The American Revolutionary War in the Middle Atlantic States:
Battle of New York City | Washington's Retreat from New York City | Washington's Crossing of the Delaware River
Battles of Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey | British Capture of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | Battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania
The Paoli Massacre | Battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania | Battle of the Barrels | The Winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey | Battle of Stony Point, New York | Battle of Springfield, New Jersey | General 'Mad' Anthony Wayne
Molly Pitcher | General Lord Charles Cornwallis
General Sir William Howe tried to resolve the differences between the crown and the American colonies peacefully right up until July 1776. The Declaration of Independence forced him to take military action.
In the months leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, General George Washington's army moved to New York City and fortified positions there. They built Fort Washington and Fort Lee on the east and west banks of the Hudson River respectively.
In July and August, General Howe massed his troops on Staten Island. His brother, Admiral Lord Richard Howe, supported him with the fleet under his command. Washington's defensive plans failed to cover the island. The British were able to land unopposed.
By late August, General Howe had a force of 32,000 men, including 8,000 German mercenaries. They faced Washington's force of 20,000 Continentals. This was the largest British force to take the field of battle to this time. The 280 ships in New York Harbor was the largest invasion force until D-Day in the Second World War.
The Battle of Long Island
The battle began on 22 August. After a few days of bombardment between the British ships and American fortifications, General Howe landed 20,000 men in Long Island. Four days later, Howe took a force of 10,000 from Flatlands and marched toward Jamaica Pass.
At 3am on 27 August, British General James Grant attacked the American line at the Heights of Guan. This prompted American General Israel Putnam to send General William Alexander, who preferred to call himself 'Lord Stirling', to repulse the attack. At the same time, Howe's force captured Jamaica Pass through the defended highlands. The pass was said to have been guarded by a five-man patrol. It was thought to be too far to the east to be a target for the Redcoats.
With Howe's men behind the Colonial lines, Yank Colonel Samuel Miles attacked the rear of Howe's column with his 230 men at 8am. All but 80 were captured. An hour later, the British fired two cannons at Bedford as a signal for Grant to launch an all-out attack on the front of the American General John Sullivan's forces. With Royal forces to the front and rear, Sullivan retreated to the Brooklyn Heights.
While Sullivan and the Colonials retreated, Lord Stirling and his 400 Marylanders fought a valiant rear guard action to buy time for his comrades to escape the approaching British. He saw that the British were in command of the 'Cortelyou House'1 and could block the American's main avenue of retreat. Lord Stirling launched six assaults against the structure. They overran the house twice. Of the 400 under Lord Stirling's command, 256 died in the fighting at this house. Only 10 men were able to escape being killed, wounded or captured to return to the newly formed American lines in the Brooklyn Heights.
After Lord Stirling surrendered at 2pm, Howe did not press his assault on the Colonial positions in the Brooklyn Heights. It has been speculated that Howe was wary of making a frontal assault on the prepared rebel position after the disaster at Bunker Hill.
While tactically a smart move, strategically Howe's decision to halt his advance was spoiled by heavy rains during the next two days. With the bad weather, his troops were unable to attack, and his brother's naval forces were unable to prevent the 10,000 Colonial soldiers from escaping in rowboats across the East River into Manhattan. The soldiers manning the rowboats were the same 'Marbleheaders' of Massachusetts who later took the oars during Washington's crossing of the Delaware River.
By 30 August, the British advanced upon the rebel positions and discovered them to be empty. The entire rebel force managed to slip away.
Retreat from Manhattan
Realising his forces could easily be trapped in Manhattan, Washington sought permission to withdraw his forces to the north as soon as the escape from Long Island was completed. Two weeks later, the Colonials were on the march with Congressional approval and orders not to burn the city.
Washington also wanted to abandon Fort Washington at the northern tip of Manhattan Island, but Congress refused his request. The fort's commander, General Nathaniel Greene believed that his 3000 men could hold the fortress against any size British force.2
Around this same time, a peace conference was held on Staten Island. Admiral Howe met with Colonial representatives John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Howe demanded that the Americans revoke the Declaration of Independence, so the conference failed.
On 13 September, Howe chose not to attack the fortified southern part of Manhattan Island. Instead he launched a 4,000-man invasion across the East River, landing in Kip's Bay. The British did not immediately strike the moving Americans. Howe was supposedly detained by the charms of a patriotic woman in whose home he paused for 'refreshments' while the rebels marched north to the Harlem Heights.
On 16 September, American skirmishers met British troops near what is today 106th Street and Broadway. The Colonial troops stood their ground and then began an orderly retreat toward the rebel lines in the Harlem Heights. More and more Redcoats entered the fray.
The fighting ranged north to about the area of present-day 125th Street before Washington sent troops forward to meet the enemy. He sent two columns in a wide flanking maneuver with a third force making a feint toward the British front. The complicated plan did not work perfectly. The Colonials attacked before the British were surrounded on three sides. The Redcoats began to retreat southwards under the rebel firing.
More troops from both sides were poured into the engagement. Washington called off the attack after six hours, because he did not want to risk a general engagement with the full British army under Howe's command.
After the fighting, both sides fortified their positions. A large fire broke out in lower Manhattan on 21 September and more than 500 buildings were destroyed. It has always been suspected that it was arson committed by patriot-sympathisers. Washington was glad to see the flames from his positions in the Harlem Heights, even though his orders forbade him to set the blaze himself.
Also during this time, the British captured one of Washington's spies on Long Island. Nathan Hale was captured and hanged on 22 September. British propaganda suggested that Hale had some part in the fire in Manhattan. Denied a Bible at his execution, Hale's final words became infamous: 'I only regret I have but one life to lose for my country.'
On 12 October, Howe again attempted to get behind the American positions. He landed about 4,000 men at Throg's Neck. Howe was opposed by Colonel Edward Hand's Pennsylvania riflemen. They destroyed the bridge and causeway leading from Throg's Neck to the Westchester mainland. Howe's men were isolated for six days before they re-embarked and landed at Pell's Point on 18 October.
With Howe's latest move, Washington retreated further north. He consolidated his forces in the area of White Plains, New York. He also left 2000 men behind in Fort Washington and sent another force across the Hudson River to man Fort Lee.
The Battle of White Plains
On 28 October, the two forces again locked horns. Howe's plan called for two columns to capture the rebel-held high ground at Chatterton Hill. Washington countered with 2500 troops under the command of General Joseph Spencer.
Spencer's men crossed the Bronx River and turned back an advancing column of Hessians. Then, a cavalry charge broke the Colonial line and forced them to retreat back across the river as night fell.
The next day a series of uphill charges by the Redcoats were repulsed by the Americans. Finally, a cavalry charge broke the rebels' line. The British took possession of the high ground on Washington's flank and only the bad weather saved the Colonial army. The Americans were allowed to retreat again.
Howe turned south on 4 November. He did not want to pursue Washington's army further to the north because Fort Washington would be to his rear. Washington, meanwhile, ran north to Stony Point, New York, crossed the Hudson River on 9 November and headed back south on the western shore of the river.
Capture of Fort Washington and Fort Lee
On 16 November, Howe's forces attacked Fort Washington at the northern tip of Manhattan Island. His strategy was to attack simultaneously with four columns at four different points of the fortress.
The onslaught of British and Hessian troops quickly overwhelmed the fort's outer defences, and the Colonials retreated back into the fortress. A few hours later, the Americans surrendered and the entire garrison of 3000 men was taken prisoner. General Washington and writer Thomas Paine watched the fall of Fort Washington from Fort Lee. Paine uttered the famous words, 'These are the times that try men's souls'.
With the capture of Fort Washington, General Washington immediately ordered that Fort Lee be evacuated. Its supplies and men joined his own forces, which were retreating to the south. They were pursued by General Charles Cornwallis' British forces.
Greene was unable to obey this order. The British quickly followed up their success at Fort Washington by crossing the Hudson River and attacking Fort Lee four days after the fall of its sister fort. Greene left cannon, supplies and wounded behind as he evacuated his 2000-man command. He joined Washington's forces and the Colonials were in full retreat from New York.