George Washington's Defeat in New York
In this video, author Rick Atkinson discusses how the American Revolution nearly came to a bad end barely a year after it began.
In the summer of 1776, shortly after America declared its independence from Great Britain, the New York Campaign took place primarily on Long Island, Manhattan Island and in Westchester County, New York. Because of New York City’s strategic location and status as an important port, the military campaign for New York had been in the minds of both the British and the Americans even prior to the Siege of Boston. The main fighting started in August 1776 and continued to November 1776, involving a series of American defeats. The New York Campaign was the lowest point in George Washington’s military career during the American War of Independence.
In January 1776, Washington dispatched General Charles Lee to New York City to survey and plan for the city’s defense. Washington understood the importance of the Hudson River-Lake Champlain corridor to the American cause. British possession of New York City, would threaten that vital line of communication between New England and the rest of the rebelling colonies. By mid-April, after Lee had worked with Washington to devise a multilayered plan in which troops would be stationed and ready to fight in different parts of the city, Continental soldiers began to leave New England for New York.
On June 28, Washington noted that “we have certain Advice” about the British troops heading in the direction of New York City. His men had counted 130 ships they believed had come from Halifax, Nova Scotia, that carried British General Sir William Howe and thousands of British regulars. Because of the dire situation, Washington requested that Massachusetts “not lose a moments time in sending forward the Militia of your Province.” While he desired additional military support, Washington could not expect significant reinforcements.1
On July 2, the British sailed through the Narrows, the tidal strait separating Staten Island from Long Island, with fifty British ships anchoring on Staten Island on July 3.2 Washington’s army listened to a reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 9 as the British continued landing the largest British expeditionary force in history prior to World War I.
As General Howe prepared for his offensive on New York, Washington readied for its defense by expanding upon General Lee’s original plans. Washington’s main method of defense was constructing strategic military forts around the city. He first ordered the construction of Fort Washington to provide for the defense of the northern end of Manhattan. Washington also ordered the construction of Fort Constitution, later known as Fort Lee, over the river in New Jersey. The Americans built Fort Independence to provide for the defense of Westchester and to support Fort Washington.
Washington suffered from a lack of intelligence on British activity in and around New York, causing problems for him later in the campaign. On August 12, he informed the Continental Congress that “nor have we any further Intelligence of their designs.”3 On August 18, the Howe brothers set sail for Long Island with 20,000 men.
On August 26 and 27, British forces followed a plan by General Henry Clinton in which the main portion of Howe’s force would march around the eastern flank of the American lines using roads the Americans had left unguarded. The results were catastrophic for the American forces whose defense rapidly evaporated in the face of the swiftly moving British forces. Within a matter of hours, the Americans had retreated to their defensive works on the Brooklyn heights.
By the end of August, Washington decided to leave Long Island and focus on the defense of Manhattan. The British planned to attack Manhattan by landing at Kip’s Bay. On September 15, the British opened fire from their ships and proceeded land ashore. Many of the Continental soldiers and militiamen panicked and deserted their posts. Washington managed to galvanize troops the next day on Harlem Heights, forcing back three battalions of British light infantry. The small victory was tactically unimportant, but went a long way towards reinvigorating the Continental Army’s morale.
On October 8, British naval vessels sailed up the Hudson River in the direction of Westchester County. By October 12, American forces in Westchester County stymied the British advance at Throgs Neck. After this, Washington and Howe withdrew all of their respective forces that remained in Manhattan to join the fight in Westchester. On October 18, three miles north of Throgs Neck at the Battle of Pell’s Point, the Americans killed approximately 200 British regulars and Hessian mercenaries.
Washington next decided to march north to White Plains, where General Howe arrived on October 22 with approximately 14,000 men, of whom 8,000 were Hessians. On October 28, the Hessians and Americans clashed. They continued to fight until the arrival of British grenadiers overwhelmed the Americans. On that same day, Washington’s men retreated, having suffered approximately 200 casualties.
After the loss at White Plains, the attention once again turned to the island of Manhattan. Initially, Washington decided against defending Fort Washington on Manhattan, but gave way to General Nathanial Greene’s assertions the post could be held. This decision proved fatal to a significant portion of Washington’s army when, on November 16, British and Hessian forces assailed the Fort Washington defenses and forced the surrender of its garrison.
After the defeat, Fort Lee fell to the British General Charles Cornwallis on November 20. However, Cornwallis made a crucial error when he prohibited the Hessians from destroying American forces led by Washington crossing the Hackensack River. The mistake allowed the Americans to enter New Jersey unharmed and march until reaching Trenton on December 2. At Trenton, they proceeded to evacuate into Pennsylvania by crossing the Delaware River. Free from British advances, Washington safely entered Pennsylvania and prepared to regain the momentum for the American side in the war.
Ziyad Rahaman Azeez
George Washington Universtiy
1. “George Washington to the Massachusetts General Court, 28 June 1776,” The Papers of George Washington Revolutionary War Series, ed. W.W. Abbot (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1993)
Boatner, M. (1973). Cassell's Biographical Dictionary of the American War of Independence, 1763-1783. London: Cassell & Company.
Ferling, J. (2007). Almost A Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
Fischer, D. (2004). Washington's Crossing. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
Schecter, B. (2002). The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution. New York, New York: Walker Publishing Company.