Fort Washington, on the New York bank, and Fort Lee on the New Jersey bank were never meant to withstand a landward siege, just block the British navy from sailing up the Hudson River, a job they did splendidly. But after Washington lost the Battle of White Plains, the Continental Army retreated into New Jersey and the forts became targets. Washington wanted to evacuate because he was now down to less than 8000 in the army, but Howe moved with uncharacteristic speed, On 16 November 1776, Howe’s Hessians stormed the approaches to Fort Washington. Despite a stalwart defense by the Americans, the Hessians prevailed and rendered it untenable. Generals Washington and Greene just narrowly escaped capture on the last boat across the Hudson. Nearly 3000 Continentals surrendered.
Four days later, Washington ordered Fort Lee abandoned as Gen Lord Cornwallis approached. Thus began the darkest period in the history of the Revolution. The Continental Army began a long retreat across New Jersey which would see them cross the Delaware River into Pennsylvania on 10 December. Most of Philadelphia, including many in the Continental Congress assumed the war was lost. Most of the enlistments for the Continental Army were up at the end of the year, and there was no time to raise a new army before Howe took control of the Hudson River valley. This would split the colonies and isolate the heart of the revolution, New England. The war was all but over.
About the time the Continentals were marching out of Fort Lee and the first Americans from Fort Washington were loaded on prison ships in New York, Thomas Paine sat down in his study and decided to pen a new series of pamphlets for publication. They began:
“These are the times that try men’s souls…”