Robert Tomes.

Battles of America by sea and land. With biographies of naval and military commanders (Volume 01) online

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adds, " to send to the colonel about fifty
men, and I have directed him to acquaint
the militia that if they refuse to do duty,
agreeably to the orders of the state, I
will send up a regiment and order them
to Fort Lee, to do duty there."

Knyphausen had been despatched by
General Howe, previous to his own move
ment in that direction, with six battalions
of Hessians and Waldeckers, to take pos
session of Kingsbridge. He started from
New Rochelle, and marched across the
country to the west, and, after crossing
the Harlem river at Dykeman s bridge,
took up his post on a plain near King s
bridge. The Americans, deserting Fort
Independence and all the works in that
neighborhood on his approach, retired to
Fort Washington.

General Howe had now reached the
North river with his main body, and was

encamped at Dobbs s ferry. A
Nov. 6. _ . J

frigate and two transports were

immediately despatched by his brother,
Lord Howe, from the fleet in New-York
harbor, to carry supplies to the general.
They succeeded without difficulty in pas
sing through the chcvaux-de-fnse and the
forts again, and anchored safely in the
river. As the main purpose of holding
Fort Washington seemed to be thus en
tirely frustrated, the commander-in-chief
had doubts about the expediency of de
fending that post. He accord-
Nov, 8, . 3 .

ingly writes to General Greene :

The late passage of three vessels up the
North river, of which we have just re

ceived advice, is so plain a proof of the
inefficacy of all the obstructions we have
thrown into it, that I can not but think
it will justify a change in the disposition
which has been made. If we can not pre
vent vessels from passing up, and the en
emy are possessed of the surrounding
country, what valuable purpose can it an
swer to attempt to hold a post from which
the expected benefit can not be had? I
am therefore inclined to think that it will
not be prudent to hazard the men and
stores at Mount Washington ; but as you
are on the spot, I leave it to you to give
such orders as to evacuating Mount Wash
ington as you may judge best, and so for re
voking the order given to Colonel Magaw
to defend it to the last." The opinion of
Washington is here very explicitly de-
clared against holding the post, but he
modestly waived his own views, and, as
he had great confidence in Greene s judg
ment, he left more to his discretion than
he otherwise probably would have done.
The defence of Fort Washington was
a pet measure with Greene ; and, in spite
of the opposition of the commander-in-
chief, of General Lee, Colonel Reed, and
the most skilful of the officers, he advo
cated it with resolute pertinacity. Gen
eral Greene answers Washington s letter,
saying : " The passing of the ships up the
river is, to be sure, a full proof of the in
sufficiency of the obstructions to stop the
ships from going up ; but that garrison
employs double the number of men to in
vest it that we have to occupy it. They
must keep troops to Kingsbridge, to pre
vent a communication with the country ;
and they dare not leave a very small




number, for fear our people should attack
them. Upon the whole, I can not help
thinking that the garrison is of advan
tage ; and I can not conceive it to be in
any great danger."

Greene was confirmed in his view of
the strength of the position by the con
fident declaration of Colonel Magaw, in
command of the garrison, that it would
take the enemy, to get it, at least until
the end of December. Moreover, Greene
held that if matters should grow desper
ate, the men could be brought off at any
time ; and even the stores, though not so
easily removed, might be got away. Fi
nally, he concludes, " if the enemy do not
find the fort an object of importance, they
will not trouble themselves about it ; if
they do, it is a full proof that they feel
an injury from our possessing it. Our
giving it up will open a free communi
cation with the country by the way of
Kingsbridge. That must be a great ad
vantage to them, and injury to us."

The enemy now prepared to invest
Fort Washington ; and the garrison, in
command of the brave Colonel Magaw,
to defend it.

Washington, believing that Howe was
preparing for an expedition to New Jer
sey, disposed his troops accordingly. The
Maryland and Virginia regiments, under
Lord Stirling, were the first sent across,
and the commander-in-chief himself pre
pared soon to follow them. The posts in
the Highlands, including the passes on
both sides of the Hudson, and the upper
forts, Constitution, Montgomery, and In
dependence, were placed under the com
mand of the faithful Heath, with his Con-

Nov. II,

necticut and Massachusetts troops, and a
brigade of New-York militia under Gen
eral George Clinton. Washington fol
lowed this division to Peekskill,
in order to examine the passes
in the Highlands, and direct the construc
tion of such works as might be neces

General Lee was left in command of
the troops remaining at the old encamp
ment at Newcastle. The confidence of
the commander-in-chief in Lee s capacity,
as well as Washington s own modest ap
preciation of himself in comparison with
his high esteem of his subordinate, may
be inferred from the nature of his " in

" The late movement of the enemy,"
says Washington, " and the probability of
their having designs upon the Jerseys,
confirmed by sundry accounts from de
serters and prisoners ; rendering it neces
sary to throw a body of troops over the
North river, I shall immediately follow,
and the command of the army which
remains, after General Heath s division
marches to Peekskill, will devolve upon

u A little time now must manifest the
enemy s designs, and point out to you
the measures proper to be pursued by
that part of the army under your com
mand. I shall give no directions, there
fore, on this head, having the most entire
confidence in your judgment and milita
ry exertions. One thing, however, I will
suggest, namely, that the appearance of
embarking troops for the Jerseys may be
intended as a feint to weaken us, and rea
der the strong post we now hold more



[PART 11.

vulnerable ; or the enemy may find that
troops are assembled with more expedi
tion and in greater numbers than they
expected, on the Jersey shore, to oppose
them ; and as it is possible, from one or
the other of these motives, that they may
yet pay the army under your command
a visit, it will be unnecessary, I am per
suaded, to recommend to you the pro
priety of putting this post, if you stay at
it, into a proper posture of defence, and
of guarding against surprises. But I
would recommend it to your considera
tion, whether, should the above conjec
tures be realized, your retiring to Croton
bridge, and some strong post still more
easterly,covering the other passes through
the Highlands, may not be more advisa
ble than to run the hazard of an attack
with unequal numbers."

The troops under Lee now numbered
about eight thousand men. Among these
there were, however, over four thousand
militia from Massachusetts and Connecti
cut, whose term of service was about ex
piring. General Lee strove to induce
them to remain, and made one of his usu
al stirring appeals to their patriotism, re
minding them of the sacred cause in which
they were engaged. His eloquence, how
ever, proved of no avail, and the home
sick militiamen could not be persuaded
to remain even a single day beyond their
term. The governors of Connecticut and
Massachusetts were, nevertheless, doing
their best to fill their places by new lev
ies of militia.

Washington, after his arrival at Peeks-
kill, passed a day in inspecting the posts
and forts in the Highlands. He then, by

Nov. 13.

a circuitous march of about sixty miles
(which he was obliged to take in conse
quence of the British ships which opposed
the passage at the lower ferries of the
Hudson), repaired with five thousand men
to Hackensack, in New Jersey, where he
formed an encampment. Fort
Lee, on the river, where Greene
commanded, was in front of him, and this
was his daily post of observation. The
movements and intentions of the enemy
were still perplexing. Sir William Howe
had moved his main force from Dobbs s
ferry in the direction of Kingsbridge ;
" and it seems," says Washington, " to be
generally believed on all hands that the
investing of Fort Washington is one ob
ject they have in view ; but that can em
ploy but a small part of their force." He
thought that a southern expedition was
in tended, which opinion seemed to be con
firmed by the fact that many transports
were " wooding and watering."

Fort Washington was, however, at this
moment, the great object of all the ene
my s preparations. On the night of the
14th of November, thirty flat-boats had
been sent up from the British fleet in the
bay of New York, and, having passed up
the Hudson between the forts unobserved
in spite of all the watchfulness of the
American guards got safely into Spuy-
ten-Devil creek, and thence into the Har
lem river. At this point the boats were
kept in readiness for the use of General
Howe s army, now brought down and en
camped on Fordham heights, preparatory
to the investment of Fort Washington.
By means of this water-conveyance, the
British commander was enabled to throw




across the Harlem river at any point on
New- York island, above or below, those
troops which might be required to aid
his operations.

Mount Washington, which was destined
to be the scene of the coming conflict,
presents a good site for a defensive work.
The hill, with a height of some six hun
dred feet above the Hudson, is protected
on all sides, except toward the south, by
steep acclivities. Upon the summit is a
stretch of table-land, of several acres in
extent, which always affords some point
for the command of each approach. Here
was built the fort, which had been hastily
thrown up by Colonel Rufus Putnam soon
after the march of Washington s army
from Boston to New York. The design
was, to give a pentagonal form to the cit
adel, and surround it with five bastions.
However, from want of engineering skill,
of time, or of care, the works remained
incomplete, as may be gathered from this
description by one who was doing duty
in its defence : " There were no barracks,
or casemates, or fuel, or water, within the
body of the place. It was an open, earth
en construction, with ground at a short
distance on the back of it equally high,
if not higher ; without a ditch of any con
sequence, if there was a ditch at all ; no
outworks (an incipient one on the north,
not deserving the appellation), or any of
those exterior, multiplied obstacles and
defences, that could entitle it to the name
of a fortress, in any degree capable of
sustaining a siege. It required no paral
lels to approach it: the citadel was at once
within reach of the assailants."*

* Graydon.

It was garrisoned at first by only about
two thousand men, to which were added,
however, some troops from the flying
camp, sent over by General Greene from
Fort Lee, making the whole number near
ly three thousand, under the several com
mands of Colonels Magaw, Cadwallader,
Baxter, and Rawlings. Magaw, as the
senior of these officers, was command er-
in-chief of the post. He was a spirited
fellow, and spoke confidently of his abil
ity to hold the place. The original pur
pose of the fort (which was, to command
the entrance of the Hudson) had been so
often defeated by the enemy s ships and
boats defiantly passing it, that its defence
was by many considered unnecessary and
impolitic. The matter, however, had been
left to the discretion of General Greene,
and he encouraged Magaw in bravely re
sisting to the last.

The enemy now made such a disposi
tion of their troops, that they were ena
bled to environ the whole fortress. Gen
eral Kivyphausen was near Kingsbiidge,
at the north, with five hundred Hessians
and Waldeckers,in two divisions, the right
one of which was commanded by Colonel
Rahl. To the east was General Mathew,
at the head of the first and second battal
ions of guards, supported by Lord Corn-
wallis with the thirty-third regiment and
a body of British grenadiers. These were
on the east side of the Harlem river, which
they were ready to cross, under the cover
of two redoubts raised there for that pur
pose. Lord Percy had been ordered down
to the neighborhood of Harlem plains,
whence he was prepared with a large
force of English and Hessian troops to



[PART n.

Nov. 15,

attack the American position from the
south. A third division, composed prin
cipally of the forty-second regiment, was
under Lieutenant-Colonel Stirling, who
was directed to be in readiness to embark
on board the flat-boats, and drop down
the Harlem, with the view of making a
feint of landing, or such an attack as cir
cumstances would justify. Gen
eral Howe, being thus prepared,
summoned Magaw to surrender, threat
ening extremities in case of refusal. To
this summons Magaw unhesitatingly an
swered :

" SIR : If I rightly understand the pur
port of your message from General Howe,
communicated to Colonel Swoope, this
post is to be immediately surrendered, or
put to the sword. I think it rather a
mistake than a settled purpose of General
Howe, to act a part so unworthy of him
self and the British nation. But give me
leave to assure his excellency that, actu
ated by the most glorious cause that man
kind ever fought in, I am determined to
defend this post to the very last extrem-



A copy of this spirited answer of Ma
gaw was handed to General Greene, who
was then at Fort Washington, and by him
despatched immediately to the command-
er-in-chief at Hackensack. Washington
at once hurried to Fort Lee, and, taking
a boat, began to push across the river.
He had got partly over, when he was met
by Generals Putnam and Greene, on their
return from Fort Washington. They in
formed him that the troops were in high

Nov. 16.

spirits, and would make a good defence.
Washington, after this satisfactory intel
ligence, and it being late at night, was
induced to return.

Magaw now prepared to defend his po
sition. Early next morning, he
posted his troops, partly in the
lines which had been thrown up by the
army in the neighborhood of Mount Wash-
ington.on evacuating New York, and part
ly on a commanding hill lying toward the
north. Magaw seemed conscious of the
inadequacy of the defences of the fort,
and therefore preferred, instead of coop
ing up his troops where they would be
ill able to resist an assault, to extend them
in such a way as to command, if possible,
the approaches to Mount Washington,
upon the summit of which stood the ill-
conditioned fortress. The lines thus oc
cupied by the American troops embraced
a circuit of some four or five miles ; and
when we recollect that the whole num
ber amounted to only about three thou
sand men, it may be easily conceived that
there could be at no single point any
great concentration of strength. An at
tacking force of nearly eight thousand
men at its command could therefore out
number greatly its opponents in every

On a hill to the northward of the fort
there was a redoubt, called Fort George.
Here Colonel Rawlings was posted, with
most of his troops, principally Maryland
riflemen. He held, however, with a few
men, an outpost called Cock-hill fort, sit
uated beyond, just at the entrance of
Spuyten-Devil creek ; and another, called
Fort Tryon, in the same direction, but




nearer Mount Washington. Colonel Raw-
lings presented a front to oppose Knyp-
hausen and his Hessians, stationed before
him on the plain reaching to Kingsbridge.

On the wooded and hilly banks of the
Harlem river, eastward of the fort, was
Colonel Baxter, with a body, chiefly of
militia, detached from the flying camp,
and sent by Greene at the last moment,
from New Jersey. These troops were not
very efficient, and so few in numbers in
proportion to the long extent of ground
to be guarded, that for a distance of a
mile or more the heights on the east,
along the Harlem river, w r ere in reality
without defence. Baxter was to watch
the movements of the enemy on the op
posite side of the river, where General
Mathew was posted, in readiness to cross
and attempt to make a landing in front
of the fort, under cover of the redoubts
which had been raised by the British for
that purpose.

Colonel Lambert Cadwallader, of Phil
adelphia, with about eight hundred men,
chiefly the Pennsylvania regiment of Ma-
gaw, was posted about two and a half
miles to the southward of the fort, to de
fend the American works in that quarter.
These were composed of two lines, each
about a mile in length, nearly parallel,
which extended from near the Harlem
river, across the island, to the Hudson.
The first line, toward New York, was " a

slight intrenchment, with a few weak bas
tions, without platforms for cannon, and
furnished with no other ordnance than a
few old iron pieces of small calibre, scarce
ly fit for use, and an iron six-pounder
mounted on trucks. The second and in
ner line was stronger, both from the na
ture of the ground, which afforded small
eminences for bastions closed in the rear,
and from having the intervals between
the bastions strongly picketed. The first
line seemed calculated rather for retard
ing the approach of the enemy, than as
a seriously defensive work ; it being noth
ing more (with the exception of the bas
tions) than a shallow ditch, with the earth
thrown outward. The second line was
formed at a proper distance from the first,
so as to protect the latter by musketry
as well as cannon, and to drive out the
enemy, should he get possession of it:
but this second line, on the day of the
attack of Fort Washington, was from ne
cessity wholly without defence, either of
troops or artillery of any description."*
Earl Percy, with his fifteen hundred Brit
ish and Hessians, threatened the fort on
the south. Colonel Cadwallader and his
eight hundred men were posted to defend
the outer lines, and if possible to prevent
his lordship s approach in that direction.
Colonel Magaw himself remained within
the fcrt.

* Gray don.



[PART 11.


Fort Washington. The Attack of the Enemy. The Separate Divisions. Rahl with the Right of the Hessians. Knyp-
hausen with the Left. Their Reception by the Provincials. Mathew and the British Guards. Their Success. Death
of Baxter. Flight of his Men. Earl Percy and his Force. Spirited Resistance of Cadwallader. Dropping down the
Harlem River. The "Enemy secure a Landing. The Marylanders forced to retire. The Hard Struggle. Capture of
Forts George, Cock-Hill, and Tryon. Concentration of the Hessians. Successful Retreat of Cadwallader. Wash
ington watching the Movement. His Company. His Tenderness. The Americans driven within the Fort, and sum
moned to surrender. Washington sends a Messenger, to advise holding out. Too late. Surrender of Fort Washing
ton. Lee s Emotions. " A Cursed Affair." Washington s Grief. Greene consoles Himself. The Policy of holding
Fort Washington considered. The Loss. Fort Lee abandoned to the Enemy. The Retreat of Washington in New
Jersey. Critical State of Affairs. A Strong Call for Reinforcements. General Discouragement.


AT noon, on the 16th of Novem
ber, the enemy, under the cover of
a powerful artillery, began their attack
upon Fort Washington simultaneously
from all points. From the north, Knyp-
hausen and Rahl approached with their
separate divisions of Hessians. On the
east, the British redoubts from the oppo
site side of the Harlem river began a
heavy cannonade, under cover of which
General Mathew embarked his "British
Guards," and pushed across the stream.
On the south, Earl Percy marched with
his force from the plains of Harlem, and
approached the American lines ; while
Lieutenant-Colonel Stirling began to float
down the Harlem river with another di
vision of British troops.

Colonel Rahl, who commanded the right
of the Hessians, pushed on for the Cock-
hill fort, and began to clamber up the
woody height, in the face of a sharp fire
from the small party which defended that
post. General Knyphausen at the same
moment moved with his left against Fort
George. He soon got entangled in a
woody defile, which led to the rugged

heights he was attempting to ascend, and
was thus exposed to a murderous fire
from Colonel Rawlings s riflemen, as well
as from the guns of the redoubt above.

Mathew, with his British guards, under
the cover of a fire from the redoubts, soon
crossed the river, in front and to the east
of the fort. Colonel Baxter, posted with
his militiamen on the heights, was only
able to offer a short and ineffectual re
sistance to the landing of the enemy.
Baxter, while cheering on his men, was
killed by a British officer ; and the Amer
ican troops, overpowered by numbers,
fled to the fort : while the British, taking
a redoubt and two hundred prisoners on
their way, inclined toward the left, and
began to skirt the southern border of
Mount Washington, apparently with the
view of cutting off Colonel Cadwallader s
force stationed within the outer line be

In the meantime, Earl Percy, having
marched across the plains of Harlem, ap
proached the American lines from the
south, under the cover of a wood, where
he began to form his troops for an assault,



and at the same time to fire with his ar
tillery upon the American breastworks.
Cadwallader s Pennsylvanians kept firm
ly to their ground, and spiritedly resisted
the enemy as they approached. Cadwal
lader, now learning that the British were
dropping down the Harlem river in large
force, apparently with the view of getting
between him and the fort, detached a hun
dred and fifty men, with an eighteen-
pounder, to dispute their landing. The
detachment arrived in time to open a fire
upon the assailants before they reached
the shore, and it was well directed and
deadly. Nevertheless, the superiority of
the enemy s strength in men and artillery
enabled them to force a landing, and, by
extending themselves, to gain the heights
upon the bank of the river. Here there
was a sharp contest ; but, with the odds
of eight hundred British against one hun
dred and fifty Americans, the latter were
so outnumbered, that they were obliged
to retreat toward the fort. The British
troops which had thus made good their
landing were those under Lieutenant-
Colonel Stirling, and they now marched
unopposed toward the southern acclivity
of Mount Washington, and, together with
Mathew s division, were endeavoring to
interpose themselves between Cadwalla-
der and the fort.

The Marylanders, under Rawlings, at
the north, had made a brave defence, but
they were finally obliged to retire to the
fort. Knyphausen, however, did not win
the position until after a long and hard
struggle. The American riflemen contin
ued their fire until their arms became so
fouled from repeated use as to be of no

longer service, and only gave way when
overpowered by the numbers of the ene
my. Knyphausen having carried Fort
George, and Rahl the outposts of Cock-
hill and Fort Tryon, the two combined
their forces and marched up Mount Wash
ington to within a short distance of the
fortress, and took post behind a large

Cadwallader, finding himself about to
be caught between two fires, called off
his troops from the right and left of the
line, and ordered a retreat. He supposed
that Mathew and Stirling would take pos
session of the second and inner line ; but.
as they suspected that the enclosed bas
tions concealed a number of men, they
seemed to hesitate. Cadwallader took
advantage of this pause, and pushed rap
idly for the fort, in a direction toward the
North river. He made good his retreat,
and, though attacked upon his flank by
Stirling, and pursued in the rear by Lord
Percy, succeeded in gaining the fort with
but a small loss.

Washington, with Greene, Putnam, and
Thomas Paine, watched from Fort Lee
every movement during this engagement
with anxious interest ; and when he saw
the Hessians in pursuit of the brave troops
of Rawlings, bayoneting them even when
asking for quarter, "he cried with the

Online LibraryRobert TomesBattles of America by sea and land. With biographies of naval and military commanders (Volume 01) → online text (page 50 of 126)