American Revolution: Battle of Fort Washington

illustration of the Battle of Fort Washington

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The Battle of Fort Washington was fought on November 16, 1776, during the American Revolution (1775-1783). Having defeated the British at the Siege of Boston in March 1776, General George Washington moved his army south to New York City. Laying out defenses for the city in conjunction with Brigadier General Nathanael Greene and Colonel Henry Knox, he selected a site on the north end of Manhattan for a fort.

Located near the highest point on the island, work began on Fort Washington under the guidance of Colonel Rufus Putnam. Constructed of earth, the fort lacked a surrounding ditch as American forces did not have sufficient powder for blasting out the rocky soil around the site.

A five-sided structure with bastions, Fort Washington, along with Fort Lee on the opposite bank of the Hudson, was intended to command the river and prevent British warships from moving north. To further defend the fort, three lines of defenses were laid out to the south.

While the first two were completed, construction on the third lagged. Supporting works and batteries were constructed on Jeffrey's Hook, Laurel Hill, and on a hill overlooking Spuyten Duyvil Creek to the north. Work continued as Washington's army was defeated at the Battle of Long Island in late August.

American Commanders

  • Colonel Robert Magaw
  • 3,000 men

British Commanders

To Hold or Retreat

Landing on Manhattan in September, British forces compelled Washington to abandon New York City and retreat north. Occupying a strong position, he won a victory at Harlem Heights on September 16. Unwilling to directly attack the American lines, General William Howe elected to move his army north to Throg's Neck and then on to Pell's Point. With the British in his rear, Washington crossed over from Manhattan with the bulk of his army lest it be trapped on the island. Clashing with Howe at White Plains on October 28, he was again forced to fall back.

Halting at Dobb's Ferry, Washington elected to split his army with Major General Charles Lee remaining on the east bank of the Hudson and Major General William Heath directed to take men to the Hudson Highlands. Washington then moved with 2,000 men to Fort Lee. Due to its isolated position in Manhattan, he wished to evacuate Colonel Robert Magaw's 3,000-man garrison at Fort Washington but was convinced to retain the fort by Greene and Putnam. Returning to Manhattan, Howe began making plans to assault the fort. On November 15, he dispatched Lieutenant Colonel James Patterson with a message demanding Magaw's surrender.

The British Plan

To take the fort, Howe intended to strike from three directions while feinting from a fourth. While General Wilhelm von Kynphausen's Hessians were to attack from the north, Lord Hugh Percy was to advance from the south with a mixed force of British and Hessian troops. These movements would be supported by Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis and Brigadier General Edward Mathew attacking across the Harlem River from the northeast. The feint would come from the east, where the 42nd Regiment of Foot (Highlanders) would cross the Harlem River behind the American lines.

The Attack Begins

Pushing forward on November 16, Knyphausen's men were ferried across during the night. Their advance had to be stopped as Mathew's men were delayed due to the tide. Opening fire on the American lines with artillery, the Hessians were supported by the frigate HMS Pearl (32 guns) which worked to silence the American guns. To the south, Percy's artillery also joined the fray. Around noon, the Hessian advanced resumed as Mathew and Cornwallis' men landed to the east under heavy fire. While the British secured a foothold on Laurel Hill, Colonel Johann Rall's Hessians took the hill by Spuyten Duyvil Creek.

Having gained a position on Manhattan, the Hessians pushed south towards Fort Washington. Their advance was soon halted by heavy fire from Lieutenant Colonel Moses Rawlings' Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment. To the south, Percy approached the first American line which was held by Lieutenant Colonel Lambert Cadwalader's men. Halting, he awaited a sign that the 42nd had landed before pushing forward. As the 42nd came ashore, Cadwalader began sending men to oppose it. Hearing the musket fire, Percy attacked and soon began to overwhelm the defenders.

The American Collapse

Having crossed to view the fighting, Washington, Greene, and Brigadier General Hugh Mercer elected to return to Fort Lee. Under pressure on two fronts, Cadwalader's men soon were forced to abandon the second line of defenses and began retreating to Fort Washington. To the north, Rawlings' men were gradually pushed back by the Hessians before being overrun after hand-to-hand fighting. With the situation rapidly deteriorating, Washington dispatched Captain John Gooch with a message requesting Magaw to hold out until nightfall. He hoped that the garrison could be evacuated after dark.

As Howe's forces tightened the noose around Fort Washington, Knyphausen had Rall demand Magaw's surrender. Sending an officer to treat with Cadwalader, Rall gave Magaw thirty minutes to surrender the fort. While Magaw discussed the situation with his officers, Gooch arrived with Washington's message. Though Magaw attempted to stall, he was forced to capitulate and the American flag was lowered at 4:00 PM. Unwilling to be taken a prisoner, Gooch jumped over the fort's wall and tumbled down to the shore. He was able to locate a boat and escaped to Fort Lee.

The Aftermath

In taking Fort Washington, Howe suffered 84 killed and 374 wounded. American losses numbered 59 killed, 96 wounded, and 2,838 captured. Of those soldiers taken prisoner, only around 800 survived their captivity to be exchanged the following year. Three days after the fall of Fort Washington, American troops were forced to abandon Fort Lee. Retreating across New Jersey, the remains of Washington's army finally halted after crossing the Delaware River. Regrouping, he attacked across the river on December 26 and defeated Rall at Trenton. This victory was followed up on January 3, 1777, when American troops won the Battle of Princeton.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Fort Washington." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Revolution: Battle of Fort Washington. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Fort Washington." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).