Sunday, July 28, 2019

Episode 107: Battles of Kip’s Bay & Harlem Heights

We last left Washington’s army having escaped from almost certain capture on Long Island, across the river to Manhattan on August 30, 1776.  Rather than attempt to pursue the Continental Army, British General William Howe remained on Long Island, doing pretty much nothing for the next two weeks except deploying his army along the river.

During that time, his brother Admiral Richard Howe held his Staten Island Peace Conference, which I discussed two weeks ago.  Washington and the Continental Army waited in Manhattan for something to happen.

Councils of War

During this period of inactivity, after he had recovered from an exhausting two or three days without sleep, General Washington prepared his next steps.  He sent multiple letters to Congress asking how he should proceed, since civilian control of the military was of paramount importance.  He also held two councils of war with this top officers to figure out how they might mount a defense against the British.

Washington at council of war (from Age of Revolutions)
At the first meeting on September 6, he discussed his request to Congress that the army burn New York to deny it to the enemy and escape to the north up Manhattan to a safe crossing point to New Jersey.  Congress had responded that the Army should not burn New York.  This was a departure from its decision in Boston, where they gave Washington authority to destroy the city if he deemed it necessary.  Washington and his officers debated whether this meant they should try to hold the city at all costs, or simply retreat and hand over the city to the British Army.

Since the retreat from Long Island, Washington’s army had shrunk from a temporary high of about 28,000 to around 18,000.  Most of the increase and decrease came from large numbers of local militia from the area.  They arrived in the days before the battle of Long Island and just as quickly went home when it seemed clear that they were going to lose.  At first, Washington tried to stop the desertions, but then relented.  He figured that keeping large numbers of whiners who wanted to leave was worse than having a smaller core of men who were still willing to fight.  It also strengthened his view that America needed a professional standing army as they could not rely on militia.  Of the 18,000, nearly a third were unfit for duty, mostly due to disease.  So Howe’s army would be more than twice the size of Washington’s, and that is without even considering the British Navy, whose guns could wreak havoc on the city from three sides.

Now that Howe controlled Long Island, it would be a relatively simple task to cross the East River north of the city and cut off Washington’s troops from any line of retreat.  None of Washington’s officers thought they had any serious chance of stopping the British, but many figured they could make Howe’s victory as painful as possible, much like the bloody British victory at Bunker Hill.  Several of Washington’s letters indicate he thought he would mount a glorious defense and die in battle.

The Continental war council decided to do what just about any military professional would say the most fundamental mistake any commander can do, divide your forces in the face of a superior force.  They deployed about 9000 men, about half their force on the northern part of the Island under the command of General William Heath, where they expected Howe’s main attack. They put about 5000 men at the southern tip of the island under General Israel Putnam, just in case Howe was stupid enough to try a direct frontal assault on the city from the harbor, and they put about Generals Nathanael Greene and Joseph Spencer with about 4000 of their least experienced soldiers in the middle where they could be deployed in either direction.  The problem, of course, is that no matter where Howe decided to strike, he would easily overwhelm the smaller defense force that met him.

A few days later, on September 12, the day after the Peace Conference, Washington called a second council of war.  He had received clarification from Congress that he had the discretion to decide whether or not to defend the city, though he still did not have authority to burn it.  General Greene, who had recovered from his debilitating illness, proposed that the army abandoned New York, so it could live to fight another day, rather than being trapped on the island.  The council voted to move its army north of the city to King’s Bridge, where Howe would likely conduct his landing, aside from a force of 2000 at Fort Washington to prevent the Royal Navy from moving up the Hudson River.

Kip’s  Bay

Over on Long Island, British General Howe planned his attack.  Howe’s second in command, General Henry Clinton, proposed they land at King’s Bridge, just as the Continentals thought would be the most obvious place to land.  The British could easily overwhelm the defenders there and trap the entire Continental Army on the island below them.  Washington would have no choice but to surrender his army and most likely end the rebellion.

British land at Kip's Bay (from Wikimedia)
Howe had other plans. His goal was to take new York, not capture Washington’s army.  He decided to land just north of the city at Kip’s Bay, roughly near modern day 35th street.  This would bypass the city defenses, during his planning, most of the American army would be north of the invasion point, allowing them an easy path of escape.  By the day of attack, almost all of the Continental army had moved north of this point,

As the Continentals left the city, they took with them almost anything of possible use to the enemy, including all church bells, which could be melted down to make cannonballs.  Although Washington kept his promise to Congress not to burn New York, he wanted to leave behind as little as possible for the use of the enemy.

After the Continental Army pulled out of the city, New Yorkers did what they always do when law enforcement breaks down.  They looted the city, breaking into house and business, stealing just about anything not nailed down.  By the time the British arrived in town almost anything of value, beyond the buildings themselves, was long gone.

Howe originally planned to attack on September 13, the anniversary of General Wolf’s victory of Quebec during the French and Indian War.  This was no coincidence.  Howe selected the password “Quebec” for the night of attack, with the countersign “Wolf”.  But organization took longer than planned.  The first soldier landed on the morning of September 15.  If Howe had waited another day or two, he might have avoided a battle altogether.  The Continental soldiers had already begun their retreat from New York up to King’s Bridge to the North.


Instead, Howe’s invasion force met a relatively small group of a few hundred militia.  On the morning of the 15th, five navy ships opened up an artillery barrage on Kip's Bay for an hour.  Gen. Clinton then landed an advance force of 4000 British and Hessian soldiers.  The Continentals assigned to defend the shore ran terrified inland.  These were less than 1000 militia and some of the least experienced Continental soldiers.  Many of them were armed only with spears.  Since this seemed like the most strategically stupid place to land, the best troops were elsewhere.  As a result, Clinton’s advance force met almost no opposition as it landed.

Landing at Kip's Bay (from Wikimedia)
As the Kip’s Bay defenders ran north and west, they encountered other regiments who became unnerved by the panicked retreat and fled themselves.  Whole regiments began to throw away their guns and equipment so that they could run faster and escape the British.

General Washington heard the sound of gunfire and rode toward the battle.  As he did, he found his army running toward him in the opposite direction in full flight.  He attempted to stop the retreating soldiers and get them to make a stand.  He even started striking the men who ran past him, trying to stop them from running.  Even Washington’s presence inspired almost no one to stop.  Eventually the normally imperturbable Washington lost his temper, threw his hat on the ground disgustedly and said something to the effect of are these the soldiers with which I am to defend America?

Washington continued to stand unmoving as the first British troops approached.  The infantry got within 50 yards of Washington, firing at him but unable to hit him.  Washington refused to budge, apparently preferring to die on the spot than run away with his army.  Eventually, his adjutant Joseph Reed had to grab the reins of his horse and lead him away from the advancing enemy.

General Clinton landed his men but did not pursue the enemy very far.  He was under direct orders to wait for the main force under General Howe to land.  That took place over the course of the day.  Had Clinton set up defensive lines across the island, he could have captured the 5000 soldiers under Putnam who were still retreating from the city.  He might have taken prisoner nearly a third of the Continental Army.  Even after Howe’s main force landed, most of Putnam’s army was still south of the British, moving north.

The British had blocked the main road up the center of the Island, but never bothered to extend their lines all the way to the Hudson.  Putnam, working with a local named Aaron Burr, moved his 5000 soldiers out of the city and up the west coast of the island, along the Hudson River.  Putnam did deploy a few companies to move inland to make sure they would not be surprised by the enemy.  Ironically, these companies did make contact with the enemy and engaged in a small firefight.  As they retreated back to the column, the British pursued, leading them straight to Putnam’s main column.  But by the time they arrived, they only made contact with the very rear of the column.  There was a brief firefight as the Continentals fought a rearguard action.  With the column having moved north of the British line, the British did not pursue them.

Mrs. Murray

Patriot propaganda later claimed that Gen. Howe was detained by a patriotic Quaker woman named Mary Murray, who with her husband Robert owned one of the finest mansions on the island.  Robert Murray was a loyalist merchant, but two of Mrs. Murray’s cousins were fighting with the Continental Army.

After General Howe landed, Mrs. Murray and her two daughters opened up their home, and their wine cellar to Howe and his officers.  They entertained the general for hours with good wine and witty conversation, Putnam’s army had the time in needed to march up the west side of the island and escape.

Gen. Howe at home of Mary Murray (from Lib of Congress)
The patriots portrayed Mrs. Murray as a hero.  Howe’s enemies in the army, and back in London, smeared him with the notion that his interest in women and wine led to a neglect of duty that permitted the Continentals to escape.  In truth, Mrs. Murray had no idea the Continentals were using that afternoon to escape, and General Howe likely would have moved just as slowly had he been sitting in a tent reading papers, as he did chatting with Mrs. Murray.  Howe had hours to kill waiting for his entire army to ferry across the East River.  He had no intention of moving forward until his entire army had crossed.

Howe expected a counterattack from Washington that never came.  Marching inland with a partial army into a possible ambush was just the sort of risk that General Howe always avoided.  Why put your army in any risk if you can be assured a victory a little later once you have your much larger army fully in position and ready to go?

In the end, the battle of Kip’s Bay was not much of a battle at all. Once again the British advanced and the Americans ran.  No counterattack nor even a spirited defense ever occurred that day.  Later that same day, Howe deployed a brigade south to take possession of the city.  The New Yorkers who remained greeted the British as liberators.  The British marched to the southern tip of the Island and hoisted the Union Jack.  They would remain in possession of the city for the remainder of the war.

For Washington, the pathetic route at Kip’s Bay was one of the most humiliating experiences of his career.  The flight did, however, mean the army experienced relatively few casualties or even prisoners, and lived to fight another day.  The Americans suffered only about 60 killed and 300 captured.  Howe’s refusal to cut of the Continental retreat was seen as an act of military malpractice.  Continental General Putnam commented that Howe either supported the cause of the Continental Army or was a complete idiot.  Howe still seemed to be under the delusion that if he could show the rebels that his army could push them off the field at will, they would soon end the rebellion and submit without the need for massive loss of life. 

Harlem Heights

The day after his landing at Kip’s Bay, General Howe slowly marched his army north to confront Washington.  The Continentals had moved just past a small Dutch village called Harlem.  Washington deployed what remained of his army on the hill just above the village, an area known as Harlem Heights (today known as Washington Heights).  Although the Howes had been all over the world, Washington and his generals were determined that these globetrotters would not come to Harlem.

Battle of Harlem Heights (from Wikimedia)
Washington used the terrain to established a multi layered line of defense where the island narrowed.  In the front line General Greene commanded.  If overrun, the men would fall back to the second line commanded by General Putnam.  Behind them General Sullivan, now exchanged for a British officer and permitted to return to battle, commanded a third line.  Behind him, Washington set up his command in a local mansion.  With his men entrenched on the rocky heights, Washington hoped at least to force Howe into a costly charge much like Bunker Hill.  Howe also had the option of sailing behind all these lines and landing up the Hudson.  Fort Washington was still to the north, but even the fort was not proving much impediment to the British Navy.  The British Army could also move around to the east and attack behind Washington’s lines at King’s Bridge or elsewhere along the Bronx River.

For now though, Howe did not plan either a frontal assault or a flanking movement behind Washington’s lines.  Howe took up a position about two miles south of General Washington.  One September 16, the day after landing at Kip’s Bay, Howe sent a small force of 300 Regulars to probe Washington’s position.  Continental forces detected the advance and sent out a force of about 160 soldiers to confront them.

Lieutenant Colonel. Thomas Knowlton commanded the force.  You may recall that Knowlton was a battle tested veteran who had prevented Howe from forcing a flanking movement around the side of Bunker Hill a year earlier.  Washington hoped Knowlton’s leadership would prevent another frightened retreat like the day before.  Although Knowlton quickly found his men outnumbered, his men stood their ground and traded fire with the British.

British forces at Harlem Heights (from British Battles)
The Continentals soon fell back in good order, but kept the enemy engaged. As the Continentals retreated, the British began blowing a fox hunt on their bugles, which the Continentals, and Washington especially, took as a deep insult.

Washington sent another small force under the Command of General John Nixon to engage with the British.  At the same time, he sent Knowlton’s Rangers to circle around the battlefield and hit the British from the rear.

The Continentals held the high ground on a hill and traded fire with the British.  As they did so, Knowlton took his force on a flanking march, attempting to get behind the enemy and attack its rear.  Before he could do so, the British began to retreat.

Although Nixon’s force were supposed to keep the enemy engaged and distracted, it ended up pushing forward and forcing the enemy to retreat.  By pushing the enemy back, Knowlton’s flanking movement who were supposed to attack the enemy’s rear ended up hitting the enemy on its side.

Washington sent in more reinforcements under the command of Gen. George Clinton, a cousin of the British General Henry Clinton and no relation to the godfather of funk.  Clinton also brought in artillery to bring to bear on the British.

On the British side, General Henry Clinton proposed crossing the Harlem River, marching up and crossing behind the Americans to trap them.  But once again, Howe rejected any aggressive action that would trap the Americans.  He wanted to leave them a line of retreat so that they would leave Manhattan island completely, but without forcing a bloody fight to the finish.  Instead, the British retreated back from the advancing Americans until they fell under the protection of the navy’s cannon in the Hudson River.

Because the Americans had pushed back the British advance, Patriots deemed the fight a minor but important victory.  Sadly for Colonel Knowlton, his brave leadership earned him a fatal wound which ended his promising career as a military commander.  Beyond his loss and those of a few other brave officers and men, Americans considered the engagement a victory that proved they could recover from the embarrassing flight at Kip’s Bay the day before.  For the British, it was only a minor skirmish that only involved the full engagement of a few hundred man advance party.

Following the day’s fighting, the two sides held their lines and waited for something to happen.  Howe was unwilling to engage in a frontal assault on the main lines or attempt any flanking action.  Once again the forward movement stalled and both sides took another pause.

For the next few weeks, the Continentals would stay put holding Harlem Heights and Fort Washington at the northern tip of Manhattan Island.  The British remained in no hurry to push them much further.  Howe seemed unwilling to take much of any risk, nor to force a bloody engagement that would result in large casualties on either side.  As usual, he left Washington with an obvious line of retreat and waited around for Washington to realize he had no choice but to use it.

Next Week: France under King Louis XVI begins covert assistance to the American cause of liberty.

- - -

Next Episode 108: The French Connection

Previous Episode 106: Arms Race on Lake Champlain

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Further Reading


From George Washington to John Hancock, 2 September 1776, Request Congress to burn New York City:

To George Washington from John Hancock, 3 September 1776, instructions not to destroy NYC:

From George Washington to John Hancock, discussing council of war 8 September 1776:

Battle of Kip's Bay:

Battle of Harlem Heights:

“Cursedly Thrashed: The Battle of Harlem Heights, by Joshua Shepherd (JAR) (2014):

Mapping NYC Battles:

"The Enigma Of General Howe, by Thomas Fleming" 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.

Commemoration of the battle of Harlem Plains on its one hundredth anniversary, by New York Historical Society, 1876.

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

Emmet, Thomas The Battle of Harlem Heights, The Magazine of History, 1907.

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

Johnston, Henry, Battle of Harlem Heights, September 16, 1776, MacMillan Co. 1897.

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).

Tomlinson, Abraham; Dawson, Henry B. New York city during the American revolution : Being a collection of original papers (now first published) from the manuscripts in the possession of the Mercantile library association, of New York city by New York (N.Y.). Mercantile Library Association;
Privately printed for the Association, 1861.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Daughan, George C. Revolution on the Hudson: New York City and the Hudson River Valley in the American War of Independence, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2016.

Ellis, Joseph Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Gallagher, John J. Battle Of Brooklyn, 1776,  Da Capo Press, 1995.

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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