Today, November 16, 1776: British and Hessians Capture Fort Washington

On June 15, 1775, the Continental Congress appoints George Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.

On July 3, 1775, Washington takes command of the Continental Army.

In March, 1776, Washington located a large portion of his army in New York City and began building fortifications to control traffic up the Hudson River. On the north end of Manhattan, Washington selected the highest point overlooking the Hudson River on which to build a fort.

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The fort, which later became known as Fort Washington, was constructed mostly of earthen walls in a five-sided configuration. Colonel Rufus Putnam oversaw the building of the fort. To the north was Laurel Hill and Spuyten Duyvil Creek. To the south was supposed to be three lines of defense.

On the opposite side of the Hudson River was Fort Lee. Between the two forts, they hoped to prevent any British ships from sailing up the Hudson River.

On August 27, 1776, General George Washington and his Continental Army faced off with British General William Howe on Long Island. Referred to as the Battle of Long Island and the Battle of Brooklyn Heights, Howe forced Washington to retreat across the East River to Manhattan. It was a demoralizing defeat for the newly formed Continental Army.

Washington camped his army on the northern end of Manhattan at what is known as Harlem Heights, trying to train his troops and gather supplies. Many among the Continental Army were untrained patriots who volunteered to fight the British, but few had military training. After the defeat and retreat from Long Island, morale was low among many of the Continental troops.

On September 16, 1776, Washington began his day as he always did with some private time to pray. After praying, he began to write a letter to the President of Congress, reporting on what was happening. He was interrupted after penning only:

“We are now encamped with the main body of the army on the Heights of Harlem, where I should hope the enemy would meet with a defeat in case of an attack.”

Before he was able to finish his letter, Washington received word that British soldiers had been seen on Manhattan heading north to his position. Washington dispatched 150 rangers to go find the British soldiers. Then Washington boldly rode south alone to see for himself what was happening. Along his way, he met General Joseph Reed who was in charge of the rangers sent by Washington, asking Washington for reinforcements.

Before Washington could dispatch more troops, the rangers arrived back at the camp where the rest of the Continental Army announcing that the British were right behind them. The British sounded a bugle call that was played at the end of a fox hunt when the fox had been found and killed. Washington and many of his officers recognized the specific bugle call and Reed later remarked:

“I never felt such a sensation before. It seemed to crown our disgrace.”

Instead of showing any signs of disgrace, Washington sent 1,000 troops directly towards the approaching British troops. Then he ordered Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton’s rangers and three companies of Virginia Continentals to move south around the right flank of the British and then attack from the rear. However, they turned too soon and ended up attacking the central part of the British forces instead of from behind. The British quickly figured out the Continental strategy and over 150 men including Knowlton were killed, before the British turned and fled south.

It was the first victory for Washington’s troops and the news of the British being driven south quickly spread throughout the Continental Army camp, instantly improving morale. Howe ended up moving the British forces to Throg’s Neck and then on to Pell’s Point.

After the Battle of Harlem Heights, British re-enforcements arrived in New York City. British General William Howe commanded around 5,000 trained regular troops. General Wilhelm von Knyphausen commanded nearly 3,000 Hessian troops. The combined force of 8,000 began moving north on Manhattan forcing General Washington to order a retreat.

Washington and most of his army escaped across the Hudson River, but Patriot Colonel Robert Magaw remained behind at Fort Washington with around 3,000 troops.

Howe planned a four-pronged attack with one prong being a feigned attack. Von Knyphausen would lead a force of Hessians to attack from the north. Lord Hugh Percy was to lead a force of British and Hessian troops to attack from the south. Generals Charles Cornwallis and Edward Mathew were lead a force of British to attack from the northeast across the Harlem River. At the same time, a feigned attack was to be launched from the east.

On this day, November 16, 1776, Howe’s attack of Fort Washington began when Knyphausen Hessians were ferried across the river the night before. In the morning, they opened fire on the American fort. Supporting Knyphausen’s attack from the north, a 32-gun British frigate, HMS Pearl, on the Hudson River began shelling Fort Washington. Percy’s forces began firing their artillery from the south.

Around noon, Cornwallis and Mathew’s forces landed to the east of the fort and were immediately under heavy fire from the Patriots. British forces managed to secure a position on Laurel Hill and then a small hill near Spuyten Duyvil Creek.

As the Hessians moved south against Fort Washington, they were stopped by Patriot Lieutenant Colonel Moses Rawlings and his forces. As Percy’s troops soon began to overtake the defense line south of the fort which was bring protected by Patriot Lieutenant Colonel Lambert Cadwalader and his forces.

From across the river, Washington watched the battle of Fort Washington unfold from the protection of Fort Lee. Washington sent a message across the river to Magaw, asking him to at least hold the fort until nightfall.

Howe’s forces continued to advance on Fort Washington, placing the America position in an un-defendable position. Mid-afternoon, Howe sent an ultimatum of surrender to Magaw. Howe gave him 30 minutes to decide. Magaw tried to negotiate terms of surrender that would help his troops and asked for four hours so he could talk to his officers but Howe refused budge and Magaw finally caved in to the British terms of surrender and lowered the American flag at 4:00pm.

In the Battle of Fort Washington, the British suffered 67-84 dead and 335-374 wounded and 6 missing. Magaw’s Patriot forces suffered 59 dead, 96 wounded and 2,838 taken to prison by the British. Upon being taken prisoner, the Hessian troops stole most of the belongings of the patriots and began beating them. Hessian officers soon stopped the beatings. However, when a prisoner exchange was arranged nearly 18 months later, only 800 of the 2,800 Patriots taken prisoners had survived.

On November 19, 1776, three days after losing Fort Washington to the British, the America Patriots were forced to abandon Fort Lee on the opposite side of the Hudson River, thus giving up their ability to prevent British war ships and supplies from sailing north up the Hudson River.


Sources for the above includes: The Battle of Fort Washington; Battle of Fort Washington; Battle of Fort Washington; Fort Washington Is Captured; Battle of Fort Washington; The Battle of Fort Washington; Battle of Fort Washington; American Revolution: Battle of Fort Washington; Today, September 16, 1776: Battle of Harlem Heights


Dave Jolly

R.L. David Jolly holds a B.S. in Wildlife Biology and an M.S. in Biology – Population Genetics. He has worked in a number of fields, giving him a broad perspective on life, business, economics and politics. He is a very conservative Christian, husband, father and grandfather who cares deeply for his Savior, family and the future of our troubled nation.

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