American Revolutionary War 1776: Should Washington Have Defended New York City?

New York City’s stylish streets

At the start of 1776, General George Washington agreed with most New Yorkers that their city was defenseless. Yet the problem was deeper. In reality, no matter what efforts were taken to strengthen its response to invasion, the city could never be defended. Though every general politician knew it; they were also aware they had no other choice. Major General Nathanael Greene expressed the unspoken fear succinctly: “we must defend New York or burn the damn place.”

18th century Broad Street

Two hundred years ago New York City was a thriving town of approximately 25,000 inhabitants, of which nearly 4,000 were African-American slaves, about 16% of the population. The city was nestled on the southern tip of a long narrow island that could be thought of as an elongated bottle; a horn jutting out just north and east from its base and a long neck tapering to a small lip at the northernmost point. The city itself was just barely feeling growing pains behind the confinement of the original wall built to keep out the aborigines, which is now Wall Street. From Fort George and Whitehall Slip at the southernmost point to Fresh Pond and the Bayard estate, the city was just over a mile long and barely 4,000 feet at its widest point. From city limits to King’s Bridge spanning the Harlem River, farmland or bowries and wealthy ‘country’ estates dotted the landscape with large stretches of wilderness forming the spine running south to north, and which is now part of Central Park.

Buildings were a mix of quaint Dutch gabled homes with unique roof tiles, English multi-storied brick houses and impressive warehouses. Eighteen steeples reached skyward over the city’s canopy signifying nearly the same number of different denominations, three being Anglican and the rest ranging from Jewish to other protestant sects. York Island, (Manhattan) was an ideal harbor enclosed by a bay and three rivers: the North (Hudson), the East River and the Harlem River. Several land masses surrounded the island, each within a short ferry ride.

Any potential invasion would most likely come from the sea. If the enemy possessed the might of a strong navy it could gain immediate control of the harbor, rivers and channels, no matter the size and scope of rebel batteries and fortifications. The task of preventing British forces from marching through the streets of New York City and planting the their flag over Fort George was, to the military eye, impossible.

Map of New York City circa 1776

Washington and his generals, with Congress’ agreement, were convinced that the British strategy anticipated cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies by gaining control of New York City, the Hudson, Lake George, Lake Champlain, the Richelieu River and the St. Lawrence. The American campaign in Canada by the start of 1776 was going well enough that Washington thought it would at least delay British designs in the north.

Talk was thick among the colonists, both patriot and loyalist for the need of negotiations and reconciliation. It was clear that the colonies did not want to pay taxes, at least not what England was levying against her citizens to help pay for a previous war. Though open conflict had fomented stirring talk of a break with England, only the extremists were outspoken in their demand for complete independence. If negotiations were to have teeth from an American delegation sitting across the table, then it needed to be from a position of strength. A city, with extensive fortifications dug along the shoreline and massive gun emplacements manned by stern able-bodied men, was just the sort of strength Congress expected.

Bayard Hill. Highest point in NYC. Fort Bayard (Bunker Hill) was constructed on its summit.

Though New York Province was very active in the Continental Association (the term applied to the growing protest movement), by hosting their fair share of riots, tea parties, riding of the rail and a very vocal Sons of Liberty, Washington had his doubts over the true passions of a city inhabited by many ‘non-associators’; those who still firmly believed that looking to their King for guidance would ultimately resolve the conflict. As General Greene warned, “…if the timed of sentiment gets against us in that province, it will give a fatal stab to the strength and union of the colonies.”

Map of New York City defenses.

Thus, in January, when General Lee offered to go to New York and organize the city’s defenses, including the construction of extensive fortifications, Washington gave his hearty approval.

While in Boston in the early spring of 1776, Washington learned through his intelligence that the British in Halifax were fitting out ships for the embarkation of troops. Given the time of year it could only mean they were heading south, and most assuredly it meant to go to New York. The General must have cringed at the thought of bottling up most of his forces on a stretch of land that the enemy could slice through at any point, entrapping all or part of his army. Even then, early on in the war, Washington knew his only hope was not in attaining the land, but of keeping an armed force in the field. Conditions, both military and political, demanded he move his army south.

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British forces successfully invade mid-island at Kip’s Bay rendering the city’s defenses useless. They enter New York City on Sept. 16, 1776.

Under the Guns, by Bruce Bliven, Jr.  Harper & Row Publ., 1972

1776, by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, 2005

The Battle for New York, by Barnet Schecter,

The Montresor-Ratzer-Sautier Sequence of Maps of New York City 1766-76, by W. P. Cumming, Imago Mundi, Vol. 31 1979 pp. 55-65

Occupation of New York City by the British, 1776, by A. A. Reinke, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol 1. No. 2  1877, pp. 133-148.

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