Battle of Harlem Heights Sept. 16, 1776. Americans Gave the British a Good Drubbing.

Introduction

As far as battles fought during the American Revolutionary War, the Battle of Harlem Heights was considered a smaller affair. As far as victor, most historians consider the contest a draw based on the number of casualties and because all parties returned to their former lines. However, its impact on both sides was immediate and long term. For the Americans, it was the first time in the war that they had seen the backs of their enemy as they pursued them across the field of battle. For the British, it was near shock.

The Battle of Harlem Heights looking south over the buckwheat field where the most intense fighting occurred that day, Sept. 16, 1776.

The battle began as many battles do; a routine or insignificant act that quickly escalated to a major action. The Battle of Gettysburg, during the American Civil War, started because a brigade of Confederate soldiers was told that there was a warehouse in the town that was stocked with shoes. They ran into a battalion of Union cavalry and it grew to become the greatest battle of the war. The Battle of Harlem began when a typical scouting party of newly formed rangers came up against a battalion of British light infantry. It soon developed into an opportunity for Washington to spring a trap, rout an overconfident enemy, and boost the moral of his army.

The American Army was suffering from depression engendered by continual retreats and defeats. In this one day’s action, that was nearly wiped clean. These homespun rebels stood on open ground for several hours and held their own against the finest troops the British had; the famed Black Watch, light infantry, and Hessian Jaegers. The Americans not only withstood volley after volley, receiving the worst the British forces could give, but actually drove them back for over two miles. They advanced not as an undisciplined mob, but in line of battle that could be compared to the best in Europe. And when the command to pull back was given, they did so in good order, without being pursued. The result was a month’s delay in further action by the British while their commander, General Howe, fortified their lines and rethought his strategy against what was proving to be a more formidable opponent than thought.

Map of the Battle of Harlem Heights. Johnston, 1897.

To better understand the impact the Battle of Harlem Heights played, one would need to examine events that lead to the positioning of the two armies the morning of September 16th. Most particularly the day before, when two major events occurred that could have led to a swift demise of the American forces and the death throes of the American cause.

Prior to the Battle

The British Army was, for the most part, composed of long term professional soldiers, regulars, who spent years drilling in the art of warfare. Most were veterans of past wars and conflicts. Their uniforms, supplies, and armaments were among the finest to be had in the world. The American Army was the exact opposite. Outside a small number of men who fought in the French and Indian War, they had limited battle experience, supplies and powder was in demand, and most had only a basic understanding of military maneuvers through local militias. Their clothing was homespun and weapons consisted of hunting knives and family muskets; bayonets were near nonexistent, (a quarter of the army went to war without muskets at all). American soldiers were farmers, artisans, and merchants. One half were regulars who signed up for one year. The rest were militias whose terms lasted anywhere from three to six months. By the first of January, 1777, three and a half months after the Battle of Harlem Heights, all terms would resolve and the American Army at that time would cease to exist.

In the late summer of 1776, both British and American forces were drawn in and around New York City. The Americans were soundly defeated on Long Island on August 27, 1776 by General Howe’s superior forces. Washington conducted a miraculous retreat across the East River that saved a third of his army while relinquishing Long Island to the British. English and German mercenaries strengthened their troops on Long Island and stationed them close to the East River for an expected invasion of Manhattan Island. The British fleet, nearly four hundred ships, remained anchored from Sandy Hook to southern Manhattan Island. British warships cruised the waters surrounding Manhattan Island with ease, skirting sunken obstacles called chevaux de frise and shelled rebel batteries with little or no damage to themselves. Note: rebels was the derogatory term given to the rebellious colonists by the British. It was widely used throughout the war.

Present day Morris Jumel Mansion. Washington’s Headquarters at Harlem Heights.

After the disaster on Long Island, where the Americans were out-generaled, out-smarted, and mostly ran in panic from their pursuers, the troops were understandably disheartened. The situation worsened considerably as men deserted in large groups and entire companies gave up the fight and headed home. The unsanitary and sordid conditions of the camps in and around New York City were breeding grounds for diseases that cut deeply into those considered fit for duty. Washington exerted himself to the utmost to restore order and regain confidence. Colonel John Haslet of Delaware wrote to Caesar Rodney, member of Congress from his home state, that “I fear Genl Washington has too heavy a task, assisted mostly by beardless boys.” Once a semblance of order was restored, several changes were made in the brigades and the whole army was reorganized from five divisions into three grand divisions commanded by major generals Israel Putnam, Joseph Spencer, and William Heath. Note: Spencer relieved Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene as head of his division – Greene suffered from malaria and relinquished command just prior to the Battle of Long Island.

Map of General Putnam’s Division’s escape from NYC on Sept. 15, 1776 showing the Anthorp Estate which was passed by the desperate column just before reaching Harlem Heights.

Putnam’s division consisted of five brigades, including Colonel Henry Knox’s artillery, who remained in the city. They manned the defenses from Fort Lispanard along the Hudson to approximately present day Fifteenth Street along the East River. Spencer’s division of six brigades picked up where Putnam’s men left off and guarded the East River up to Horn’s Hook and Harlem, including Harlem Heights, a rise and ridge that stretched across mid-island from Harlem to the Hudson River. It is noted that Major General Nathanael Green was still recovering from malaria that struck him prior to the Battle of Long Island. His troops under brigadiers John Nixon and Nathaniel Heard were temporarily assigned to Spencer. General Heath had two brigades, brigadiers Thomas Mifflin and George Clinton, who spaced their troops along northern Manhattan including Hell’s Gate and Kingsbridge and north into Westchester County.

New York City in 1776

At first, General Washington oddly thought that he could defend the city if his troops were resilient in the face of the enemy. On September 3rd, the Continental Congress sent a letter to Washington requesting the army to do just that. Several of Washington’s generals disagreed. Among them was Greene who wrote to his chief on September 5th, “The City and Island of New York are no objects for us; we are not to bring them into competition with the general interests of America….” He even advocated burning the place to the ground, “Two-thirds of the property of the City of New York and the suburbs belong to the Tories. We have no very great reason to run any considerable risk for its defense…. a general and speedy retreat is absolutely necessary, and that the honor and interest of America require it. I would burn the city.”

British Ships run the blockade btw. Forts Lee and Washington
British Ships easily run the gauntlet on the Hudson River between Fort Lee (NJ) and Fort Washington (Manhattan).

Washington was eventually convinced that the city would not hold up to a sustained bombardment and the island could not be defended. British ships were readily cruising up and down Manhattan’s surrounding rivers with little or no damage inflected by American artillery. Also there was a strong probability that a successful northern British invasion would trap most of the army in the city. Washington pressed the issue with Congress and on September 10th, Congress gave in, writing “that the army… should remain in that city a moment longer than he [Washington] shall think it proper.” Washington called a council of his generals on September 12th and it was decided to abandon New York. The defenses along Harlem Heights would be strengthened with additional redoubts, gun placements, and fascines (bundled sticks and lumber to reinforce embankments and trenches) constructed along the ridge. Three lines of defense were under orders to be finished as soon as possible, to be occupied by both Putnam’s and Spencer’s divisions. Only two brigades under General Heath to the north and a detachment of troops at Fort Washington were to remain where posted.

On September 14th, Washington wrote Congress that the evacuation of New York had begun in earnest. That evening, Washington left the city and established his headquarters at the Morris Mansion, at present day One Hundred and Sixth-first Street, overlooking the Harlem River and the plains to the south and east. Meanwhile patriots raced to continue their salvage of household goods and flocked to the packed Hudson River ferries. Troops hastened to lift placement cannon onto waiting carriages and convey the multiple supplies north and beyond. The delay nearly proved disastrous. In one more day, the removal would have been complete and all troops withdrawn to the heights. But it was not to be. In all this chaos, the British struck.

September 15, 1776

Two events nearly proved catastrophic for the Americans. First, the invasion by the British near mid-island rolled up the American defenses all along the East River and drove them back in hysterical panic. The other was what Washington had feared, General Putnam’s division, approximately three thousand men, much needed supplies, and nearly all the army’s cannon were under threat of being cut off from the main army now encamped behind the defenses about eight miles north at Harlem Heights.

Invasion of Manhattan Island at Kip’s Bay, Sept. 15, 1776.

The British forces poured ashore at Kip’s Bay along the East River at what was known as Inclenberg or more commonly, Murray Hill. The location of the British landing proved to be the least defensive sector of the rebel line. A hastily dug, shallow trench was commanded by a Connecticut Brigade lead by Colonel William Douglass, a good officer. These were mainly ninety day farm boys who, two weeks previously, had been tilling their family’s fields. To the south of him was Brigadier General James Wadsworth’s Connecticut regulars.

British troops embark on flat bottom transports for the invasion.

Five warships and two bomb ketches eased into the bay the night before. At ten o’clock they opened up with one of the worst bombardments of the war. Even veteran British sailors of the French wars later said they had never heard such a cataclysmic thunder in all their lives. For an hour the warships relentlessly pounded the shore with twelve to twenty-four pound shot and exploding shells. Bomb ketches lobbed mortars inland as hot shot set buildings ablaze. Most of the militia fled as soon as the shells started to rain down upon them. When the shelling stopped, a full division of British Light Infantry, Brigades of foot, German Hessians, and the famed Black Watch Highlanders, 10,000 in all, landed in eighty four flatboats and barges, having rowed across the East River from Newtown Bay, Long Island. British Generals Henry Clinton and Alexander Leslie’s Light Infantry moved inland to the north, General Charles Cornwallis and John Vaughn with their Grenadiers and Highlanders headed straight inland to Murray Hill, and Hessian Colonel Carl von Donop’s corps drove to the south.

As soon as the shelling started, Washington ordered those brigades stationed along the southern shore to come to the aid of Douglass’ and Wadsworth’s troops. Generals John Scott, Samuel Parsons, and John Fellows answered the call and marched their soldiers north to meet the first division of British and Hessian troops who had landed uncontested. As the regulars made the field, they ran headlong into the hysterical Connecticut boys who, by example, struck fear into the regular troops’ ranks. At one point a large detachment of Hessians showed themselves and fired a volley. The lines before them collapsed in fear and soon the entire American force was racing panic stricken for the safety of Harlem Heights.

Many of Douglas’ militia escaped north along the Boston Post Road or through the woods in front of the fast moving British troops. Generals Parsons’, and Fellows’ troops fell back to the Bowery and crossed over to Bloomingdale Road and made Harlem Heights with minimal casualties. Others within General Scott’s command poured into the city, joining Putnam’s ranks. The bulk of the American loss occurred to Wadswoth’s brigade. The Hessians, moving quickly to the south, intercepted the fleeing Americans and killed or captured nearly 400 men, including Colonel Seldon who would die of his wounds in captivity.

Major General Israel Putnam

Meanwhile, General Putnam’s men were preparing for their hair-raising flight north to Harlem Heights in a race against time. By around noon, the British had nearly a full division of men on shore in the vicinity of Murray Hill. Approximately ten thousand men were fanning out both north and south, however not west across Manhattan. Either because of poor intelligence from British spies, informing the British Supreme Commander General William Howe that the Americans had already abandoned the city, or because Howe, following military doctrine practiced by his mentor, General Wolf, that a commander should never engage the enemy until all his troops were made ready, General Howe ordered his division to remain where they were. He was to wait until the second division (six additional brigades) was entirely landed before furthering the invasion. Another possible reason for Howe’s sluggishness was that the day was intensely hot and he had no cavalry to keep up with the fast retreating Americans. It was not until around 4:30 PM when he finally got his forces moving again.

Fiction - Mrs. Murray entertaining British generals while Putnam's Division escaped New York City
Fiction – Mrs. Murray supposedly entertaining British generals while Putnam’s Division escaped New York City

Historians agree that had Howe sent even one regiment across the island to the Hudson River, he would have cut off Putnam’s column and trapped nearly three thousand Americans including all their arms, supplies, and the Continental Army’s cannon, a loss the ‘rebels’ could not conceivably sustain. Instead, Putnam’s men made a successful mad dash to Harlem Heights up the west shore of Manhattan, lead by a young, outspoken officer, Major Aaron Burr. Meanwhile, one mile to the east, through dense woods, the British army had established their lines. Miraculously, the last of Putnam’s column passed the Apthorpe Mansion, along Hudson’s River shore with the Heights within sight, just as the first detachment of redcoats showed themselves. A short, but heated exchange resulted between the British and Putnam’s rear guard, causing the death of Colonel Thompson.

Troops engaged in the Battle of Harlem Heights

The Continental Army’s paper strength was 27,273 rank and file with 543 artillery. The number fit for duty was listed as 16,124. Many were posted north at Kingsbridge and Westchester County leaving about 10,000 Americans stationed along the American line. Only the regiments from Maryland and Delaware wore what could be considered a uniform of blue coats and white breeches. The British landed two full divisions of approximately 16,000 troops by the morning of the 16th. Both sides were armed with muskets. The English had bayonets, the Americans, for the most part, did not. Companies of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia including a New England ranger detachment carried long, small calibre, rifled weapons that were accurate up to 200 yards. The single company of German Jaegers carried shorter, rifled weapons. Field artillery on both sides were either three or six pounders.

British:

Grenadier

The 1st Battalion was made up of the following light infantry companies: 4th, 5th, 10th, 17th, 22nd, 23rd, 27th, 35th, and 38th and was formed in Halifax on May 14th, 1776.   It was commanded by Major Thomas Musgrave of the 64th Regiment and Major Thomas Dundas of the 65th Regiment.

The 2nd Battalion was made up of the following light infantry companies: 40th, 43rd, 44th, 45th, 49th, 52nd, 55th, 63rd, and 64th and was formed in Halifax on May 14th, 1776. It was commanded by Major [Hon.] John Maitland of the Marines and Major Turner von Straubenzee of the 17th Regiment.

NOTE: Many historians and internet articles quote Johnston’s most informative account of the Battle of Harlem Heights which mistakenly lists the two light infantry battalions that fought that day as the 2nd and 3rd. He also lists the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Light Infantry Battalions at the Battle of Long Island and at Kip’s Bay. However, the 3rd Light Infantry Battalion was not formed until March 23rd, 1777 in New York, six months after the battle. [See Orderly Book of Sir William Howe in resources] Since there were two Light Infantry Battalions involved in the battle, it must have been the 1st and 2nd.

42nd Highlanders - Black Watch
42nd Highlanders – Black Watch

The 42nd Foot or famed “Black Watch Highlanders” arrived after the light infantry were driven back. They were commanded by Colonel [Lord] John Murray. The British 4th Battalion of Grenadiers reinforced the 42nd Regiment. The 4th Battalion of Grenadiers was formed on August 6th, 1776 of the Grenadier Companies of the 42nd and two Grenadier companies of the 71st Regiments and placed under the command of Major [Hon.] Charles Stuart of the 43rd regiment.

NOTE: Several histories list the grenadiers that came to the aid of the light infantry as the 6th Battalion of Grenadier. This is wrong. It was the 4th Battalion of Grenadier who arrived with Conwallis’ reserve. The 6th Battalion of Grenadier did not exist. This writer has traced this error to a letter Henry Knox wrote to his brother William on Sept. 23, 1776, in which he gives the battalion of grenadiers as the 6th.

American Colonel Tilghman reported that there were 3 companies of Hessians that reinforced the Light Infantry and 42nd. This was confirmed in a British soldier’s letter dated Sept. 16, 1776 [Gordon’s History]. These were probably one company of Jaegers (only one had arrived in America from Germany) and two companies of Von Donop’s Linsingen Battalion Grenadiers – advanced guard of General Cornwallis’ reserve.


Brigadier General Alexander Leslie

Most accounts state that at a later stage of the battle, Brigadier General Alexander Leslie sent in four cannon and additional reinforcements. Most likely they were additional companies of the 42nd regiment and Light Infantry, though German Jaegers with General Cornwallis’ reserve began arriving and, as accounts claim, got into the fight. Of the four cannon, it is recorded that two were hauled by hand from McGowan’s Pass by Capt. John Montresor. The other two are unaccounted for: possibly assigned to the light infantry. Major General Alexander Leslie commanded the British forces involved in the battle. Lt. General Charles Cornwallis brought up the reserve at the end of the conflict.

General William Howe.

Lt. General Cornwallis arrived with the rest of his reserves that included the 33rd Foot and the two other Hessian Battalions of Grenadier besides Lisingen (Block and Minegerode) that were also commanded Colonel Von Donop’s Grenadiers. The 33rd was not involved, though there may have been some units of the Block and Minegerode Battalions who joined the action. This brought the battle to a halt. The 33rd Foot was still commanded by Cornwallis (even though he was promoted to Lt. General and given his own division). However, when in the field, it was lead by Lt. Colonel James Webster.

Supreme Commander General William Howe’s headquarters was at the Beekman Manor (Lt. Colonel James Beekman’s residence) near the East River on Turtle Bay. Across Manhattan, near the Hudson River at the Apthorpe Mansion (present 91st and 9th Ave.), was Major General Henry Clinton’s headquarters. And situated on the Boston Post Road at McGowan’s Pass [109th St. & 6th Ave.] was Lt. General Cornwallis’ post at the Black Horse Tavern. General Leslie was under General Henry Clinton’s direct command and would have had his headquarters in the field somewhere to the north of the Apthorpe Mansion.

American:

Continental troops

Intelligence gathering detachment of 120 New England riflemen (marksmen) volunteers labeled Knowlton Rangers, lead by Colonel Thomas Knowlton (who famously held the rail fence at Bunker Hill). General Nixon’s Brigade: Massachusetts Regiments – Colonels Moses Little, Late Nixon, William Prescott, Rhode Island Regiments – Colonels James Varnum, Daniel Hitchcock (Varnum was sick – Lt. Colonel Archibald Crary assumed command); Colonel John Bailey’s Regiment (Mass) from General James Clinton’s Brigade, Colonel Paul Sargent’s Regiment (Mass.) from General Thomas Mifflin’s Brigade, and Colonel George Weedon’s 3rd Virginia regiment.

Brigadier General Rezin Beall commanded the Maryland State Troops. This included three battalions of the Maryland Flying Camp (they were to be with the Flying Camp in New Jersey under General Hugh Mercer, however Washington drew from this unit as his forces depleted through desertion and sickness). 1St battalion under Colonel Charles Griffith, 3rd – Colonel Thomas Ewing, 4th – Colonel William Richardson. (The 2nd battalion under Colonel Josias Hall was kept back as reserve). Major Price’s 3 independent companies which numbered 216 men. Major Manz of the Maryland Flying Camp commanded three company of riflemen who were among the 900 who reinforced Lt. Colonel Crary in the feint before the enemy. General George Clinton sent two of his field pieces forward as reinforcement. Colonel Douglas’ Brigade – Connecticut militia who were routed at Kip’s Bay.

Major General Nathanael Greene

Generals Putnam and Greene (having returned to duty, however Spencer still commanded his division) assumed command when the bulk of reinforcements were ordered onto the field. General George Clinton was present as an observer.Washington’s field headquarters was at Points of Rock. His main headquarters was the Morris (Jumel) mansion at 161st Street east of St. Nicholas Ave.

September 16, 1776, The Battle

The battle began shortly after sunrise [present 105th St. between 10th and 12th Ave. – near the Hudson] and ran in a basic line from southeast to northwest [approximately 127th St. between 8th and 10th Ave], a distance of nearly three miles. At the northern point, the Americans halted the British and pursued them back along the same path to where the conflict began. The battle ended at about 3 PM when the British brought up their reserve and Washington called his troops back. Both parties gained no ground and returned to their respective lines.

Washington on 'Point of Rocks' during the Battle of Harlem Heights
Washington on ‘Point of Rocks’ during the Battle of Harlem Heights

Washington’s army had evacuated New York and retreated about eight miles north from the city to where Manhattan Island narrows to a neck of land between the East River and the Hudson River, between the 9th and 10th mile stone. This high plateau, called Harlem Heights, was from three quarters to half a mile wide (east to west) and nearly four miles in length (to the north) forming the upper part of the island. At the eastern point of the Heights was an even higher lift called Points of Rock [128th St. and 9th Ave.] from which one could clearly see all lands to the south and east and west. Harlem Heights was bordered on the south and east by a rocky ridge making it a good defensive position. Facing this plateau to the south was another rise of land which was not as high and more gentle as it ran through a much broader part of the island. Its western edge formed a sort of peninsula that reached north a little over a mile and was the same width as the heights across from it. The eastern edge of this southern ridge was notched by McGowan’s Pass [96th St. and 5th. Ave, northern boundary of Central Park] through which ran the Boston Post Road [main artery between New York City and New England].

Harlem Plains in 1814

Harlem Heights and the peninsula portion of the southern ridge facing it were separated by a scoop of land which formed a giant trowel of brush and forest, from a quarter to three quarters of a mile wide, called the Hollow Way. To the west of this ancient river bed was a wet area called Marje David’s Vly that fed into the Hudson River. To the east it widened into an extensive flat area called Harlem Plain with the village of Harlem closer to the East River. Straight down the center of the island was rolling, wooded hills broken by the occasional farm or country estate. Two basically parallel roads ran from the city to the north and were connected by small cross roads and footpaths. To the west was Bloomingdale Road and on the east, the Boston Post Road. Between these two roads was a thick growth of prime forest that in places was no more than a mile wide.

The nearly three mile stretch of ground on which the battle was fought encompassed three farms from west to east; Adrian Hoegland’s homestead, closest to the Hudson and whose northern border Washington attempted to trap the Light Infantry, Nicholas Jones’ farm, furthest south and where the battle began and ended in his orchard, and Benjamin Vandewaters’ farm, where the main battle was fought in a field of buckwheat.   All were partly cultivated, but mainly covered with brush and woods.

American Riflemen

The morning of Sept. 16th, 1776, the Continental Army was positioned along the entire width of Harlem Ridge on three fortified lines. The first defensive line had three small redoubts with connecting entrenchments. The second line with four redoubts and entrenchments was about thee-quarters of a mile behind the first. The third line, a half mile behind the second, was just being built at the time of the battle. The command structure along the defenses from west to east were: 1st line of defense – Major General Nathaniel Greene’s Division; Brigadiers John Nixon (Mass, Penn, RI), Colonel Paul Sergeant (NY) & Brigadier Razin Beale (Maryland) about 3,300 strong. 2nd line – Major General Israel Putnam’s Division; Brigadiers James Clinton (Mass), Nathaniel Heard (NJ militia), John Scott (NY) and Alexander McDougall (NY) about 2,500 men. 3Rd line – Major General Joseph Spencer’s Division; Brigadiers John Fellows (Mass), Gold Silliman (NY, Conn), James Wadsworth (Conn.) , Thomas Mifflin (Penn, Mass, Conn) 4,200 men. Colonel George Weedon’s brigade of Virginians arrived just two days before the battle and were probably stationed at or near the front line as three of their rifle companies were among the first in battle. Note: With the arrival of Major General Greene, after he recovered from a bout of malaria, Washington gave him a division of three brigades.

The British were camped approximately two miles from the American line and extended along a two mile front from Horn’s Hook on the East River to Bloomingdale and the Hudson River, north of the Apthorpe Estate. General Howe was stationed at Turtle Bay on the East River, General Cornwallis mid-island near Murray Hill, and General Clinton at the Apthorpe Mansion. General Leslie commanded the Light Infantry 1st and 2nd brigade and the 42nd Highlanders just north of Apthorpe along the Hudson.

Present day Hollow Way in Central Park, NYC

Because of dense woods to the south of Hollow Way, little could be seen of the British camp. There was no way of knowing when General Howe was to attack from that quarter until his troops emerged from the forests. Washington needed to know if Howe’s troops were dug in or preparing to move against his defenses. He turned to his special forces designed for intelligence gathering; Colonel Knowlton’s Rangers.

Colonel Thomas Knowlton was one of the most experienced and confident officers in the Continental Army. He campaigned with General Putnam during the French and Indian War and fought alongside Robert Rogers and his famed Rogers Rangers. He already made his mark in the Revolution by holding the rail fence at the Battle of Bunker Hill, conflicting great damage to General Howe’s forces. This Connecticut farmer was 37 with dark hair, light complexion and deep, intense eyes. He was naturally bright and free of egotism. Cool, calm and steady in battle, he was the most promising among Washington’s subordinates and a favorite of both officers and the rank and file. He was chosen to form the Rangers shortly after the Battle of Long Island proved the need for better reconnaissance. It was made up of 150 volunteers, rifled sharpshooters who stayed close to the enemy to report on its movements.

Before dawn, Washington sent Colonel Thomas Knowlton and 120 Rangers south to reconnoiter the enemy lines. They set out from Harlem Ridge called Points of Rock [approx. 127Th Street btw. 8Th and 9th Ave.] and slowly moved forward to McGowan’s Pass. Here they turned right and crossed a mile or so over to the Bloomingdale Road. They kept heading west and reached the Humphrey Jones’ farmhouse at dawn [106th St. west of the Boulevard], this was just north of the Apthorpe Estate. They soon came across enemy pickets in the apple orchard. Knowlton cautiously advanced his men along a small hill above the fruit trees when they were spotted. Historians conflict on what happened next. Shepard and Jay wrote that two rangers, to Knowlton’s chagrin, fired into the pickets. Johnston, with whom most texts site, recorded that the rangers volleyed as soon as they came upon the pickets. Gordon writes that Knowlton, when spotted, moved his men to a stone wall with no mention of firing.

m-volley-7-4c-aug11The 1st and 2nd Light Infantry Battalions were camped in this region north of Apthorpe. Two to three companies of Light Infantry, approximately three to four hundred men, were posted around the farmhouse. The British formed and pushed forward, expecting the rangers to turn and run. Though greatly outnumbered, Knowlton cooly ordered his men to fall back to a stone wall and hold their fire until the regulars were within ten rods [Oliver Burnham]. The Americans stood and volleyed and the astonished British fell back. For the next hour, the woods echoed with the sharp crack of musketry in a heated skirmish. Knowlton saw that the enemy’s superior numbers threatened his flank and ordered a retreat towards the American line which was effected with precision. Jay and Shepard wrote that the Rangers suffered not a single loss, however first hand accounts are more specific. Ranger Oliver Burnham of Cornwall Connecticut reported that between 8 and ten men were killed at the Orchard and that no one was lost during the retreat.

Battle of Harlem Heights. Highlanders retreat, September 16, 1776

The British were soon in pursuit. In a letter to his wife on Sept. 23rd, Adjunct to General Washington, Colonel Joseph Reed writes that he was with the rangers at this point and that the Light Infantry entered the Hoaglandt farmhouse less than five minutes after Knowlton’s men passed through it [115th St. and Riverside Dr.]. Meanwhile, Washington had heard the sound of battle in his front and ordered his two divisional commanders, Putnam and Spencer, in readiness. As the Rangers were returning toward their lines, the advancing British pressed through the Hoaglandt farmland and paused to rest on a hill [Major Barumeister, a Hessian soldier, identifies the hill in his account of the battle as Bruckland Hill]. From their vantage, the light infantry could see the Americans pushing through the fields and woods as they distanced themselves. It is reported that at that time, one of the Light Infantry commanders, either Colonels Musgrave or Mailtand, thought the scene offered his men a ‘merry chase’ and ordered that the Americans be hurried along with the trumpeted sound of the fox hunt. They must have rested for some time as Colonel Reed reported that it was around 10 AM when this occurred.

Accordingly, Colonel Reed took great offense to the British slight and sought some way to strike back. Later he wrote his wife, “I never felt such a sensation before. It seemed to crown our disgrace.” He reportedly rode ahead to Washington’s field headquarters and recommended that if Knowlton were reinforced, he could turn back the light infantry. Washington noticed that the British before them were not supported; having advanced beyond their line by over a mile.   He saw an opportunity that might lift the spirits of his men. He decided not to drive the Light Infantry from the field, but to trap them in Hollows Way. He ordered a small detachment of volunteers to advance down the slope and draw the light infantry into the valley to do battle. While this was occurring, he would send Knowlton’s men, with additional troops, on a flanking motion that would bring them behind the British and capture the lot between the two American forces.

One hundred and fifty men from Nixon’s brigade (many from Colonel Hancock’s Rhode Islanders), under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Crary of Rhode Island (Col. Hitchcock was ill), would ‘amuse’ the light infantry by feigning an attack. Knowlton was reinforced with two companies of riflemen from Colonel Weedon’s 3rd Virginia regiment under the command of Major Andrew Leitch. The combined number of Rangers and Virginians numbered 230.

milita_volley_fire_bushy_run_250th_randy_steeleMost eyewitness accounts and historians agree that Knowlton regained the American line before heading out on the flanking motion. Some state or infer that Major Leitch was sent to reinforce Knowlton and informed him of his assignment while in the field. The Light Infantry rested on the hill a considerable amount of time after trumpeting the ‘fox chase’ allowing Knowlton’s men plenty of time to regain their lines.

Lt. Col. Crary’s detachment advanced down the slope and into the Hollow Way. According to Lt. Joseph Hodgekins of Nixon’s brigade [Cordwainer from Mass.], “they stood in open field before a thick stretch of woods.” John Chilton, a tobacco planter from Virginia, was among the volunteers who formed the feint. He writes, “I believe they [British] expected we should have ascended the hill to them, but finding us still, they imputed it to fear and came down skipping towards us in small parties.” The light infantry took possession of some fences and bushes [the overgrown fence was the boundary of the Hoaglandt farm]. The British started firing when they got within 250 yards. The Americans were ordered to hold until the light infantry got closer and opened up at about 70 yards [Capt. John Gooch (Mass.) in a letter dated Sept. 23, 1776]. The adversaries spent the better part of an hour volleying with little damage to each other; beyond 40 yards, the musket’s accuracy is poor. Meanwhile, Knowlton and the Virginians were advancing south and well to the east and right flank of the British. Crary’s men pulled back at one point and Washington sent the rest of Nixon’s brigade, part of Maryland’s independent companies under Major Price, the 1st & 4th Maryland Flying Battalions commanded by Colonels Griffith and Richardson respectively, and three companies of riflemen from the 2nd & 3rd Maryland Flying Battalions commanded by Major Manz. Nine hundred men, under the overall command of Brigadier General Razin Beall of Maryland, roared down the hill to further the appearance of a real attack. [Lt. Col Tilghman’s account of the battle details these reinforcements].

The detached party gained a position on the enemy’s flank [124th St.], however before they could push further on and get in position behind the British, shots were fired from the American side. The British, realizing their danger, promptly withdrew to an open field about 200 yards in their rear. Here they reformed behind another fence and resumed their fire [probably the Vandewater’s farm boundary]. Crary’s men were joined by the flanking parties. and the rebels pressed the attack with earnest.

Why was the trap sprung too early? There are several accounts.   Washington contributed it to some ‘inferior officers’ not following orders. Ranger Oliver Cornwall, in his reflections given years after the war, wrote that old troops [perhaps inexperienced men or Weedon’s Virginians] had moved more slowly and were not aware of their position when they saw the British and immediately fired. Col. Reed perhaps comes closet when he wrote to his wife on Sept. 17th that a regiment in the feint shifted, diverting Leitch (leading the flanking movement) from his original course and “within minutes, the Virginians mounted some rocks and attacked.” Reed was supported in this by Captain Gustaus Wallace, Weedon’s 3rd Virginia. He wrote that he saw the “picket guard running like the devil” [the picket guard being Crary’s feint]. Crary was ordered to exact such a move to draw the British light infantry into the Hollow, further distancing them from their support. Perhaps the blame for the preempted strike by the Americans laid with the British. They felt the pressure of the American reinforcements and twice pulled back to a point where the flanking party had turned west, believing they were in the rear of their enemy. The opposing forces ran into each other before the trap could be sprung.

Jones Orchard now Strauss Park, NYC.

One historian, Bowie in her 1943 article in Maryland Historical Magazine No. 1(pp 11-12) interestingly lays the blame with General Putnam. She ties in Washington’s quote of some ‘inferior officers’ with Reed’s explanation that a shift in the feint caused the flanking party to fire prematurely. She writes that Colonel Knowlton was in charge of the flanking motion, however General Putnam rode up to him to give final orders. The flanking movement halted while Reed, Putnam, Knowlton, and Leitch gathered to discuss details. The party observed that when the light infantry opened up, Lt. Colonel Crary’s detachment of Rhode Islanders, turned and ran back up the hill ‘like the devil’. General Putnam ordered Knowlton to attack and ‘put spurs to his horse’, racing diagonally across the field to intercept the fleeing soldiers. She concludes that the ‘inferior officers’ Washington alludes to was General Putnam.

Ms. Bowie’s conclusion that General Putnam ordered the attack has no basis in fact. According to all written accounts, the flanking order to Colonel Knowlton was given while the colonel was in camp [ranger Oliver Cornwall’s letter]. There is no mention of General Putnam nor was he seen on the battle field until after the main reinforcements were sent forward. There is no account of any gathering of officers in the field just prior to the American flaking party’s attack. To the contrary, Colonel Reed, in two letters to his wife, 17th and 23rd of Sept., writes that he was with Leitch the whole time and made no mention of any discussion of their assignment. Lastly, Thomas Marshall, Maryland Flying Battalion who reinforced Crary’s detachment, wrote that an officer rode down to them to give further orders. Interesting that the officer’s horse’s name was General Putnam.

At this stage in the battle, on top of the heights to the southeast of Hollow Way and within ten minutes of each other, the Americans lost two of their most promising officers. Burnham reports that he was near Knowlton when their commander leaped upon a rocky knoll and turned to wave his men forward at the moment the British volleyed. He and four or five others fell alongside him, Knowlton receiving a ball in the small of his back. Knowlton was carried a short ways off and Captain Stephen Brown, who assumed command, ordered two men, along with Knowlton’s brother Daniel and sixteen year old son Frederick, to remove him from the field. Colonel Reed wrote a letter to his wife on Sept. 17 saying that he helped Knowlton off the field. [While Knowlton] “was gasping in the agonies of death, all his inquiry was if we had drove the enemy.” In a second letter, written to his wife on the 23rd, Reed says that he had mounted Knowlton on his horse and brought him in.

Major Leitch fell after three shots, two to his stomach and one in his thigh. It was rumored that he was recovering, however that was not the case and he died on Oct. 1. It is believed that Knowlton and Leitch were wounded in the area of present day 122nd St. btw. 8Th & 9th Ave. [Johnston’s 1897 version of the battle gives a detailed account of the placement of the flanking movement and British location; pp. 70-79]

Company commanders took charge and pressed the attack. For the first time in this war they saw the backs of their enemy and pushed forward with earnest. Washington witnessed a small fight involving a few hundred soldiers develop into a full-blown action. He also saw his men driving hard and fearlessly attacking, breathing new life into his troops, especially those watching from the heights. He decided to take further advantage of events and ordered into the fray: the rest of General Beall’s Maryland Flying Brigade, Major Price’s remaining 3 independent companies, the rest of Colonel Weedon’s 3rd Virginia, the remaining Rhode Islanders (Hitchcock and Varnum’s regiments), Colonels Paul Sargent and John Bailey’s brigades from Massachusetts, Colonel Little’s regiment from Mass., and, most importantly, those who were disgraced at Kip’s Bay, Douglas’ regiment of Connecticut farmers. General Putnam could not hold back along with Major General Greene and General George Clinton brought two field guns to bear. Eighteen hundred men were thrown into the fight bringing the American number to just over two thousand. Meanwhile, the British had retired into a buckwheat field where they offered stiff resistance [118th St. btw. 10Th & 11th Ave]. They were reinforced with the rest of the two light infantry battalions, the 42nd Highlanders or Black Watch, a company of Hessian Jaegers, and four field cannon.

The fighting was intense under a hot sun. Neither side offered to give ground. Private James Martin of Douglas’ Brigade wrote that they were much fatigued and near feint, not having eaten anything for fourty eight hours. When the additional American reinforcements came up, British General Leslie called on General Cornwallis’ reserve in that section. They were posted three miles in the rear and ran forward “without a halt to draw breath” [British Cpt. Harris – see Lushington pp 79-80]. These included the 33rd Foot, lead by Lt. Colonel James Webster, 4th Battalion Grenadiers lead by Major Charles Stuart of the 43rd [several historical accounts list the 6th Grenadier Battalion, however this battalion did not exist], and Colonel von Donop’s Hessians composed of three companies of the Lisingen Battalion of Grenadiers, and a company of Jaegers. American Colonel Tilghman and a British soldier’s letter dated Sept. 16, 1776 confirm the number of British reinforcements [Gordon’s History].

Four British cannon came onto the field. Two of the cannon were hauled by hand from McGowan’s Pass by a small detachment lead by Captain John Montresor. The other two may have accompanied the Light Infantry. From noon to 2 PM the two sides fought relentlessly. Ranger Oliver Burnham reported that he fired sixty rounds of shot in the buckwheat field and that the Americans took two British field pieces [British Maj. Colden reported that they, British, lost three cannon and the Americans one]. The British were running low on ammunition and retreated to the Jones’ orchard, where the battle began. The Americans pursued them relentlessly through the orchard, down a slope and up another hill [107th St. btw. 10Th and 12th Ave. – Hessian account lists this as Hoyland’s Hill and the point that the battle ended].

The bulk of Cornwallis’ reserve began to arrive. Companies of Grenadiers, both British and Hessian, made the field. By now, upwards of 5,000 British troops were engaged with additional reserves marching from the south. It was now 3 PM and the action had been going on since dawn. Washington, seeing that the entire affair was developing into a major engagement, sent his aide Lt. Tech Tilghman with orders for a general retreat. “The pursuit of a flying enemy was so new a scene that it was with difficulty our men could be brought to retire… [but they] gave a Hurra! And left the field in good order”[Reed, Johnston pg. 177].

Aftermath

The effect on the American Army was immediate. One Connecticut soldier stated that they had drove the dogs near three miles. Colonel Cornelius Humphrey of New York said plainly that the British had a good drubbing. The action was just the boost in moral that Washington could have hoped for. Americans began to look upon the British as a foe that they could stand up to and ultimately defeat. Those soldiers who just the day before disgraced themselves in a hysterical rout, raced over the hills in hot pursuit of a fleeing enemy. Colonel Humphrey wrote, “An advantage so trivial in itself produced, in event, a surprising and almost incredible effect upon our whole army. Amongst the troops not engaged… every visage was seen to brighten, and to assume, instead of the gloom of despair, the glow of animation.” Southern and Northern forces fought courageously together erasing criticism and some of the animosity that had been growing between the regions. Of course the New Englanders claimed the honors of the day, Capt. John Gooch of Massachusetts giving “first laurels’ to the Yankees”, while Lt. Tilghman of Maryland boldly stated that “the Virginia and Maryland troops bear the palm.”

Colonel Thomas Knowlton at the Battle of Bunker Hill
Colonel Thomas Knowlton at the Battle of Bunker Hill

Losses were rarely accurately reported by both sides. Usually the total number of enemy casualties exceeded that of one’s own. Then, as is now, it was an important tool of propaganda for the government. Because the British paid an additional allotment on German’s killed, General Howe, as a rule, always understated their casualties. He only reported 14 killed and seventy wounded. Howe’s adjunct general, Stephen Kemble gives the total number as 14 killed with 157 wounded. Interesting that Captain Brown of Knowlton’s Rangers wrote that fifteen or sixteen enemy dead could be found along the fence the light infantry fought behind, and this not even counting those dead in the buckwheat field or in the orchard. Colonel Reed, in a letter to his wife on Sept. 23, said that the “ground was strewn pretty thick with the enemy dead.” Private Martin (Douglass Brigade) wrote that “the British were always as careful as Indians to conceal their loses.” Washington, writing to Nicholas Cooke of the Rhode Island assembly, reported that “the appearance of blood in every place where they [British] made their stand and on the fences they passed, we have reason to believe they had a good may killed and wounded, though they did not leave many of the ground.”

From what Lt. Joseph Hodgkins had seen and heard, no fewer than 500 British fell.   Historians disagree though the numbers are close; McCullough gives the British dead at 90 with 300 wounded. Most agree on 70 British killed and just over a hundred wounded. According to Green’s letter, dated Sept. 27, 1776, Gen. George Clinton was ordered to bury the dead on the field and 78 of the enemy were interred in a large ditch – mostly in the buckwheat field. Hessian Major Baurmeister recorded that the British light infantry alone lost 70 dead. However Captain William Evelyn of the light infantry reported that they had only nine or ten rank and file killed, a few officers, and 90 men wounded. [This seems a gross misrepresentation as the light infantry had been in the thick of the fight since dawn]. Of the 42nd Highlanders, it was reported that one sergeant and 5 rank and file were killed. They had 2 captains, an ensign, 3 sergeants, plus 47 rank and file wounded. The Jaegers reported eight wounded.

Hessian Jaeger Patrol
Hessian Jaeger Patrol

The Americans, as a whole, were pretty consistent in number of casualties. Washington reported that there were “40 wounded, the number of slain is not yet ascertained, but is very inconsiderable.” General George Clinton believed that there was 120 Americans killed and wounded. The diary of Lt. Samuel Richards, Connecticut militia, reads that after the battle, he had “the mournful duty assigned to me – the command of a covering part of fatigue men who buried the dead who had fallen… there were 33 bodies found on the field; they were drawn to a large hole which was prepared for the purpose and buried together.” Were these American or British? It was common practice to bury the enemy separately. He writes that the duty was mournful and this number aligns closer to the number of American dead which historians agree is around 30 with 100 wounded.

Here is the official list of casualties as reported: Officers killed – Lt. Col. Knowlton, Major Leitch, Captain Gleason (Nixon), Lt. Noel Allen (Varnum) Officers wounded – Cpt. Lowe (Ewing’s Marylanders), Cpt. Gooch (Varnum). Rank & File Killed: Nixon’s regiment 4; Varnum (RI) 4, Hitchcock (RI) 4, Sargent,1, Bailey 5 with 2 mortally wounded, Douglass (Conn.) 3 [however Martin writes in his account on the war that 8 to 10 were killed], Marylanders reported 3 missing and 12 wounded, Weedon & Knowton’s Rangers did not report.   [Cornwell (rangers) recalled that as many as one quarter of Knowlton’s men fell in Jones’ orchard at the beginning of the battle. Most accounts list from 8 to 10 men were lost during Knowlton’s first action with the light infantry. They were heavily involved throughout the battle so mostlikely the total number would have been higher. The same is true for Weedon’s men who were heavily involved in the flanking movement and reinforcements]. Lt. Col. Henshaw (Little’s regiment – Nixon Brigade) wrote his wife that there were over a hundred American casualties; his brigade alone accounting for 75 of that number.

Knowlton was buried with full honors on the 17th near a road on a hill slope, present 143rd St. west of 9th Ave.   Leitch died on Oct. 1 and is said to have been buried next to Knowlton and Major Thomas Henly of Mass., who was killed leading a raid against Montressor’s Island on Sept. 23rd.

Hessian Jaeger - German Huntsman
Hessian Jaeger – German Huntsman

Colonel von Donop, whose Jaegers entered the conflict in support of the light infantry, told General Howe that “but for my Jaegers, two battalions of Highlanders and British infantry would have been captured.” Understandable, particularly for British General Grant who despised the Germans almost as much as the rebels, this did not set well with English officers.

The battle on the 16th was followed by inactivity on the part of the British. Meanwhile Washington took advantage of the lull and strengthened his defenses on Harlem Heights and north to Kingsbridge.   The New York fire which destroyed a quarter of the city broke out in the early morning hours of Sept. 21st and ranger Captain Nathan Hale was hanged as a spy the next day. Ironically the founder of the original Rogers Rangers, Robert Rogers, captured Hale and turned him in.

Read the first installment of A Black Man’s Destiny (Shades of Liberty) here.

RESOURCES

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Bowie, Lucy Leigh. Maryland Troops in the Battle of Harlem Heights. Maryland Historical Magazine. Vol. 43, No. 1 (March 1943), pp. 1 – 21.

Emmet, Thomas Addis. The Battle of Harlem Heights. September, 1906: The Magazine of History with Notes and Queries, The University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Gordon, William. History of the Rise, Progress, Establishment of the Independence of the United States of America… In Three Volumes. 1801: Printed for Samuel Campbell by John Woods, New York, NY.

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Keltie, John S. A History of the Scotish Highlands, Highland Clans and Highland Regiments.Vol. 2. 1875: A. Fullarton & Co., Edinburg & London, UK.

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