Date: September - November 1776
Region: Middle Colonies
British Perspective: After thoroughly defeating the American army on Long Island (August 27, 1776), General Howe moved deliberately to strengthen his grip on New York City. Through the use of spies and reconnaissance, he gathered intelligence in preparation for a pending assault against the enemy stationed in New York City across the East River on Manhattan Island. The cautious commander expended two weeks maneuvering his army and navy into positions that would offer him greater flexibility and striking power in the days ahead.
Because of the size and quality of the British navy, he was able to move his transports, supply vessels, and warships virtually unopposed throughout the harbor and along the strategic maritime route to Lake Champlain via the Hudson River. Control of the Hudson River Valley was especially important for the British because they planned to use it to dominate and isolate New England from the rest of the rebellious colonies.
Confident the defeat on Long Island would bring the Americans to their senses, Howe delayed offensive action to arrange a peace negotiation with the rebel authorities. He released American Gen. John Sullivan from captivity and urged him to persuade the Continental Congress to discuss peace terms. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Edmund Rutledge met with Howe at his Staten Island headquarters on September 11, 1776.
This meeting, known as the Staten Island Peace Conference, had no chance of success because the British demanded a retraction of the American Declaration of Independence, something the American delegates refused to entertain seriously. Thereafter, Howe focused on seizing control of the rest of New York City and crushing the enemy army.
His plan was to land a strong force north of the city at Kip’s Bay to effectively cut Manhattan Island in two and thus divide Washington’s army, capture the southern portion, and/or force a general engagement. Kip’s Bay was a thinly protected area on the island’s eastern shore. Preliminary moves included pushing warships and transport up the East River. On the 13th of September, several warships sailed north up the Hudson past American shore batteries, threatening to land forces above Washington’s command and severing waterborne communications with the mainland.
American Perspective: By all rights, the American Revolution should have ended after the August 27 battle on Long Island, where the bulk of George Washington’s nascent army was outflanked, routed, and cut off against the East River. Howe, however, had underestimated his opponent’s resolve. His hesitation in finishing the job allowed Washington to slip across the river to fight another day. Still, the August battle exposed several serious problems for Washington.
In addition to losing valuable commanders, the loss sapped his army’s morale. Desertions skyrocketed, and thousands of militia simply went home. The defeat also caused many inside and outside the army to question his leadership abilities. Washington’s problems were compounded by the fact that many of the inhabitants on Manhattan Island were Loyalists, which made life much more difficult for his occupation force.
Washington had little recourse but to defend New York City as well as possible while he searched for opportunities to improve his situation. Although his army was not completely surrounded, his ability to maneuver freely was limited and decreasing by the day. General Howe not only had a strong professional army but a powerful navy that provided the British with agility and mobility. Washington’s command was again isolated on an island, much as it had been on Long Island.
The strength of the army approached 20,000 men, but at least one-quarter of his soldiers were ill. The new Patriot army needed a thorough reorganization, better muskets and more artillery, equipment of all kinds, and a better strategic operational area than Manhattan Island. Most of what was required was simply not readily available to Washington in 1776, though he could reorganize his command, work on increasing morale, and strengthen his position.
The army was reorganized into three wings or “grand divisions” led by Gens. Israel Putnam, Nathanael Greene, and William Heath. When it was determined the city would be defended, Washington deployed his new organizations for defensive operations. Putnam’s 5,000-man wing was in the city itself; Greene’s command was assigned to defend eastern Manhattan Island, which included Turtle and Kip’s bays (about mid-island, east side); Heath’s wing, about 9,000 men, was ordered to defend the western side of the island and secure the high ground in the north known as Harlem Heights. On the western shore, Fort Washington, an old citadel guarding the Hudson River, was strengthened to prevent enemy ships from moving upriver and cutting off the American defenders.
As inexperienced field commanders are often wont to do, Washington overextended his army. There was too much terrain that needed defending and not enough troops, artillery, and naval resources available for the task.
The British could land at will almost anywhere. A meeting of army officers on September 12 concluded the entire island below Fort Washington should be evacuated, and the equipment and supplies hauled to safety. Unfortunately for the Americans, this could not be accomplished before British offensive operations began.
The Fighting: One of the opening moves in the New York campaign was also one of the most bizarre: a submarine attack on the night of September 6, 1776, Sgt. Ezra Lee stealthily maneuvered a small one-man American submarine affectionately named “The American Turtle” beneath HMS Eagle. His intent was to drill a hole in the British hull, insert an explosive charge, and slip away before it detonated. Unable to accomplish his mission, the frustrated young officer withdrew but was spotted by British seamen who opened fire on the strange vessel. Sergeant Lee released his bomb and escaped. Unfortunately, the sub was hidden aboard a colonial warship that was sunk trying to run the British blockade. It took to the bottom the first submarine used in a combat operation.
During the early morning hours of September 15, British warships moved into Kip’s Bay with a flotilla of transports filled with 4,000 soldiers. The warships pummeled Patriot positions with a heavy cannonade for about one hour, after which the British debarked and assaulted the beach at about 1:00 p.m. The defenders in this sector were commanded by Col. William Douglas, whose troops consisted largely of raw Connecticut militia hunkered down in an ill-placed shallow trench. Douglas attempted to mount a credible defense, but his undisciplined soldiers, together with others defending nearby, panicked in the face of the stunning display of firepower and fled for the rear after barely firing a shot.
A dumbfounded Washington arrived on the scene with several other generals and tried to rally the fleeing troops. According to some accounts, he struck several fugitives with the flat side of his sword, spoke mockingly of their fighting abilities, and finally spurred his horse in an effort to charge the British line, a foolhardy bit of bravado that ended when his aides grabbed the reins and persuaded him that retreat was a better option. (Though described in flowery terms in several sources, these actions cannot be verified.) Fortunately for the Patriots, the troops deployed in the city below Kip’s Bay were notified of the mid-island disaster soon enough to march north quickly before Howe expanded his beachhead and cut off their line of retreat. Easily driven from the eastern and lower portions of the island, the Patriot army retreated northward along the western shore to fortified positions on Harlem Heights. The British mirrored the withdrawal, marching north up the eastern shoreline in one of the oddest foot races of the war.
The next day, advance elements of both armies clashed on the plains southeast of Harlem Heights. Brigadier General Leslie’s command approached the new Patriot position. Washington dispatched Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton’s Connecticut Rangers (Congress’s Own), about 150 men, to develop the advance. After easy victories at Long Island and Kip’s Bay, Howe’s men had little regard for colonial fighting abilities. When the Rangers ran into light infantry, a small fight developed. Knowlton’s men comprised a specially formed unit that answered directly to General Washington. Unlike the militia defenders at Kip’s Bay, these men fought with great zeal and steadfastness until reinforcements from the 42nd Regiment of Foot arrived, prompting Knowlton to withdraw.
After his men had twice failed to stand and deliver a credible fight, Washington was more than a little anxious about engaging in a pitched action. However, when word reached him that Knowlton’s Rangers were fighting well and the British were mocking the Americans with fox-hunting calls, Washington decided to set a trap. He ordered 150 men under Lt. Col. Archibald Crary (John Nixon’s Brigade) to initiate a limited counterattack while Knowlton and his rangers, together with three companies from the 3rd Virginia under Maj. Andrew Leitch (230 men) executed a flanking movement around the advancing British right to cut them off. Washington’s front line was kept too far distant to be effective on purpose to lure the British closer. Washington fed the balance of Nixon’s men, about 800 Pennsylvania infantry, into the line. General Leslie took the bait and advanced, triggering an energetic musketry action.
Leslie realized something was amiss when premature firing on his right flank alerted him to the danger of envelopment. The British fell back a couple hundred yards behind a fence line, followed closely by the Americans. The fighting raged at close range while Washington fed in troops from Maryland and New England, including Douglas’s Connecticut militia, who had failed so miserably at Kip’s Bay. Two guns were also brought forward. Both Knowlton and Leitch were mortally injured early in the fighting while urging their men to stand tall against the world’s finest infantry.
Leslie reinforced his light infantry and Scottish Highlanders (42nd Regiment) with Jägers and field artillery. The fighting was more than Leslie had bargained for, and he fell back from Harlem Plains, stopping after a short distance to fight a rearguard action. By this time, reinforcements from several miles away had arrived, swelling Leslie’s command to more than 5,000 men.
Unlike so many battles, darkness did not end the fighting, which stopped by 2:30 p.m. Worried Howe was planning a larger assault, perhaps with naval support, Washington ordered his troops to withdraw to the relative safety of Harlem Heights. The Americans also still held Fort Washington, but Howe had secured New York City with relative ease.
Harlem Heights was a small but morale-boosting victory, exactly what the American army needed. It was also the last combat action of consequence for the next four weeks. Washington used the gift of time to refit his men and weigh a significant strategic issue: should he abandon Fort Washington? As long as the Americans held Harlem Heights, the fort (located on the northwest side of Manhattan Island) was secure.
Howe would almost certainly try to turn Washington’s army out of its position, and when he did, the American army would have to move to the mainland, exposing Fort Washington to capture. Washington wanted the large garrison's invaluable artillery and tons of supplies withdrawn, but his subordinate officers convinced him the fort could withstand the assault. General Greene urged it to be held, claiming the garrison could be evacuated in time if necessary. Events would prove the advice unsound.
The move Washington feared began on October 12, when Howe launched an envelopment of the Harlem Heights position. Washington had no choice but to order a tactical withdrawal from the heavily wooded northern end of Manhattan Island. Organized into four divisions led by Gens. Charles Lee, William Heath, John Sullivan, and Benjamin Lincoln, Washington maneuvered his army through the west end of the Bronx northward into mainland New York. Stretching his army along a 13-mile route from Fordham to White Plains, Washington moved his headquarters from Manhattan to the vicinity of White Plains on October 21.
After the Battle of White Plains failed to live up to Howe’s expectation, he turned back to deal with Fort Washington. On November 13-14, the British launched a combined operation with nearly 8,000 men to capture the stronghold. The British attacked from several directions, with several thousand German troops comprising the primary attacking column.
Washington crossed over the river from Fort Lee during the fighting and quickly determined that saving the fort and Col. Robert Magaw’s 2,800-man garrison and precious artillery was no longer possible. He returned to New Jersey, and by 3:00 p.m., the fort was under the control of the British. The fall of Fort Washington (Fort Lee fell four days later, though the garrison had already fled) brought the New York Campaign to a close.
To learn more about Battle for New York facts, read the book Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution written by Theodore Savas and J. David Dameron.
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