Teaching the Creativity & Purpose Behind George Washington’s Giant Watch Chain

Teaching the Creativity & Purpose Behind George Washington’s Giant Watch Chain

by Robert Skead, Author

There are so many amazing and creative aspects of the American Revolution that I never learned in school—and I was in sixth grade in 1976 during America’s Bicentennial. Things like the Culper Spy Ring, the use of invisible ink and secret codes, the American Turtle submarine 9yes there was a submarine that worked during the American Revolution), top-secret gunpowder factories (gun powder was such a precious commodity the patriots had to have secret factories) and every-day patriots who went on covert missions to help the cause of liberty.

I never discovered these truths until my own research into this time period as an adult. Add the creation of the Great Chain at West Point to all these creative devices that helped American patriots win the war and you have a hook that will engage any individual’s imagination to want to learn more.

The Great Chain at West Point had an important mission. General Washington needed to prevent the British from taking control of the Hudson River and splitting the American colonies. If the British controlled the river, they’d have the ability to launch a major invasion from Canada and cut New England off from the middle and southern colonies—allowing them to win the war. Washington and the Continental Congress were not going to let that happen! They needed to keep the British fleet in New York, so they financed a giant chain to be forged and installed across the Hudson River at West Point—and it worked!

The chain was installed on April 30, 1778. It took 40 men four days to install it. The chain was supported by a bridge of waterproofed logs, like connected rafts that stretched across the river. There was a clever system of pulleys, rollers, and ropes, and midstream, there were anchors to adjust the tension to overcome currents and tides. Creative, right?

Consider these facts:

  • The chain consisted of 1,200 large links;
  • Each iron link was 2 feet long; and
  • Each link weighed 100 to 180 pounds.

As the British fleet approached the Great Chain at West Point, they were intimidated and retreated. Had they done so, the chain would have ripped a ship’s hull apart.

General Washington kept the chain a secret in all of his correspondence in the fall of 1778, referring to it as one of “several works for the defense of the river.” A tory spy did, however, report news of the chain to the British in New York City. Later, the Great Chain was dubbed “Washington’s giant watch chain” by newspapers in New York. It was certainly a special project of his – so much so that when they decided to take it down, Washington had to be on hand to oversee the operation himself. On the day after the Continental Army took it down, November 29, 1779, Lieutenant Reynolds, Aide to Colonel Timothy Pickering, The Adjutant General, U.S. Army, West Point, wrote the following to his wife about General Washington:

“The day started with breakfast of dried beef and talk of the upcoming battles and the need to keep the British Forces split between New York and Canada.  As assistant to Colonel Pickering, I got to sit in on all meetings and see the leaders at work.  Colonel Pickering is so very calm, which I believe he has learned from General Washington.  … The chain came out of the river yesterday and it was quite an operation to behold.  General Washington took his entire staff down to River Bank to the chain emplacement and oversaw the removal of the chain personally.

“It was quite a spectacle to see as the entire staff, General Washington on his great horse, Nelson, overseeing all the Soldiers and officers conducting the boat operation to retrieve the chain before the river would freeze over.  … Boats were used to maneuver the barges and raffs toward shore where the oxen could pull the great chain up on the bank of the river.  It took the entire afternoon and evening by torchlight to get the chain onto the shore and it was none too soon as the river had ice floating in it as we finished up last night.

“I will never forget seeing General Washington riding back and forth on that great horse talking to every Soldier, talking with the head of his honor guard and with his guests.  General Washington is always at his best when riding.  He becomes more animated and actually talks to almost everyone.  … General Von Steuben and The Marquis de Lafayette both commented to Colonel Pickering that General Washington is the right man at the right time for the American Army, as he is as noble as any aristocrat on horseback yet is truly an American Patriot in demeanor and leadership.”

Robert Skead is the author of Links to Liberty, the third book in the American Revolutionary War Adventure series, from Knox Press. Patriots, Redcoats and Spies, the first book in the series, features an adventure around an urgent spy letter from the Culper spy ring that needs to be delivered to General Washington. The second book in the series, Submarines, Secrets and a Daring Rescue, teaches about the American Turtle submarine. The stories were created by Robert and his father, Robert A. Skead (now 95-years-old) to inspire readers to do great things and celebrate the creativity of colonial patriots. The Skeads are members of the Sons of the American Revolution. Their ancestor, Lamberton Clark, one of the main characters in the stories, served in the Revolutionary War as a member of the Connecticut Militia and the Continental Army. Discover more at www.robertskead.com.

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