New York Campaign

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New York Campaign

NEW YORK CAMPAIGN. In a letter of 6 January 1776, John Adams directed George Washington's attention to New York, to the "vast Importance of that City, Province, and the [Hudson] River which is in it." New York, Adams wrote, was "the Nexus of the Northern and Southern Colonies, as a kind of Key to the whole Continent … a Passage to Canada, to the Great Lakes, and to all the Indian Nations. No Effort to Secure it ought to be omitted." Besieged in Boston—a peninsula with a very narrow neck—the British were keenly aware of New York City's strategic advantages. Located at the center of the Atlantic seaboard and at the mouth of a deep, navigable river penetrating some three hundred miles northward towards Fort Ticonderoga, New York, was the portal to the Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River axis, a water highway used to transport invading armies to and from Canada during the French and Indian War.

Stung by their defeats at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, the British by August 1775 had devised a new grand strategy. By having one army seize New York City and march northward to rendezvous at Albany with a second force coming down from Canada, the British intended to divide the colonies along the line of the Hudson River. The American struggle for independence was expected to collapse if New England could be isolated from other cockpits of the rebellion in the mid-Atlantic and southern provinces. The British were forced to retreat from Boston to Halifax when the Americans placed artillery on Dorchester Heights. Departing on 17 March 1776, they planned to regroup and follow the advice of Lord George Germain, soon to become secretary of state for the American colonies, to deliver a "decisive blow" at New York.


Washington, who remained in Boston with the army in case the British retreat was merely a feint, had dispatched his second in command, Major General Charles Lee, to recruit volunteers in Connecticut and begin the work of fortifying New York City. Arriving on 4 February, Lee concluded that the city, covering less than a square mile at the southern tip of Manhattan, would ultimately be captured by the British because their powerful navy would dominate the surrounding waterways. Nonetheless, with forts and trenches in and around the city and barricades at every street corner, Lee hoped to inflict heavy losses on the invaders by drawing them into protracted urban warfare.

Lee's plan also focused on sealing off both ends of the East River with sunken obstructions and shore batteries and controlling Brooklyn Heights, which would secure Manhattan's entire east side while enabling the Americans to command the city with their artillery, as they had done from Dorchester Heights outside Boston. However, Lee's plan failed to capitalize on two choke points: the channel at Sandy Hook, which was the only entrance to the Lower Bay from the Atlantic, and the Narrows between Staten Island and western Long Island leading to the Upper Bay. A combination of shore batteries and artillery mounted on floating platforms might have taken a heavy toll on the British fleet passing single file through these straits, but these recommendations from at least one New York resident and from Congress were never implemented.

Nonetheless, John Adams and other members of the Continental Congress were so pleased with the work Lee had begun that he was sent to perform similar service in Charleston, South Carolina. This faith in Lee's abilities stemmed in part from the congressmen's own lack of military experience. Moreover, they ultimately concurred with Lee's assessment of the situation: they could not hope to mount a successful defense of the New York archipelago against the world's greatest naval power, but they calculated that the second largest city in America (after Philadelphia) should not be handed over without a fight. To do so would depress American morale, pushing tenuous supporters of the Revolution and neutrals into the Loyalist camp.


When Lee departed on 7 March, Brigadier General William Alexander, known as Lord Stirling because of his claim to a Scottish peerage, assumed command in New York and supervised the construction of the forts. Ten days later, when the British evacuated Boston, Washington was convinced they were headed for New York and began sending his best units down to the city. New York was "a post of infinite importance both to them and us," Washington wrote, "and much depends on priority of possession." The brigades of Thompson, Heath, Sullivan, Greene, and Spencer traveled over muddy roads and by boat from Connecticut, reaching New York by early April, followed by Major General Israel Putnam, who imposed martial law in the city and commanded the army until Washington arrived on 13 April.

Washington reorganized the army into four brigades under Heath, Spencer, Stirling, and Greene, assigning the first three to complete the defenses on Manhattan and sending Greene to Long Island. With nineteen thousand troops present and fit for duty, Washington spread them out in a thin defensive line broken by two rivers and stretching from the New Jersey shore in the west and eastward through northern Manhattan, New York City, Governors Island, and onto Long Island.

In addition to the many miles of shoreline where the British might land to capture New York City, the threat of an invasion from Canada also diluted Washington's forces. Following orders from Congress, Washington in May dispatched ten regiments under Thompson and Sullivan to reinforce the American invasion of Canada, led by Major General John Thomas, whose forces continued to besiege Quebec. Congress hoped to secure the northern border with a fourteenth colony in Canada; Britain's two-pronged strategy meant that Washington had to fight for both ends of the Champlain-Hudson corridor at once.


On the other hand, the American expedition in Canada forced the British commander in chief, Major General William Howe, to divert troops from Halifax to the St. Lawrence River, which delayed his departure for New York until June 1776. During the last week of June, Howe and his fleet of 130 ships—the largest ever seen in North America—sailed past Sandy Hook and arrived in the Lower Bay. On 2 July, the day Congress voted for independence, Howe's forces sailed unopposed through the Narrows and landed on Staten Island.

On 12 July, with a strong wind blowing from the south, the British sent two ships, the Phoenix and Rose, up the Hudson to test the American defenses. American shore batteries blazed away but did little more than damage the rigging on the warships. The American guns were not powerful enough, the river was too wide at its mouth, and with the wind at their backs the British vessels were too swift. The British captains celebrated by breaking out the claret and punch while they proceeded up the river as far as Tarrytown, thirty miles north of New York City. For the Americans, it was a distressing start to the New York campaign. The British had demonstrated that they could enter the Hudson both to control the river and to arm the Loyalists along its banks, while interrupting American communications and supply lines leading down from Albany to New York City. The British also stood a good chance of destroying several American frigates then under construction further upriver.

That same evening, Vice Admiral Richard Lord Howe, the general's brother and co-commander in chief, arrived from England after an arduous Atlantic crossing and protracted negotiations in London with George Germain, the American secretary who finally conferred the title of peace commissioner on both brothers. Having lost their older brother, George, who was killed in 1758 while leading Massachusetts troops in the French and Indian War, Richard and William Howe were deeply grateful for the creation of a monument to him in Westminster Abbey funded by the Massachusetts government, and they considered Americans their friends and countrymen. The Howe brothers hoped an overwhelming show of force in New York would bring the Americans to the negotiating table and end the rebellion without further bloodshed.

General William Howe greeted his brother and informed him of the Declaration of Independence; the Americans had dug in and were prepared to fight. Nonetheless, on the following day, 13 July, Admiral Richard Howe proceeded with his peace initiative. He issued a proclamation offering to pardon any colonists who would return to the fold and help reestablish the royal governments in America. Admiral Howe also dispatched letters to this effect to each of the colonial governors, leaving them unsealed so that couriers would report their contents to the Continental Congress. Thus began the Howe brothers' attempt to wield the olive branch in one hand and the sword in the other, a strategy that would punctuate the New York campaign over the next several months and significantly shape its outcome.

Without acknowledging Washington's rank as the commander in chief of a national army, on 13 July, Admiral Howe addressed a letter to him proposing a face-to-face meeting. When a British naval officer attempted to deliver the letter the following day under a flag of truce, Washington's aides rejected the overture, insisting that he be addressed in writing by his proper title. On the third attempt, the messenger verbally requested a meeting between "His Excellency General Washington" and the adjutant general of the British army, and it was duly arranged for 20 July.

Washington received Admiral Howe's envoy at his headquarters but spurned the idea that Americans should seek pardons from the British and retreat from the defense of their natural rights. Knowing that the British did not recognize the legitimacy of the Continental Congress, he nonetheless directed Admiral Howe to that body as the proper authority for conducting negotiations. In the meantime, Howe's letters to the governors had reached Congress as he had expected, and the members decided to publish them immediately in order to expose what they viewed as a hollow peace offer and to dispel any impression among Americans that Congress was intransigent.


Thwarted in his diplomatic initiative, Admiral Howe was ready to try force, but General Howe, despite the passage of three weeks since the arrival of the British fleet in New York, insisted on delaying the campaign further. Displaying the caution that would mark his conduct throughout the battle for New York, Howe decided to wait for reinforcements and for camp equipment, including kettles and canteens his troops would need in the summer heat.

On 1 August, Major General Henry Clinton and his subordinate, Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis, returned to New York with three thousand troops aboard the battered British fleet. The fleet had not overcome the fortifications designed by Charles Lee and so had failed to capture Charleston at the end of June. General Howe had been eager to put some distance between himself and Clinton, his second in command, after they quarreled over tactics at Bunker Hill a year earlier. Clinton's return after failing in his first independent command did not improve their relationship.

On Staten Island, the British built wooden landing craft with hinged bows to facilitate amphibious operations with troops, horses, and artillery. On 12 August a convoy of more than one hundred ships arrived after a three-and-one-half-half-month passage from Europe on stormy seas. Escorted by ships of the line, the eight-five transports carried one thousand British Guards and a contingent of seventy-eight hundred Hessians, the first such auxiliaries to arrive in America. The British also organized a regiment of some eight hundred fugitive black slaves from various states, including Virginia, where a proclamation by Lord Dunmore, the royal governor, had promised freedom to able-bodied indentured servants and slaves willing to desert their "Rebel" owners and fight for the king.

By mid-August the British invasion force had reached full strength, with some twenty-four-thousand ground troops and ten thousand sailors to man the rigging and guns of thirty warships along with four hundred supply ships and transports. Rivaling the population of Philadelphia, this was the largest expeditionary force in British history before the twentieth century. It was also the greatest concentration of forces the British would have in America at any time during the Revolution. The New York campaign presented the British with their best opportunity to win the war quickly and decisively.


Such a bold stroke was imperative, because the task of subduing and occupying the American colonies would be too great even for the Howe brothers' mighty army and fleet. Admiral Howe had only seventy-three warships in the North American squadron with which to support the army's operations in Quebec, Halifax, New York, and St. Augustine while blockading all of American trade from Nova Scotia to Florida. General Howe faced an analogous problem on land, where his force was totally inadequate to occupy the vast expanses of the North American continent. Germain believed this problem would be overcome when British military victories emboldened American Loyalists—the vast, silent majority, in his view—to defy the Continental Congress and local Revolutionary leaders and to help reestablish royal governments throughout the colonies.

General Howe had publicly declared that the entire British army was not large enough to occupy America, and he concluded that the best way to avoid a long and costly war was to capture Washington's army or destroy it in a single decisive battle. However, on the eve of launching the New York campaign in mid-August, he suddenly switched to a plan that would drive them out of the area, enabling the British to use New York as a base of operations. Howe's new strategy would lead to multiple campaigns and rely on a gradual collapse of the rebellion with a minimum of casualties on both sides.

Howe had been chosen to put down the American rebellion because of his success during the French and Indian War using the unconventional tactics demanded by the varied and densely wooded terrain of the New World. However, with the sudden shift of strategy in New York, he reverted to traditional principles of military science, which emphasized the capture of key territory: high ground, water routes, and cities. The loss of New York was expected to confront the Americans with the hopelessness of their cause and prompt them to surrender before massive casualties could engender lasting bitterness.

Much of the Howe brothers' personal correspondence has been destroyed by fire, and beyond their official pronouncements, their precise motives remain unclear. Nonetheless, William Howe's reversal in mid-August suggests that his brother Richard and his peace initiative had exerted a strong influence on him during the preceding month. General Howe's new, more cautious approach also appears to have been a defensive reaction to British losses at Bunker Hill, the defeat of the Charleston expedition by American shore batteries, and his overestimate of Washington's forces in New York, which he placed at thirty-five thousand. Also, Howe was intent on protecting his troops, who would soon be adept at fighting in the terrain of the colonies—and difficult to replace.

Clinton argued for a landing at the northern tip of Manhattan to cut the Americans off on two islands—Manhattan and Long Island—but General Howe rejected the proposal. The disagreement echoed the situation at Bunker Hill, where Howe had disregarded Clinton's advice to land behind the Americans and trap them by seizing the neck of the Charlestown peninsula. In New York, Howe decided instead to land on Long Island in order to capture Brooklyn Heights and to keep the Americans from dominating the city with their artillery, much as they had done from Dorchester Heights outside Boston.

This plan would keep Howe's forces more concentrated and less vulnerable than if they were spread out in northern Manhattan, Staten Island, and Long Island. Moreover, the farmland of Long Island promised to feed the British army, making it less dependent on shipments of food from England, which might be delayed or destroyed in the three-thousand-mile Atlantic crossing. Finally, Howe, like Germain, expected Loyalists to turn out in large numbers on Long Island to welcome and support the British invasion.


While the British spent the summer building up their invasion force, Washington's troops completed and extended Charles Lee's plan for the American fortifications. In June, Washington had decided to fortify the northern end of Manhattan in order to control the Kings Bridge and the Freebridge, the island's only links to the mainland. Washington would need them both for supplies coming in and as escape routes should the army be forced to retreat. The main citadel, soon named Fort Washington, was enormous, but it was crudely constructed and inadequate to withstand a siege. Fort Constitution, later called Fort Lee, was built directly across the Hudson from Fort Washington in order to aim guns from both shores at a line of obstructions in the river. Fort Independence was added in lower Westchester County to support Fort Washington and protect the Kings Bridge from the north.

On Long Island, Major General Nathanael Greene had put his four thousand troops to work on a new chain of forts, redoubts, and connecting trenches a mile and one-half long across the neck of the peninsula to protect the Brooklyn Heights forts from the rear. Three more forts were built inside this principal line. The soldiers' habit of relieving themselves in the ditches around the forts caused fecal contamination of the water supply, which spread typhoid fever and typhus in the American ranks. Disease significantly impacted Washington's fighting strength, incapacitating one-quarter of his troops. General Greene was stricken with a high fever on 15 August, leaving Washington without the trusted commander most familiar with the critical Brooklyn Heights fortifications—and with the surrounding terrain.

Major General John Sullivan was appointed to fill Greene's command, and Sullivan made the most important addition to Charles Lee's scheme of defense: he decided to take advantage of the natural barrier provided by Gowanus Heights, a densely wooded ridge running parallel to the chain of redoubts and two miles to the south. To attack the American fortifications at the base of the peninsula, the British would have to go through one of the four passes where roads crossed the ridge through its natural depressions. Sullivan had fortified the three westernmost passes and planned to station eight hundred men at each one, where they could attack the advancing British forces and then drop back to Brooklyn Heights. However, the Jamaica Pass, four miles from the Brooklyn Heights fortifications on the American left wing, was left virtually unguarded.


Misinformed by spies on Staten Island, Washington on 21 August anticipated a three-pronged attack—on Long Island, the Kings Bridge, and the New Jersey shore—and his troops were spread out in a precarious line straddling the Hudson and East Rivers. If British ships took control of either one, the American army would be divided into several parts that could easily be trapped. Such was the dilemma of defending the New York archipelago: Washington could only put his troops on alert for a possible night attack and await the results. The aggressive plan of cutting off and capturing the Americans resembled Clinton's approach, not General Howe's, and the attack on 21 August never came. Instead, the skies opened and barraged Washington's troops with rain, thunder, and lightning in massive doses, striking terror into the American camps and causing more that a dozen deaths along with other casualties.

On 22 August the British invaded Long Island, landing fifteen thousand troops at Gravesend Bay. Washington received erroneous reports that only eight thousand British troops had landed and still expected another twelve thousand to land at Kings Bridge. However, on 25 August, after the landing of almost five thousand Hessian troops, Washington was convinced that the main attack would be on Long Island, and he brought over additional reinforcements. With some nine thousand troops, the Americans were still outnumbered more than two to one by the twenty thousand British and Hessian soldiers on Long Island. Together, the number of participants from both sides made the ensuing engagement—the Battle of Long Island—the largest battle of the American Revolution.


On 26 August, the eve of the battle, Oliver De Lancey, a Loyalist adviser to General Howe, convinced him that a daring plan devised by Clinton to outflank the Americans at the Jamaica Pass was feasible with the help of local guides. That night the British marched a large column of troops around the American left wing and through the pass. They arrived behind the American positions on Gowanus Heights on the following morning, 27 August, and fired two cannon, signaling to the British forces arrayed in front of the ridge to press their attacks. The Americans sensed the trap and fled from the ridge to the fortifications on Brooklyn Heights. Some eight hundred Americans were captured, but a sacrificial rearguard action by Lord Stirling and the First Maryland Regiment on the right wing enabled hundreds of others to escape across Gowanus Creek.


The Battle of Long Island was not the massive slaughter that has often been described, but it was, nonetheless, a traumatic defeat for the Americans, who were penned in behind their line of defense with their backs to the East River. However, a strong wind blowing from the northeast kept the British fleet from sailing up the river to cut off their retreat, and General Howe opted to begin siege operations instead of storming the American lines, believing he could accomplish his purpose that way with fewer casualties. This gave Washington time to carry out a thorough evacuation of his men and matériel across the East River on the night of 29 August, leaving the British stunned and empty-handed.

Washington had reviewed the American disposition of troops on the eve of the Battle of Long Island and bore ultimate responsibility for the failure to secure the Jamaica Pass. More important in the long run was Howe's failure to follow up his victory on 27 August, which led to speculation that his friendly feelings for the Americans were shaping his strategy and tactics. Indeed, a two-week lull in the fighting that followed the American evacuation also reinforced the impression that the Howe brothers were reluctant to crush the rebels.


On 11 September, Admiral Howe hosted a peace conference on Staten Island attended by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge. Howe emphasized his gratitude for the monument to his brother George and a desire to reunite the colonies with the mother country. Having issued the Declaration of Independence, and mindful of displaying their steadfastness to their French and Dutch allies, the Americans refused to negotiate, and the conference ended abruptly.

Washington, who had secured the permission of Congress to abandon New York City to the British, began evacuating his forces up to a naturally strong defensive position on the plateau of Harlem Heights in northern Manhattan. At the same time, he dispatched Nathan Hale to spy on the British and determine when and where they would invade Manhattan. Washington also deployed the first combat submarine, the Turtle, which nearly succeeded in blowing up Admiral Howe's flagship, the Eagle. While the retreat was still in progress, hostilities resumed on 15 September with the British invasion of Manhattan at Kips Bay and the capture of New York City. American militiamen fled the British bombardment at Kips Bay despite Washington's personal efforts to rally them.

On a hill overlooking the landing area, General Howe and his top aides spent two hours taking tea at the home of Robert and Mary Murray while they waited for the troops to disembark and while thirty-five-hundred American troops escaped up the west side of the island. The incident gave rise to a morale-boosting myth in the American army that Mary Murray and her two daughters had deliberately charmed and delayed the British high command in order to save the American troops, who would otherwise have been trapped on the southern end of Manhattan. Howe's cautious approach of waiting for the invasion force to reach full strength before setting out across the width of Manhattan further fueled discontent among junior officers over the commander in chief's failure to pursue the Americans vigorously.

On 16 September, Washington sent an elite corps of rangers under Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton to reconnoiter Bloomingdale Heights, the plateau to the south of the American position, in order to determine British dispositions and plans. The rangers clashed with British forces, sparking the Battle of Harlem Heights, a small but significant morale-building victory for the Americans, who saw the British turn and flee for the first time. The British suffered a far more serious setback on 20-21 September, when a fire in New York destroyed a thousand buildings, one-quarter of the city. Convinced that American incendiaries had started the fire, the British became highly protective of their base of operations in New York, a habit that greatly influenced their strategic planning for the rest of the war. The British captured Nathan Hale and hanged him as a spy on 22 September.


Having failed in their first two attempts to trap the Americans—in Brooklyn and in lower Manhattan—the British launched a third amphibious landing, this time in Westchester County, in order to get behind Washington's position on Harlem Heights and cut him off from the mainland while severing his supply lines to Connecticut. On 12 October they sailed up through Hell Gate and landed on Throg's Neck, an island at high tide, where the Americans had pulled up the planks on the footbridges across the creek, enabling twenty-five riflemen behind a woodpile to fend off four thousand British troops.

Having lost several days, the British re-embarked and made a second landing at Pelham Bay, where Colonel John Glover and his regiment ambushed them from behind the stone walls lining the roads. The Battle of Pelham Bay was strategically important, because it delayed the British for a day while Washington's vulnerable army of thirteen thousand retreating troops made its way from Harlem Heights to White Plains. Washington entrenched his forces in the hills around the town. In the Battle of White Plains on 28 October, the British captured Chatterton's Hill on the American right wing, but at a high cost in casualties. Washington retreated into the hills north of White Plains, and Howe once again failed to follow up swiftly. When Howe was ready to attack, a rainstorm lasting twenty hours cancelled his offensive.


On 2 November, Howe gave up the chase and headed south to capture Fort Washington in northern Manhattan. Fort Washington was now an American outpost behind British lines and had to be wiped out to consolidate Howe's grip on New York City and its environs. Fort Washington, along with Fort Lee, directly across the Hudson, was supposed to keep the British out of the river but had proved ineffective. Greene had told Washington the fort could be defended and if necessary evacuated across the river to New Jersey. Washington was dubious about the value of the fort but deferred to Greene as the commander on the spot. On 16 November, Howe issued an ultimatum for the surrender of the fort, and Colonel Robert McGaw, the garrison commander, refused. The British closed in on four fronts, securing the fort, a huge cache of supplies, some twenty-eight hundred American prisoners, and the entire northern end of Manhattan. This brought American losses in the New York campaign—killed, wounded, and captured—to forty-four hundred. The Americans captured in the campaign were among the estimated eleven thousand who perished during the war on British prison ships in Brooklyn's Wallabout Bay.


The fall of Fort Washington, often erroneously labeled the worst American defeat of the war, ended the New York campaign and—along with the Battle of Long Island and the flight of the militia at Kips Bay—cast a pall on its memory. (In fact, the worst single loss of the war was Clinton's capture of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1780, when he seized the neck of the peninsula on which the city was built and took fifty-five hundred American prisoners.) Had the Howe brothers followed Clinton's very similar advice with regard to New York City, the American cause might have been crushed in 1776. Instead, Washington and his French allies adopted the tactics the British had failed to use in the New York campaign to trap them on the Yorktown peninsula in 1781, ushering in their final defeat two years later.

In New York, Washington's ability to execute timely retreats and prevent such a scenario from unfolding in favor of the British exposed General Howe's sluggish movements, cast doubt on his determination to defeat the Americans, and began to destroy his reputation. With the exception of the catastrophe at Fort Washington, the New York campaign was viewed by some contemporaries as a victory in disguise. Washington was in flight across New Jersey with a greatly diminished army at the end of November 1776, but the core of a fighting force had escaped to carry on the Revolution. The British had captured a city they considered strategically vital, but maintaining control of New York during the next seven years would in large part cost them the war: reluctant to spare troops and ships from the defense of their principal base, the British failed to rescue Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777 and Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781—the two critical turning points of the American Revolution.

During the military occupation of the city from 1776 to 1783, the British also lost the battle for the hearts and minds of their Loyalist supporters. In the absence of civil courts, British soldiers and officials committed abuses and crimes against civilians with impunity. Corruption and profiteering within the army were rampant, while the city, crowded with Tory refugees, suffered from hyperinflation and acute shortages of shelter, food, and fuel. Efforts to reform the military regime and restore civil law came too late for the British to regain the moral high ground. On 25 November 1783, the British evacuated New York and, in a peaceful transfer, Washington triumphantly marched into the city he had lost in the campaign of 1776.

SEE ALSO Harlem Heights, New York; Kips Bay, New York; Long Island, New York, Battle of; Staten Island Peace Conference; White Plains, New York.


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New York Campaign

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New York Campaign