Harlem Heights, New York

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Harlem Heights, New York

HARLEM HEIGHTS, NEW YORK. 16 September 1776. Admiral Howe's three warships, which had bombarded New York City from the Hudson as a distraction during the Kips Bay invasion on 15 September, had moved upriver opposite Bloomingdale village (at modern Broadway and One Hundredth Street) to support the western end of the British cordon that extended across Manhattan from river to river. The line included an outpost at McGowan's Pass (in the northeast corner of modern Central Park) and was anchored on the East River by the captured American fort at Horn's Hook (on modern East Eighty-ninth Street). Seven miles to the south, New York City had become occupied territory, or as Loyalists saw it, had been liberated. Washington's forces had taken refuge on Harlem Heights, a rocky plateau (north of modern West 125th Street between the Hudson and Harlem Rivers) that offered a naturally strong defensive position.

The Americans created three parallel lines of forts and trenches across the plateau (at modern 147th, 153rd, and 159th Streets) that sealed off the northern end of Manhattan, protecting Washington's headquarters in the Morris house (at modern 161st Street) along with Fort Washington (at modern 183rd Street) and the Kings Bridge at the northern tip of the island. Five thousand American troops occupied the Kings Bridge area, another seventy-five hundred were distributed in the three defensive lines, and some thirty-three hundred under General Nathanael Greene (the brigades of Nixon, Sargent, and Beall) guarded the southern face of Harlem Heights overlooking a valley called the Hollow Way (modern 125th Street, or Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard).


Before dawn on 16 September, Washington sent a reconnaissance party of 120 men drawn from Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton's Rangers to ascertain the disposition of enemy troops on Bloomingdale Heights (the plateau south of 125th Street, modern Morningside Heights), where the farmland was largely covered with trees that would mask any movement of the British left wing up the Bloomingdale Road (modern Broadway). Washington needed to know if Howe planned to dig in or quickly launch a major offensive.

The scouting party moved south across the Hollow Way and headed for the Bloomingdale Road (which ended at modern 115th Street), where the British were last seen the night before. As the sun came up, the Rangers arrived at Nicholas Jones's stone farmhouse (at modern 106th Street) and were spotted by the most advanced British pickets, who fired their guns as a signal to the British light infantry and the Forty-second Highlanders camped a little farther south. Knowlton's men fired a few shots and then retreated behind a stone wall. The British soon advanced in a column, and in the ensuing skirmish each side fired more than one thousand rounds before Knowlton and his men retreated, with ten casualties, across the Hollow Way to the American lines.


Washington had come down from his headquarters to the front lines—to a redoubt on the Point of Rocks, a craggy projection at the southeastern corner of Harlem Heights from which he could look out over Harlem Plains to the east and scan the ragged northern face of the Bloomingdale plateau to the west. A report of the enemy advancing across the plains proved incorrect. Meanwhile, the sounds of Knowlton skirmishing to the west prompted Washington to send his adjutant, Joseph Reed, to look for the Rangers and to see if the British had moved their main force up to Bloomingdale Heights.

Reed reported back to Washington at 9 a.m. that he had found Knowlton and seen the British light infantry moving rapidly northward. Knowlton and his men had just returned to the American lines, and word of their bravery spread quickly through the ranks. Reed urged Washington to use the momentum of Knowlton's mission and draw the British into a larger engagement. Just then, "the enemy appeared in open view," Reed reported in a letter to his wife, "and in the most insulting manner sounded their bugle horns as is usual after a fox chase. I never felt such a sensation before. It seemed to crown our disgrace."


Washington gave orders for 150 volunteers from Brigadier General John Nixon's brigade to march down into the Hollow Way and engage the attention of the 300 British infantrymen, while a flanking party of 230 men—Reed leading Knowlton's Rangers and three companies of riflemen from Weedon's Third Virginia Regiment under Major Andrew Leitch—crossed the valley to the east to get behind them. Initially, everything went as planned, and the British were lured into a skirmish in the valley by Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Crary and a party of volunteers from his Rhode Island regiment. This was a holding action at long range, with few casualties.

The rest of Nixon's brigade—some eight hundred men—was brought in, and the British were driven back out of the valley to a post-and-rail fence overgrown with bushes (straddling modern Broadway between 123rd and 124th Streets), where they took cover. Nixon's brigade had pressed its attack too soon, however, which meant that the flanking party did not have time to get around behind the British. Instead, Knowlton and Leitch arrived at the fence at the same time as the British, who were thus able to turn and face the attack on their side—not their rear. Knowlton was killed on the spot, and Leitch died of his wounds a day later.


Washington sent in reinforcements, including Connecticut militia, other New Englanders, and parts of two Maryland regiments, along with two fieldpieces that helped dislodge the British from their position behind the fence. The American troops pursued them into the woods, and by noon the British had fallen back to a buckwheat field (the modern site of Barnard College), where they made a stand. Howe dispatched reinforcements and two cannon to confront the eighteen hundred Americans on the field, led by Generals Israel Putnam, Nathanael Greene, and George Clinton (an American cousin of the British general and the first governor of New York State).

Under Major General Alexander Leslie, the British brought in German jägers (riflemen), light infantry, and more Highlanders, who dragged a pair of cannon three miles from the rear to the buckwheat field. The battle raged for two hours until the British—having fired sixty rounds from the cannon—ran low on ammunition and retreated again. The Americans pursued them dangerously close to the British main camp and to Admiral Howe's frigates anchored off Bloomingdale. As Private Joseph Martin later recalled, the American advance ended when the British "found shelter under the cannon of some of their shipping in the North River."

With new reinforcements, the British by this time had five thousand troops on the scene, including British and Hessian grenadiers. Intent on avoiding a "general engagement" like the disastrous Battle of Long Island, Washington sent his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Tench Tilghman, to pull the troops back. As if answering the morning's insulting bugle call, "they gave a hurra and left the field in good order," Tilghman wrote. The Battle of Harlem Heights ended by 3 p.m. where it had begun at dawn, in front of Nicholas Jones's farmhouse.


"This affair I am in hopes will be attended with many salutary consequences," Washington wrote to Congress, "as It seems to have greatly inspired the whole of our troops." Despite the loss of two exceptional officers—Knowlton and Leitch—the relatively small battle raised American morale significantly. After the rout in Brooklyn two weeks earlier, the narrow escape to Manhattan, and the humiliating retreat from Kips Bay, on 16 September the American soldiers learned they could make the enemy's finest troops turn and run. Washington praised "their great resolution and bravery," which put the enemy "to flight when in the open Ground."

On the British side, the Battle of Harlem Heights became a further irritant in the antagonistic relationship between General Howe and his second in command, General Clinton, who was in charge of the most advanced British posts on the morning of the 16th. Clinton was incensed by Howe's order to retreat at the end of the battle. In his account of the war, Clinton later implied that the British should have contested and held Bloomingdale Heights with a larger force, which would have put them in a good position to cross the Harlem River into Morrisania (the modern Bronx), get behind the Americans, and cut off their escape via the Kings Bridge, as he had repeatedly advised. Instead, in October, Howe decided to make a wider encirclement through the dangerous waters of Hell Gate to land at Throg's Neck and Pelham Bay.

Adhering to his policy of not reporting Hessian losses, Howe counted 92 British casualties at Harlem Heights, but in all the toll was 14 killed and 154 wounded. In Washington's initial estimate to Congress, he counted some 40 wounded and a "very inconsiderable" number killed. The final count was about 30 killed and 100 wounded and missing.

SEE ALSO New York Campaign.


Johnston, Henry Phelps. The Battle of Harlem Heights, September 16, 1776. 1880. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1970.