit.

Broken terrain behind the British upper defensive works at the Stony Point battlefield.

Early in 1779 Washington received a note from Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, who had taken a leave of absence from the army at the end of 1778, expressing his interest in returning to command the light infantry. In response to Wayne’s recent request Washington ‘cheerfully’ accepted his offer, deferring official action until the need arose to assemble the light infantry corps. Remaining on leave Wayne did not return to the main army until 21 June.

While waiting for Wayne Washington organized the Light Corps, establishing three divisions composed of troops from Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. The Corps, totaling 737 men, was further reorganized into four battalions, two regiments of two battalions each. This Light Corps formed the nucleus of the force that captured Stony Point.

As news of Wayne’s assignment circulated throughout the army an unintended consequence of Washington’s action was the resignation of Colonel Daniel Morgan. Morgan, who had previously commanded the ad hoc light infantry formations in several campaigns, was outraged at being passed over for command and wrote Washington on 30 June. Morgan stated he was ‘disappointed’ in not receiving the command of the Light Corps and offered his resignation. Washington accepted his resignation without comment and duly passed it along to Congress for official action.

Wayne joined his new command on 2 July at Sandy Beach, located along the Hudson River near Fort Montgomery. Wayne must have been disappointed by the conditions he found at Sandy Beach. His men were dressed in a wide variety of uniforms, primarily brown and blue, depending on their home state, although many lacked even that basic uniform. Tents and shoes were also in short supply. Wayne immediately fired off requests for additional provisions, including supply wagons, tents and rum. He also suggested to Washington that a new uniform be adopted by the Light Corps reflecting the units’ distinctive organization and role, noting he had a ‘prejudice in favor of an Elegant Uniform and Soldierly appearance’.

Washington agreed to Wayne’s request for the supplies and equipment. In addition, Washington supplemented the Light Corps with additional troops. He ordered Heath’s Connecticut division to detach their light infantry companies and directed light infantry companies from Massachusetts and North Carolina regiments to join Wayne’s force. These additional troops allowed the creation of two additional regiments, each composed of two battalions. On 15 July Wayne’s command, totaling 1,475 men, marched south to assault Stony Point.

“Men who are Determined to be Free”: The American Assault on Stony Point, 15 July 1779 is now available to order here.


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