June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
Seventh in a series of paintings for AMERICAN HERITAGE
At its northern end Manhattan Island shrinks to a spur of ground three quarters of a mile wide, bounded by the Harlem River on one side and the Hudson on the other. Mount Washington rises more than two hundred feet above the water on the Hudson River side, and it was here in July of 1776 that the Americans built a crude pentagonal earthwork that they dignified with the name Fort Washington. The tragic and ill-considered attempt to hold this position would result in the single greatest blow to American arms during the entire Revolution.
Shortly after the Battle of White Plains, American troops facing Howe’s regulars on the high ground around North Castle heard the rumble of heavy wagons that indicated the British were breaking camp. Howe had decided to move back to Manhattan and crush the last American pocket of resistance there, the garrison at Fort Washington. The sole important function of the fort was to help control traffic on the Hudson. To further this a line of ships had been sunk across the river; yet British ships were passing over this obstacle, and it seemed doubtful that Fort Washington would be able to carry out its purpose. Nevertheless Colonel Robert Magaw, commanding the fort, and his superior, Nathanael Creene, were exuberantly optimistic, and Washington reluctantly agreed to stand and fight. Greene, across the Hudson in Fort Lee, sent over reinforcements until Magaw finally had some twenty-nine hundred men under his command. These men, though few to stand against Howe’s army of twenty thousand, were nonetheless far too many to fit in the fort. Greene therefore decided to try to hold virtually the whole northern tip of the island, and Magaw deployed his troops in a thin, shaky line almost five miles long in a huge circle outside the fort.
Howe decided to storm the works from three directions: Cornwallis would attack from the east, Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen, newly arrived in America, would take his Hessians over the rough ground from the north, and the gifted General Hugh, Lord Percy would come on from the south. On the afternoon of November i5, 1776, a British officer approached the works and demanded that Magaw surrender. Magaw refused, and that night thirty British flatboats laden with troops slipped past the guns of the fort into the Harlem River. At a little past seven o’clock on the morning of the sixteenth British batteries on the eastern side of the Harlem River opened up, supported by heavy fire from the frigate Pearl in the Hudson. Percy and Cornwallis had little trouble reaching their objectives, but a column of Knyphausen’s troops, under Colonel Johann Rail, came up against Pennsylvania and Virginia riflemen, some of the best troops in the American army. They coolly held their ground, and the morning wore away in stubborn fighting. But finally their overheated weapons began to jam, the Hessians forced their position, and the defenders fled back to the fort. Here, crowded and despondent, the Americans waited while Magaw negotiated with Rail. Finally, realizing the frightful’ slaughter that would ensue if the British shelled the works, Magaw surrendered.
The British and Hessians between them lost 136 men killed and 646 wounded, against 59 Americans dead and 96 wounded. But American losses in prisoners and materiel were staggering—230 officers and 2,607 soldiers marched out of the fort into British hands, and with them went nearly 150 cannon, 12,000 rounds of shot and shell, 2,800 muskets, and 400,000 cartridges, as well as tents and entrenching tools.
Washington, stripped of the best part of his army, began his bitter retreat through New Jersey. That retreat, however, would end with Trenton and the surrender of the same Rall who had triumphed over Magaw and his luckless garrison.