The Constitution Island Association
Military science and literature are usually considered separate, independent entities. One is rooted in maneuvers, battles, and weaponry, the other in concepts, abstractions, and ideas. However, it is possible for military science and literature not only to coexist, but to reach a synergy. Constitution Island is a prime example of where such a convergence takes place.
Constitution Island is a 280-acre island located south of Cold Spring, close to the eastern shore of the Hudson River. It is part of the United States Military Academy and has roots that can be traced to the founding of our country. Originally called Martelaer’s Rock, Constitution Island served as a home to soldiers of the Continental Army and local militia during the Revolutionary War.
As soon as the war commenced, British and colonial generals grasped the significance of the Hudson River. In order to acquire control of the waterway, Colonel James Clinton and Major Christopher Tappan began looking for tactical areas that would be ideal for fortification. Martelaer’s Rock was strategically located on a sharp, S-shaped curve. Colonel George Washington, a member of the Continental Congress, knew this curve would be a navigational nightmare for British ships, which would have to stop and adjust sails in order to maneuver around it.
The Continental Congress directed the New York Provincial Congress to carry out the fortification of Martelaer’s Rock. The Provincial Congress hired Bernard Romans, a Dutch engineer, to construct a large fort, which was to be called Fort Constitution, in honor of the unwritten English Constitution. Work began in September 1775, then came to a halt when the Continental Congress tried Romans for failure to complete the job in a timely, economic, and effective fashion. The focus then shifted to building Forts Clinton and Montgomery downriver. After the British succeeded in capturing these posts in October 1777, New York and the Continental Army again focused on fortifying Constitution Island and West Point.
Colonels Louis De la Radière and Thaddeus Kosciusko began work on Fortress West Point in January 1778. Engineer Captain Thomas Machin proposed that an iron chain be strung across the river from West Point to Constitution Island. (James Clinton and Christopher Tappan had made the same suggestion in 1775.) This would be Machin’s second attempt to construct a chain strong enough to withstand a British warship. The original chain, strung between Fort Montgomery and Anthony’s Nose, had proven ineffectual in stopping the British when they took Forts Montgomery and Clinton on October 6, 1777. They captured the forts by circling around on land and attacking from the west, and destroyed the chain. In January 1778, the New York Provincial Congress decided that West Point would be an ideal location for the second chain.
The new chain was to be similar in construction to the original, but much larger. A two-foot link from the first chain weighed about sixty-five pounds; a link in the new one would weigh ninety-five pounds. Work on it began in February 1778. Noble Townsend and Company Ironworks completed it in less than three months. Creating something this immense in such a short amount of time was a real technological feat for eighteenth-century workmen.
The chain was floated from West Point to Constitution Island on April 30, 1778. Every fall thereafter, the West Point garrison removed the obstacle from the river to minimize damage to it incurred by ice floes. The chain was last removed from the Hudson in the fall of 1782. When it was not placed back in the river the following spring, the American army considered it a sure sign that victory was at hand.
After the Revolution, Constitution Island lost its importance as a military post. Information is scant regarding what transpired there during the next forty years. For example, it is believed that its barracks building may have been used as a hospital for a brief period of time, specifically for quarantining those with infectious diseases such as smallpox.
The island remained in a state of desuetude until it was bought in the early 1830s by Henry Whiting Warner, a prominent New York City lawyer. Warner, his wife, and their daughters, Anna and Susan, spent summers there in a home they named Good Craig. Losses Warner incurred in the financial crash of 1836 forced the family to take up permanent residence in the house. Henry Warner quickly faded from society; Susan and Anna quickly stepped into their new roles as family breadwinners.
Born into wealth, Anna and Susan had acquired a classic Victorian training, with lessons in mathematics, foreign languages, and the arts. The girls reveled in the luxuries placed at their disposal. Had their father not lost his fortune, the sisters most likely would have married into other prominent families and taken their places among New York’s social elite. It’s also likely the women would never have become such prolific writers.
Life on Constitution Island was a major change for the sisters. They had left the hustle and bustle of New York for a pristine, natural environment to which they felt instantly connected. The sisters never looked at their financial plight as a handicap. Instead, they used it to make significant contributions to the community.
At first, they indulged in many of the luxuries they’d enjoyed in their old home. Though there was no electricity or running water, the Warners managed retain their comfortable standard of living. But this standard slowly diminished. By the late 1840s, they had no choice but to declare bankruptcy.
For Susan and Anna, day-to-day life on the island was long and arduous. The sisters awoke around 4:30 a.m. and immediately kindled a fire. Then, believing the best time to write was during the early hours, they set to work for at least a couple of hours. Afterwards, they completed routine chores, such as tending to the house, the animals, the garden, and the needs of their father.
In order to try to provide for the family, Susan Warner had been urged by her aunt, who had come to live with the family shortly after their mother passed away, to “put her pen to financial use.” Providing the necessities of survival became the Warners’ biggest challenge. It was a week-to-week struggle that never subsided. Overcoming adversity would become a reoccurring theme throughout Susan’s writings. This continuous struggle led to the concept of her first book, The Wide, Wide World.
The Wide, Wide World was a story about the moral progression of a young orphan named Ellen. Susan published it under a pseudonym, Elizabeth Wetherell, primarily because as a woman she doubted it would have much success. The book was rejected by numerous publishing companies. Finally, George P. Putnam agreed to print it because of his mother’s unwavering belief in the novel. The Wide, Wide World became one of America’s first bestsellers, and the first book by an American author to sell more than one million copies, earning Susan a place in literary history.
Susan’s writings encapsulated the Romantic Era. Here novels were sentimental, and their main characters continually grappled with morality. After The Wide, Wide World, she published Queechy in 1852. This novel also was about a young orphan who sold flowers and produce to support her family. Susan went on to write at least twenty-eight other books for both children and adults.
Susan Warner’s writings strongly correlate to her own life on Constitution Island, acting as a mirror to her personal thoughts, beliefs, and experiences. Providing for herself and her sister was a constant pressure that never became less burdensome, no matter how hard she worked. Even The Wide, Wide World did not provide much financial stability. Despite the book’s enormous sales, Susan did not receive many royalties from it; she had given up those rights to Putnam in a desperate attempt to acquire immediate cash.
Anna also spent her life making literary contributions, most under the pseudonym Amy Lothrop. She also channeled her love of God into hymn writing. Her most popular hymn was “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know,” which first appeared in the novel Say and Seal, coauthored with her sister. In the book, a Sunday school teacher sings the hymn to a dying boy. “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know” continues to be popular. The hymn, as well as others written by Anna, were frequently sung during Bible classes the sisters conducted for young West Point cadets—a labor of love they undertook for 40 years.
Although Anna focused on hymn-writing, her most notable book, Gardening by Myself (1872), was a detailed account of keeping her island garden. It was written in journal form and recounts a year’s worth of labor, from January to December. The book was groundbreaking—the first devoted to gardening forpleasure. It urged women to pick up the tools and do the work themselves.
After Susan’s death on March, 17, 1885, Anna continued to live alone on Constitution Island. Her love of its natural beauty and deep respect for its history led her to turn down numerous offers by developers to purchase the island. The Warner sisters had hoped that one day it would become part of the West Point reservation, protected forever. In 1908, the island was bought by American philanthropist Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, who eventually fulfilled the sisters’ dream by transferring ownership to the United States Military Academy. Anna was allowed to live on the island until her death.
Anna passed away on January 22, 1915, with a strong belief that Constitution Island and its legacy would be safeguarded. The following year, a group of concerned citizens (including J.P. Morgan and his wife) founded the Constitution Island Association. The formation of the association was not only a way to preserve the island but to honor the Warner Sisters for their contributions to society and their long-time protection of this special place.
The Constitution Island Association, Inc., is a 501(c) (3) non-profit corporation chartered by the New York State Board of Regents. It is the oldest governmental non-profit organization in the United States. However, the association must raise its own operating funds: They are not provided by the government.
The Constitution Island Association interprets both the military and literary importance of the island. It accomplishes this through the preservation of the Warner house as well as the Revolutionary War fortifications scattered around the island. The house is filled with the family’s furnishings, books, and other objects from the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The Constitution Island Association is interested in working with scholars on collaborative projects. Its most recent endeavor was the book Jesus Loves Me, This I Know: The Story Behind the World’s Most Cherished Children’s Hymn, by Robert J. Morgan, published in March 2006. The Association is also developing plans for a Constitution Island Education Center, which will serve as an on-site classroom for West Point cadets and community members.
Constitution Island is open from June 25 to September 25. Guided tours leave West Point’s South Dock on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 1 and 2 p.m. Tours focus on the Warners’ house; a replica of Anna’s garden, which has been recreated by the Constitution Island Association; and the Revolutionary War fortifications. For additional information, visit www.constitutionisland.org.