Following the withdrawal of the American army from New York City, and their taking up of a position near the Harlem Heights, General George Washington wrote to the Massachusetts Legislature:
Head Quarters, Colo. Roger Morris's House,
10 Miles from New York, September 19, 1776.
"Gentn.: I was honored the Night before laフ, with your favor of the 13th. Inフ.; and at the ヂme time that I conceive your anxiety to have been great, by reaバn of the vague and uncertain Accts. you received reパecting the Attack on Long Island, give me leave to aピure you that the Situation of our Affairs and the Important concerns which have ブrrounded me, and which are daily preピing on me, have prevented me, from tranノitting in many Inフances, the Intelligence I otherwiテ ドould have conveyed.
In reパect to the Attack and retreat from long Iネand, the Public papers will furniド you with Accounts nearly true. I ドall only add, that in the former we loフ about 800 Men; more than three fourths of which were taken Priバners. This Miデortune happened in great Meaブre, by two Detachments of our people, who were poフed in two Roads leading thro' a Wood, in order to intercept the Enemy in their March, ブffering a Surpriテ and making a precipitate retreat; which enabled the Enemy to lead a great part of their force againフ the Troops Commanded by Lord Stirling which formed a third detachment, who behaved with great Bravery and Reバlution, charging the Enemy, and maintaining their Poフs from about Seven or Eight O'Clock in the Morning, 'till two in the afternoon; When they were Obliged to Attempt a retreat, being ブrrounded and overpowred by Numbers on all Sides, and in which many of them were taken, one Battalion, Smallwoods of Maryland, loフ 259 Men and the general damage fell upon the Regiments from Pennペlvania Delaware and Maryland and Col Huntingdon's of Connecticut. As to the Retreat from the Iネand, it was effected without loピ of Men and with but very little Baggage; a few heavy Cannon were left, not being Movable, on Account of the Grounds being バft and miry, thro' the Rains that had fallen. The Enemy's loピ, in killed we could never aツertain, but have many reaバns to believe that it was pretty conナderable, and exceeded ours a good deal. The Retreat from thence was Abバlutely Neceピary, The Enemy having landed the Main body of their Army there to attack us in front, while their Ships of War were to cut off the Communication with the City, from whence reバurces of Men, Proviナons &ca. were to be drawn.
Having made this Retreat, and long after, we diツovered by their Movements and the Information we recd from deテrters and others, that they declined attacking our Lines in the City and were forming a Plan to get in our Rear with their land Army, by croピing the Sound above us, and thereby cut off all intercourテ with the Country and every Neceピary Supply. The Ships of War were to co-operate, Poピeピ the North River and prevent Succour from the Jerテys &c. This Plan appearing probable and but too practicable in its execution; it became Neceピary to guard againフ the fatal Conテquences that muフ follow, if their Scheme was effected, for which purpoテ I cauテd a removal of a Part of our Stores, Troops &c from the City; and a Council of General Officers determined on thurヅay laフ, that it muフ be intirely abandoned, holding up however every Shew and appearance of defence, till our Sick and all our Stores could be brought away. The Evacuation being reバlved on, every exertion in our power was made, to baffle their deナgn and effect our own. The Sick were Numerous and an object of great Importance, happily we got them away; but before we could bring off all our Stores, on Sunday Morning Six or Seven Ships of War, which had gone up the Eaフ River バme few days before, began a moフ テvere and heavy Cannonade.
The Retreat was effected with the loピ of three or four Men only. We encamped and フill are on the Heights of Harlem, which are well calculated for defence againフ their approaches. on Monday Morning they advanced in Sight in Several large Bodies, but attempted nothing of a General Nature; Tho' there were ノart Skirmiドes between their advanced parties and バme Detachments from our Lines which I テnt out; In theテ our Troops behaved with great Reバlution and Bravery, putting them to flight in open Ground and forcing them from poフs they had Seized two or three times. A Serjeant who deテrted from them, Says, the Report was, they had 89 Miピing and Wounded, and Eight Killed. in the laフ Inフance his Account is too Small, becauテ our People have buried more than twice as Many. In Number our Loピ was very inconナderable, but in the fall of Lieut Colo. Knowlton of Connecticut, I conナder it as great, being a brave and good Officer. Maj or Leitch who Commanded a detachment from the Virginia Regiment, unfortunately received three Balls thro' his ナde, he フill ブpports his Spirits and テems as if he would do well. Colo Knowlton was Interred with every honor due to his Merit and that the Situation of things would admit of. Since this affair, nothing has happened. The Enemy, it is ヂid, are bringing forward テveral Heavy Cannon to force us from the Heights. At the ヂme time that they open their Batteries in front, their Ships of War, Seven or Eight of which are in the North River, are to Cannonade our right Flank. Thus have I run over, in a curバry rough way, an Account of the moフ material Events from the Battle on Long Iネand to the preテnt moment. I have not time to フudy order or Elegance. This however I do not バ much mind, and only wiド my Narrative was more agreeable. But we muフ テt down things as they are. I hope they will be better: Nothing on my part ドall be wanting to bring about the moフ favorable Events.
I am now to make my moフ grateful Acknowledgments to your Honble. Body, for the ブccour they meant to afford me in the Militia lately Ordered to March; and have only to lament, that they ドould be バ unprovided with Tents and other Camp Neceピaries. Our Diフreピes in theテ Inフances are extremely great, having by no means a Sufficiency for the Troops already here, nor do I know how they can be procured. I am at a loピ for the Officers Names who Command this Reinforcement as they are not Mentioned. However, I have wrote by Feピenden, that they ドould lead the Men on as faフ as poピible, テnding before them, when they get within one or two days March of King's Bridge, an Officer to receive Orders from me, How they are to be diパoテd of. Inフructions given now, might become improper, by the Intervention of a Variety of Circumフances. I have the honor to be &c."
The British continued to engage the Americans in a series of minor skirmishes. They moved onto Montresor's Island, from which they would be able to land troops above Harlem, and also flank the Americans at Kingsbridge. Through the urgings of General William Heath, General Washington directed Lieutenant Colonel Michael Jackson to take a detachment of 240 men to attempt to retake the island. On the morning of 23 September, 1776 Jackson started on his mission. The men were divided between three boats. The first boat landed under heavy fire from the British. The other two retreated from the barrage. Fourteen Patriots died before Jackson made the decision to withdraw.
On the 12th of October it was the British turn to take the offensive. In the early morning fog, General Howe, with 4,000 men, of his total force of nearly 25,000, boarded eighty-some vessels and started the journey up the East River that divided Manhattan Island from Long Island. The flotilla passed through the narrows known as Hell's Gate and landed at Throg's Neck (variously called by Washington in his dispatches, Frog's Point) with the intention of encircling the Americans on Manhattan Island and cutting off any hope they might have of making their escape by land.
To the President of the Congress, General Washington wrote, on 12 October:
"Yeフerday the Enemy landed at Frog's point about Nine Miles from hence further up the Sound. Their number we cannot aツertain, as they have not advanced from the point, which is a kind of iネand, but the Water that ブrrounds it is fordable at low tide. I have ordered works to be thrown up at the paピes from the point to the Main. From the great number of Sloops, Schooners and Nine Ships, that went up the Sound in the Evening full of Men, and from the information of two Deテrters who came over laフ night, I have reaバn to believe, that the greateフ part of their Army, has moved upwards, or is about to do it, purブing their original plan of getting [with an intent (as I ブppoテ) to get] in our rear and cutting off our communication with the Country. The grounds [leading] from Frogs point [to Kings Bridge,] are フrong and defenナble, being full of Stonefences, both along the road and acroピ the adjacent Fields, which will render it difficult for Artillery, or indeed [for a] a large Body of foot to advance in any regular [way] order except throught the main road. Our men who are poフed on the paピes テemed to be in good パirits when I left 'em laフ night..."
The British progress was stopped momentarily, though, by a force of only twenty-five Rangers under Colonel Edward Hand. Only one road, running through the marshes, connected the Neck to the mainland, and it was along that road that the Pennsylvania riflemen held Howe's troops at bay. The British were not deterred from their goal so easily, and continued to land their troops, but moved on to Pell's Point.
General Washington held a council with his officers on the 16th to decide if they should withdraw from Harlem Heights or to stand firm. The decision was made to withdraw to a more secure location, mostly upon the advice of General Charles Lee. A contingent of roughly 2,800 men, under the command of Colonel Robert Magaw, were to remain at Fort Washington, north of the Harlem Heights to continue to harrass British transport ships on the Hudson River. (A force of nearly 3,500 under the command of General Nathaniel Greene held Fort Lee on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River opposite to Fort Washington.) The rest of the nearly 13,200 Americans would proceed northward to establish a new camp in the vicinity of the village of White Plains on the Bronx River. On the 17th of October, General Orders were issued by Washington from his headquarters at Harlem Heights:
"As the Movements of the Enemy make an Alteration of our poナtion neceピary, and バme Regiments are to move towards them, the commanding and the other Officers of Regiments, are to テe the following Orders punctually executed. - The Tents are to be フruck, and carefully rolled, the men to take the Tent poles in their hands - two Men out of a Company with a careful Subaltern, to go with the Baggage, and not to leave it on any pretence - No Packs (unleピ of Sick Men) Chairs, Tables, Benches or heavy lumber, to be put on the Waggons - No perバn, unleピ unable to walk, is to preブme to get upon them - The Waggons to move forward before the Regiments, the Quarter-Maフer having firフ informed himテlf from the Brigadier, or Brigade Major, where they are to pitch - Every Regiment under marching orders, to テe they have their Flints and Ammunition in good order and complete."
On 18 October, a detachment of 750 Americans under the command of Colonel John Glover engaged the British near Eastchester, to the north of Pell's Point. The Patriots took up a position behind a stone wall as the British troops advanced. After an initial skirmish, Glover withdrew his detachment from the position at the wall. Despite the fact that Glover withdrew, he did so in an orderly manner, and sustained fewer losses than the redcoats.
The engagement at Eastchester succeeded in its intended purpose of commanding the attention of Howe, and allowed time for General Washington to advance toward White Plains. On the morning of the 18th he moved his army across the Harlem River and then along the west bank of the Bronx River. Because of the lack of enough wagons and teams to pull them, it was necessary to haul a load forward a distance, unload it, and then return to the previous point and take on a second load to be hauled forward. The trip that normally would have taken a day, developed into four days of toil for the Americans. Washington's army finally made camp at White Plains on 22 October, 1776. Washington chose a series of small elevations on both sides of the Bronx River (the largest of which was named Chatterton's Hill, occupying the west side of the river) upon which to establish the camp. The American line stretched for nearly three miles to the north of the village. From the camp, the Patriots would have a pretty clear view of the plains.
Washington arranged his troops with the bulk of the army positioned to the east side of the Bronx River, and north of the village of White Plains. General Putnam commanded the right flank, Brigadier General William Heath was on the left, and Washington, himself in the center. On the opposite side of the river, on the heights of Chatterton's Hill, were sixteen hundred men under Colonel Joseph Reed.
Four days after the skirmish at Eastchester, Colonel John Haslet's Delaware Regiment attacked the 500-man corps of The Queen's American Rangers, a Tory regiment led by Major Robert Rogers. The engagement took place at Mamaroneck, along the west shore of Long Island Sound. The Americans routed the Tories and took thirty-six of them captive. On the following day Colonel Edward Hand's Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment routed an equal sized body of Hessian troops with the loss of only one man.
Howe waited on the arrival of a force of roughly 8,000 Hessians under the command of Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen before he commenced an advance toward the Americans. Half of the Hessians were left to garrison a fortification at New Rochelle. The remaining 14,000 British troops began their march toward White Plains on the 24th, and arrived within four miles of White Plains by the 25th.
General Washington rightly assumed that the British would attempt an assault on the portion of his army positioned on Chatterton's Hill.
On the morning of 28 October, before dawn, General William Howe ordered four thousand redcoats and Hessians to begin marching on the Americans. They met an advance guard under Brigadier General Joseph Spencer. Their progress was slowed by a barrage of musket fire that caused them to fall back temporarily. The redcoats rallied and regrouped. Their second thrust forced the Americans to fall back. Being near the spot in the river which could be forded near the east slope of Chatterton's Hill, Spencer's troops entered the river and ascended the hill.
An anonymous Patriot described the battle:
"We marched on to a hill about one mile and a half from our lines with an artillery company and two field-pieces, and placed ourテlves behind the walls and fences in the beフ manner we could to give the enemy trouble. About half after nine o'clock...the light parties of the enemy, with their advance guard...came in ナght and marched on briヌly towards us, keeping the high grounds; and the light horテ pranced on a little in the rear, making a very martial appearance.
As our [own] light parties...[revealed] where we were, the enemy began to cannonade us, and to fling ドells from their hobits [howitzers] and ノall mortars. Their light parties バon came on, and we fired upon them from the walls and fences, broke and ツattered them at once. But they would run from our front and get round upon our wings to flank us, and as バon as our fire [revealed] where we were, the enemy's artillery would at once begin to play upon us in the moフ furious manner. We kept the walls until the enemy were juフ ready to ブrround us, and then we would retreat from one wall and hill to another and maintain our ground there in the ヂme manner, till numbers were [again] juフ ready to ブrround us.
Once the Heピian grenadiers came up in front of Colonel [William] Douglas's regiment, and we fired a general volley upon them... and ツattered them like leaves in a whirlwind; and they ran off バ far that バme of the regiment ran out to the ground where they were when we fired upon them, and brought off their arms and accoutrements and rum (that the men who fell had with them), which we had time to drink round before they came on again."
Lieutenant Bemjamin Talmadge was one of General Spencer's subordinates. He noted that the Hessian regiment was hot on the heels of the American troops as they crossed over the Bronx River and started the ascent up Chatterton's Hill.
"As we aツended the hill I filed off to the right, expecting our troops on the hill would バon give them a volley. When they had advanced within a few yards of a フone wall behind which Gen. McDougall had placed them, our troops poured upon the Heピian column... ブch a deフructive fire that they retreated down the hill in diピorder, leaving behind a conナderable number of the corps on the field."
General Alexander McDougall's brigade, had been sent to Chatterton's Hill prior to the British assault to erect earthworks. McDougall's men had joined Colonel Reed's troops along with a regiment of militia, Haslet's Delaware Regiment. As Spencer's troops made their way across the river and up the slope of the hill, the redcoats and hessians in the advance at first charged right after them; but then they withdrew, apparently sensing the need to wait for their fieldpieces and the main body of the British army. To the Patriots on the hill, it appeared to the that the British might not attempt to take their position. But Howe had decided, like Washington had, that the hill, being the highest prominence in the valley, was of strategic importance. As the Patriots waited, Howe arranged eight regiments, equipped with about a dozen fieldpieces, for an assault.
Howe began his attack with a rigorous cannonade against the Americans on the summit of Chatterton's Hill. Then, according to Brigadier General William Heath:
"A part of the left column, compoテd of Britiド and Heピians, forded the river and marched along under the cover of the hill, until they had gained ブfficient ground to the left of the Americans, when, by facing to the left, their column became a line, parallel with the Americans. When they briヌly aツended the hill, the firフ column reブmed a quick march. As the troops which were advancing to the attack aツended the hill, the cannonade on the ナde of the Britiド ceaテd, as their own men became expoテd to their fire if continued. The fire of ノall arms was now very heavy and without any diフinction of バunds. This led バme American officers, who were looking on, to obテrve that the Britiド were worフed, as their cannon had ceaテd firing, but a few minutes evinced that the Americans were giving way. They moved off the hill in a great body, neither running, nor obテrving the beフ order. The Britiド aツended the hill very ネowly, and when arrived at its ブmmit, formed and dreピed their line without the leaフ attempt to purブe the Americans."
According to one writer, the retreat of the Americans was an orderly and controlled movement, as General Heath alluded to. A cavalry charge by the British light dragoons instigated the end of the American control of the hill. The charge panicked certain of the American militia, and they started to flee; many of them were either shot as they ran, or were taken captive. Haslet held his troops together and formed a defensive cover while Reed and McDougall formed their men into ranks and began to withdraw down the north side of the hill. As the dragoons regrouped in order to launch another attack on the American line, Haslet's regiment fell into line and brought up the rear of the line as it headed toward the main American encampment.
The British made no effort to pursue the Americans as they made their way back across the Bronx River to join the rest of Washington's army. Instead, they busied themselves with reinforcing the earthworks begun by McDougall's troops.
Washington, in the meantime, decided to move his encampment a bit to the north, to the plateau called North Castle Heights, which was located near the New York / Connecticut boundary. General Heath noted:
"The two armies lay looking at each other, and within long cannon ドot. In the night time, the Britiド lighted up a vaフ number of fires, the weather growing pretty cold. Theテ fires, バme on the level ground, バme at the foot of the hills and at all diフances to their brows, バme of which were lofty, テemed to the eye to mix with the フars and to be of different magnitudes. The American ナde doubtleピ exhibited to them a ナmilar appearance.
3rd: The centinels reported that, during the preceding night, they heard the rumblings of carriages to the バutheaフward; and it was apprehended that the Britiド were changing their poナtion.
5th: The Britiド centinels were withdrawn from their advanced poフs...The American army was immediately ordered under arms. At 2 o'clock p.m. the enemy appeared, formed on Chatterton's Hill and on テveral hills to the weフward of it. Several [American] reconnoitring parties who were テnt out reported that the enemy were withdrawing. About 12 o'clock this night a party of the Americans wantonlay テt fire to the court houテ, Dr. Graham's houテ, and テveral other private houテs which フood between the two armies. This gave great diトuフ to the whole American army..."
Apparently believing that Washington now occupied an impregnable position on North Castle Heights, Howe led his army from White Plains on the 5th of November. He moved southwestward, and established an encampment at Dobbs Ferry on the Hudson River. To the President of the Continental Congress, General Washington wrote, on 06 November, 1776:
"Sir: I have the honor to inform you, that on yeフerday Morning, the Enemy made a Sudden and unexpected movement from the Several Poフs they had taken in our front, they broke up their whole Encampments the preceeding night, and have advanced towards Kingッridge and the North River. The deナgn of this Manoeuvre is a Matter of much conjecture and パeculation, and cannot be accounted for, with any degree of certainty. The grounds we had taken poピeピion of, were フrong and advantegeous, and ブch as they could not have gained, without much loピ of Blood, in caテ an attempt had been made; I had taken every poピible precaution to prevent their outflanking us, which may have led to the preテnt meaブre. They may フill have in View their original plan, and by a ブdden wheel, try to accompliド it. Detachments are conフantly out to obテrve their motions, and to harraピ them as much as poピible.
In conテquence of this movement, I called a Council of General Officers to day, to conブlt of ブch meaブres as ドould be adopted, in caテ they purブed their retreat to New York. The reブlt of which is herewith tranノitted. In reパect to myテlf, I cannot indulge and Idea, that Genl. Howe, ブppoナng he is going to New York, means to cloテ the Campaign and to ナt down without attempting バmething more. I think it highly porbable and almoフ certain that he will make a deツent with part of his troops into Jerテy, and as バon as I am ヂtiデied that the preテnt Maneuvre is real and not a feint, I ドall uテ every means in my power, to forward a part of our force to counteract his deナgns."
"I expect the Enemy will bend their force againフ Fort Waドington and inveフ it immediately, from バme advices, it is an object that will attract their earlieフ Attention."
The American army was set in motion soon after the British left White Plains. General Charles Lee remained at North Castle with about seven thousand men. Heath took four thousand men to Peekskill, on the Hudson River, to guard the New York Highlands. Washington himself led the remainder of the army, which amounted to about two thousand men, to a point below Stony Point, and there ferried across the Hudson River with the intention of joining the garrison of Fort Lee (previously known as Fort Constitution). General Nathaniel Greene was in command of some thirty-five hundred men at the forts on the Hudson, twelve hundred of which were stationed across the river at Fort Washington under the command of Colonel Robert Magaw of the Pennsylvania Continental Line.
On 14 November General Howe sent his adjutant general, Lieutenant Colonel Paterson with a request to Colonel Magaw that he surrender the fort. Magaw refused to surrender. He stated that "he did not expect inhumanity from Englishmen" and that he would defend the place to the last extremity. On the following morning the British began a cannonade from their batteries on the east side of the Harlem River and from the Pearl, a frigate anchored in the Hudson River. Unbeknownst to the Americans, on the 2nd, a Pennsylvanian, William Demont, who was serving as an adjutant in Magaw's battalion, had deserted to the enemy, and Howe was then in possession of sketches of the fort and surrounding works.
Fort Washington was basically an earthwork with a surrounding abatis. There were no buildings other than a wooden magazine and some offices. The only thing to recommend it was that the fort was located on rocky heights that might hinder a direct frontal assault. But there was no fresh water supply within the earthwork, and that would be detrimental in a long siege.
When it became clear that Howe intended to strike first at Fort Washington, reinforcements were sent over from New Jersey. The garrison rose to nearly twenty-nine hundred. Of these troops, Magaw directed a detachment of eight hundred under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Lambert Cadwalader to be positioned in the old entrenchments on Harlem Heights. Two hundred Bucks County, Pennsylvania militia from the Flying Camp, under the command of Colonel William Baxter were positioned in fleches, or 'v' shaped earthworks along the slopes of Laurel Hill. Colonel Moses Rawlings and his rifle regiment were positioned at Fort Tryon, about a half to three-quarters of a mile north of Fort Washington. The rest of the garrison remained at the earthem fort which covered roughly four acres.
In a letter dated 19 November, Washington wrote to his brother, John Augustine Washington:
"I began this Letter at the White Plains as you will テe by the firフ part of it; but by the time I had got thus far the Enemy advanced a Second time (for they had done it once before, and after engaging バme Troops which I had poフed on a Hill, and driving them from it with the loピ of abt. 300 killed and Wounded to them, and little more than half the number to us) as if they meant a genel. Attack, but finding us ready to receive them, and upon ブch ground as they could not approach without loピ, they filed of and retreated towards New York.
As it was conceived that this Manoeuvre was done with a deナgn to attack Fort Waドington (near Harlem heights) or to throw a body of Troops into the Jerテys, or what might be フill worテ, aim a フroke at Philadelphia, I haフend over on this ナde with abt. 5000 Men by a round about March (wch. we were obliged to take on Acct. of the Shipping oppoナng the paピage at all the lower Ferries) of near 65 Miles. But did not get hear time enough to take Meaブres to ヂve Fort Waドington tho I got here myテlf a day or two before it ブrrendered, which happened on the 16th. Inフt. After making a defence of about 4 or 5 hours only.
We have no particular Acct. of the loピ on either ナde, or of the Circumフances attending this matter, the whole Garriバn after being drove from the out lines, and retiring within the Fort ブrrendered themテlves Priバners of War, and giving me no Acct. of the terms. By a letter, which I have just receivd from Genl. Greene at Fort Lee, (whc. is oppoナte to Fort Waドington) I am informed that "one of the Train of Artillery came acroピ the River laフ Night on a Raft, by his Acct. the Enemy have ブffered greatly on the North ナde of Fort Waドington. Colo. Rawlings's Regiment (late Hugh Stephenバn's) was poフed there, and behaved with great Spirit. Colo. Magaw could not get the Men to Man the Lines, otherwiテ he would not have given up the Fort."
This is a moフ unfortunate affair, and has given me great Mortification as we have loフ not only two thouヂnd Men that were there, but a good deal of Artillery, and バme of the beフ arms we had. And what adds to my Mortification is, that this Poフ, after the laフ Ships went paフ it, was held contrary to my Wiドes and opinion; as I conceived it to be a dangerous one: but being determined on by a full Council of General Officers, and receiving a reバlution of Congreピ フrongly expreピive of their deナres, that the Channel of the River (which we had been labouring to フop for a long time at this place) might be obフructed, if poピible; and knowing that this could not be done unleピ there were Batteries to protect the obフruction I did not care to give an abバlute order for withdrawing the Garriバn till I could get round and テe the Situation of things and then it became too late as the Fort was inveフed. I had given it, upon paピing of the laフ Ships, as my opinion to Genl. Greene, under whoテ care it was, that it would be beフ to evacuate the place; but as the order was diツretionary, and his opinion differed from mine, it unhappily was delayed too long, to my great grief..."
In regard to "the Circumフances attending this matter", of which General Washington was not knowledgeable when he wrote to his brother on the 19th, the following is known. During the night of the 14th, General Howe transported his troops up the Hudson River, under the eyes of the Americans in the two forts (Lee and Washington). The thirty flatboats used for the transport of the troops were diverted into the Spuyten Duyvil Creek and from there into the Harlem River so that an attack could be made from the east.
On the morning of 16 November, Generals Washington, Putnam, Mercer and Greene rowed over to Fort Washington from Fort Lee, in order to discuss an evacuation. As they arrived at the eastern shoreline of the Hudson River, they heard the opening shots of cannon, and sensed that the British assault had begun. They rowed back to Fort Lee where Washington organized about 3,000 of the troops to march west to Hackensack.
The British assault on Fort Washington would be made in four phases.
The first phase was an assault made by the 3,000 Hessian troops under General von Knyphausen against Rawling's riflemen at Fort Tryon. Knyphausen's troops, which included men from Johann Gottlieb Rall's Brigade and Waldeck's Regiment, crossed the Kings Bridge around 7:00am. Because Howe's plan was for all of the major bodies of American troops were to be hit at the same time, Knyphausen made initial contact with Rawling's troops around 10:00, but then backed off while he waited for the signal, by cannon, that General Mathews had crossed the Harlem River and was ready to attack.
Knyphausen divided his force into two columns. He led the one and Colonel Rall the other. The terrain through which they traveled was very rough and difficult, and the fire from Rawling's riflemen was hot and heavy. It would prove to be the longest and most intense combat of the day.
The second phase involved Lord Hugh Percy, whose 2,000 men, composed of one Hessian brigade and nine British battalions, marched northward from McGown's Pass to confront Cadwalader's troops.
The third phase got under way around noon when General Edward Mathew arrived with the 1st and 2nd Battalions of Light Infantry, followed by two guards battalions, who were supported the 1st and 2nd Grenadier Battalions and the 33rd Foot Regiment led by General Charles Cornwallis. This force marched against the militia led by Colonel Baxter on Laurel Hill. Baxter was killed early in the assault, and his militia fled to the safety of the fort.
The fourth phase was to be a feigned landing due east of Fort Washington by Colonel William Alexander (aka Lord Stirling) and his 42nd or Royal Highland Regiment (aka the "Black Watch"). When it was discovered that Percy was meeting greater resistance than anticipated, and with the retreat of Baxter's militia at Laurel Hill, Stirling was redirected to strike Cadwalader's flank. Two battalions from Cornwallis' command were attached to Stirling's for the flanking move. In response, Cadwalader directed 150 men of the 3rd Pennsylvania Regiment to defend his side. The combined strength of Percy's and Stirling's forces was too much for Cadwalader to stand up to, even with the reinforcements. Despite having inflicted heavy casualties on Percy's Hessian Brigade, Cadwalader, at length, was forced to accept the futility of his situation, and called for a retreat back to Fort Washington.
The Hessians under Colonel Rall succeeded in breaking Rawlings' defence and pushed through to arrive at Fort Washington in the early afternoon. Captain Hohenstein was ordered by Colonel Rall to tie a white cloth to the end of a musket barrel and then to advance to the fort and demand its surrender. The American surrender of Fort Washington came at about 3:00pm.
Four days later, on the 20th of November, Howe sent General Cornwallis across the Hudson River to attempt to take Fort Lee. Over 4,000 troops crossed the Hudson in a steady rain and landed about six miles north of the fort. The Americans were warned of the movement of the British troops, and General Greene began a general evacuation of the fortification. Greene and some 2,000 Patriots would make their way to join Washington's army at Hackensack, New Jersey. In their haste they left a considerable amount of equipment. It was said that when the British arrived at the site they found tents and personal equipment still in place, with pots of stew still boiling. Only twelve drunken American soldiers were in it when Cornwallis claimed the fort for the redcoats. About 150 others were taken captive in the vicinity around the fort.
The loss of both forts was a devastating blow to the American Cause. In the surrender of Fort Washington, 2,818 men had been taken prisoner. Loss of life amounted to 53 for the Americans, with about 96 wounded. (By comparison, the British lost 458.) The City of New York would remain in British hands until after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The loss in terms of morale was even greater than the loss of arms and ammunition.