Sunday, September 8, 2019

Episode 113: Fall of Fort Washington

In last week’s episode, we saw General Washington pull the Continental Army out of White Plains New York and cross the Hudson River into New Jersey.  British General William Howe pursued a policy of slow but deliberate overwhelming force.  He never gave Washington an opportunity to strike at any extended vulnerability, but his glacial pace also met he never could capture the Continental Army or force any sort of determinative battle.

The Continental Army still had one outpost on Manhattan.  That was Fort Washington.  The Americans had built Fort Washington in order to prevent the Royal Navy from sailing up the Hudson.  It sat along the river on the New York side, with Fort Lee (formerly Fort Constitution) on the New Jersey side.  Any British ship passing up the river would be subject to an artillery assault from both sides.

The experience over the summer showed that the forts never accomplished their purpose.  With a good tailwind, the British Navy could sail right past both forts, suffering only minor damage.  Admiral Richard Howe regularly sent ships upriver for little purpose other than proving he could.

The Defenders

By November 1776, with all of the rest of the Continental forces out of Manhattan, Fort Washington sat as the last local bastion of defence on the island against the British Army.  General Howe was ready to move into winter quarters, but not before he dealt with this last holdout.  The Americans had spent a year and a half building up the defenses at Fort Washington.  They had increased the size of the garrison to about 3000 defenders. The fort had plenty of cannon, soldiers, and food to withstand a siege of several months.  In fact, the fort was far too small for all the men. Most were deployed outside the fort.

Battle of Fort Washington (from Wikimedia)
Washington had to worry about the main army that he was taking into New Jersey.  He wanted to stay between the British and Philadelphia, figuring they might move on the seat of Congress if given the opportunity. He divided his force, giving a portion to General Charles Lee to take north, further upriver into the Hudson Valley.  Lee’s forces would prevent any British attempt to move toward Albany and perhaps making a coordinated attack on Fort Ticonderoga in cooperation with General Carleton’s forces in Canada.  Washington left General Nathanael Greene with a separate command of Forts Washington and Lee.

On November 8, Washington wrote a letter to Greene, saying that the fort was useless at keeping British ships from moving up and down the river, that it seemed in imminent danger of attack, and that it was probably not worth risking the men and supplies there.  They should evacuate across the river to New Jersey.  Washington, though, left the final decision up to Greene, who was on the scene and had a better idea what was going on.

Up until this time, General Greene had no actual battlefield experience.  He had arrived in Cambridge for the Siege of Boston a few weeks after Lexington and Concord.  He was back in Rhode Island during the battle of Bunker Hill.  Washington ordered him to be ready for an invasion from the north of Boston during the Battle of Dorchester Heights, an invasion that never happened.  When Greene move with the army to New York, he had been in command of the forces on Long Island, but became deathly sick a few weeks before the battle and had to sit that one out too.  His rise to general seemed to be based primarily on the fact that Congress wanted someone from Rhode Island and that he had kept a fairly well disciplined camp at the Siege of Boston.  He would prove his value as a general later. But at Fort Washington, Greene was not only his name, it also described his battlefield experience.

Greene ignored Washington’s advice to abandon the fort.  Even though a British siege would probably prevail, Greene hoped to make the British pay for the real estate with their lives, perhaps another Bunker Hill.  He expected that when things got too hot, his men could escape across the Hudson River to New Jersey.

Greene did not command Fort Washington personally.  Greene set up his command across the river at Fort Lee in New Jersey.  Instead, he left that honor to Colonel Robert Magaw of Pennsylvania.  Magaw was an Irish immigrant who had worked as a lawyer in western Pennsylvania before the war began.  He was an ardent patriot who supported the cause in Pennsylvania politics, part of the radical patriots of western Pennsylvania who were challenging the more conservative leaders in Philadelphia.  He also became an Associator after Lexington and Concord.

Other than a few years of participation in a local militia, Magaw had no real military experience before marching up to Cambridge in 1775.  He was part of Thompson’s Regiment of riflemen, among the first Pennsylvanians to join the New England Army at Cambridge, serving as a major. When he remained with the Continental Army at the end of 1775 as most of the army was going home, he received a promotion to colonel.  After the army moved to New York Colonel Magraw commanded the 5th Pennsylvania Battalion and took direct command at Fort Washington, under the direction of General Greene.

Despite Washington’s misgivings, his officers at the scene thought the fort could withstand a lengthy siege.  If it seemed their defenses would fail, they expected to be able to retreat across the Hudson to New Jersey.  Green did not even think there would be a siege.  He expected the British to go into winter quarters, tackling the fort the following spring.

British Surround the Fort

General Howe, however, had no plans to end the campaign just yet.  It was already November.  As expected, he did not want to maintain a siege over the winter.  He was looking to wrap up the fighting season.  Before ending the season though, he thought he could clear the last American rebels off of Manhattan.  The bulk of the Continental army had already fled the area.  Howe had almost all of the forces under his command available to take the fort.

Howe ordered the newly arrived Hessian General Wilhelm Knyphausen to take up a position just north of the fort with two columns comprising over 4000 Hessian soldiers.  Wilhelm, baron von Knyphausen was the second in command of the Hessian force.  He was an experienced officer who has served Frederick the Great in his Prussian Army.

British General Lord Percy, who had saved the British expedition to Concord, and who had most recently distinguished himself in the invasions on Long Island, had already taken a position to the south of the Fort with between four and five thousand British and Hessian soldiers.  From there Percy, monitored the Americans during the weeks when the main British Army was gently nudging the Americans out of Harlem Heights and White Plains.

Battle Map, Fort Washington (from Wikimedia)
Admiral Richard Howe brought several ships of the line up river to fire on the fort from the west.  The Admiral even came ashore to work with General Percy in the assault from the south.

General Howe took up a position with his main army directly to the east of the fort.  He and General Lord Cornwallis and General Edward Mathew led over 4000 regulars, including 800 Highlanders of the Black Watch, in a direct assault from the east.  In total, General Howe had about 13,000 British and Hessian soldiers ready to take the 3000 defenders.  Not all of these soldiers would be engaged in battle.  About 5000 ended up being held in reserve.

Howe had a pretty good idea of the fort’s defenses.  A few weeks earlier, Magaw’s adjutant, William Demont deserted his post and entered the British lines.  He brought with him sketches of the fort’s defenses, and intelligence about a garrison that was deeply divided.  He noted that the fort had no internal water source, but had to carry water up from the river.  There were also no barracks or protected ammunition bunkers in the fort.  The outer defenses leading up to the fort were rather weak.  There were miles of defenses around the fort that had far less soldiers than needed to defend them.  Many weak spots in the line would allow the British to push back the defenders to the fort itself.  From there, the British could bring up cannon to nearly point blank range.  They could knock down the walls and also lob shells into the fort.

On November 10, Washington arrived on the scene from the New Jersey side.  From there, he hoped to evaluate personally whether to abandon Fort Washington prior to any attack.  Washington discussed the matter with his officers, but hesitated to make any final decision on the matter.  By November 12, Howe had his force in place.  His men then sat for several days, giving the Americans an opportunity to retreat at night across the river.

On November 15, British Lieutenant Colonel James Patterson approached the fort under a flag of truce.  His message ordered the immediate surrender of the fort, and said that if such surrender did not happen in the next two hours, everyone in the fort would be put to the sword, no surrender.  It was a bit of bluster that the Americans did not believe.  They knew General Howe would never permit such a massacre.  Magaw rejected the demand and sent Patterson back to his lines.  He also sent word of the surrender demand back to General Greene.

Washington had left Fort Lee to find more comfortable quarters for himself at Hackensack. He still did not expect the British to launch an attack. At Fort Lee, Green received news of the surrender demand and forwarded the news to General Washington in Hackensack.  He told Washington he left standing orders with Magaw to defend the fort until receiving further orders. Green then went across the river to Fort Washington, along with General Israel Putnam to discuss the situation with Magaw.  As I said, like Greene, Magaw was not an experienced officer.  He was confident that he could hold out against the British for at least a month and was in no mood to surrender or retreat.

That evening, after dark, Greene and Putnam returned back across the river.  As they made their way, they encountered General Washington in a boat headed toward them in mid-river.  Washington had received Greene’s message and rushed to get to Fort Washington himself.  The generals conferred on their boats, mid-river.  They told Washington that Magaw remained confident and prepared to defend the fort.  Greene and Putnam had approved his defensive plan and convinced Washington that he should wait until morning before doing anything further.  The three generals returned to New Jersey.

General Howe had given the Americans days to retreat.  Delivering terms on the morning of the 15th turned out to be his final warning.  He gave the Americans an opportunity to pull off another night escape that night.  This time though, the Americans were going to stand and fight.

The Battle of Fort Washington

Near dawn on the morning of November 16, Hessian forces from the North began storming the outer trenches.  At the same time, Percy’s forces, a mix of Hessian and British forces from the south began storming the outer trenches on the south side.  Howe’s artillery bombarded the fort from the east.  The speed of the attack seemed to surprise the Americans, who began retreating back into the fort.

Wm Von Knyphausen
(from Wikimedia)
Then, almost as suddenly as the attack began, it stopped.  General Howe sent orders to both Knyphausen and Percy to halt their attacks and pull back.  Howe’s main infantry under Generals Mathew and Cornwallis did not get across the Harlem River in time and was not ready.

Both Knyphausen and Percy’s attacking forces later grumbled that they had been succeeding before being ordered to stop and suffered far more casualties when they resumed the attack later that morning, after the Americans were ready for them.

When the attacks started that morning, General Washington, along with Generals Greene, Putnam, and Mercer crossed over the river and took a position of observation at a house on a hill a few miles from the fort.  The British kept getting closer to their position until the generals urged Washington to leave or be captured.  Greene even offered to stay behind and monitor things but insisted that Washington leave.  Finally Washington agreed they all should leave. The group left only 15 minutes before the enemy took the hill.  Had Washington been a bit slower or the British a bit faster, one squad might have captured almost all of the top leadership of the Continental army.

At around 11 AM the main British force under Cornwallis and Mathews finally got into position and the advance resumed on all fronts.  Knyphausen’s Hessians to the north had a particularly difficult time trudging through swamps, then having to climb up a rocky cliff area where several soldiers fell to their deaths.  All the while, they came under fire from American cannons and riflemen.  One of the artillerists that day was John Corbin, who was killed in the British assault.  The only reason I mention his name as one of hundreds of otherwise anonymous casualties of this battle is that his wife Margaret was with him on the field dressed as a man and assisting him with the cannon. When he died, Margaret Corbin took his position on the cannon and continued loading and firing.  Soon, she also took a hit and had to leave the field, another rare example of women fighting in combat during this war.

Margaret Corbin in battle (from Rev War Journal)
After a couple of  hours, the American riflemen had to retreat.  Sustained fire had fouled their barrels.  They could not continue to fire until they cleaned their weapons.  So, they retreated back to the fort.  Many other defenders acquitted themselves well.  But the overwhelming number of attackers eventually forced the defenders to withdraw.

Inside the fort itself, Colonel Magaw’s overcrowded garrison was pinned down by a steady and massive artillery bombardment.  He received a message from Washington urging him to hold out until dark.  A short time later, Magaw learned that the Hessians had reached the fort walls and were demanding that he surrender or they would kill everyone in the fort.  Magaw tried to delay, requesting four hours to respond but was given only 30 minutes. This time, Magaw saw that his defenses would not hold and agreed to surrender.

Few men were able to escape.  A handful swam across the Hudson River, but most had to lay down their arms and surrender.  By 4PM the battle was over and prisoners were being marched out of fort under guard.  The victors re-branded Fort Washington as Fort Knyphausen.  They would hold the fort for the next seven years.


The British recorded losses of 128 killed wounded or missing, while the Hessians lost 326.  There is some evidence that Hessians killed some prisoners, particularly riflemen, after surrender, out of anger and frustration from their losses.  The terms of surrender promised that the garrison would be permitted to keep their personal baggage.  Yet, as the British and Hessians marched their prisoners out of the fort, they stripped them of all valuables, including even some clothing.  Hessians literally cut the backpacks off of prisoners and they marched, and did not hesitate to kick and beat the prisoners.  The victors shouted that they were traitors and should all be killed where they stood.  Among the prisoners, the British found a few deserters who had joined the Continental Army.  These former regulars were sentenced to death.

Some desperately searched to find George Washington among the prisoners, disappointed to learn that he and the other generals were safely across the river in New Jersey.  Washington watched the surrender through a telescope, something that he later described as giving him great mortification.

The Americans suffered only 59 killed and 96 wounded.  But the real loss was the capture of the fort and its garrison.  The British took 230 officers and 2600 soldiers as prisoners.  Most of these men would have been better off being killed in battle.  Many wounded would die in the next days or weeks as they went untreated, were denied food and water, and kept in terrible conditions.

Even those who had survived the battle without injury faced horrific conditions.  They would spend the next several years in warehouses or aboard prison ships in New York Harbor in the care of Joshua Loring.  As you may recall, Loring was the husband of General Howe’s mistress.  As a reward for his compliance and discretion, Howe gave him charge of prisoners of war.  Loring made a small fortune embezzling money for the food and care of the prisoners, allowing most of them to starve to death or die from disease brought on by hunger or other horrific conditions.  By one estimate more than two-thirds of the prisoners captured that day would die within the next 18 months.

Officers tended to do a little better.  While some were treated roughly in the weeks after the capture, most were eventually allowed to live on parole either on Long Island or in New York City.  They could arrange for their own quarters, on the promise that they would not try to escape or take up arms until exchanged.  Colonel Magaw ended up living at the home of Rugert Van Brunt in Gravesend, Long Island.  He would be held as a prisoner on parole for nearly four years.  However, it ended up being not so bad for him.  While a prisoner, he married Van Brunt’s daughter Marrieta.  In late 1780, he was finally exchanged.  The couple returned to Magraw’s home in Carlisle, PA. His neighbors hailed him as a returning hero and elected him to the Pennsylvania legislature.

The Fort itself, along with all of its cannon, ammunition, equipment, and food fell into British hands, leaving the Continental Army without those desperately needed goods.  On the other hand, the Continental Army also had 3000 less mouths to feed.  The fall of Fort Washington would be the greatest loss of soldiers for the Continental Army until near the end of the war.

The staggering loss caused Congress and many Americans, not to mention other officers, to question not only General Greene’s judgment, but also General Washington’s.  His decision to divide his forces in the face of the enemy, and leave the garrison at Fort Washington to be a sitting duck led many to doubt his judgment.  Washington was too indecisive.  Perhaps it was time to consider a replacement.

Next week: The British cross the Hudson and take Fort Lee in New Jersey.

- - -

Next Episode 114: Escape from Fort Lee

Previous Episode 112: Battle of White Plains

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Further Reading


Battle of Fort Washington:

Battle of Fort Washington, Facts and Summary:

Col. Robert Magaw:

Gen. Wilhelm Von Knyphausen:

Col. Johann Rahl (sometimes spelled Rall) :

Fleming, Thomas, "The Enigma Of General Howe" American Heritage, Vol. 15, Issue 2 (Feb. 1964):

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The Detail and Conduct of the American War, under Generals Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, and Vice Admiral Lord Howe, (original reports and letters) The Royal Exchange, 1780.

Carrington, Henry Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781, A.S. Barnes & Co. 1876.

Drake, Samuel A. The Campaign of Trenton 1776-77, Lee and Shepard, 1899.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 3, Washington: St. Claire Clarke, 1837.

Himes, Charles F. Col. Robert Magaw, the Defender of Fort Washington, Hamilton Library Association, 1915.

Johnston, Henry The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn, Long Island Historical Society, 1878.

Martin, Joseph Plumb The Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier, 1830 (This is a copy of the original print, but in poor quality.  You can borrow a better quality copy or listen to a free audio copy of the book) or see below in "books worth buying" section.

Stryker, William Battles Of Trenton And Princeton, Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1898.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Atkinson, Richard The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, Henry Holt & Co. 2019

Carrington, Henry Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781, A.S. Barnes & Co. 1876.

Dwyer, William The Day Is Ours: How a Ragged Rebel Army Stood the Storm and Saved the Revolution,  Viking, 1983.

Fischer, David Hackett Washington’s Crossing, Oxford Univ. Press, 2004.

Lefkowitz, Arthur S. The Long Retreat, The Calamitous American Defense of New Jersey 1776, Upland Press, 1998.

McCullough, David 1776, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Schecter, Barnet The Battle for New York, New York: Walker Publishing, 2002.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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