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Battle of Fort Washington
November 16, 1776 | Fort Washington, New York, New York
The Battle of Fort Washington
November 16, 1776 at Fort Washington, New York
Fort Washington was a fort located at the northernmost tip and
highest elevation of what is now the borough of Manhattan in New
York City, overlooking the Hudson River, which was held by
Along with Fort Lee forces located just across the river in New Jersey
atop the Palisades, the twin forts were intended to protect the lower
Hudson from British warships during the campaign around New
York in the summer and autumn of 1776. The fort was defended by
around 2,900 Continental Army troops and militia under the
command of Colonel Robert Magaw. During the fighting on and
around Manhattan, the American Army commanded by General
George Washington—for whom the fort was named—was forced to
withdraw northward, leaving both Forts Washington and Lee isolated.
After the Battle of White Plains, the British, under General William
Howe turned back south and decided to take the forts.
On October 31, heavy rains spoiled Maj. Gen. William Howe's
planned second attack on the American army near White Plains.
On November 1, the Americans were found to be apparently well
entrenched at North Castle Heights. The rebel earthworks were
composed largely of cornstalks pulled from nearby fields, whose
roots, full of clinging soil, faced outward. Howe may have been
discouraged by these illusory defenses, but his goal remained the
complete removal of American troops from Manhattan, not the
annihilation of Washington's army. His attention returned to Fort
Washington which the American commander in chief had left
garrisoned under Col. Robert Magaw after a general rebel evacuation
of the island.
On November 2, during the night, a defector, William Demont,
entered the camp of Lord Hugh Percy at McGowan's Pass, south of
Fort Washington. Demont had been Magaw's adjunct; the deserter
placed the plans of the fort into Percy's hands. Although Howe had
probably already begun to arrange operations against Fort
Washington, exact knowledge of the fortification and its defenses
would assist his attack.
Fort Washington's works, built the previous July, covered a hill 230
feet high and a mile long. Vertical cliffs rendered the fort unassailable
from the Hudson River below. Additional protection was provided by
Fort Tyron on the north, Laurel Hill on the east, and the old Harlem
Heights defenses on the south. Fort Lee stood opposite Fort
Washington in New Jersey. Between the 2 forts ran a line of sunken
obstructions to prevent British ships from passing up the Hudson.
The natural defenses of Fort Washington's position were superior, but
the fort itself was less than ideal. A pentagonal earthwork without
ditches or palisades, the structure lacked barracks, bomb proofs, and
an interior source of water. A captain stationed in the fort noted that it
had none of "those exterior, multiplied obstacles and defenses,
that...could entitle it to the name of fortress, in any degree capable of
withstanding a siege." This weakness, recognized by some of the
garrison went unnoticed by Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Greene, who was in
charge of both forts.
Washington had been out of touch with Greene since October 22.
Now, as Howe began moving south to direct the seizure of Fort
Washington, the American commander had to consider the fort's
On November 5, 3 British vessels passed over the river barricades in
the Hudson amidst rebel artillery fire and anchored, undamaged, at
the northern tip of the island, Washington, in the process of deploying
most of his troops in Westchester County, was much alarmed by this
news and wrote to Greene on November 8, "I am inclined to think it
will not be prudent to hazard the men and stores," but "as you are on
the spot, I leave it to you to give such orders as to evacuating Mount
Washington as you judge best."
Greene replied that the fort served some purpose beyond the
prevention of ship passage up the Hudson. It hampered British
communication between the island and the country to the north,
compelled the maintenance of British troops at Kingsbridge, and was
clearly regarded as important by the British, or else they would not
attempt its capture. These arguments were offset by Greene's
assurance that if the situation grew dangerous, the stores and men
could be shifted to Fort Lee at any time. Magaw said the garrison
could hold out through December. But Washington's second in
command, Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, expressed ominous concern. In a
letter to Joseph Reed, the adjutant general, Lee wrote, "I cannot
conceive what circumstances give to Fort Washington so great a
degree of value and importance as to counterbalance the probability
or almost certainty of losing 1,400 of our best troops."
With some 2,000 of his troops, Washington moved down the west
side of the Hudson and reached Fort Lee on November 13.
Meanwhile, Greene had reinforced Magaw's original garrison of
about 2,000 men with an additional 900. Greene continued to favor a
defense of the fort, and Washington finally relied upon his
subordinate's judgment. Washington would later write that Congress's
desire to retain the area's defense and his own wish to keep an
impediment in the way of the British "caused that warfare in my
mind and hesitation which ended in the loss of the garrison."
On November 4, Howe dispatched several brigades to march quickly
south and reinforce Brig. Wilhelm von Knyphausen. His division had
crossed the river at Kingsbridge on November 2 and began
harassment of the rebels in the northern outpost of Fort Tyron.
On November 14, during the night, 30 British flatboats sailed up the
river past Fort Washington undetected by the Americans. The
following day the enemy approached the fort in force.
Cornwallis and Brig. Edward Matthew were to approach from across
the Harlem River on the east, and Percy was to strike from the south.
A British officer was sent to summon Magaw to surrender with the
threat of no quarter if the fort was stormed. Magaw flatly refused. He
had dispersed his forces at the various outposts on the three sides of
the fort, posting minor detachments in between. The Americans
covered a large perimeter of 4 to 5 miles.
On November 16, early on the morning, Knyphausen opened the
attack against Col. Moses Rawlings's Virginia and Maryland riflemen
who managed to stall the Germans temporarily. Mr. Lossing, in his
Field Book, says:
"On the 15th, Howe was informed of the real condition of the
garrison and works at Fort Washington, by a deserter from Magaw's
battalion, and he immediately sent a messenger with a summons for
the commander to surrender, or peril his garrison with the doom of
Howe, confident of success, ordered a cannonade to be opened upon
Magaw, in a brief note, promptly refused compliance,
and sent a copy of his answer to Washington at Hackensack.
the American outworks from two British redoubts, situated on the
east side of the Harlem, a little above the High Bridge. The
cannonade commenced early on the morning of the 16th, to cover the
landing of troops which crossed the Harlem there, preparatory to a
combined attack at four different points.
Expecting this, Magaw made a judicious disposition of his little force. Colonel Rawlings,
with his Maryland riflemen, was posted in a redoubt (Fort
George) upon a hill north of Fort Washington, and a few men
were stationed at the outpost, called Cock-hill Fort. Militia of the
Flying Camp under Colonel Baxter, were placed on the rough
wooded hills east of the fort along the Harlem River, and others,
under Ensign Johann Peter Hachenberg and Colonel Lambert
Cadwalader, of Pennsylvania, manned the lines in the direction
of New York.
Percy advanced on Lt. Col. Lambert Cadwalader’s Pennsylvanians
but halted his forces (to the Americans' surprise) to wait for a signal
gun from Cornwallis or Mathew. Washington, Greene, Maj. Gen.
Israel Putnam, and Brig. Gen. Hugh Mercer crossed to Fort
Washington as the firing commenced, but they could do nothing to
help Magaw and so returned to Fort Lee to watch the developing
Mathew, who had been somewhat delayed by the tide pushed across
the river and established a foothold on Laurel Hill. Cornwallis
followed with more troops.
Once the signal had gone out to Percy, pressure on the Americans
began to mount. Rawlings was force back and Cadwalader withdrew.
Confusion was rampant within the reduced perimeter; the retreating
Americans poured into the fort. By 3:00 P.M., the Germans had
reached Fort Washington from the north, and the British were in view
on the east and south. Despite the original surrender terms, another
flag was sent into Magaw to ask for capitulation. Realizing that to stand now would create a bloodbath within the crowded fort, Magaw
surrendered. The attack cost the British and Germans 67 killed, 335
wounded, and 6 missing. The Americans suffered 54 killed and 2,858
captured, including probably more than 1,000 wounded. The loss of
all their arms and equipment was especially damaging. Fort Lee was
now untenable and Washington began transporting the ammunition
out of the fort.
On November 19, during the night, the British brought boats
through the Harlem River and carried a force under Cornwallis
across the Hudson in the rain. They landed about 6 mile north of Fort
Lee and began marching southward. Washington and Greene roused
the garrison to a hundred flight and led them to Hackensack, then
toward Newark and New Brunswick.
On November 20, Cornwallis marched into the empty fort and
found tents, military baggage, 50 canon, and 1,000 barrels of flour.
More than 100 skulkers (most were drunk) were rounded up in the
neighborhood, a few were killed.
Cornwallis pursued the Americans with some reinforcements sent
from Howe and routed them at each New Jersey town where they
stopped. Many of Howe's officers believed he would maintain this
drive. Howe had begun preparations for an offensive in Rhode Island.
He knew there was not time enough before winter's arrival to employ
the same troop force in both New Jersey and Rhode Island.
In addition, Howe was criticized by some for sparing the garrison at
Fort Washington. Capt. Lt. Archibald Robertson considered the
American losses "trifling." Thomas Jones, a former justice of the New
York Supreme Court being held prisoner in Connecticut, believed
that a general slaughter would have struck panic through the rebel
countryside and forced congressional submission. "The most rigid
severity at the first would have been the greatest mercy and lenity in
the end." Of the nearly 2,000 Americans captured in the fall of the
fort, over 100 were officers (including Ensign Hachenberg).
Many of these were paroled and walked the New York streets in their
uniforms to the chagrin and even fear of the loyalists and British. The
soldiers were eventually put aboard prison ships in the harbor to
languish; large numbers of them died under the atrocious conditions.
But Howe's victory had been decisive, and for the Americans, the
aftereffects were serious. The loss of the garrison troubled
Washington because the enlistments of many of his remaining troops
were to expire in less than two months. An alarming percentage of his
men were unfit for duty from sickness or want of clothes and shoes.
Perhaps even more significant was the tremendous loss of precious
material.The British had seized 146 canon, 12,000 shot and shell,
2,800 muskets, and 400,000 cartridges. American resources had
been dispersed and inadequate before this capture; now they
were stretched very thin indeed.
Washington would soon make his winter headquarters in New Jersey for a number of reasons, one of which was to protect the invaluable forges and furnaces in the
northwestern part of the state.
The blame for squandering the men and supplies in the 2 forts rested
naturally with Magaw, Greene, and Washington. Greene recognized
that the lines around Fort Washington had been too extensive for
2,900 men to defend, especially in a disordered state. Since
Washington had some early doubts about the fort's impregnability, his
vacillation, finally favoring Greene's discretion, was inexcusable.
Washington's trusted friend Reed termed this a "fatal indecision of
mind." Many British were light-headed after their successful New
York campaign and felt that the end of the war must be near. But
Washington's error was not fatal. Nor was his disappointment so deep
that he rejected thoughts of raising a new army.
In seventy days Washington made his famous crossing of the Delaware and the
successful Battle of Trenton where the aforementioned Colonel
Rall commanding the local Hessian Forces met his death at the
hands of the American Troops.
The British occupied New York City for the remainder of the War
and vacated it only after the final Treaty was signed in 1783.
Many more New Yorkers became British Loyalists(Tories) after
One interesting side note about Loyalists (Tories).
At Haw River, North Carolina, a battalion of Loyalists were
tricked into believing that they were being reviewed by Lt. Col.
Tarleton of the British Regular Army when they actually had
encountered Lt. Col Harry “Light horse” Lee (Gen. Robert E.
Lee’s father) whose Continental Legion wore green jackets as
did Tarleton’s men. Lee ordered a saber attack as the Loyalists
stood for Inspection and butchered the Loyalist. This tended to
intimidate other Loyalists in that area in the future. That battle
had very severe American casualties since both sides were
Some Genealogy reports have stated that Ensign
Johann Peter Hachenberg served throughout the
entire Revolutionary War, however all that has
been documented officially and found is that he
remained a prisoner on British Prison Ships and
on Long Island until at least 1780 (possibly much
longer) as stated in the publication
“Revolutionary War Officers“. His release and
further participation in the War is unknown in
the genealogical reports that have been reviewed.