Sunday, July 13, 2014

Places: Fort Washington

The Place

The upper Island of New York
When General George Washington and the Continental Army arrived in New York in the early summer of 1776, the strategic situation was bleak. British control of the waterways and superiority of artillery meant New York, specifically the island now known as Manhattan could be threatened form any quarter. Although the British approach from the sea made a southern thrust most likely, the commander in chief had to prepare for attacks from any direction. To the dismay of his troops, Washington ordered fortifications built all around
the island. Th men worked hard with shovel and pick. Despite their efforts,  most of these  were primitive and ill attended earthworks. But on June 20 1776, some Pennsylvania battalions of the Continental Army began constructing a five-bastion fort at the intersection of present-day Fort Washington Avenue and 183rd Street. The quickly assembled, earthen-walled structure had no water supply and no significant barricade to repel attackers. Still, it was situated on the highest hill on Manhattan island. This made it an ideal location for the fort, with its views overlooking the Hudson River to the east, the valley of Manhattan as far south as what is now 120th Street, and protection on the north side from high ground commanding the Kings Bridge approach. They named it Fort Washington in honor of their commander in chief.

The Namesake

Colonel Robert Magaw
hoped to defend the fort

Washington correctly assessed the high ground at the north end of the island as strategically valuable. With its "sister" fort, Fort Lee (named after Washington's deputy commander, Charles Lee), Fort Washington controlled access to the Hudson  Valley, the Bronx, Westchester and the areas bordering New England. And of course it threatened any forces occupying central and lower parts of the Island of New York. But left unsupported and undermanned, Washington's namesake was  a liability to his strategy and would doom many of his best men. After defeating the Continental Army at the Battle of White Plains, the British Army
forces under the command of Lieutenant General William Howe moved to capture Fort Washington, the last American stronghold on Manhattan. Realizing this, Washington issued a "discretionary" order to General Nathaniel Greene to abandon the fort and remove its garrison of 3,000 men to New Jersey. But the fort's commander, Pennsylvania Colonel Robert Magaw, resisted the order to abandon it. He believed it still could be defended from the British and implored Greene to let him defend the positions. Greene agreed to leave Magaw in place until he could consult with Washington and crossed the Hudson to discuss the situation. Unfortunately, the usually lethargic Howe attacked the fort before General Washington was able to completely assess the situation.

The Battle

Throughout that summer and autumn of 1776, Lord Howe's British land and naval forces  waged an effective albeit slow land-sea campaign that threw the  Continentals out of Long Island and most of the Island of New York. By November, the last position the Americans held on Manhattan was the area around Fort Washington on the northern tip, known as Harlem Heights.  Now, with Washington in retreat from White Plains and  retreating to New Jersey, he struck. Howe planned three attacks. Brigadier Lord Percy was to attack from the South up the island. Brigadier Matthews with the light infantry and Guards to cross the Harlem River and attack Baxter on the east side, supported by Lord Cornwallis with the grenadiers and the 33rd Foot. The main attack was to be on Colonel Rawlings’ position by Hessian troops commanded by General Von Knyphausen. An additional assault was to be carried out on the same side by the 42nd Highland Regiment (the famous Black Watch) under Colonel Sterling.

The Battle Lines around
Fort Washington
Early on the November  15th, General Howe called on the fort to surrender. McGaw refused. A bombardment on the American positions erupted from British batteries across the Harlem River and from the British frigate, Pearl. Percy's forces advanced to the attack. At noon, Matthews landed on Manhattan and began his assault. The American commander on the works was killed and his militia fled to the protection of the fort. But the real threat came from the north. General Knyphausen crossed south onto Manhattan (from the Bronx) at Kingsbridge. His two Hessian columns assaulted American positions along the high wooded ground. After a hard fight,  Rawlings’ riflemen fell back into the fort. Then Hugh Percy, leading about 2,000 regulars through McGowan's Pass, attacked American Colonel Lambert Cadwallader and his 800 Pennsylvanians on the south side of the fort while the 42nd landed on the east side in a diversionary attack and pushed inland behind Cadwallader’s position. This forced  the  Americans holding the last outer works to fall back to the fort as well. With all his troops pinned inside Fort Washington under heavy fire, Magaw  surrendered to the Hessian General Knyphausen. Casualties were stiff on both sides. The British suffered 450 casualties of which 320 were skilled Hessians. The Americans suffered 2,900 casualties of which the preponderance were prisoners.

The 42nd landing


Washington watched in frustration from Fort Lee

From across the river its sister Fort Lee, George Washington watched helplessly as his last hold on the strategic Island of New York evaporated. Almost 3,000 men from some of his best regiments marched off into captivity. As critical, valuable and irreplaceable supplies and munitions, including 150 cannon, fell to the British, who occupied the fort and renamed it Fort Knyphausen, after the Hessian general instrumental in taking it.  The high ground covering the northern Kingsbridge approach was turned into a separate fort, named after New York's last Royal Governor Tryon. A third fort was named Fort George. That the British created three forts where previously one large American fort existed is significant. In Magaw's defense, he was not given enough men to properly man and defend the extensive positions. This is a common theme in defending forts (to be repeated at Ticonderoga the following year)  - they could be a death trap if the garrison wasn't large enough. The British army and its sympathizers then occupied the city until the American victory in 1783. After the war, vestiges of the fort disappeared, and the surrounding area became known as Washington Heights. Granite paving outlines the former contours of Fort Washington in the southern portion of nearby Bennett Park.

Looking south from Washington heights
along the Hudson today

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.