During the American Revolution there was a soldier who had been given command of a fort in northern Manhattan. This five-bastion fortification was to become known as the Alamo of the Patriot cause in New York City. The citadel was known as Fort Washington and the soldier was Robert Magaw.
Magaw was born in Philadelphia in 1738. He was educated as a lawyer and was the first attorney to be admitted to practice in the Bedford County courts. In 1774 he became a member of the Committee of Safety. In 1775 he served as Major in Colonel William Thompson’s Battalion. A year later (1776) he was promoted to Colonel of the 5th Pennsylvania Battalion and was sent to New York with John and Margaret Cochran Corbin, who were also to become famous in the battle that was to take place on November 16, 1776.
On November 15th, George Washington ordered General Green, who was the official commander of Fort Washington (or Mount Washington as it was known), and other officers to Fort Lee on the other side of the Hudson River. This left Magaw as the Officer in Charge of the garrison. During this period men were ferried over to Manhattan to bolster the few men that were there.
At 1 p.m. on November 15, a British officer came with surrender terms to Fort Washington. This was considered military protocol of the 18th Century when superior forces had an advantage over a smaller army. Magaw steadfastly refused. Magaw felt he could hold the fort and, if necessary, evacuate his men to the other side of the Hudson and safety. Despite the fierce resistance against the superior British and Hessian forces under the command of General Sir William Howe and General von Knyphausen, Magaw was forced to surrender the fort with much loss of life and valued munitions.
After the battle, Magaw and other prisoners were marched to lower Manhattan to be transferred to prison ships, which were located throughout the New York waterways. The most famous was the HMS Jersey, a refitted frigate which had become the most notorious of the prison ships. Many died from starvation and disease aboard these prisons.
On October 25, 1780, Magaw was freed in an exchange and was later made Colonel of the 6th Pennsylvania Battalion. When the war ended, Magaw went back to Pennsylvania to practice law. He passed away in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in January 1790.
On the southeast wall of the Parish House of the Fort Washington Collegiate Church is a plaque honoring Magaw. The plaque was placed there on April 30, 1923. Colonel Robert Magaw Place was named in the 1980s to honor this war hero by the Washington Heights and Inwood Historical Society. Magaw Place is the site of the driveway to the estate of James Gordon Bennett, who bought the property on which the site of Fort Washington is located.