Sunday, December 22, 2019

Episode 128 Fort Independence

Last week I talked about the many skirmishes and small battles known as the Forage War in New Jersey in the months following the Battle of Princeton.  As the same time those battles were raging, George Washington also attempted to pressure the British forces in New York.  He wanted to open a second front against New York City attacking from the north. Doing so might force General Howe to withdraw all of his soldiers from New Jersey to ensure he could protect New York from a land attack.  It was an interesting strategy.  Unfortunately, Washington definitely chose his "B" team to lead the effort.

William Heath

To command the operation Washington chose General William Heath.  You may remember General Heath from back in Episode 55, when, as a general in the Massachusetts militia, he allegedly gave orders not to deliver the final blow to the retreating British as they returned from Concord.  The Continental Congress selected Heath as one of the first group of brigadier generals commissioned for the new Continental Army.

Heath played an important command role in the occupation of Dorchester Heights near Boston, thus forcing the British evacuation in March, 1776.  Pleased with his work, Congress promoted him to major general in August 1776, along with Joseph Spencer, John Sullivan, and Nathaniel Greene, just the British began their invasion of New York.

William Heath
(from Wikimedia)
Heath led several commands during the American losses in New York, and apparently did not particularly distinguish himself.  As the Continental Army retreated across New Jersey, Washington deployed Heath to a garrison farther up the Hudson River at Peekskill.  There, Heath fought with more senior generals, Charles Lee and Horatio Gates before receiving orders from Washington to move most of his army down into New Jersey.

General Lee had attempted to force Heath to give him some of the best regiments under his command.  To his credit, Heath resisted, saying he had orders from Washington to keep his troops in New York.  Lee tried to countermand those orders, saying Washington was not on the scene and did not foresee Lee’s need for the troops when he had issued the earlier orders. Eventually Lee backed down and let Heath keep his soldiers.

A few days later, Washington ordered Heath to bring his army into North Jersey.  Lee again requested that Heath join up with his army, but then begged off and said he did not need them.  Rather, Lee again tried to countermand Washington’s orders and told Heath to move his army back north to defend New England.  A few days later, the British captured Lee.  Heath spent the next few weeks raiding British supply transports and generally harassing the enemy in northern New Jersey.

After Washington’s raids on Trenton and Princeton, Washington moved the main Continental army back up to North Jersey, allowing Heath to move back into New York’s Hudson Valley.  As the Americans went on their New Jersey Forage War offensive in January, Washington directed Heath to launch an independent attack against New York, specifically Fort Independence, which the Americans had built just north of Fort Washington, in what is today the Bronx.  After expelling the Americans from New York, the British occupied Fort Independence as part of their defenses beyond the northern perimeter of New York City.

Benjamin Lincoln

Supporting Heath in this attack were several other officers who would also prove less than impressive.  General Benjamin Lincoln was a major general in the Massachusetts militia.  He did not, at this time, hold a commission in the Continental Army.  Lincoln was more politician than soldier.  He had served in the militia since the French and Indian War, though he saw no combat then.  His father was a wealthy colonist who had sat on the Governor’s Council.  Lincoln had won local office for many years and as a loyal patriot had served in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.  He had done a reasonable job drilling militia and organizing supplies for the army, but had not really proven himself in battle.

Benjamin Lincoln
(from Wikimedia)
After the British evacuated Boston in the spring of 1775 and the Continental Army moved to New York, Lincoln had remained in Boston with General Artemas Ward.  There, he received credit for driving the remainder of the British Navy out of Boston Harbor, though the navy did not really put up much of a fight by that time, several months after the army had evacuated.

As things heated up in New York in late summer 1776, Massachusetts ordered Lincoln to take several thousand Massachusetts militiamen down to New York City.  They never made it though.  First, there was a plan to invade British occupied Long Island from Connecticut.  But by the time they were ready to go, the British had already taken New York City.  Next, the plan was to join Washington’s forces north of New York where they would soon fight the battles of Harlem Heights and White Plains.  But by the time they were ready to move, the three month enlistments of the Massachusetts militia had expired and they demanded to return to Massachusetts.  General Lincoln returned home with them.

He formed a new army and returned with them to Connecticut.  But by then it was late December and Washington was all the way down near Philadelphia.  Lincoln sat in Connecticut for a few weeks until Washington, emboldened by his success in New Jersey, ordered Lincoln to work with General Heath on the attack at Fort Independence.

Generals Wooster and Parsons

Joining Generals Heath and Lincoln was General David Wooster who we last saw in Episode 106.  There he had botched his command in Canada, and frustrated all the other officers around him.  Wooster was ticked off that he had only received a commission as a brigadier general in the Continental Army, even though he was a major general in the Connecticut militia.  He had returned to his home in Connecticut where he had suspended his active participation in the Continental Army in order to command the Connecticut militia.  In January 1777, he decided to join the campaign against Fort Independence.

Samuel Parsons
General Samuel Parsons, also in Connecticut at the time, got involved in the attack.  You may recall Parsons from back in Episode 59.  He was the colonel who met Benedict Arnold on the road just after the battles of Lexington and Concord, where they discussed attacking Fort Ticonderoga.  Parsons then set up the expedition led by Ethan Allen, who butted heads with Arnold before the two men took the fort together.

I haven’t mentioned Parsons much since then, but he played an active, if less than central role in many of the events of the early war.  He took a commission as a colonel in the Connecticut militia and participated in the siege of Boston and the fighting around New York.  He received a promotion as a Continental brigadier general in August 1776 in time to see action around New York.  By January 1777 he was back in Connecticut trying to recruit new regiments for the Continental Army.  When he heard that Heath would attempt to take back Fort Independence, he gathered up the men he had recruited thus far, and joined the mission.

Attacking Fort Independence

Fort Independence was not a particularly advanced structure.  It had four earthen walls with a few small stone buildings inside.  The Americans had built it in June 1776 as part of their defensive plan for New York.  They had abandoned it without a fight when the British and Hessians moved into the area in October.  The fort served as a Hessian outpost with a garrison of about 2000 soldiers holding the fort.  Some accounts say part of the garrison included a few hundred members of Roger’s Rangers, a regiment of loyalist militia.

Some of the details about the attack on the fort are a little sketchy.  Most sources indicate that General Heath had about 5000 - 6000 men at his disposal, and that he used about 3500 for the assault on the fort.

Heath divided his attack force into three divisions.  General Lincoln led a column from Tarrytown, along the Hudson River to attack the fort from the Northwest.  At the same time, General Wooster and General Parsons, moved from New Rochelle toward the fort, attacking it from the east.  A third column moved south from the center, between the two other columns.  General Heath moved with this column along with New York militia General John Morin Scott.

John Morin Scott
(from Wikimedia)
The plan was for each of the three columns to arrive at Fort Independence from a different direction at the same time.  They left on the night of January 17th, planning to attack the fort the following morning.  The initial assault carried out the plans with reasonable accuracy and surprised the defenders. The attackers engaged in a firefight with some of the outposts, warning the main fort of the coming attack.  The Americans overran multiple outposts at Valentine's Hill, Van Courtland's Fort, Williams' Fort, and the Negro Fort.

They American attackers captured a few dozen prisoners, and inflicted some casualties.  Most of the enemy fled back to the protection of the main fort.  In a rather short time, the Americans had secured the area, except for the main fort itself.  Rumors from the initial success got back to General Washington, saying that Heath had taken the fort.  Washington reported this to Congress before it could be confirmed.  When it turned out to be wrong, Washington was upset not just by the failure, but the fact that his incorrect report to Congress made him look like an idiot.

Even so, by afternoon, the Americans were closing in on Fort Independence itself, effectively surrounding it.  General Heath sent a message to the fort commander that he had twenty minutes to surrender or be attacked.  The Hessian commander had no inclination to give up without a fight and opened up on the attackers with the fort’s artillery.  According to some accounts, Heath did not know the defending garrison even had artillery.  Attackers near the fort had to scatter and pull back.

Now as I said, records for this battle are extremely sketchy, especially on the British side.  The British wanted to play down an American offensive against New York, and also tended to downplay any actions primarily involving Hessian troops rather than regulars.  I have yet even to find a definitive record of the name of the Fort’s commander.  Circumstantial evidence points to Major Ludwig Von Wurmb, who would shortly after this take command of the famous Jager Corps and play a more significant role in the Philadelphia campaign later in the year.  He would eventually rise to the rank of lieutenant general.  The fact that Von Wurmb was stationed in the area and would receive a promotion to lieutenant colonel just after the battle indicates that he may have been the commander.  But I’m just not certain on this point whether he commanded Fort Independence at the time of the battle.  The British records I have found, treat this battle as a minor skirmish, barely worth mentioning.  The American records only refer to “the German Commander” without naming him.  Whoever the German commander was, he was determined to put up a stiff resistance.

The Americans had only two small field cannon with them, with which they returned fire.  An artillery dual lasted the rest of the day.  But Heath simply did not have enough fire power to threaten the destruction of the fort’s defenses.

Heath made several attempts to maneuver the Continental troops into a better position to take the fort.  But this time the weather began to work against the Americans.

The day after the initial attack, January 19th, Heath attempted to move more artillery across a frozen creek to cut off the enemy and get into a better position to fire on the fort.  The temperature warmed overnight.  When the troops began to move that morning, the ice was too thin to support the cannon.  Heath had to call off the move and leave his forces where they were.

Fort Independence (from FortWiki)
When he could not position his cannon well against the fort, Heath used them instead to fire on a Hessian force across the Harlem River where the Hessians had placed their own supporting artillery.  The artillery dual lasted for a couple of days, with neither side willing to come down from their hill and cross the river in the face of enemy fire.

On January 23rd, Heath once again focused on the fort, building some fascines to put a line of soldiers close enough to keep up an accurate fire on the fort.  The move resulted in a few casualties but did not threaten the fort itself.

The following day, weather intervened again as a torrential cold January rain soaked everyone in the area.  It was especially miserable for the Americans, most of whom did not even have tents for shelter.  The bulk of Lincoln’s forces pulled out of the immediate battlefield to find shelter in area houses.

After many of the Americans had pulled back, the Hessians went on the offense.  On January 25th they deployed several detachments to take back the outposts where the Americans were now stationed.  The surprised militia quickly fell back under continued skirmishing but eventually counter attacked and forced most of the Hessians back into the fort.

Heath requested a large 24 pounder cannon and a howitzer to attack the fort.  After three shots, the cannon’s carriage broke, and the men who brought the howitzer neglected to bring any ammunition for it.

By January 29th a severe snow storm threatened to make conditions even worse.  General Heath held a council of war with his officers. They decided the fort was not worth the potential losses since there were no plans to use it as part of a larger offensive to take New York City back. With a major snowstorm was on the way, and without shelter, the army would suffer greatly if it remained in the field.  They voted to retreat and pulled their forces to the north, out of the area.  The various divisions pulled back to White Plains, New Rochelle, and Tarrytown where the soldiers could take shelter against the weather.

On February 6, Heath deployed a smaller brigade under Colonel Enos to retake the outposts.  But the Hessians were ready for them this time. Finally a suspected smallpox outbreak in the area made Heath decide that continued attempts to take Fort Independence were not worth it.  He returned to Peekskill.  General Lincoln removed his forces to New Jersey to join up with Washington near Morristown.


The attack on Fort Independence did force General Howe to redeploy some British Regulars from North Jersey to New York.  If the Americans were going to attempt an assault on New York, they would almost certainly do so from the north, where they would not be forced to cross the Hudson River in the face of the enemy.  The failure to take the fort though, ended any contemplation of further attacks.

Washington was disappointed by the poor attempt and wrote Heath an uncharacteristically critical letter after the action.  He called Heath’s behavior “farcical” and that they would “not fail in turning the laugh exceedingly on us.”  Heath’s mostly militia army reinforced the common view by regular soldiers that militia could not fight professional soldiers, even with greater numbers. Militia in New Jersey were proving that wrong, but the New England militia under Heath’s leadership did not challenge that dim view.

Although Heath would remain a major general in the Continental Army for the rest of the war, Washington never again gave him a command that might involve going into battle.  Shortly after this, Heath returned to Boston.  Following General Artemas Ward’s retirement, Heath took command in Boston, which by this time, the war had long left behind.

 Amazingly, General Lincoln, who seemed just as unimpressive as everyone else involved in the attack, received a commission in February directly to major general in the Continental army, the same rank he held in the Massachusetts militia.  An embittered General Wooster returned to Connecticut, and General Parsons began focusing on raids against Long Island, to deny the British any forage from there.

Occupied New York

The British remained secure in their occupation of New York City.  General Howe used the winter to relax, attending many banquets and balls hosted by various officers.  He also spent a good deal of his time sitting at gaming tables gambling with his fellow officers.  His mistress, Betsy Loring openly stayed by his side at many of these public events.

Aside from the top officers though, New York City had become a miserable place to live.  The fire in September that I discussed back in Episode 109 had left many residents without homes.  British officers had taken over homes of patriots who had fled the city.  But many loyalists from New Jersey and other places began to flood into the city looking for protection.  Housing rentals more than quadrupled and many citizens spent the winter sleeping outdoors in improvised shelters.

With martial law in place, the army quartered many of its soldiers in private homes, forcing people to provide rooms for them.  The army did little to clean up the city following the fighting season.  Trenches filled up with water.  People dumped their garbage in the streets.  Typhus, cholera, and other diseases took their toll on soldiers and civilians alike.

Military discipline also remained lax.  Soldiers roamed the streets without supervision, raping and murdering civilians, usually without consequence.  Soldiers also regularly robbed civilians, breaking into homes or mugging people in the streets.  One Hessian officer noted that he never went out unless he had at least two armed bodyguards with him for protection.  Whatever money the soldiers plundered, usually went for drink.  Drunken armed soldiers with no respect for civilians became a common sight for New Yorkers.

General Washington still wanted to retake New York, but by this time he recognized that there had to be other priorities.  The Americans would focus on annoying the British whenever they tried to deploy from the city, but did not seriously contemplate a direct attack.

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Next Episode 129 Prisoners of War

Previous Episode 127 The Forage War

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Further Reading


The Battle of Fort Independence:

Battle of Fort Independence:

Letter from Washington to Heath Feb. 4, 1777:

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.

Edsall, Thomas History of the Town of Kings Bridge, New York: Private, 1887.

Hall, Charles S. Life and letters of Samuel Holden Parsons Major General in the Continental Army and Chief Judge of the Northwestern Territory, 1737-1789, Osteningo Publishing Co. 1905.

Heath, William. Memoirs of Major-General William Heath, New York: William Abbatt, 1904.

Kemble, Stephen The Papers of Stephen Kemble, Vol. 1, New York: New York Historical Society, 1884.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Ketchum, Richard The Winter Soldiers, Garden City: Anchor Books, 1973.

Mattern, David B. Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution. Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1998 (book recommendation of the week).

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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