Fort Washington, New York

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Fort Washington, New York

FORT WASHINGTON, NEW YORK. Captured by the British on 16 November 1776. After Washington's forces slipped away into the hills north of White Plains at the end of October, Major General William Howe gave up the chase and turned south to complete his conquest of Manhattan. Howe had pried Washington out of northern Manhattan by landing behind him in Westchester; Washington, against his better judgment, had left behind twelve hundred men at Fort Washington.


To retain Fort Washington, now isolated in enemy territory, the Americans needed to control the adjacent areas of northern Manhattan. They had to hold both Mount Washington, on which the fort was built—a long, narrow elevation running north-south along the Hudson—and Laurel Hill, parallel to it, along the Harlem River. To the south, the defensive lines on Harlem Heights were also critical, as was the Kings Bridge at the northern tip of the island. Defending the five-mile perimeter around this entire area would require from eight thousand to ten thousand troops. Major General Nathanael Greene was in charge of Fort Lee and its garrison of thirty-five hundred men as well as Fort Washington, where he gradually increased the garrison from twelve hundred to twenty-eight hundred men. He wrote to Washington on 31 October that twenty-eight hundred was far too many if they intended to hold only the fort itself—which could accommodate only half that number—and far too few if they hoped to defend the entire northern end of Manhattan.

Greene believed the fort alone could be defended successfully, but he continued to enlarge the garrison, apparently hoping that Washington would choose to contest the whole area and send more troops. However, since the crossfire from Fort Lee and Fort Washington and the sunken obstructions that Major General Israel Putnam had arranged to be placed in the river between them had failed to stop British ships from sailing upriver, Washington was inclined to abandon Fort Washington altogether. On 8 November he wrote to Greene that Fort Washington was not worth the risk involved in holding it since it did not serve its intended purpose. Nonetheless, he deferred to Greene about evacuating the fort since he was "on the spot" and therefore the best judge of the situation.

Greene conceded that the sunken obstructions had not worked but insisted that the fort was still an asset and that the men could be evacuated across the Hudson if need be. The fort's large supply of war matériel would be a more difficult matter, Greene admitted, but even that, he felt confident, could be removed expeditiously. The commander of the garrison, Colonel Robert Magaw of the Fifth Pennsylvania Battalion, believed he could fend off the British until the end of December.


The final result of the indecisive exchange between Washington and Greene during the first week of November was Magaw's deployment of twenty-nine hundred men to defend a perimeter nearly five miles long—a job for which Greene knew he needed ten thousand troops. Facing south, Lieutenant Colonel Lambert Cadwalader—with his own Third Pennsylvania Battalion, Magaw's Fifth Pennsylvania Battalion, some broken companies of Colonel Samuel Miles's Pennsylvania State Rifle Regiment, and other battalions, mostly from Pennsylvania—defended the three lines of trenches and redoubts on Harlem Heights. Meanwhile, Colonel William Baxter's Pennsylvania regiment along with those of Colonels Michael Swope, Frederick Watts, and William Montgomery, all from the Pennsylvania Flying Camp, were stationed at the northern end of Laurel Hill, overlooking the Harlem River. Most of Laurel Hill—the mile and one-half below Baxter's position—was left undefended. Half a mile north of Fort Washington, a redoubt at the northern end of Mount Washington held a battalion of Maryland and Virginia riflemen led by Colonel Moses Rawlings. Magaw, at Fort Washington, commanded all of the outlying units, which had orders to retreat within the walls of the fort if necessary.

Washington and his generals expected an attack on Fort Washington but remained distracted by Howe's other strategic options. They worried that he might seize the Hudson Highlands or cross the river and march through New Jersey to capture Philadelphia. Meanwhile, on 5 November, Howe moved his forces west from White Plains toward Dobbs Ferry on the Hudson and then slowly headed south to besiege Fort Washington with eight thousand men. Howe was also armed with the plans for the fort, along with information about the works and the garrison provided by Magaw's adjutant, Ensign William Demont, who had deserted on 1 November.


While Fort Washington occupied a naturally commanding position, the structure itself had many weaknesses that made it unfit for withstanding a concerted attack, much less a prolonged siege. It was easily accessible only from the gradual southern slope of the hill, the other three slopes being steep and rugged. However, the pentagonal fort, enclosing four acres of ground, was a simple earthwork, the interior exposed to the sky and without proper barracks or magazines for ammunition; water had to be drawn from the Hudson, 230 feet below, because the fort had no well. The ground in back of the fort was high enough that the enemy could fire over the walls. Aside from the small redoubt that Rawlings occupied, the fort had neither outworks nor an adequate ditch around it to fend off attacks.


On 15 November the adjutant general of Howe's army, James Paterson, and several other mounted officers approached Fort Washington with a white flag and a drummer "beating a parley" to demand its surrender within two hours, threatening death to all those captured if Magaw refused. Magaw sent a note to Greene at Fort Lee and, without waiting for a reply, answered the British that, "actuated by the most glorious cause that mankind ever fought in," he was "determined to defend this post to the last extremity." Greene instructed Magaw not to surrender, and he alerted Washington at his new headquarters at Hackensack, New Jersey. Greene then crossed the Hudson to Fort Washington.

Arriving at Fort Lee at 9 p.m., Washington set out to join Greene on the New York side. Generals Putnam and Greene were on their way back and met Washington halfway across the river, where they assured him that morale was high at the fort and that the troops would put up a good fight. The generals convinced Washington to return to New Jersey. Howe had given the Americans a day and a night from the ultimatum to evacuate the fort; early the next morning, on 16 November, his forces closed in.


General Knyphausen had received an affirmative answer when he asked Howe for the privilege of making the main attack with only Hessian troops. Knyphausen's two columns were each led by twenty jägers and forty grenadiers and included a grenadier battalion (Kohler), Hessian regiments (under Rall, Lossberg, Wutgenau, Knyphausen, Hunyn, and Bunau), and the Waldeck regiment. In the predawn darkness, they marched southward across the Kings Bridge towards Mount Washington. The Hessians assaulted Rawlings's redoubt and drove his men back to Fort Washington. Meanwhile, to the east, another three thousand troops under Brigadier General Edward Mathew and Major General Charles Earl Cornwallis were to come down the Harlem River on flatboats, land at the foot of Laurel Hill, and storm Baxter's position. Mathew, commander of the brigade of Guards in America, led two battalions of light infantry and two battalions of his guards, while Cornwallis led two battalions of guards and the Thirty-third Regiment as reinforcement. From the south, Lord Percy's two thousand troops, including some Hessians, were to overrun the Harlem lines. To confuse and possibly trap Cadwalader's men in the Harlem lines, Howe planned a fourth prong: the Forty-second Highlander regiment under Colonel Thomas Sterling was to cross the Harlem River and land at the southern end of Laurel Hill, just above the American lines.

The battle began at 7 a.m. with a massive two-hour cannonade from British guns on the east side of the Harlem River, across from Laurel Hill, and from the frigate Pearl in the Hudson to confuse the Americans as to where the main attack on the fort would be made. In order to synchronize the attacks on three fronts, Howe had Knyphausen withdraw the Hessians when they were nearly halfway up Mount Washington, because Mathew and Cornwallis were not yet in position at Laurel Hill, having been delayed by the tides. To the south, Percy's units had begun driving the Americans out of their trenches on Harlem Heights when he too was ordered to stop and wait in the woods until Mathew and Cornwallis landed.

Generals Washington, Putnam, Greene, and Hugh Mercer came over from Fort Lee and examined the battlefield. Despite the danger, they proceeded all the way across to the grounds of the Morris house. Washington declined when each general offered to remain on the battlefield and insisted that they all return with him to Fort Lee. Fifteen minutes later, the British captured the ground where they had stood.


Flatboats carrying the two brigades of British troops finally came down the Harlem River at 11 a.m. and deposited Generals Mathew and Cornwallis with their men on the Manhattan shore at the northern end of Laurel Hill. With artillery support from the other side of the river, the British scrambled up the steep, wooded slope and overwhelmed the Americans. A British officer killed Colonel Baxter, and the militia fled westward to Fort Washington.

The Hessians, with ten field pieces in tow, resumed their assault on the northern end of Mount Washington. Unable to stand in many places because the slopes were so steep, they had to pull themselves up by grabbing onto bushes. America's first battlefield heroine, Margaret Corbin, took her husband's place at his cannon when he was killed and aimed so accurately that the Hessians focused their fire on her. A severe wound from grapeshot in her shoulder finally took her out of the action.

Pressing forward under the hail of grapeshot and bullets from above, the Hessians climbed over logs with sharpened branches that the Americans had placed in their path. Colonel Johann Rall's regiment attacked from the west, while Knyphausen attacked the east side of the hill, placing himself in the thick of the battle to urge his men forward. After two hours the Americans—their rifles clogged with gunpowder residue—retreated to Fort Washington. Rall's troops, close on their heels, positioned themselves behind a storehouse one hundred yards from the fort.


On Harlem Heights, Percy had resumed his attack, and General Howe ordered the fourth prong, under Colonel Sterling, to cross the Harlem River and block Cadwalader's retreat. When Sterling's Highlanders landed on the Manhattan shore just below the Morris mansion, Magaw sent a warning to Cadwalader, and together they sent 250 men to oppose the landing. The Americans inflicted scores of casualties, but the 800 Highlanders, backed up by cannon fire from the opposite side of the river, climbed the steep slope up from the water's edge and took 170 prisoners. Nonetheless, Cadwalader's main force reached a wooded area just south of Mount Washington, where it was able to fend off the Highlanders. Following a narrow road along the Hudson, Cadwalader then brought his men up the gentle southern slope to the fort.


When the Americans crossed the open ground on the flat crest of Mount Washington and approached the fort's entrance, Rall ordered his grenadiers forward to attack them. The Hessians sprang from behind the storehouse just to the north and, in the ensuing melee, trapped some Americans against the wall of the fort while driving the others inside. Rall sent an English-speaking captain to demand the surrender of the fort, giving Magaw just thirty minutes but promising that every man would be able to keep his personal possessions. With about 2,800 men crowded into a fort designed for half that number, a British bombardment would have meant the slaughter of everyone inside, but Magaw, encouraged by a note from Washington, tried to rally the men to defend the walls. Rall, however, refused to be kept waiting. After Knyphausen came up with the other Hessian column soon after Rall, Magaw surrendered his sword to him; 230 American officers and 2,600 soldiers were marched out of the fort and brought down to the city, where they began their long ordeal of captivity in the city's jails and churches and on prison ships. The Americans lost 59 killed and 96 wounded, while the loss of matériel at Fort Washington, combined with that at Fort Lee four days later, amounted to 146 cannon, 12,000 shot and shell, 2,800 muskets, and 400,000 cartridges, along with tents and entrenching tools. On 16 November the British lost 77 killed and 374 wounded—mostly Hessians.

SEE ALSO Fort Lee, New Jersey; New York Campaign; White Plains, New York.


Washington, George. The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series. Edited by Philander D. Chase. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985–2004.

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Fort Washington, New York

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