I give it as my opinion that a General And Speedy Retreat is absolutely Necessary, and that the honor and Interest of America require it.
—NATHANAEL GREENE TO GEORGE WASHINGTON, September 5, 1776
According to the calibrated strategy of the Howe brothers, the humiliation of the Continental Army on Long Island was supposed to generate shock waves that would shake the foundation of the American rebellion. But the conference with Lord Howe on Staten Island seemed to expose the flaw in that strategy, since the American delegation refused to regard the debacle on Long Island as anything more than a temporary setback of minor significance. Adams and Franklin even harbored the conviction that the annihilation or surrender of the entire Continental Army would have made no difference, except perhaps to prolong the inevitable American victory. The Howe brothers were trying to use their superior army and navy as instruments of a not-so-gentle persuasion, but the leaders of the Continental Congress, having committed to American independence, were beyond persuasion, in a zone where any prospect of reconciliation with their British betters was now unimaginable.
The Continental Army, on the other hand, was experiencing precisely the sense of shock that the Howe brothers had intended to deliver. Favorable winds, shifting river currents, then a providential fog, had allowed Washington’s troops to make a near-miraculous escape across the East River, but their spirit had been broken. “Our situation is truly distressing,” Washington reported to Hancock. “The Militia, instead of calling forth their utmost efforts … are dismayed, Intractable, and Impatient to return [home]. Great numbers of them have gone off, in some cases by whole Regiments.” As the troops arrived on Manhattan, one witness described them as “sickly, emaciated, cast down.… In general everything seemed to be in confusion.”1
Exact numbers are impossible to know, since Washington himself could not keep track of the deserters. But the best estimate is that about 10,000 militia walked away during the first two weeks of September. Washington issued an order to stop the deserters at King’s Bridge on the northern end of Manhattan, but quickly rescinded the order on the grounds that the militia had proven worse than worthless, and their very presence fed an epidemic of fear and defeatism. Their departure meant that Washington commanded an army of 18,000, of whom only about 13,000 were “fit for duty,” which meant that he was now outnumbered more than two to one.2
Even those troops who were categorized as “fit for duty” were dazed and demoralized, “constantly rambling about,” as Washington described them, “at such distances from their respective quarters and encampments, as not to be able to oppose the enemy in any sudden approach.” Fortunately for them and the American cause, William Howe did not launch an invasion of Manhattan to follow up his triumph on Long Island. This delay seemed inexplicable to several British officers, since it was clear that the Continental Army was wholly vulnerable, while the British Army was poised to end it all in one final battle. “For many succeeding days did our brave veterans … stand on the banks of the East River,” remembered Captain George Collier, “like Moses on Mount Piszak, looking at their promised land less than half a mile away.”3
Howe’s apparent lack of initiative was, in fact, wholly in keeping with his strategic priorities. He was waiting to hear about the results of his brother’s conference with the rebels on Staten Island. There was no point in launching another military action if a diplomatic resolution of the conflict was imminent. Besides, the rebel army, if indeed it still could be described as an army, had escaped from one trap on Long Island to another on Manhattan. There was no need to hurry, since Washington’s dispirited troops had nowhere else to go.
British spies reported that American soldiers were busy plundering all the homes in the city, apparently justifying their thievery on the grounds that otherwise the booty would fall into the hands of the British Army, which could occupy the city whenever it chose to do so. Just as Howe had hoped, their near-death experience on Long Island forced them to face the fact that the defense of New York was, and always had been, misguided.
Indeed, from the British perspective, the American rebellion had already been quashed, and what remained was merely a mopping-up operation. Back in London, news of the Long Island victory prompted Lord Germain to initiate the paperwork for William Howe’s elevation to a knighthood as a reward for his services in preserving Great Britain’s empire in North America. “The leaders of the rebellion have acted as I could have wished,” Germain wrote to Admiral Howe, meaning taken a stand at New York. “I trust that the deluded people will soon have recourse to your lordship for mercy and protection, leaving their chiefs to receive the punishment they deserve.” This presumably meant that Washington, Adams, and Franklin, among others, would go to the gallows.4
WASHINGTON REMAINED IN his quarters during the early days of September, recovering from exhaustion. The deeper truth was that he was groping toward the realization that the decision to defend New York had been an elemental mistake, and now, caught in the consequences of that mistake, he did not know what to do.
The clearest recommendation came from Nathanael Greene, just released from the hospital after a near-death experience of his own: “The object under consideration is whether a General and speedy retreat from this Island is Necessary or not. To me it appears the only Eligible plan to oppose the Enemy successfully and secure ourselves from disgrace. I think we have no Object on this side of King Bridge.… I would burn the City and suburbs.” In Greene’s calculus, the survival of the Continental Army counted more than the defense of any piece of ground. “I give it as my opinion,” he reiterated, “that a General And Speedy Retreat is absolutely Necessary and that the honor and Interest of America require it.”5
Greene was asking Washington to embrace two unpalatable and intractable realities: first, that the decision to defend New York had been a mistake, and the time had come to recognize that fact and cut American losses; and second, that Washington needed to subordinate his honor-driven instinct to stand and fight to larger political imperatives, which in this case meant the survival of the Continental Army. It was clear that Greene, unlike Adams and Franklin, believed that the destruction of the Continental Army put the movement for American independence at risk.
Greene’s diagnosis of Washington’s temperament was just as sharp as his assessment of the strategic options facing the Continental Army. He recognized that Washington harbored a deeply ingrained sense of personal honor in which the failure of the Continental Army cast a shadow over his own reputation. He tended to equate retreat with defeat, and defeat with a permanent stain on his own character. Within this code, a strategic retreat was dishonorable behavior, like refusing an invitation to duel. Greene’s point was that Washington’s highest priority must be the principled cause for which they were fighting, and there was nothing principled or honorable about ordering the demise of the Continental Army.
Nevertheless, Washington’s first instinct was to reject Greene’s advice. His correspondence with Hancock at this moment was uncharacteristically unfocused and meandering, perhaps a symptom of residual fatigue, or an aftershock from the trauma of the Long Island disaster. (He regarded Hancock, as president of the Continental Congress, as his civilian superior, not Adams, even though Adams was better informed on military matters as head of the Board of War and Ordnance.) Despite the desperate situation of the Continental Army, he was uncomfortable with the decision to surrender New York without a fight, telling Hancock that “it would have the tendency to dispirit the Troops and enfeeble the Cause.” It might also have serious political consequences throughout the colonies, “where the Common cause may be affected by the discouragement it may throw over the minds of many…, especially after our Loss upon Long Island.” Whether the crucial consideration was his own personal sense of honor, or the need to recover the confidence of the army, or the fear that abandoning New York would generate doubts in the minds of lukewarm patriots everywhere, he felt the need to deliver “a brilliant stroke” against the British on Manhattan, even if that meant running the risk of losing everything, including his own life, in the process.6
One intriguing attempt at “a brilliant stroke” involved the deployment of a one-man submarine. As we have seen, Franklin had approached Washington several weeks earlier about the prospect of an underwater vessel that might sink British warships by cruising beneath them and attaching a delayed-reaction bomb to their hulls. On September 6, Washington gave his approval to a pioneering effort at underwater warfare. Despite difficulty with river currents, the experimental submarine, named the Turtle, managed to get beneath Admiral Howe’s flagship, the Eagle, with a 150-pound bomb but could not manage to attach it to the copper-covered keel. If successful, the Turtle might have significantly reduced the tactical advantage enjoyed by the British navy on the rivers surrounding Manhattan. But soon after its maiden voyage, the Turtle sank in the Hudson while being transported upstream for another trial run. It would take more than a century for submarine warfare to become technologically feasible.7
On September 7, Washington convened a council of war that voted to endorse his preference for a stand—perhaps a last stand—on Manhattan. It was a confusing debate because Washington had received orders from the Continental Congress not to burn New York City, which some officers interpreted as an order to defend it at all costs. Washington seemed to endorse that interpretation by reminding his fellow officers that the principle of civilian control of the military must be respected, even though it was clear that the Continental Congress did not fathom the truly desperate situation confronting its army.
Once the big decision to defend Manhattan had been made, the council of war voted to divide its forces, placing 5,000 troops at the southern end of the island to defend the city; 9,000 men at the northern end, where the British attack was most likely; and 4,000 of the newest recruits in the middle, where an attack was least likely. Because the British retained the initiative, they would enjoy a significant numerical advantage wherever they chose to launch their assault.8
Washington wanted Hancock to understand that Manhattan was all but lost. “It is our Interest & wish,” he explained, “to prolong it as much as possible.” As Joseph Reed explained to his wife, the goal was to inflict heavy losses on the British before surrendering, “and if a sacrifice of us can save the cause of America, there will be time to collect another army before spring, and the country will be preserved.” This fatalistic formulation almost surely reflected Washington’s thinking—or what passed for thinking—at this tense and crowded moment. Washington was preparing to make himself into a martyr.9
It is also possible that he believed he had no other choice but to sacrifice himself and the Continental Army because, outnumbered and isolated as they were, they had no realistic prospect of escaping from Manhattan. General Howe would have to be a blithering idiot not to block the one avenue of escape at King’s Bridge, and the American commander there, William Heath, apprised Washington that he lacked the troops to stop Howe from sealing the trap. An engineering officer, Rufus Putnam, scouted the terrain and confirmed Heath’s assessment that there was no way of preventing Howe from putting the Continental Army in “a Bad Box.”10
Writing from the relative security of Fishkill, the delegates of the provisional government of New York confirmed the strategic diagnosis: “We are so fully satisfied of the Enemies Design to land above New York, and of the Mischiefs that will result thereupon … we have Reason to dread the Consequences.” All concurred that British naval supremacy on the Hudson and East rivers, plus British superiority on the ground at the northern end of Manhattan, meant that Washington was marooned. Since surrender was not an option, the only choice was to fight.11
During the second week of September, three new developments combined to change Washington’s mind. First, the Continental Congress clarified its earlier order not to burn the city of New York, leaving the decision to defend it to Washington’s discretion. His judgment, not theirs, was more fully informed by the facts on the ground and enjoyed their support. Second, still waiting on word from his brother about the peace initiatives, General Howe showed no inclination to mass his army around King’s Bridge. He preferred to prepare for his occupation of the city and port of New York. Third, Greene lobbied his fellow generals for another council of war to reconsider the decision to defend Manhattan, arguing that its defense was untenable and the survival of the Continental Army was synonymous with the survival of American independence. “The present Case is of such Magnitude and big with such Consequences to all America,” Greene insisted, “that a reconsideration of the earlier decision is imperative.”12
The day after the failed peace conference on Staten Island, on September 12, the general officers voted 10–3 to reverse their decision of the preceding week. They would now abandon any defense of the city of New York and consolidate their force at King’s Bridge to resist the anticipated British attack there rather than spread the Continental Army the entire length of Manhattan. For the time being, they would leave 2,000 troops at Fort Washington, near the present-day George Washington Bridge, to contest British naval supremacy on the Hudson. The new goal was to block Howe’s likely invasion at the northern tip of Manhattan, then evacuate the entire Continental Army off the island. The new priority was the preservation of the army at all costs, including the loss of New York.13
Washington embraced the new strategy reluctantly. It violated all his primal instincts, his honor-driven temperament, and the military assumption he had been harboring for the last four months about making New York a more lethal version of Bunker Hill. In explaining the new plan to Hancock, he was almost apologetic. He wanted Hancock to know that he had fully intended to defend New York, because he recognized its strategic importance. “But I am fully convinced that it cannot be done,” he pleaded, “and that an attempt for that purpose if preserved, might and most certainly would be attended with consequences the most fatal and alarming in their nature.”14
By “fatal” he almost surely meant the destruction of the Continental Army. Whether he agreed with Greene that the end of the army meant the end of American independence is not so clear. He had been regarding the American cause as invincible for so long that it was psychologically difficult for him to give it up. But if the destruction of the Continental Army did put American independence at risk, then it was not a risk worth running. He was fully prepared to surrender his own life on this ground, and he wanted that fact to be known to all his officers. But matters larger than his own honor were at stake, and he needed to subordinate his own instincts to that larger purpose.
REPORTS FROM THE field began to gather on Adams’s desk in Philadelphia after his return from Staten Island. His position as head of the Board of War and Ordnance made him privy to the alarming desertion rates, the dispirited condition of the remaining troops, and what Henry Knox described as “the sense of Panic” that had gripped the entire Continental Army in the wake of the Long Island ordeal. “I despise that Panic and those who have been infected with it,” he apprised Knox and half seriously urged that “the good old Roman fashion of Decimation should be Introduced,” meaning that every tenth man in a demoralized regiment should be executed as a lesson to the others. Meanwhile, his job was to prevent the infection from spreading to the Continental Congress, which, even more than the army, was the center that had to hold.15
William Hooper of North Carolina reported conversations with former moderates on the independence question, who were now whispering “I told you so” in the corridors. But in the full-scale debate over Lord Howe’s peace initiative, it had become clear that any chastened second thoughts generated by Howe’s victory in New York were regarded as inadmissible; American independence remained nonnegotiable. The leadership in the congress effectively enforced a silence on the troubling fact that they were losing the war.16
This in turn meant that the political agenda should proceed apace, undistracted by unwelcome news from New York. On September 9, for example, the delegates finally got around to revising the style manual for all official correspondence, so that it replaced “United Colonies” with “United States.” On September 17, they adopted the final draft of Adams’s Plan of Treaties, designed to forge a diplomatic alliance with France, subsequently choosing Jefferson to join Silas Deane in Paris to negotiate the treaty. (Jefferson declined for personal reasons, chiefly the fragile health of his wife.) On September 20, they approved another Adams draft, the Articles of War, which standardized regulations for promotions, procedures, and punishments within the Continental Army and which Adams freely acknowledged “were copied from the British Articles of War, Totidem Verbia.”17
The underlying presumption remained that regardless of what happened on the battlegrounds of New York, the American Revolution was going forward. If Adams needed any boost to his revolutionary confidence—and he did not—he received it from his indomitable Abigail. If all the men in Washington’s army were killed or captured, she declared, the Howe brothers would have to contend with “a race of Amazons in America.”18
While the British had convinced themselves that the war was all but over, the leaders in the congress wanted to make a clear statement that it had barely begun. For months, Washington had been warning that an American army of short-termers supplemented withmilitia could not compete on an equal basis against British regulars. Now the fiasco on Long Island and the demoralized and deteriorating condition of the troops on Manhattan had proven his point. “We are now, as it were, upon the eve of another dissolution of our Army,” he warned Hancock, meaning that desertions were increasing and enlistments were about to expire, “and unless some speedy and effectual measures are adopted by Congress, our cause will be lost.”19
Greene chimed in with a rant against the illusory prowess of militia, now deserting in droves. “The policy of Congress has been the most absurd and ridiculous imaginable,” he wrote his brother, “pouring in militia who come and go every month. A military force established on such principles defeats itself.” Washington seconded the verdict, observing that if the battle of Long Island taught anything, it was that “to place any dependence on Militia is, assuredly, resting upon a broken staff.”20
Unknown to Washington and Greene, the Continental Congress had already voted to give them everything they were asking for and more. On September 16, the delegates ordered the creation of 88 new battalions, another 60,000 men. Enlistments would be encouraged by signing bonuses of $20, and enlistments “for the duration” by the promise of 100 acres of western land at the end of the war.21
In order to implement this order, troop quotas were established for each state according to population. (Interestingly, although the delegates could not agree on whether representation in the new government should be by state or proportional according to population, they easily agreed that big states like Virginia and Massachusetts should bear a larger burden militarily.) Hancock wrote to the governors of all the states, urging them to “bend all your Attention to raise your Quota of the American Army.”22
This new initiative reflected the recognition that events in New York had dashed all hopes for a short war. As Washington put it, the winning of independence “is not likely to be the Work of a day.” Moreover, in the kind of prolonged struggle they now faced, reliance on patriotic zeal, much like reliance on militia, would no longer suffice. “When men are irritated & the Passions inflamed, they fly hastily and cheerfully to Arms,” Washington intoned in his most realistic mode. But those heady days were now over, and the war was entering a new phase in which discipline and endurance replaced patriotic virtue as the ingredients essential for victory. “To expect among such People as compose the bulk of the Army that they are influenced by any other Principles than those of Interest,” Washington warned, “is to look for what never did, & I fear never will happen.”23
The decision by the Continental Congress represented a collective commitment to provide Washington with the kind of permanent standing army he believed necessary to win the war. It also represented a symbolic statement of political resolve that, no matter what happened to Washington’s army on Manhattan, the pool of manpower available to the American cause was virtually inexhaustible, a message calculated to generate tremors in the corridors of Whitehall.
But the decision was also symbolic in another sense, for its implementation depended upon compliance by all the state legislatures, which were predisposed to fund militias within their own borders rather than recruits for the Continental Army. And since a mandatory draft defied the republican principles that they were all purportedly fighting for, the order was really a request, and compliance was wholly voluntary, which meant that a new 60,000-man army was never going to happen. Washington might well have argued that republican principles were meaningless if America lost the war, and the leadership of the Continental Congress obviously agreed. But the political reality was that the delegates in Philadelphia were making a promise they could not keep.
To be sure, all the state governments remained resolute on the question of American independence. (The Howes had expected some defections after Long Island.) But when it came to providing money and men for the Continental Army, each state government made the protection of its own citizenry the highest priority. They were no more willing to cede authority to the Continental Congress than they were to recognize the sovereign authority of Parliament. They were united on the question of independence, but only as long as each state was permitted to pursue that goal as it saw fit.
IT IS DIFFICULT to generalize about the bulk of the American citizenry. No question, these were the most important hearts and minds of all and therefore the ultimate target of the Howe strategy, which intended the humiliation of the Continental Army to serve as a demonstration of British military superiority. Something akin to a referendum on independence had occurred in May and June, with decisive results. Would the results be equally decisive or dangerously divisive if a referendum occurred in September?
No such referendum occurred, of course, but even if it had, no major change would have been likely, because most of the population remained ignorant that the Continental Army had suffered any kind of defeat at all. And the simple reason for the widespread ignorance was that American newspapers did not report it. Abigail Adams was reading the newspapers as intensively as anyone, and she complained about the lack of coverage: “We seem to be kept in a total Ignorance of affairs at [New] York.… Who fell, who [were] wounded, who made prisoner or their Numbers is as undetermined as it was the day after the Battle. If our army is in ever so critical a state, I wish to know it, and the worst of it.”24
In fact, one of the Boston newspapers Abigail was reading, The New England Chronicle, reported a glorious American victory on Long Island.
The ministerial army attacked our lines on Long Island at three different places, with their utmost force; but the intrepidity of the soldiers of the United States, joined with that vigor becoming to a free people, repulsed them; that they were obliged to retreat precipitously, with great loss, the particulars of which we have not yet been able to learn.
The Chronicle also reported, prominently but inaccurately, the death of General James Grant, the British officer who had previously predicted that he could subdue the American rebellion in a matter of weeks with 5,000 British regulars. Several other newspapers picked up this story, which had great patriotic appeal given Grant’s disdain for the fighting prowess of American troops.25
The Connecticut Courant accurately described the size of the British and Hessian invasion force and the encirclement of American troops on Gowanus Heights, but then reported that the beleaguered Americans “bravely fought their way through the enemy, killing great numbers of them and brought off many prisoners.” The Pennsylvania Packet repeated this version of the battle almost word-for-word, but then added the firsthand description, wholly fabricated, of “the glorious death of General Stirling from a witness who was close to him when he fell.”
The Newport Mercury printed an account by a Rhode Island soldier that accurately described the heavy American losses and Stirling’s bravery as well as his capture but emphasized the steadfast courage and eventual victory of the American troops, despite being outnumbered. The Virginia Gazette emphasized the “high spirits” of the Continental Army on the eve of the battle, but then offered no coverage of the battle itself. A later story erroneously reported that “General Howe had his leg dangerously shattered by a ball” and that an epidemic had broken out among the Hessian troops, who were purportedly on the verge of mutiny.26
Virtually all of the newspapers provided extensive and accurate coverage of the meeting with Lord Howe on Staten Island and the subsequent rejection of his peace initiative by the Continental Congress, a decision that received editorial accolades from all quarters as the proper statement of American defiance. Only a few papers mentioned the charmed and desperate escape at night over the East River to Manhattan, presumably because it did not square with earlier accounts of American victory on Long Island.27
The press, in short, did not provide an unbiased version of the Battle of Long Island or the glaring problems within the Continental Army. In this highly charged and vulnerable moment, loyalty to “The Cause” trumped all conventional definitions of the truth so completely that journalistic integrity became almost treasonable. As a result, there was little discernible wavering in the commitment to American independence in any province beyond the New York theater, where loyalists were volunteering in droves to join theBritish Army. The partisan American press had concealed the full extent of the demoralized condition of the Continental Army. Few Americans knew they were losing the war.
ON SEPTEMBER 12, General Howe learned that his brother’s efforts at negotiation had failed. This was the same day that the council of war decided to abandon the defense of Manhattan. From Howe’s perspective, this meant that the city and port of New York had to be taken. The irascible Clinton questioned this decision, proposing a diversion toward lower Manhattan, followed by the main attack at King’s Bridge, thereby “corking the bottle” and sealing the entire Continental Army on the island. “Had this been done without loss of time,” Clinton later claimed in his Memoirs, “while the rebel army lay broken in separate corps … each part of it [must have] fallen into our power one after the other.”28
Hindsight is not required to recognize the strategic wisdom of Clinton’s proposal. All of Washington’s general officers realized that the Howe brothers had it in their power to entrap them on Manhattan, which Reed described as “this tongue of land, where we ought never have been.” Indeed, this was precisely the reason why they voted to move the entire army to the northern end of Manhattan, where they would then try to fight their way off the island.29
The only dissenters happened to be the two commanders in chief. Washington reluctantly accepted that the city and port of New York could not be defended once the British occupied Brooklyn Heights, but he was still searching for a way to engage the British Army on Manhattan before escaping to the mainland. The Long Island humiliation had to be redeemed, the officers and men of the Continental Army needed to have their confidence restored, and “The Cause” needed a victory of some sort, no matter how token.
Both of the Howe brothers detested Clinton and would have rejected his strategic advice even if it had come with endorsements from the gods. But more significantly, it was now abundantly clear that they did not want to trap and destroy the Continental Army on Manhattan. Despite the disappointing results of Lord Howe’s conference on Staten Island, they retained the conviction that support for the rebellion was skin-deep, and they regarded their role as peace commissioners as more important than their role as military commanders. They wanted to limit the carnage on both sides until the Americans came to their senses. Intriguingly, both Washington and the Howes were subordinating military strategy to the larger battle for hearts and minds.
AFTER EXPLORING SEVERAL options on the east side of Manhattan for their attack, the Howes chose Kip’s Bay, between what is now Thirty-second and Thirty-eighth streets. On the morning of September 15, 4,000 British and Hessian troops were transported across the East River, preceded by five warships that had anchored in the bay that night, poised to lay down an artillery barrage before the invasion. Ironically, the American evacuation of Manhattan was already under way, so if the British had waited another day, they would have landed unopposed.30
Instead, the shoreline at Kip’s Bay was defended by about 800 Connecticut militiamen and recent recruits to the Continental Army, including Joseph Plumb Martin. These were the most inexperienced troops under Washington’s command. Their defensive position consisted of a shallow trench topped off by mounds of dirt. Many had only spears for weapons. No orders had been issued about how to respond to an attack, except to hold their position. At daylight, Martin remembered looking out at the British warships and the upward of eighty cannons leveled at his ditch, wondering what he was supposed to do.
The answer to that question became obvious as soon as the naval barrage began. All five ships let loose at once, producing a display of firepower that several British naval officers described as more intense than any they had ever witnessed. Within minutes the American defensive line was blown away, and Martin, as he put it, “began to consider which part of my carcass was to go first.” The bombardment lasted for a full hour, during which time one British ship, the Orpheus, expended over 5,000 pounds of gunpowder. By that time Martin and his fellow soldiers, quite understandably, had long since decided to flee the killing zone as quickly as possible. The British and Hessian troops landed unopposed, without a single casualty. The few American soldiers who remained in the trench were summarily executed when they tried to surrender. It was Long Island all over again.31
Clinton led the invasion force, and he was under orders to seize the beachhead, then await the arrival of the second wave of 9,000 British troops led by Howe. Since he was unopposed, Clinton could have moved across Manhattan and thereby cut off the 5,000 American troops under Putnam coming up from the south. But Clinton obeyed his orders, against his own better judgment, which allowed “Old Put” to squeeze past the British and Hessian force on what is now Riverside Drive. His precocious young aide, Aaron Burr, had identified the escape route.
What happened next was one of the low points for the American side in the war. The panic that seized the troops fleeing the bombardment at Kip’s Bay was a plausible response to the overwhelming firepower of the British navy. But as they fled north, their fear proved contagious, creating an epidemic of shock that caused whole regiments of Connecticut militia and levies to toss aside their muskets and knapsacks when confronted by only token British opposition. “The demons of fear and disorder seemed to take full possession of all and everything that day,” Martin remembered. The retreat became a rout.32
Washington encountered the frantic troops in full flight while riding south from his headquarters to the sound of gunfire. He made a futile effort to establish order by instructing officers to make a stand behind a stone wall, but the men just ran past him. One witness reported that “he struck several officers [with his riding crop] in their flight, three times dashed his hatt to the ground, and at last exclaimed, ‘Good God, have I got such Troops as these?’ ” The approaching British infantry came within fifty yards, but his staff could not persuade their commander to leave the field. Eventually Joseph Reed grabbed the reins of his horse and led Washington to safety, cursing all the way. The next day, Greene recalled the scene, claiming that Washington was “so vext that he sought Death rather than life.”33
The man of almost preternatural control lost it all in that terrifying moment and was fortunate to escape death or capture. For Washington, it was the nadir, the conclusive demonstration that all his hopes for the fighting prowess of the Continental Army had been delusional. And since he regarded the army as a projection of himself, the events of the day spread a stain over his own reputation that he found intolerable, in his honor-driven world worse than death itself. When word of the debacle reached Adams two days later, he too was stunned, though he did not take the humiliation personally. “I am so outraged by the infamous cowardice of the New England troops,” he observed, “that I am ashamed of my Country.”34
But even cowardice had an upside, since the headlong flight of the troops meant that most of them made it safely to the American lines at Harlem Heights. The number of killed, wounded, or captured was only a fraction of the losses on Long Island, even though the sting of the defeat was more painful for Washington.
Meanwhile, the Howe brothers could be excused for basking in the reflected glow of their triumph. With only negligible casualties, they had captured their primary objective, the city and port of New York, and had delivered another devastating blow to the military pretensions of the Continental Army along the way. All was going according to plan.
Lord Howe sensed that this second thrashing might have cracked the will of the rebels, much as the naval barrage at Kip’s Bay had broken the spirit of the helpless defenders in their pitiful ditch. On September 19, he issued a proclamation to “the American people,” thereby bypassing the delegates in the Continental Congress, who had shown themselves to be beyond redemption or rational recognition of their predicament, and appealed to the populace at large.
He urged them “to judge for themselves whether it be more consistent with their honor and happiness to offer up their lives as a sacrifice to the unjust and precarious cause in which they are engaged.” (After Kip’s Bay, that cause was presumably even more precarious.) If they would only abandon their pretense of independence and “return to their old allegiance,” the unnecessary bloodletting would stop, and they would enjoy “the blessings of peace … and the full enjoyment of their liberty and property.” Whether or not this message was more credible in the wake of the Kip’s Bay disaster can never be known, since only the loyalist press in New York and New Jersey saw fit to publish it. Washington dismissed Lord Howe’s appeal as old wine in old bottles, in effect requiring total submission “after which His Majesty would consider whether or who should be hung.”35
HARLEM HEIGHTS WAS A rocky plateau running across Manhattan just north of what is now 125th Street. Its southern border was protected by a line of steep bluffs, some sixty feet tall, creating a ridgeline that resembled a natural fortress. If there was a rough equivalent to Bunker Hill on the island, this was it.36
For that very reason, it was selected as the rallying point in the American evacuation, as the Continental Army moved all its troops and equipment to the northern end of Manhattan. By the evening of September 15, the traumatized survivors of Kip’s Bay had reached the safe haven of Harlem Heights, as had the exhausted troops under “Old Put,” who had somehow eluded the British on their forced march up the western side of Manhattan.
It had not been a good day for the American cause. About 60 troops had been killed or wounded, another 300 taken prisoner. As on Long Island, the only conspicuous talent the Continental Army had demonstrated was its impressive skill at running away.
From his new headquarters (now the Jumel Mansion, on the brink of Coogan’s Bluff at 161st Street), Washington enjoyed a panoramic view of the entire island. His focus was south, where he presumed Howe was preparing an attack on Harlem Heights. In fact, Howe was establishing his own headquarters in New York City, where the bulk of the residents were greeting the British Army as liberators. Indeed, a frontal assault on the formidable defenses at Harlem Heights never occurred to Howe, for the same reason that he had refused to attack Brooklyn Heights. He was unwilling to risk the casualties.
Washington’s mood was somber, verging on fatalistic. A letter to Lund Washington, his cousin and manager at Mount Vernon, conveyed his sense that the end was near:
In short, such is my situation that if I were to wish the bitterest curse to an enemy on this side of the grave, I should put him in my stead with my feelings.… In confidence I will tell you that I was never in such an unhappy, divided state since I was born.… If I fall, it may not be amiss that these circumstances be known, and declaration made to the justice of my character. And if the men will stand by me (which by the by I despair of), I am resolved not to be forced from this ground while I have life.37
In preparation for what he seemed to regard as Washington’s last stand, he ordered the bulk of the troops to begin digging trenches and constructing redoubts. But in order to discover the disposition of British troops to the south, he also ordered a reconnaissance by a recently organized elite unit of Connecticut rangers led by Colonel Thomas Knowlton.
Knowlton was a thirty-six-year-old veteran of the French and Indian War whose heroics at Bunker Hill had already become legendary. (John Trumbull saw fit to make Knowlton the central figure in his depiction of the battle, which currently hangs in the Capitol Rotunda.) In the postmortem after the Kip’s Bay fiasco, there was a consensus that a lack of leadership within the officer corps had been a major source of the failure, but Knowlton embodied the highest combat leadership standard in the Continental Army. Aaron Burr had been heard to remark that “it was impossible to promote such a man too rapidly.”38
About a half mile south of Harlem Heights (near the present juncture of 107th Street and Riverside Drive), Knowlton’s 120 men encountered a British infantry regiment of 400 regulars. A fierce skirmish ensued, with the Americans firing to excellent effect from behind a stone wall. But then a regiment of Scottish Highlanders, the renowned Black Watch, appeared, and Knowlton, now badly outnumbered, retreated toward Harlem Heights. The British were so accustomed to seeing American troops in flight that a bugler sounded the signal used in foxhunts at the end of the chase when the fox is trapped.
This enraged Washington and his staff, who also recognized that the roughly 1,000 British and Scottish troops, in their exuberance, had overextended themselves and were walking into a trap, enveloped by an American force ten times their size. Washington sent Joseph Reed to the scene with orders for Knowlton, reinforced by Virginia Continentals under the command of Major Andrew Leitch, to flank the British and get behind them while several American regiments came down from Harlem Heights to engage them at the front. This envelopment tactic failed when the Virginia troops fired on the British before they were behind them. In the firefight that ensued, both sides took heavy casualties, including Leitch and Knowlton, who was hit in the lower back while exhorting his men from an exposed ledge. His purported last words, duly reported within weeks in most American newspapers, were the stuff of martyrdom: “I do not value my life if we do but get this day.”39
Both sides then threw more men into the action, transforming a skirmish into the Battle of Harlem Heights. The British made a stand in a wheat field just south of the present Grant’s Tomb and, after two hours of ferocious fighting, were forced to withdraw, having suffered 270 killed or wounded to 60 for the Americans, who had to be restrained from pursuing the fleeing redcoats. It was the first occasion in the battle for New York in which the British Army experienced defeat. Although it was not a major battle—at its high point, about 2,000 troops were engaged on each side—Harlem Heights had a significant psychological impact on the morale of the Continental Army, which until then had good reason to doubt its ability to hold its own against British professionals.40
In his General Orders for the following day, Washington saw fit to underline that very point: “The Behavior of Yesterday was such a Contrast to that of some Troops before, as must show what may be done, when Officers & soldiers will exert themselves.” He had been searching for a way, as he put it, “to strike some stroke” that would not only bolster the confidence of his troops but also send a signal to the American population as a whole that “The Cause” was alive and well. The latter goal was reinforced by coverage in most American newspapers, which neglected to mention the Kip’s Bay disaster but featured Harlem Heights as a glorious American victory and Thomas Knowlton as the newest American martyr-hero. Though the strategic predicament facing the Continental Army had not really changed, at least for the moment, the defeatist mood had subsided. It remained to be seen, however, whether the army could get off the island.41