The Battle of Harlem Heights

On 15 September 1776, General Howe landed 4000 men at Kip’s Bay in Lower Manhattan. Washington’s spies knew of the landing and he planned to meet them at the waterline, but the Americans broke at the sight of the Royal Navy, despite Washington’s exhortations to stay and fight. Private Joseph Plumb Martin said of the embarrassing episode, “The demons of fear and disorder seemed to take full possession of all and everything on that day.” Washington reorganized the Continental Army on Harlem Heights and left Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton’s Rangers to monitor and harass the British.

Knowlton’s Rangers was arguably America’s first Special Forces unit. He patterned his men on Robert Roger’s Rangers from the French and Indian War (Roberts was fighting for the British in this war.). On the morning on 16 Sep, Knowlton’s 150 men surprised the pickets of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the Light Infantry. Once the British were roused, Knowlton fell back, and the British pursued. The Light Infantry dragged the entire 42nd Highlander Regt, the Black Watch, with them: the uppity Americans had to be chastised. The Light Infantry liked to use fox hunting calls in their pursuits, and Washington took the sound as an insult.

The infuriated Washington organized an ambush for the cocky Brits, but a jittery young officer prematurely ordered his men to fire just as the Brits entered the kill zone. The British retreated to a field on Morningside Heights, but they were exposed and Washington decided to attack. All was going well for Washington, but a bungled flank attack (and death of Knowlton) failed to isolate them. The Brits retreated into the trees of Hollow Way, but Martin said of the withdrawal, they “were entering a thick wood, a circumstance as disagreeable to them as it was agreeable to us at that period of the war.”

At this point both Howe and Washington fed troops into the battle and they pounded each other for several hours, with the Americans having the upper hand in what was described as a “cursed thrashing” by one British officer. Nevertheless, Washington knew he was pressing his luck in the slug fest, as he was unwilling to commit more troops and risk the loss of the very defensible Harlem Heights behind him. When Howe arrived with the bulk of his 9000 man army, Washington prudently withdrew back up the hill.

The Battle of Harlem Heights, as it subsequently became known (it was named for the location of Washington’s headquarters, not the location of the actual battle), was Washington’s first battlefield victory. The Continental Army locked horns with best regiments in the British Army and gave better than they got. It proved a significant boost to the morale of the wavering Americans, which had only known defeat in New York.

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