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Fighting for New York: Battle of Harlem Heights

Battle of Harlem Heights - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Harlem Heights was fought September 16, 1776, during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Armies & Commanders



Battle of Harlem Heights - Background:

Defeated at the Battle of Long Island, General George Washington withdrew his army to Manhattan on August 29, 1776.

Hesitating, General Sir William Howe did not pursue the Americans until September 15. Forcing their way ashore at Kip's Bay, British forces compelled Washington to abandon New York City and retreat north to Harlem Heights. Having consolidated his forces, Washington sent scouts south the following morning in response to reports that Howe was in pursuit. Led by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton, these men were spotted by the British pickets around dawn (Map).

Knowlton Retreats:

Opening fire, Knowlton's men began skirmishing with the enemy. Attacked by increasingly larger numbers of British troops, Knowlton's rangers were soon in danger of being flanked. Realizing the dire nature of the situation, Knowlton ordered his men to begin falling back to the north. As the Americans withdrew, they were pursued by Major General Alexander Leslie's 2nd and 3rd Battalions of Light Infantry as well as elements of the 42nd Regiment of Foot which derisively played fox hunting calls on their bugles. Alerted to the situation, Washington elected to attack with the goal of crushing the approaching enemy.

Washington's Plan:

His plan called for luring the advancing British light forces into an area of low ground known as the Hollow Way by feinting a retreat. This done, a second column would move around the British right and attack from the rear trapping the enemy in the Hollow Way. Sending forward a force of around 150 men, Washington succeeded in drawing the British forward into the low ground. As the fighting raged, he reinforced this force while Knowlton and other American forces moved around the British flank. Pushing forward, the flanking force was poorly directed and appeared on the British right instead of in their rear.

American Success:

Recognizing the danger, the British began falling back and assumed a position behind a fence in a nearby field. Receiving reinforcements, the Americans pushed forward and began assaulting this position. In the fighting, Knowlton was killed. Pressing their attacks, the Americans forced Leslie's men to retreat to a nearby hill where they regrouped and were reinforced. Again attacking, the Americans succeeded in claiming the hill after two hours of bitter fighting. Re-forming in a buckwheat field, the British continued to receive additional men.

Advancing on the British, Washington's men continued the battle for some time before the British, short on ammunition, departed the field. Though Washington conducted a short pursuit, he returned his men to Harlem Heights after receiving reports that Howe was dispatching units north.

Aftermath of Harlem Heights:

The first American victory of the New York Campaign, the Battle of Harlem Heights saw Washington's army sustain around 30 killed and 100 wounded while inflicting casualties on the British numbering 92-390. Though the victory bolstered morale, it cost Washington a gifted officer in Knowlton. With the Americans holding a strong position, Howe elected to move by water with part of his command to Throg's Neck and then on to Pell's Point. With Howe operating to the east, Washington was forced to abandon his position on northern Manhattan for fear of being cut off.

Leaving strong garrisons at Fort Washington on Manhattan and Fort Lee in New Jersey, Washington withdrew to a defensive position at White Plains. On October 28, the armies clashed again at the Battle of White Plains.

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