During the American Revolution, one of the goals of the British Army was to divide the colonies militarily and strategically. The easiest way to do this was to occupy New York City and to take control of the Hudson River.
In response to this military threat, the Continental army constructed two fortifications along the Hudson. These were Fort Washington in northern Manhattan at 183rd Street and Fort Lee located on what is now Parker Avenue and Cedar Street in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Construction of Fort Washington and Fort Lee had begun in July 1776 under the command of General Nathaniel Greene. Fort Washington was located on a hill to protect the city from a rear attack by the British and Hessians. The fort was designed as a pentagonal (or five-bastioned) earthwork fortification. The position of the fort on a hill over 250 feet high was superior, but was less than ideal as a fort. As with other fortifications, Fort Washington had no ditches or palisades, no barracks, no bomb proofs, and lack of water storage. General Greene had not noticed the drawbacks and weaknesses of the location of Fort Washington until it was too late. This was due to the fact that he was out of touch with Washington.
Both Forts Washington and Lee were situated to create a crossfire and bombardment of cannon and mortar to stop British ships from sailing up the Hudson River. The batteries of Fort Lee overlooked the Palisades on a bluff about 300 feet above the Hudson. The range and type of weapon used (cannon and mortar) varied from 1,100 to 1,500 yards, which provided a firing field reaching across the river on either side.
As an added measure, a barrier of ships with their masts still attached were sunk in the middle of the river to act as a blockade against British ships sailing up river. This was known as a Chevaux de Frise.
The construction of these barriers had been used a century earlier as anti-cavalry defenses in the Northern provinces of the Spanish Netherlands during their war for independence. These barriers were bulwarks of protective timbers with projecting iron spears connected with chains, originated in the Dutch province of Friesland, which was the first of the seven provinces to formally recognize the United States on February 26, 1782.
The water obstructions were adapted and designed by Colonel Rufus Putnam. They consisted of two sloops, two brigantines, and two larger ships that were placed between the forts. The masts were pointed and covered with fitted iron cones. There are several variations in the spelling: Shive de Frise, Shiver de Freese, Sheverd fres and Cheverd’Friezes.
But this did not deter the Royal Navy, which had arrived at Sandy Hook, New Jersey on June 25th. Within a week the fleet was stationed off Staten Island and sending soldiers to dry land. Under the command of Admiral Lord Richard Howe, ships had sailed up the Hudson to test the barriers and the capabilities of the forts. At various intervals, the HMS Phoenix, HMS Rose, HMS Roebuck, HMS Tartar and HMS Pearl were used to run the gauntlet of the two forts. The HMS Pearl was used in the final assault on the morning of November 16, 1776.
One of the most important links between the forts was Burdett’s Ferry. Etienne Burdett, a Manhattan merchant of Huguenot ancestry, built a home on the shore of the Hudson River below the battery emplacements of Fort Lee. From here the ferry transported cargo and passengers from shore to shore. When the forts were built, the ferry served as a communications link assisting in the transfer of information, orders, ordinance and personnel. The ferry had the distinction of being involved with two engagements during the occupation of New York City.
Fort Washington had a series of outer defensive works to give it added protection from attack. To the south were three defensive earthworks, located on what is now Broadway at 147th, 153rd and 160th Streets. To the north was the Forest Hill Fort, located in what is now Fort Tryon Park. To the northeast were Forts George and Clinton near what is now George Washington High School at 193rd Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue.
There was also a cannon and rifle emplacement on the Manhattan shore of the Hudson River at Jeffrey’s Hook. The spot is now made known by a stone marker placed there in 1910 by the Fort Washington Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. This locale eventually became part of Fort Washington Park and was later made famous by the Little Red Lighthouse.
On August 26, 1776, the Battle of Long Island had proved to be a near disaster for the Rebel army. As a result of this, Generals Howe and Cornwallis would not allow the British forces to be embarrassed like they had been at the Bunker Hill confrontation in Boston. They were in no rush to capture Washington and his troops.
Washington evacuated his troops to Manhattan under cover of night and set up headquarters at the former summer estate of Colonel Roger Morris, a loyalist who returned to England at the outbreak of hostilities. From the estate Washington had a perfect view of lower Manhattan as well as the Hudson and Harlem Rivers.
It was from here that Washington commanded the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16, 1776, which routed the British and gave the Continental Army new impetus to continue the War for Independence. Northern Manhattan had become an encampment of 15,000 American soldiers. As the British Army advanced northward into Harlem from lower Manhattan, taking positions near the southern defenses of Fort Washington, General Washington moved his temporary headquarters to Westchester, leaving General Greene in command of 5,000 troops and the last defensive position in New York City.
While the Americans were fortifying northern Manhattan, General Sir William Howe moved his troops into the Bronx and Westchester to weaken and control rebel resistance. The Battle of White Plains on October 28th forced Washington to move 10,000 of his troops out of New York City to confront the British. The Battle was a loss to the Americans, and Washington retreated to New Jersey.
This left Earl Percy, a veteran of Bunker Hill and Lexington, in charge of the Royalist troops in Manhattan. General Knyphausen received his marching orders on October 27th to move his six battalions of Hessians to the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx the following day. Percy received orders to move north in Manhattan. The ships HMS Repulse and HMS Pearl, both with numerous 32-pound cannons, left New York harbor at 6 a.m. to arrive on the scene by 7:30 a.m. with orders to fire rounds at the fort.
One of the most infamous acts of treason at this point was perpetrated by Lieutenant William Demont. On the night of November 2, 1776, Demont left Fort Washington for the camp of Lord Hugh Percy and provided a full report of the strengths and weaknesses of Fort Washington’s defenses. Demont was, at the time of his defection, one of the most knowledgeable officers at the time of the construction and Battle of Fort Washington. He was also the adjunct officer of Colonel Robert Magaw, who was in command at the time of the battle. The official American records were silent as to placing blame on Demont for the loss of the fort. Colonel Robert Magaw and other American officers learned of the treasonous incident immediately after the battle and surrender of the fort.
The first mention of the incident was 35 years later in the memoirs of Alexander Graydon. Graydon was a captain in the 3rd Pennsylvania Battalion when he was captured by members of the 42nd Highland Regiment, as he and some of his men were approaching the Morris Mansion on November 16th.
Washington had recommended to General Greene to evacuate the fort in northern Manhattan. Greene’s response was that the fort served to prevent ships from sailing up the Hudson River and as a deterrent to the British and Hessian army advancement.
Communications between the British and the Hessians were hampered by forcing the maintenance of British troops in Kingsbridge. The situation could have proved dangerous to possibly remove American stores and troops to Fort Lee in New Jersey. Major General Charles Lee expressed ominous concern about Fort Washington in regard to the loss of men and equipment.
On November 13th, General Washington arrived at Fort Lee in New Jersey from Stony Point and was anxious about the status of the forts. He found General Greene reinforcing Fort Washington with an additional 900 men for a possible offensive by Royalist forces. This was to bolster the garrison of 2,000 men under Magaw’s command. After a brief visit, Washington was satisfied and set up a new headquarters in Hackensack, New Jersey. The Continental Army was better prepared in New York City than at Bunker Hill.
That night a fleet of flatboats was transporting soldiers up the Harlem River to a point about one-half mile northeast of the fort on the Manhattan shore. These movements had gone undetected by the Americans. This was to reinforce General Knyphausen’s Hessians and to assist in the harassment of the Rebel forces.
On the morning of November 15th, Washington rode from Hackensack to Fort Lee to discuss with Generals Greene and Putnam the situation of the city and the two forts guarding the Hudson River. In his personal journal Washington noted that the men were in high spirits.
Colonel Robert Magaw, commander of the 5th Pennsylvania Battalion, was left in charge of the fort in Greene’s absence. At 1 p.m. on November 15th, Magaw received an imperative order of surrender for Fort Washington. This came from General Howe via an adjutant. The summons gave Magaw two hours to surrender and threatened severe measures if it was refused. Under custom and practice of 18th Century warfare, annihilation was indeed a lawful outcome.
Magaw refused and said that he would hold the fort until the last extremity. General Howe had no intention of putting the garrison to the sword nor did he plan on storming the fort that day. The attack was planned for the next day.
On the morning of November 16, 1776, at about 7 a.m., the British and Hessian forces were lining up to start the battle. These combined forces would attack the fort and its defenses from all sides. Due to the inclement weather and the tides running against the Royalist forces under the command of Cornwallis and Matthew, the initial assault was delayed until about noon.
The American troops under the command of Colonel Robert Magaw were outnumbered 3 to 1 (8,900 Royalist forces to 2,800 Americans). The top brass of the American forces (Washington, Greene, Putnam and Mercer) started to cross the Hudson to survey the situation until shots were fired. They hastily retreated back to the New Jersey shore.
From the south, the three lines of defense (147th, 155th and 160th Streets) fell after about an hour and a half of severe fighting. The Third Pennsylvania Battalion and the Connecticut Rangers, a total of about 800 men, under the command of Colonel Lambert Cadwalader and Captain Lemuel Holmes, held back the Royalist Forces under the command of Major-General Stein, Colonel Carl Emil Kurt von Donop, Earl Percy and Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Sterling.
From the north and east, Fort Clinton and Fort George fell into Hessian hands. The heavily ladened Hessians under the command of General Schmidt and Colonel Rall managed to climb the steep hills around the forts to mount a heavy offensive. At the Forest Hill Fort, troops from Virginia, Maryland and the First Pennsylvania Artillery under the command of Captain Pierce held the Hessians back for hours.
John Corbin, one of the cannoniers of the First Pennsylvania, was killed by a Hessian musket ball. His wife, Margaret, took his position by the cannon and continued to load and fire it until she was severely wounded by grapeshot. This action gave her respect from both her fellow Pennsylvanians and the attacking Hessians.
By the end of the day, the battle was over and Fort Washington was lost. Despite the overwhelming odds, the Royalist losses were 67 killed, 335 wounded and 6 missing. The Americans faired even worse: 54 killed, 100 wounded and 2,858 captured. The American prisoners were marched to lower Manhattan and transferred to the prison ships stationed in New York harbor. There were 100 officers who were eventually paroled, to the chagrin and even fear of the Loyalists.
The British and Hessians captured a valuable supply of stores and ammunition, which consisted of small caliber guns and four cannons (32-pounders) mounted on the west side of the fort overlooking the river. Other weapons captured were 142 other cannon, 3,000 muskets, 12,000 shot and shell, and 40,000 cartridges. This was a devastating loss for the American army. The resources had been dispersed and inadequate before the assault and capture of the fort.
Blame for squandering the men and supplies rested on Magaw, Greene and Washington. Greene recognized that the defensive lines around Fort Washington were too extensive for such a small amount of men defending the fort, especially in such a disordered state.
In Fort Lee, Washington watched in total dismay and sorrow at the loss of so many good men and equipment. He had seen the widely spread American ramparts of the fort that bore his name prove useless against a professional fighting force of the Royalist troops.
With the loss of the fort in Manhattan, Fort Lee was left defenseless. Washington had, for some time, ordered that the stores at Fort Lee be moved to a safer place and nothing had been done. He tried to get them out, but things were not moving at a fast enough pace. Washington and General Greene saw an immediate need to evacuate Fort Lee at the time, but stood ready to move the troops at a moment’s notice if the British were sighted moving up the Hudson River to attack.
On November 19, 1776, General Cornwallis ferried 5,000 Royalist troops up the Hudson on barges. These troops landed near what is now Closter, New Jersey, and climbed the Palisades. Being warned of the impending threat, Washington dashed off to Fort Lee and ordered a hasty retreat from the area, leaving more equipment, cannon, munitions and other ordinance to the advancing British forces that were right behind them.
Despite Washington’s fears, the surrender of New York to the British did not spell disaster for the cause of independence. The British now had New York and its harbor but were unable to control the Hudson River as they had initially wanted. They were bottled up in New York.
As Washington moved south, the British were rounding up stragglers from the rebel army. General Howe prepared for an offensive in Rhode Island. He knew that there was little time to start deploying troops in New Jersey and Rhode Island as winter was setting in. Howe was criticized for sparing the garrison at Fort Washington. Lieutenant Archibald Robinson of the British army considered the rebel losses “trifling.”
After the British occupation of New York was completed, Fort Washington was occupied by the Hessians and renamed Fort Knyphausen after Lieutenant-General Wilhelm von Knyphausen, the commanding officer of the Hessian forces. Knyphausen took up headquarters at the Morris mansion for the duration of the war. The Forest Hill Fort was renamed Fort Tryon in honor of the last British Governor of the Province of New York. Johann Karl Philip von Krafft, a Second Lieutenant under Knyphausen, was to become famous for a written account describing the harshness of military life during the occupation of northern Manhattan and the daily life of the fort. Extreme weather conditions were noted in von Krafft’s diaries. The summer heat and extreme cold in the winter were described in detail. Fort Knyphausen was flooded during heavy rain storms.
The fort remained in Hessian hands until the end of the war, and what was left of the Royalist forces evacuated New York City on November 25, 1783. Washington and his victorious troops entered the city from the north, reclaiming the fort his army lost, eight years after its disastrous military loss.
The site of Fort Washington is located in Bennett Park on Fort Washington Avenue between 183rd and 185th Streets. In 1871, the area was purchased by James Gordon Bennett Sr., publisher of the New York Herald. At the time, remnants of the earthworks of Fort Washington were still visible.
The 1.8-acre park was purchased from the estate of James Gordon Bennett Jr. on July 18, 1928, and contains the outline of the fort laid down with granite blocks in the 1930s, when it was designed for public use. Every July 4th there is a historical talk and tour in Bennett Park on the history of the Bennett Family and on the Battle of Fort Washington. On July 18, 2003, a celebration was held to honor the 75th Anniversary of the park’s acquisition for the use of the community. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the Washington Heights Neighborhood Association and the Friends of Bennett Park co-sponsored the event. Concerts are also held in the park during the summer months.
Near the flagpole on the western side of the park within the outline of the fort is the phrase “FORT WASHINGTON BUILT AND DEFENDED BY THE AMERICAN ARMY 1776.” No remnants of the fort’s earthworks remain today. At the southeast corner of the park is a three- to six-foot wall that resembles one of the bastions of the fort. From the park it serves as an overlook to the street. Also within the park is a tree with a small plaque that was dedicated in 1932 to celebrate the Bi-Centennial of George Washington’s birth by the Washington Heights Memorial Grove Association, Inc.
James Gordon Bennett Jr. commissioned Charles R. Lamb to design a monument commemorating the fall of Fort Washington to the British and the Hessians. Erected and dedicated on November 16, 1901, the monument was placed on the Fort Washington side of the park. It was adorned with a cannon from the 1848 period and has a plaque describing the construction, defeat of, and recapture of Fort Washington. By 1904 the cannon had disappeared. November 16, 2001, heralded three events: the centennial of the plaque and the 225th anniversary of the fall of Fort Washington. This was in conjunction with the 225th anniversary of the start of the American Revolution.
The site was registered by the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society and the Empire State Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. Unfortunately, Fort Washington does not have, at present, landmark status from the City, State or Federal governments to be recognized as a Revolutionary War battle site.
Former City Councilman Stanley Michels wrote a letter to start landmarking procedures from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to make Fort Washington a City landmark. Efforts are also underway by the New York State American Revolution Heritage Trails to add Fort Washington to their list of historic site for the American Revolution. A request for evaluation was submitted in July 2003 to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission for the landmarking of Fort Washington. It was denied.