The Battle of Harlem Heights

THE 3Oth and 31st of August, 1776, were anxious days in New York. Tents, arms, clothes, baggage, ammunition, all manner of camp equipage, soaked with rain, obstructed the streets and sidewalks ; squads of soldiers off duty wandered wearily about or lingered on the corners. In the defenses—McDougall's and the Oyster batteries on a little hill in the rear of Trinity Church, Fort George and the Grand Battery in the present Battery Park, Whitehall Redoubt at the foot of the present Whitehall Street, Waterbury's on the dock at the angle of Catherine and Cherry streets, Badlam's between Madison and Monroe streets, and Spencer's between Clinton and Montgomery—the gunners stood at attention, for all expected an immediate attack. Why it was not made is one of several puzzling things connected with this whole defense of New York.

Why, in the first place, in view of the vastly greater force of his enemy, both by land and sea, did Washington attempt to hold New York at all ? The final result could not have been in doubt; but if he was resolved to fight, why did he not seize and fortify Harlem Heights, including McGowans Pass, and thus keep open his line of retreat? And why, on the other hand, did Howe wait four full days after landing on the Gravesend plain before marching against the Americans, thus giving them time to prepare for battle? And why, after his victory of August 27 with his superior force, did he not assault the patriots' line? And why did he not ascend the Hudson with his fleet and seize the undefended Harlem Heights, thus cutting off Washington's line of retreat and compelling him to surrender his whole army ?

Washington probably decided to hold New York because he feared the effect on the country and on the world of yielding the city without a struggle. This was really the second battle of the war. It had been said that his ragged Continentals would not stand in open battle against the seasoned veterans of Europe, and he wished to prove the contrary. Again, our envoys to France were even then at the court of the French king, seeking the alliance which was soon declared, and which the bravery of the heroes of Battle Hill and Mount Prospect may have hastened. As for Lord Howe's acts, we have no explanation for them except that he was in sympathy with the Americans and wished to aid their cause.

New York in 1776 was a town of twenty-five thousand people and four thousand houses, filling the apex of the acute angle made by the two rivers, thus—V. Most of the town lay below the present Chambers Street, and comprised an area of less than one square mile. But one road led off the island, the Kingsbridge or " Boston Post Road," which left Broadway at the present post office building, followed Chatham Street to the present Chatham Square, thence the Bowery and Fourth Avenue to Fourteenth Street, crossed Union Square northwest, thence followed the present line of Broadway to Madison Square, then turned northeast and ran on between Fourth and Second avenues to Fifty-third Street, there took a more easterly course to Ninety- second Street, where it turned west and entered the present Central Park, and continued therein until it had threaded a narrow defile called McGowans Pass, from the fact that the farmhouse of a man of that name was situated there. From this pass, which was about on the line of One Hundred and Seventh Street, the road followed over Harlem Lane, and crossed the Harlem River by a small wooden bridge called the King's bridge. This was the only route by which Washington's army could gain the high ground on the opposite shore.

There was another road on the western side of the island, the " Bloomingdale Road," which left the Post Road at about the present corner of Twenty-third Street and Fifth Avenue, and passed through the hamlet of Bloomingdale to the farmhouse of Adriaen Hoofland, at about One Hundred and Eighth Street, where it ended abruptly. Still another road ran from the upper part of the city to the village of Greenwich on the Hudson, at about the foot of the present Fourteenth Street, and then continued as a pretty rustic lane until it joined the Bloomingdale Road at Forty-third Street. The whole island above Fourteenth Street was a mass of crag, forest, swampy thicket, and natural meadow.

With Brooklyn Heights in possession of the enemy, the question arose whether to defend New York or burn it and retreat to the Highlands of the Hudson. Washington referred it to Congress, and that body gave him sole discretion in the matter. He accordingly called a council of his officers on September 12, at which it was decided to evacuate the city ; without destroying it, however, as it was thought that it might soon be recovered.

It was quite time, for the British commander was already moving his troops with a view of attacking the city. On September 3 the frigate Rose had sailed up the East River past the Battery, conveying thirty whale- boats to be used in crossing the river. On the I2th, thirty-six more boats passed up, and on the I4th four frigates and six transports joined the Rose.

Washington now pressed all his teams and transports into the work of removing the sick, wounded, and stores to Kingsbridge. One more day would have completed the task; but on the morning of the I5th of September the British moved on the city, and that same afternoon captured it. Washington, the night before, had left New York and fixed his headquarters at the Apthorpe mansion, which stood on the Bloomingdale Road, at the corner of what is now Ninth Avenue and Ninety-first Street. Putnam's and Sullivan's divisions garrisoned the city and the forts; Scott's New York- brigade was stationed on the Stuyvesant estate, about on the line of the present East Fifteenth Street; Wads- worth, with his Connecticut troops, was at Twenty-third Street; and Douglas, with three regiments of Connecticut militia, was at Kips Bay, at the foot of the present Thirty-fourth Street.

This was the situation on Sunday morning, September 15. Soon after daybreak Douglas, at Kips Bay, saw five frigates move up the river and come to abreast of his position. At the same time, from the mouth of Newtown Creek, on the opposite shore, issued eighty- four row galleys filled with grenadiers in scarlet uniforms, looking, as a soldier aptly said, " like a clover field in full bloom." The grenadiers with their oars urged the boats on. As they neared the shore, all at once, with a burst of thunder, the seventy-five guns of the frigates belched a storm of grapeshot on the devoted patriots. One soldier thought " his head would go with the sound; " "but," he added, "we kept the line until they were almost leveled upon us, when the officers, seeing we were exposed to the rake of their guns, gave the order to leave."

At the same time the galleys were beached a little to the left, and the grenadiers leaped ashore without opposition. All the American brigades along the river now began to retreat northward toward Kingsbridge, over which ran, as we have said, the only road leading at that time from the island. But the British pursued them so hotly that they were soon in panic-stricken flight. Up the Post Road they ran, every man for himself, Douglas, Huntington, and Prescott in vain trying to check and reform them.

Washington, at the Apthorpe house, heard the firing, leaped to his horse, and spurred down the Bloomingdale Road and across by a country lane to the Post Road, reaching it just as the mob of frightened fugitives came toiling and panting up, some taking to the fields in their panic, some keeping to the road. As it happened, Parsons's and Fellows's brigades, which had been ordered up to check the rout, appeared at this moment, and Washington shouted to them, " Take to the walls, take to the cornfield! "

The men did so, but the enemy's vanguard appearing at this critical instant on the brow of the hill, they broke and fled in as much disorder as the militia. Washington, at the sight, is said to have lost his usual self-command, and to have dashed in among the fugitives, waving his hat and imploring them to make a stand; but it was useless, and recognizing this at last, he commanded the retreat to be continued, while he spurred on to Harlem Heights to make preparations to receive the British there.

Meantime, what of Putnam's division, which was garrisoning the forts in the lower part of the city ? At the first sound of the guns it had been put in retreat toward Harlem, following the Bloomingdale Road, while Knox's artillery and Silliman's brigade of infantry took post at Bayards Hill Fort, on a bluff at about the present corner of Grand and Mulberry streets, to cover its retreat. This was perhaps two hours before the rout at Murrays Hill, and the column, though moving slowly, was now well up the island. Putnam, finding himself unable to rally the fugitives on the Post Road, next turned his attention to his own column, first ordering his aid, Major Aaron Burr, with a company of dragoons, to bring off Knox's and Silliman's brigades at Bayards Hill—an order very successfully carried out by Major Burr, who first led the brigades to the main column, and then by lanes and devious ways past the British advance, which by this time had gained the center of the island, until they rejoined the main body in Harlem.

The army was now out of the city. Harlem Heights had become the seat of war.

If we visit the great brown cliff now known as Morningside Park, and take our stand at about where One Hundred and Nineteenth Street crosses it, we can take in the battlefield at a glance. At our feet the plain of Harlem, now covered with brick and stone, stretches away to the east. North, directly across the valley, rises another rocky height, known in 1776 as Point of Rocks, and extending thence northwest in a series of points and ledges to the Hudson, the whole range being known as Harlem Heights. Washington massed his army on the Point of Rocks after the retreat, fixing his headquarters in the Morris house (now the Jimel mansion), which still stands in its grounds a little southwest of High Bridge. The British took post where we are supposed to stand. The plain below, then mostly covered with forest, was the scene of the battle of Harlem Heights.

It was the aim of the British to drive the Americans from their position. The latter, however, did not stand on the defensive, but descended into the plain and brought on the battle. Washington at daylight on the morning of the 16th of September dispatched Colonel Thomas Knowlton, with a small force, to beat up the forests along the bank of the Hudson, and see what the British were doing. Knowlton did so, found the enemy at the base of the cliffs, and after exchanging shots retreated, drawing a force of some three hundred men in pursuit. On hearing the firing Washington sent his adjutant general, Colonel Reed, to learn the cause, and on the latter's reporting that Knowlton was retreating before a superior force, sent forward reinforcements which quickly put the British to flight.

The second or main battle began at ten o'clock in the morning and lasted till two, ending in the defeat of the British.

About ten a squadron of British cavalry appeared in the plain, and blew their bugles in the face of the Americans as at a fox hunt. Washington accepted the challenge and ordered Major Leitch, with his Virginian riflemen, and Colonel Knowlton, with his Connecticut rangers, to gain the rear of the British by their right flank, while the main body attacked them in front. At the sound of firing the enemy hurried up his reserves. Unfortunately, the riflemen and rangers, losing their way in the forest, struck the right flank of the British instead of their rear, as ordered, which alarmed the English commander, and he ordered up his choicest regiments. Washington responded by sending in detachments of Douglas's, Nixon's, Richardson's, and Griffith's regiments, the same troops that had fled so ingloriously the day before, and the battle in the plain opened with spirit. But to-day these same troops fought like veterans and forced the British back upon their reserves on the hilltop. Knowlton and Leitch, on their side of the field, were equally successful, and rolled the British left back upon the heights. There the combined forces made a stubborn stand, but at last were driven from the cliffs as they had been from the valley. About noon, meeting with reinforcements in their retreat, they made a fresh stand in a buckwheat field, and held their ground for about two hours, but were finally routed again and chased for two miles, the Americans mocking their bugles as they pursued. The patriots had won a barren victory, however, except that it had blotted out the disgrace of the day before and renewed their courage and confidence in themselves; for Howe remained master of New York, and could, by seizing Washington's line of retreat across the Harlem, hem him in and force him to surrender.

The Americans continued to hold Fort Washington (which stood on the high point of land south of Spuyten Duyvil, at what would be the intersection of Fort Washington Avenue and One Hundred and Eighty- third Street, if cut through),1 with half a score of supporting forts and three lines of entrenchments extending from the Hudson to the Harlem, until the morning of November 16, 1776, when they were attacked by a force of eighty-nine hundred British and Hessians under the immediate command of Lord Howe himself. After a gallant and desperate defense of two hours, the British threw a detachment across the Harlem below the second line of entrenchments and assailed the Americans in the rear; and a concerted attack being made in front and on both flanks at the same time, Colonel Robert Magaw, the officer in command, surrendered his entire force.

James Gordon Bennett's house stands on or near the site of the north bastion, It was the most serious reverse the Americans had yet met. Some three thousand men, the flower of the American army, were captured, with forty-three guns and a large amount of stores. The British loss was seventy-eight killed and three hundred and eighty wounded, the American, fifty-four killed and twelve wounded.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Battle of Harlem Heights
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY:   A Brief History of the City of New York by Charles Burr Todd; American Book Company 1899
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