Kips Bay, New York

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Kips Bay, New York

KIPS BAY, NEW YORK. 15 September 1776. Despite Major General Henry Clinton's advice to land in Westchester County and cut off an American retreat over the Kings Bridge, Major General Henry Howe decided to land at Kips Bay (at the foot of modern East Thirty-fourth Street in Manhattan) to avoid both the dangerous waters at Hell Gate, at the northern end of the East River, and the American fort at Horn's Hook (at the foot of modern East Eighty-ninth Street), where he had initially hoped to land. By having his ships fire on Horn's Hook prior to the invasion and then shifting the landing site to Kips Bay, Howe also gained the element of surprise. On the night of 14 September, four ships sailed southward to support the landing. Eighty-four flatboats, galleys, and bateaux had been concealed in Newtown Creek, directly across the river from Kips Bay.


Washington's forces were abandoning New York City and retreating up the Manhattan Island. Most of his units were spread thin along the fourteen and one-half miles of the island's length and so were ill-prepared to meet a British invasion, while thirty-five hundred troops remained in the city, removing supplies and heavy artillery. Washington transferred his headquarters that evening to the Morris house, on Harlem Heights in northern Manhattan, giving him a commanding view of Horn's Hook and the village of Nieuw Haarlem, where he expected the British to land. Washington had neglected Kips Bay, another likely place for the invasion because its deep water would allow ships to sail in close to the shore. Also, a large meadow adjacent to the cove provided an excellent landing area. Nonetheless, when the British ships arrived that night, only raw recruits were on hand to confront them from a hastily dug ditch along the bank of the river. Joseph Plumb Martin, then a sixteen-year-old among the "new levies" from Connecticut, recalled that "every half-hour, [American sentinels] passed the watchword to each other, 'All is well.' I heard the British on board their shipping answer, 'We will alter your tune before tomorrow night.' And they were as good as their word for once" (Martin, Narrative, p. 30).


By dawn on the fifteenth, the four ships had anchored within one hundred yards of the shore, their combined broadsides bristling with more than eighty cannons. However, the first bombardment came from Admiral Richard Lord Howe's ships on the Hudson River; these ships created a distraction by sailing northward at about 7 a.m., firing whole broadsides into New York City. Then, at 10 a.m., the flotilla emerged from Newtown Creek, carrying four thousand men, and formed a line in the middle of the East River. The men's red uniforms looked to Martin "like a large clover field in full bloom" as the British ships waited for the tide to change. A little before 11 A .M., the ships began a massive, hour-long bombardment. With cannon balls flying overhead but inflicting few casualties, American officers nonetheless gave the order to retreat, and the British and Hessian troops, emerging from a blanket of white smoke created by the bombardment, came ashore unopposed.


Panic spread among the American troops along the entire shore, and they fled inland to the Post Road. Four miles to the north, Washington heard the bombardment and sped to the scene on horseback with his aides. To the south, in New York City, Major General Israel Putnam heard the British guns and dispatched an entire brigade and three additional regiments to reinforce the troops at the site of the invasion. Confusion reigned among the American forces as troops heading in opposite directions passed each other on the Post Road, some fleeing and others rushing toward the action at Kips Bay.

Washington arrived just north of Inclenberg, the high ground overlooking the landing site, shortly before it was seized by the first wave of British and Hessian troops under Clinton. Washington and his aides tried in vain to organize the fleeing militia into a defensive line (at modern Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street). "Take the walls!" Washington shouted. "Take the cornfield!" (Johnston, p. 93). The Hessians and British light infantry marched up from Kips Bay, and the panic that had seized the militia quickly spread to the troops dispatched by Putnam, who also threw down their guns and fled. A few Americans who tried to surrender were bayoneted and shot by the Hessians. Washington was reportedly so "distressed and enraged" by the flight of his troops that he "drew his sword and snapped his pistols, to check them" (Stokes, vol. 5, p. 1014). For his own safety, Washington's aides seized the reins of his horse and led him away.


After conferring with Washington on horseback, Putnam rode down to the city to rescue the thirty-five hundred remaining troops before the British could cut them off. The men formed a column two miles long and at 4 p.m. embarked on a forced march up the west side of Manhattan in the late summer heat, guided by Putnam and his young aide, Major Aaron Burr, who knew the terrain. Between 2 and 5 p.m., General Howe looked out over Kips Bay from the top of Inclenberg as nine thousand more troops completed their landing. At the estate of Robert Murray on Inclenberg (the modern Murray Hill neighborhood), Mary Murray and two of her daughters entertained Howe and his generals with cakes and Madeira, giving rise to the myth that the women deliberately delayed the British and saved the American column from destruction. Not until 5 p.m. did a Hessian brigade march south on the Post Road to secure the territory between the beachhead and the city, while Admiral Howe dispatched one hundred marines in small boats to raise the flag in the city itself. General Howe's main force headed north on the Post Road, where American riflemen in front of McGowan's Pass inadvertently deflected them westward (across modern Central Park). However, Putnam's force had just marched past the intersection where the British appeared, and only the last man in the entire American column was killed. The rest reached the safety of Harlem Heights that night.


Johnston, Henry P. The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn. 1878. Reprint, Cranberry, N.J.: Scholar's Bookshelf, 2005.

Martin, Joseph Plumb. A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier: Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of Joseph Plumb Martin. 1830. New York: Signet Classics, 2001.

Stokes, I. N. Phelps, comp. The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498–1909. 6 vols. New York: R. H. Dodd, 1915–1928.