Eighteenth century battles were fought on the field of honor. In Europe, it meant that each army lined up and pounded away at each other over a spacious, flat field. If there were fortifications, massive trenches were dug, inching cannon forward until close enough to reduce the walls to rubble and encourage surrender. Continuous broadsides from anchored ships would serve just as well.
General Howe was not about to cram his troops down the multiple slips that jut into the bay around New York and hurl them against the massive earthworks thrown up by a year’s frantic work involving almost the entire male population of New York, for a protracted street battle. In addition, he did not want to ruin the city he planned to use as headquarters and staging area for the final defeat of the rebellion. No, he looked for that field and in so doing , nearly destroyed more than a third of Washington’s army.
In late August, 1776, after the fiasco on Long Island and the miraculous escape of nearly half the rebel army, Washington and all of New York breathed a sigh of relief and were amazed that the Howe brothers, General and Admiral, did not immediately follow up their victory with an invasion of York Island. Admiral Lord Richard Howe, with the flag of St. George flickering at the fore-top masthead of his flagship, sat back quite satisfied with his lavish berth on the 64 gun HMS Eagle and a most adequate supply of fine wines and spirits at his disposal. Meanwhile, General William Howe retired to his bed and into the arms of the lovely Mrs. Lorings whose husband graciously allowed an open liaison in exchange for abandoned patriot lands.
Licking wounds and reorganizing his army into three corps,Washington began the game of wait and see, while constantly shifting his men from stronghold to redoubt in an attempt to stay one step ahead of his enemy. Due to a large number of rebel defections, the British knew the Americans’ every move. In response, Washington made one feeble attempt at intelligence, sending a youth barely past his twentieth birthday and knowing nothing of espionage behind enemy lines on Long Island: Nathaniel Hale.
By September 12th,Washington received permission to abandon New York City from Congress. He recognized the dilemma of trying to hold off an enemy with over five times the weight of metal and the danger of entrapment. He posted General Israel Putnam to command a third of his army and see to the defense and dismantlement of cannon and supplies within the vast network of breastworks throughout the city. Further north he appointed Connecticut General Joseph Spencer to entrench Harlem Heights with another third (General Nathanial Greene, the obvious choice for command, had recently returned to limited duty after a bout of malaria). Further north, at the northernmost tip of York Island, General Heath commanded the remaining forces, manning the batteries including Horn’s Hook, while safeguarding Hell’s Gate and King’s Bridge, the only land route from the elongated island.
Howe originally planned the invasion for Sept. 13 because it was the 18th anniversary of General Wolf’s victory at Quebec. However, because the frigates had not arrived in position by then, the date was reset for Sept. 15th. General Clinton, spearheading the landing forces, argued extensively for an attack at Kings Bridge designed to trap the Americans once and for all, but was overruled by concern of the treacherous currents surrounding Hell’s Gate, where the Harlem River met the Long Island Sound.
On the evening of the 14th,Washington transferred his headquarters from the Mortimer House just north of the city limits to the summer home of Colonel Roger Morris, a loyalist who had departed for England. Although Washington must have known that Kip’s Bay would be an ideal choice for invasion since the location was deep enough for ships to get close to shore with a wide ascending meadow excellent for landing craft, it was basically neglected.
When the frigates and war ships ascended up the East River on the fourteenth, Colonel William Douglas’ three militia regiments and new levies were sent to defend the cove. Of the 1,500 men on roster, less than half were fit for duty that day. Just the week before, a large portion of the soldiers were still plowing their family fields when their militia was called up to New York. Armed with family muskets and crude scythe blades attached to long poles, the men were told to leave their haversacks in the woods and proceed to the meadow where they dug a long trench and threw the dirt out toward the water. Without their packs, there was little or no food or water to be had and most spent a fitful night’s sleep.
During the night, four frigates crossed the river and were stationed at Kip’s Bay, near Turtle bay, on the right to the John Watts house on the left. The four ships were anchored 200 yards offshore, so close, that by dawn the men ashore could read ships’ names: Renown, with 44 cannon, Phoenix (44 cannon), Orpheus (28 cannon), and Rose (20 cannon). When a fifth ship, along with bomb ketches (mortars) arrived, there were now over 80 cannon pointed at shore. At 7 AM, as a diversion, a man-of-war and two frigates slipped up the Hudson and were briskly answered by batteries from the city and Paulus Hook in New Jersey. The British answered back with a broadside into New York that miraculously caused little damage.
Shortly after 10 AM, eighty flatboats accompanied by galleys and bateaux slipped out of Newtown Bay and began crossing the river in four divisions. Crammed on board were the 42nd Infantry (the famed Black Watch), the 33rd Regiment, 2nd, 3rd, & 4th Brigade of Guards (from Bedford), a Brigade of Hessians from Gen. De Heister’s Corps, additional British Light Infantry and Grenadiers from Hell’s Gate, Hessian Grenadiers and Jaegers also from Hell’s Gate. Additional launches included light artillery, mantelets (wooden structures used in building inner side of batteries and redoubts), entrenching tools, ammunition, and supplies. As they neared the frigates, the ships opened up with a horrendous explosion. With springs on anchor cables to maintain broadside positions, they continued to pour a tremendous bombardment over the town, woods and entrenchments using solid shot, mortar, fire bombs and swivels loaded with grape shot. So fierce was the torrent that many soldiers reported later that they thought the sound alone was enough to cause their death.
At the conclusion of the bombardment, which lasted an hour, the flatboats pushed through the smoke and came ashore. By then, the militiamen, under Colonel Douglas’ urging, fled for their lives. Some of the injured lay in their devastated entrenchments and were shortly bayoneted by Hessian and British Grenadier alike. It was reported that a Hessian soldier decapitated a rebel and stuck his head on a pole in the embankment.
Washington, four miles further north at Harlem Heights heard the bombardment and raced along the Boston Post Road to see the damage for himself. At the same time, General Putnam ordered General Fellows’ Connecticut Brigade of regulars, posted in Fort Coerlaer’s [Hook], and General Parson’s regiments in embankments nearby, to rush north to Douglas’ aid.
Just as the Connecticut regulars approached Inclenburg and Murray Hill, the British objective for that day, they ran headlong into the terrorized militia. At the same moment, a large group of Hessians appeared and opened a volley. It was enough to send this support, over a thousand men, to turn and flee for their lives, tossing aside everything they could: muskets, haversacks, coats, oil flasks, etc. In turn, they ran into the rest of the column of regulars who readily joined the rout. Into this mad mêlée, with sword drawn, rode General George Washington.
Reports describe the Supreme Commander’s rage at seeing his troops flying before so few of the enemy. He cried out, “Take the corn field!” and “Take the walls!” General Parsons rode into the field and organized a small cluster of men to stand, however they were soon swept aside by the fray. Accounts claim that Washington, in his disgust at not being able to halt the rout, threw his hat to the ground and cried out, “Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?” According to James Thacher, an army surgeon, “His Excellency, distressed and enraged, drew his sword and snapped his pistols, to check them; but they continued their flight. The General, regardless of his own safety, was in so much hazard, that one of his attendants seized the reins, and gave his horse a different direction.”
Washington was directed back to Harlem Heights. This left General Putnam frantically driving the city garrison and whatever cannon and supplies he could gather up the west side of the island. He was convinced to follow this path by Lieutenant Aaron Burr, a New York resident and later Vice President and famous duelist with Alexander Hamilton. Crossing the Bloomingdale Road across from Inclenberg he pushed his men relentlessly up the lane, amazed that General Howe had not pushed his men across the island to the North (Hudson) River to block his escape. At that point, less than a mile of woodland separated the Boston Post Road and Bloomingdale Road as they ran side by side up the island, where Central Park is now located. While Putnam pushed north by one route, Howe’s forces probed north by the other until reaching Smallwood’s Marylanders who convinced them that the Americans meant to make a stand. The two columns clashed, but after a skirmish in which an American colonel was killed, the last rebel regiment had passed. By nightfall, most of the garrison made the safety of Harlem Heights to rousing cheers from the army.
As Washington welcomed General Putnam and embraced Henry Knox (his commander of artillery who had escaped by boat on the Hudson), the Supreme Commander was heartened when most of the Connecticut militia and regulars who fled before the enemy made their way back to camp. Heads down and wearing the disgrace of cowardice, they quietly slipped back behind rebel lines.
Though ridiculed, many did not blame the men for the rout. As Benjamin Trumbull, Connecticut chaplain wrote, “The men are blamed for retreating and flying…but I imagine the fault was principally in the general officers…to give a rational prospect of defense and safe retreat…it is probable many lives were saved…though it was not honorable, it is admirable that so few men are lost.” Approximately 300 were captured or missing and another 60 killed keeping most of Washington’s army still intact.
The following is a succinct account of the scenes and events of September 15, and 16th, 1776, was written on the 17th, by General Nathaniel Greene to Governor Cooke of Rhode Island :
Camp at Harlem Heights, Sept. 17th, 1776. ” Sir. — I suppose you have heard of the retreat from Long Island, and the evacuation of New York. The retreats were both judicious and necessary, our numbers being very insufficient to hold such an extent of ground. His Excellency had proposed to evacuate the city and suburbs of New York some time before the enemy made their last landing, and had the Quartermaster-General been able to furnish the necessary wagons to remove the stores and baggage, the retreat would have been effected in good order, had the enemy delayed their landing twenty-four hours longer. Almost all the old standing regiments were drawn out of the city in order to oppose the enemy at Hell Gate, where they made the appearance of a very large body of troops, and movements as if they intended a landing.
“We made a miserable disorderly retreat from New York, owing to the disorderly conduct of the militia, who ran at the appearance of the enemy’s advance guard ; this was General Fellows’ s brigade. They struck a panic into the troops in the rear, and Fellows’s and Parsons’ s whole brigade ran away from about fifty men, and left his Excellency on the ground, within eighty yards of the enemy, so vexed at the infamous conduct of the troops that he sought death rather than life.”
The timely intervention by Washington’s Life Guard to lead him from harm and or capture, most likely saved the union of colonies allowing a new United States of America to join the countries of the world.
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A Narrative of a Revolutionary War Soldier: Some Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of Joseph Plumb Martin, by Thomas Fleming & William Chad Stanley, 2010, Penguin
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