The battle for Fort Hill raged several days but the fight to preserve the battlefield in Peekskill, New York, lasted more than two centuries. While the local soldiers could not repulse the British attack, city officials, historians and residents eventually did save the site of the battle from development.
On Sunday morning, March 23, 1777, a dozen British ships sailed north along the Hudson River from New York City. The fleet anchored off Peekskill, which sits along the shore of the northern portion of Westchester County about 50 miles from mid-Manhattan. England’s plan during this stage of the Revolutionary War was to divide its rebellious colonies by separating New England from New York and colonies to the south.
At Peekskill, about 500 British soldiers were dispatched to take Fort Hill. With light artillery, they began to fire at the fortifications. The 1,200 soldiers defending Fort Hill withstood a three-day assault before abandoning the fortified hill. As the Americans retreated, the commanding officer ordered the barracks burned to prevent the British forces from using them as shelter.
Over several years, the Redcoats would return many times at various spots along the river to try to crush the rebellion. Peekskill was especially strategic to the American cause since it was a main depot point for the Continental Army and a key transportation hub to shuttle troops from New England into New York and then across the river to New Jersey.
Fort Hill Saved Twice
Fort Hill stands about 300 feet above the Hudson. The Continental Army had built redoubts on the rocky and virtually treeless hill that held commanding views of the river and a main land artery, the Albany Post Road. The land remained untouched for 150 years after the battle. During 1929, the City of Peekskill obtained approximately 10 acres of the site to preserve the history of the battle.
The preserving of the land occurred at a time when much of the area still had not been developed and commercialization pressures remained years away. But, eventually, during the 1990s, the rest of the hill was seen as prime real estate.
The property became the focus of residential development battles. One project to build 258 luxury apartments and 20 single-family homes higher on the hill and near the original protected parcel was proposed but construction did not proceed. The city’s effort to block development of the entire property eventually was upheld in court with the support of a group organized as Friends of Historic Peekskill. During July 2007, the City of Peekskill reached agreement with a development company to preserve an additional 40 acres adjacent to the original parcel.
Today, across from a residential neighborhood that occupies the low end of the east side of the hill, the entrance to Fort Hill Park can be located on Decatur Avenue. The hill looks nothing as it did during 1777. It now is covered with trees, underbrush and season upon season of decaying leaves. Stone steps help the visitor a short way up the hill and then the history explorer is on his own to navigate paths through the brush and leaves to take the 10-minute hike to the top.
A sign at the entrance identifies the site, but two additional signs that reportedly were placed on the hill several years ago could not be located during a recent visit. These signs read:
- Peekskill Suffered a British Attack in 1777: The Continental Army base camp at Peekskill was assaulted by 500 British infantry, supported by sailors and naval vessels on March 23rd 1777. The defending New York 2nd and 4th regiments were led by Gen. MacDougall. The British bombarded the Fort Hill area with four cannons they positioned on Drum Hill, directly to the south. Five large barracks buildings on this hilltop were burned by the retreating American forces. Vital military supplies including food, shoes, clothing, wagons, sloops, tools, mills and warehouses were destroyed by the invaders.
- Revolutionary War Redoubt: Remnants of this original Continental Army Redoubt are evident in the hilltop circular perimeter made of rubble stone. Logs would have been layered for further protection from attacking forces. Soldier work crews under the direction of Gen. William Heath in November and December 1776 constructed the simple fortification overlooking the former Albany Post Road. British forces briefly occupied this American outpost twice in 1777, and once in 1779.
Despite the tough climb up the hill and the absence of the descriptive signs, the experienced history hunter of American Revolution fortifications easily can identify the area at the summit that was used to defend this portion of the Hudson Highlands. The additional undeveloped areas adjacent to the summit likely include more examples of Continental Army activity, but the land is rocky and too overgrown to explore without guidance from a local historian.
Lost Peekskill History
While Peekskill was successful in saving Fort Hill, it could not save a Revolutionary War witness tree. Known as the “hanging tree” or “old Oak,” this tree was destroyed by lightning during 2007.
The tree was used for the execution of Joseph Strang during January 1777. Strang was accused of working for the British military. The story is that he confessed to the charge. A court martial, with 10 Continental Army officers serving as jurors, convicted him and sentenced him to death.
The tree was located on the grounds of the former Peekskill Military Academy that now is Peekskill High School at the intersection of Wells Street and Elm Street. The site does not contain any signage that describes the trial and the execution.