Today, September 16, 1776: Battle of Harlem Heights

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.

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.

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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 the day, 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.

The Battle of Harlem Heights may have been one of the early turning points in the Revolutionary War against the British. With the boost in morale, it became easier to train many of the raw volunteers and instilling in them the idea that they could stand up to the mighty redcoats of the highly trained British Army.


Sources for the above includes: Battle of Harlem Heights; The Battle of Harlem Heights 1776; American Revolution: Battle of Harlem Heights; Battle of Harlem Heights Restores American Confidence; Battle of Harlem Heights; The Battle of Harlem Heights; Harlem Heights; Today, August 27, 1776: Washington Almost Lost Revolutionary War; Timeline of the Revolutionary War

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