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Incidents of War - Washington's Rear Guard Action at Harlem Heights

In the summer of 1776 the City of New York, second or third largest in British America at about 20,000 inhabitants, was a prosperous port on the lower end of Manhattan.   With the American Revolution in full swing, should the British capture the city, it would make an excellent strategic base for operations throughout the rebellious colonies, and at the same time permit the British to project their forces over 150 miles upriver past Albany, splitting New England off from the rest of the United Colonies.

The city had a considerable loyalist population, but the Patriot movement was firmly in control. By the first reading of the Declaration of Independence in the city, on July 9th, New York had been extensively fortified in the months since the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, and was now held by strong forces under George Washington.

The army consisted of "veteran" troops whom Washington had redeployed from Boston after the British abandoned that city in March, as well as many new recruits and the local militia. Two of the units in the army were what would today be considered special troops, a body of Rangers organized by Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton, a veteran of the original "Roger’s Rangers" of the French and Indian War, and a company of Virginia sharpshooters armed with the Pennsylvania long rifle. In the ranks of the army were such men as Nathan Hale, a captain of the Rangers, James Monroe, a lieutenant in the Virginia Rifles, and Alexander Hamilton, who had personally financed a battery of artillery.

In addition to fortifications along the East River, on both the Manhattan and Jersey sides of the North River (as the lower Hudson was called), and on Governor's Island, Washington had also directed that Brooklyn Heights be fortified, since artillery there could dominated the southern end of Manhattan. In this way the Patriots hoped to neutralize the British naval advantage, by positioning batteries at points along the rivers where the current could cause ships to come into range and also to protect the Army's line-of-retreat from Brooklyn Heights, where the British were expected to make their first attack.

The British, led by Lord Howe and his brother Admiral Richard Howe, arrived in the Lower Bay in mid-June and quickly occupied Staten Island, establishing a base of operations. They crossed the Narrows into Brooklyn on August 22, landing at what is now Fort Hamilton, with 15,000 British troops and 5,000 Hessians. Washington positioned his force in the defenses on the Heights, with detachments thrown forward to guard approaches from the east and southeast. Howe advanced on Washington's main line with the bulk of his Army, while sending elite units on a nocturnal march east to flank the American positions. Howe's plan worked well, and after a furious fight (the largest battle of the war, in fact) Washington was forced to withdraw across the East River on the night of August 29th, having lost 900 men captured and more than 250 killed. 

Despite this success, the Howe brothers dithered. Hoping to secure a negotiated settlement, they meet with a congressional delegation on September 11th. But the Howe brothers demanded complete surrender in return for pardons, and Patriot delegates John Adams and Benjamin Franklin flatly refused to surrender. So on September 15th, the British attacked Manhattan, with the Royal Navy bombarding the fortified batteries and then landing in strength at Kips Bay (near the FDR Drive at 34th Street). British light infantry and Grenadiers quickly routed Lt. Col. William Douglas' green and heavily outnumbered 5th Connecticut Militia Battalion in a series of bayonet charges. Although senior officers, including Washington, who reportedly demonstrated command of some impressive profanity, attempted to halt the panic, the militiamen fled the field, abandoning their equipment. The landing at Kips Bay exposed to capture the American forces in New York City, to the south. The American troops rushed north through what is now Central Park to escape the trap. Had the British moved promptly, more than half the American Army would have been taken. But Lord Howe delayed, choosing to consolidated his beachhead and secure the city before pursuing the Americans (reportedly an accommodating widow with Patriot sympathies may have helped matters as well, as she "entertained" the general, delaying him for a time).

By the end of September 15th, the Americans had reached the security of fortified positions along Harlem Heights (just north of 125th Street on the West Side), while the British established their advanced positions along modern-day 96th Street.  

The American position on the high ground overlooked the fields of the Harlem plain to their south. Numbering about 9,000 men, the American lines extended along the Manhattanville depression called the “Hollow Way”, a valley extending diagonally from 121st Street and Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River at 130th Street, roughly following the peculiar trace of 125th Street. In addition, some 5,000 American troops were in the Kingsbridge area of the Bronx. The troops occupying Harlem Heights were divided into three brigades under the command of Nathanael Greene, Israel Putnam, and Joseph Spencer. Lt. Col. Knowlton, then some 37 years old, and six feet tall, was there with his 120 Rangers. Washington ordered Knowlton’s Rangers to undertake a reconnaissance to explore the British position at West 104th Street and skirmish with the enemy picket line to determine their position and strength.

Initially the British were encamped along the Bloomingdale Road (today Broadway) approximately at west 96th Street, with their left wing on the Hudson River and their line extending eastward into what is now Central Park, with outposts along what is now 104th Street and a picket line manned by light infantry along 106th Street. Behind the light infantry near 96th Street, on the left flank were the Hessians, while the 42nd Highlanders (The Black Watch), the 33rd Foot, and the Grenadiers were in reserve under the command of Lord Cornwallis. In overall field commander was Howe’s second-in-command Sir Henry Clinton.

Phase 1: Ranger Probe. The Rangers left their camp near Riverside Drive and 131st Street and moved south until they encountered the British picket line. As the Rangers began trading fire with the enemy pickets, three companies of British light infantry rushed up to reinforce their line. The Rangers stood their ground, trading shot for shot for more than half an hour. The British were then reinforced by two battalions of light infantry, which raised the numbers against the 120 Rangers to over 400 men. 

Lt. Col. Knowlton decided to break off the action and retire after his men had fired an average of eight rounds apiece (nearly 1,000 rounds) into the enemy. The British light infantry pursued the retreating Americans sharply. The Rangers retreated back to their lines on what is now Claremont Avenue, with the British giving chase until they climbed the hill on Riverside Drive that is now the site of Grant’s Tomb. At that time a British bugler blew out the haughty and contempt-filled notes of "Gone Away," a fox hunting call that indicates the prey was in full flight.

Phase 2: American Counterstroke. As the Rangers reached the safety of the Patriot lines, Washington's Adjutant General, Col. Joseph Reed, who had observed the fire fight, recommended that the Rangers be reinforced for a counterattack. Irked by the mocking "Gone Away" call, Washington, an avid fox hunter himself, agreed and quickly planned a counterattack that would trap the British in the Hollow Way. The plan was to deploy one force as a feint, drawing the British into the Hollow Way while a second force encircled them on their left, by slipping down the shore of the Hudson River. 

To execute the plan, 150 men from the 9th (Rhode Island) Continental Infantry commanded by Lt. Col. Archibald Crary, advanced into the Hollow Way. The British light infantry took the bait and came down from the high ground. A sharp fire-fight developed, with the Americans making good use of cover to maintain a heavy fire on the British, while drawing them further up the Hollow Way, until they were in a position about where 129th Street and Broadway meet today. Then Washington’s flanking force attacked. 

The flanking column, commanded by Lt. Col. Knowlton, consisted of his Rangers and three companies of riflemen from the 3rd Virginia Continentals, commanded by Maj. Andrew Leitch, Capt. William Washington, and Lt. James Monroe. Knowlton appears to have intended to advance to a rocky ledge at what is now 124th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, but the troops moved too quickly, hitting the British on the left flank rather than in their rear. During their fire fight with the Rhode Islanders, the British had adjusted their line and so prevented encirclement. Thus, when the Rangers and Virginians opened fire, the British stood their ground. Despite the death of Lt. Col. Knowlton and wounding of Maj. Leitch (who would later die), the Rangers and Virginians pressed their assault, as the Rhode Islanders attacked along the British front. Heavily pressed, the British light infantry gave ground.

Phase 3: Pursuit. As the British began retreating, the American foxes began nipping at their heels. As they fell back, to the vicinity of what is now Barnard College, the British light infantry called for reinforcements. Sir Henry Clinton quickly dispatched Lord Cornwallis and all of his reserves (the 33rd Foot, 42nd Highlanders, the Hessian and English Grenadiers, and a German Jäger company), as well as two pieces of field artillery, nearly 2,000 men. Washington also committed reinforcements including several companies of troops from Maryland, six additional companies from Nathanael Greene’s brigade, and even Lt. Col. Douglas’ 5th Connecticut Militia, who had fled at Kips Bay. 

Soon nearly 4,000 men, both sides together, were heavily engaged under a hot sun on a hill in a cornfield between 116th Street and 120th Street along Broadway, now the site of Columbia University. Both sides delivered a furious storm of musket, rifle, and cannon fire. Although the British held their lines, the American fire was so fierce that the British regiments were unable to sustain their favorite tactic, the bayonet charge. The American militia who had fled the British and their bayonets days before now stood their ground and returned fire firmly. The fighting continued for two hours as both sides sustained the fire fight on the hilltop, a site today commemorated by a plaque on the Columbia University wall, just above 116th Street. The Americans pressed the British until they began to give way and fall back. Covered by the Highlanders and Jägers, the English retired to their original positions between 96th street and 104th street. Washington, fearing that Howe would order more reserves into action and undertake a counterattack of his own, recalled his men to their original positions to prepare for a possible renewal of the battle.

The long day of combat was over. Casualties were high. The British and their German allies had lost perhaps 15 percent of the troops committed, about 90 killed or mortally wounded plus perhaps 300 less seriously injured, while the Americans had lost about 10 percent, 30 killed or mortally wounded and about 100 others

Afterwards. Little remembered today, the Battle of Harlem Heights, one of the hottest fights in the Revolutionary War, provided an important boost to American morale, seriously harmed by the loss of New York City. Washington's first battlefield victory, it had demonstrated his ability to seize opportunities when they presented themselves, and to formulate and execute sound plans quickly. For the British, the battle dispelled the notion that the Americans would fold quickly.

--Richard Van Nort


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