Newtown Battlefield

Back on Memorial day, while visiting the Elmira, New York area, I made a side trip to the Newtown Battlefield State park.  While I’m situated right in the middle of the Eastern Theater of the Civil War, rarely do I get to stomp around on a Revolutionary War battlefield.  So I took full advantage.

The Battle of Newtown, fought on August 29, 1779, was the most important engagement of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign.  Among the Revolutionary War’s largest military efforts, that campaign aimed to remove the threat of Tory and British-allied Native Americans.  Newtown was the largest battle (and for the most part the only true battle) in the campaign.   Space prevents me from discussing the campaign in detail, but I would recommend the interactive maps from the Sullivan-Clinton website for a quick scan.

General John Sullivan left Fort Sullivan (present day Athens, Pennsylvania) on August  26 with around 3,500 men.   His plan was to follow the Chemung River north into the heart of Iroquois territory in the Finger Lakes district.  Tories, commanded by Colonel John Butler, and British-allied Iroquois, led by Joseph Brant,  planned to ambush the Continentals at a wide bend in the river, just north of the present day New York-Pennsylvania state line.  All told around 1,200 Tories, Native Americans, and British regulars manned the line.  The Tory-Iroquois position was formidable, using breastworks and natural features.   A nearby mountain towered over the entire position, and was manned by a group of observers.

Newtown BF Pano
View of Chemung Valley from Newtown Battlefield Park

Although the Tory-Iroquois camouflaged the works, Sullivan’s scouts detected the position thus preventing the trap from springing.  Sullivan drew up a hasty and rather complex plan to deal with the entrenched enemy.  While one force, including light cannon, would confront the breastworks, he detached two brigades to flank the position by moving over the mountain.  Recognizing this move, the Tories and Iroquois attempted to retreat.  However, they ran into the Continentals now moving down the mountain.  In the ensuing fight, the Continentals defeated a determined counter-attack.  Poor timing and communications with his subordinates prevented Sullivan from inflicting a total defeat on his enemy.

But the victory opened up the Chemung Valley and gave Sullivan a clear path ahead.  Casualties on both sides were light, likely under 100 total.  While without a complete victory, Sullivan was free to move forward into the heart of Iroquois lands.  By destroying the settlements, Sullivan drove the Iroquois to the protection of British forts along the great lakes.  The British had to provide supplies and aid to their Iroquois allies, further draining resources.  Beyond the Revolution, many of the Continentals who participated in the campaign later returned to lay claim to the fertile lands they had seen.  This was, perhaps, the longest reaching effect of the victory at Newtown – promoting the westward expansion of American settlements at the expense of the Six Nations.

Today, somewhat remarkably given the passage of time, parts of the battlefield are preserved and well-marked with interpretive signs.  Along present day Onieda Road are markers indicating important points in Sullivan’s advance.  The breastworks held by the Tory-Iroquois force have vanished with time, but the position may be traced by markers.

Atop the mountain where the forces clashed is the Newtown Battlefield State Park, which doubles as an interpretive and living history center.  Prominent in the park is a tall obelisk memorial.

Newtown BF 30 May 10 143
Newtown Battlefield Monument

Battlefield stompers will likely move straight for the overlook deck, from which I took the panoramic view (above).

Newtown BF 30 May 10 150
Newtown Battlefield Overlook

However, the exact spot where the two forces collided on the mountain is lost to time.  While likely on the down hill slopes, the location has never been pinpointed.

My visit occurred at a time when the park gate was closed as part of state-wide budget cuts.  When I arrived, several locals were enjoying a stroll up the hill.  They indicated that while the gate was closed, one could walk up the hill.  So instead of driving up the park road to the summit, I had to walk about a mile and a half up hill.  The weather had not turned unbearably hot, so I took the walk in stride, experiencing more of the hillside than I suspect most visitors do.

I’m somewhat concerned that the site is not more accessible due to the budget constraints.  I read in one of the local papers that the closure caught several tour groups by surprise, with busloads of folks disappointed.  Hopefully the issues will get worked out in the future.   But in consolation, consider that most of the outlying battle related sites are along public roads, with plenty of markers.

For those with an interest, I’ve created a “tour by markers” (map) for the battlefield on the Historical Marker Database.

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