It is the summer of 1775. Hostilities have erupted between England and her colonies in America. Among a host of concerns and preparations by New York City’s patriots and Provincial Congress is the defense of Manhattan and the surrounding region. On June 26th, 1775, the New York Provincial Congress met as a body for the first time since March of that year. The Commander-in-chief of the new Continental Army, General George Washington, had barely crossed the Kings Bridge into Westchester County on his way to accept the command stationed around Boston when the elected officials sat down to discuss the crisis and what role New York City would play. The first item of agenda was to recruit an army. The Continental Congress had assigned each colony a specific quota for the new Continental Army. New York was to raise four regiments of ten companies each (a company consisted of seventy two men, as well as a captain and four lieutenants). The discussion about the city’s safety and steps necessary to assure it soon followed.
New York had only one militia commanded by Colonel John Lasher. If the British officers aboard the half dozen men-of-war ships sitting in the harbor decided to land forces, the city had neither the means nor manpower to stop them. Recruiting New Yorkers proved a much slower task than recruiting New Englanders, so the call went out to nearby provinces to borrow militiamen. Connecticut immediately obliged by sending fifteen hundred ‘sturdy looking young men’ under the command of a middle aged farmer, Brigadier General David Wooster. The presence and peace of mind those troops brought gave the Provincial Congress time to formulate plans for the defense of the city.
New York City’s only physical defense was Fort George. It was an ancient structure at the southern tip of Manhattan that looked out over the bay. The fort was useless because the city did not have powder to fire the few cannon mounted on the Grand Battery, a promenade that stood before the fort. The Provincial Congress knew they needed more ammunition, cannon, gun placements, entrenchments, breastworks, and barricades. How to achieve all this proved beyond the capabilities of the members of congress. They knew of no military engineers. General Schuyler of Albany, who was responsible for New York’s defenses, was on his way north to take command of the invasion of Canada. He left one of his subordinates, Colonel Alexander McDougall, to see to the city’s military needs. A delegate like the other businessmen and merchants of the Congress, Colonel McDougall had little military knowledge and was occupied in trying to recruit the required regiments.
It was obvious to the Committee of Safety that without a navy, the British would control the bays and waterways. They also realized that Manhattan Island’s entire perimeter was vulnerable to an enemy landing force, except for a few locations where the banks along the river were steep. How to fortify an entire shoreline from imminent attack seemed hopeless.
Weeks and months passed and the problem of fortifications only grew worse without a spade laid to earth. In January of 1776, the despair of inadequate fortifications and a British army that seemed intent of remaining in Boston turned talk in the city from revolt towards appeasement, reconciliation, and a return to the royal standard. Something needed to be done if New York City were to remain in the hands of the patriots. A change in British military strategy in the early months of 1776 prompted New Yorkers to alter their public sentiment towards the war. In January of 1776, General Washington began sending frequent warnings that the British were soon to give up Boston and intended to land a large force of arms in New York City. Washington was convinced that New York was to be invaded and decided to send his second in command to oversee the defense. On February 4th, 1776, Major General Charles Lee arrived from Boston.
The Committee of Safety and Provincial Congress were fearful that General Lee would not put aside his spoken desire to round up Tories, or ‘inimicals’ as they were called, and march them to goals in Connecticut. Lee breached the subject of defense during his first meeting with the Committee. He told them that he believed the army could give a good account of itself if it had strong positions to defend. He also sketched extensive entrenchments and field fortifications around the city. All this would require thousands of man hours to build. Lee was surprised that the Committee agreed to start work immediately.
During the next month, engineers surveyed and mapped out sites for fortifications while Lee moved about gingerly on swollen feet from his recurring gout. With Washington’s approval, Lee’s plans focused on keeping the British off of Brooklyn Heights on Long Island and out of the East River. Lee concluded that if the British could be limited to an attack on Manhattan from the south, west, or north, then American forces could defend every hill and inflict heavy casualties. Lee anticipated fighting street by street using barricades and redoubts. He hoped to turn New York into ‘an advantageous field of battle,’ thereby proving a British invasion to be as costly as possible.
First, to keep the British from entering the East River through the Long Island Sound, Lee proposed a fort at Horn’s Hook and another across from it on Long Island or on Montresor’s Island. Second, he proposed a citadel of gun placements on Brooklyn Heights, Long Island. A chain of three redoubts connected by entrenchments for up to four thousand men were to protect the main fort. Third, to close the river from the south, gun batteries were to be installed in the city and face Long Island. A total of three were to be constructed: directly across from Brooklyn Heights along the shipyards at the foot of Catherine Street and the intersection of Cherry; north of the shipyards on the Rutgers estate called “first hill; and at Coenties Slip, just west of Water Street and a block north of Broad.
Lee then dealt with the defense of the city against landing forces. He assumed that the British could easily sail right up the Battery in front of Fort George and storm its low wall using the fort to lay siege to the city. He had the two bastions of Fort George, towers at the corners of the fort, and the wall on the north side torn down. He installed cannons at a barricade on Broadway that were aimed at the fort’s unprotected interior. All the streets on the west side of the city that led to the Hudson River were to be barricaded.
To the north, Lee mapped out three forts that would dominate the roads leading to the city. In the center, to halt the approach of British troops descending the Bowery Lane, he proposed a star-shaped redoubt on Bayard’s Hill – just to the west of the Bowery. Another star-shaped redoubt was to be dug further to the east near Corlar’s Hook on Jones’ Hill (interestingly on the Jones’ estate – a loyalist judge). To halt a British advance from the northwest along the North River on the Greenwich Road, another redoubt was planned for Lispenard’s Hill on the vast Lispenard estate. These three main redoubts were to be connected with an extensive entrenchment that enclosed the entire southern portion of the island.
Work on these entrenchments did not begin immediately. Enlistments of the Connecticut troops sent to New York expired on March 25th. Minutemen brought from Westchester County numbered only five hundred men. Theses men and individual companies from other sources (including replacement volunteers from Connecticut) began to break ground on the fort at Horn’s Hook on February 15th. Less than two weeks later, work began on Brooklyn Heights. Even so, Lee worked assiduously upon his plan, but a dearth of engineers and manpower stalled progress. In early March, soon after work began, Lee was ordered south to help defend Charlestown from a small British fleet.
On March 13th, 1776, Washington sent an urgent message to the New York Committee of Safety and Provincial Congress – the British have departed Boston. Colonel McDougall and five other members of Congress were appointed to confer with General Stirling, Lee’s replacement. The result was an agreement to use city and county civilians as workers on the city’s fortifications. By Stirling’s orders, half the city’s male population were to work one day and the other half the next and all the slaves every day. The hard winter ground yielded slowly to pick and shovel, but with the arrival of militias and Continental troops from around Boston, work increased rapidly.
Ten foot barriers began to appear everywhere. Houses along the river bank southwest of Trinity Church were destroyed to dig a major fortification called McDougall’s Battery. Further up the Hudson, on the estate of George Harrison, troops under Captain Van Dyck were at work on another battery. Connecticut soldiers began work on the Lispenard redoubt. The Bayard redoubt dug on Nicholas Bayard’s lands began to take shape into a major fort and battery.
On March 21st, Stirling’s post as commander of New York was given up to Brigadier General William Thompson, who had just arrived from Boston. Stirling, however, would continue with the fortification projects. A week after Thompson took over, he was superseded by General William Heath of Roxbury who in turn gave up command to General Israel Putnam on April 4th who remained in command even after General Washington arrived New York on April 13th.
General Putnam learned that the gun emplacements that Lee had proposed for Governor’s Island had not been built because the Committee of Safety feared the British man of war Asia might become hostile. On the evening of April 8th, Putnam ordered one thousand men to be ferried to the island. In one night they dug trenches and piled up breastworks for the gun emplacements that were to follow.
One of the first things Washington did upon arriving in New York City was to view the fortifications. As the city’s population swelled with the arrival of thousands of soldiers, the work on the barriers and redoubts continued. Soon they became massive earthworks of engineering marvels. Once Colonel Knox and his artillery arrived, cannon were soon located within the many gun emplacements.
Thousands of man-hours were devoted to turn New York City into a walled city that, to New Yorkers and the military, seemed to be impenetrable. It proved to be a farce. Once British forces landed mid-island at Kip’s Bay and threatened to cut off a third of Washington’s army inside the city, the forts and extensive trench system proved to be worthless. They were abandoned without even one shot fired in their defense. After the British claimed the city as theirs, the massive works did have use – as a tourist attraction to the thousand of amazed British soldiers.
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Bliven, Bruce Jr. Under the Guns New York: 1775 – 1776. 1972: Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, NY.
Alden, John Richard. General Charles Lee Traitor or Patriot? 1951: William Byrd Press, Inc., Richmond, VA.
Champagne, Roger J. Alexander McDougall and the American Revolution in New York. 1975: Union College Press, Schenectady, New York.
Schecter, Barnet. The Battle for New York, The City at the Heart of the American Revolution. 2002: Walker Publishing Co., New York, NY.