The Battle of Fort Lee, New Jersey in 1776

November 20, 1776

The Battle of Fort Lee was fought on November 20, 1776, between the United States and Great Britain, during the American Revolutionary War. The British won the battle and American forces started their retreat toward Trenton, New Jersey.

Charles Cornwallis, Portrait

General Charles Cornwallis led British troops at the Battle of Fort Lee.

Battle of Fort Lee Facts

  • Date — November 20, 1776.
  • Location — Fort Lee, New Jersey.
  • Opponents — United States of America and Great Britain.
  • American CommanderGeorge Washington, Nathanael Greene.
  • British CommanderCharles Cornwallis.
  • Winner — The British won the Battle of Fort Lee.

Battle of Fort Lee Timeline

This timeline provides a chronology of events related to the Battle of Fort Lee.

  • Following the Siege of Boston, British forces sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia. American forces moved to New York City, expecting a British attack.
  • British forces landed on Staten Island in July and successfully attacked American defenses at the Battle of Long Island on August 27.
  • Washington and the Continental Army escaped across the East River to Manhattan Island on the night of August 29–30.
  • On September 11, delegates from the Continental Congress met with Admiral Howe at the Staten Island Peace Conference, which failed to end hostilities.
  • British troops landed at Kip’s Bay on Manhattan Island on September 15, forcing American forces to evacuate New York City and move to Harlem Heights.
  • The Continental Army won the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16, which allowed them to retain control of Upper Manhattan Island.
  • American forces started to leave Harlem Heights and move to White Plains, New York, on October 17.
  • On October 18, the Americans successfully stopped the British advance at the Battle of Pell’s Point.
  • British forces won the Battle of Mamaroneck on October 22.
  • On October 28, the British won the Battle of White Plains, forcing the Americans to retreat north to New Castle, New York.
  • British forces won the Battle of Fort Washington on November 16, forcing the Americans to abandon New York and move to Fort Lee, New Jersey.
  • On November 20, British forces marched on Fort Lee, which was abandoned by the Americans.
General Nathanael Greene, Portrait, Illustration
General Nathanael Greene. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Battle of Fort Lee History and Overview

On November 19, General William Howe sent 4,000 men to take Fort Lee. The Americans were warned and Washington ordered his men to abandon the fort. He retreated deeper into New Jersey and the British chased him as far as New Brunswick. On December 3, Washington was just north of Trenton, New Jersey. He crossed the Delaware River and moved to Pennsylvania, across from Trenton.

Fort Lee and Fort Washington

Fort Lee and Fort Washington were built in August 1776 to block British ships from moving up the Hudson River. Fort Washington was on the east side of the river, in New York, and Fort Lee was on the west side, in New Jersey.

British Ships Trying to Pass Fort Washington and Fort Lee, Painting
This painting depicts British warships trying to pass Fort Washington and Fort Lee. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Following the Battle of White Plains, the Continental Army retreated further north with the British in pursuit. On November 16, the British captured Fort Washington and General Howe turned his attention to Fort Lee.

Howe Sends Cornwallis

On the morning of November 20, Howe sent Charles Cornwallis across the Hudson River to capture Fort Lee. Cornwallis had 4,000-6,000 men under his command, and they landed at Closter, New Jersey, about six miles north of Fort Lee. Despite heavy rain, Cornwallis led his men south, guided by Major John Aldington, a Loyalist from New Jersey. To reach Fort Lee, they marched up a rough path along the side of the river. 

Americans Abandon Fort Lee

When General Washington learned of the British advance, he ordered his men to abandon Fort Lee. Most of them left in a rush and left tents and supplies behind. A small group of Americans, about 12 total, were too drunk to escape and were captured by the British.

Washington’s Retreat Across New Jersey

Meanwhile, General Washington and the Continental Army crossed the Hackensack River and moved southeast toward Trenton, New Jersey.

Interesting Facts About the Battle of Fort Lee

The Location of the Battle of Fort Lee is a Historic Park

The location of Fort Lee is part of Fort Lee Historic Park, which is on top of the Hudson Palisades in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The park was created by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1908.

The Fort was Built in July 1776

Construction of the fort started in July 1776 and was overseen by General Hugh Mercer. It was originally called Fort Constitution, in honor of the English Constitution, which guaranteed rights to all subjects of the King.

Fort Lee was Named After General Charles Lee

The fort was named after General Charles Lee, who was Washington’s Second-in-Command at the time of the battle. At the time, Lee and his men were at North Castle, New York, north of White Plains. Soon after the fall of Fort Lee, Washington asked Lee to join him in New Jersey. However, Lee was slow to respond and openly questioned Washington’s ability and decision-making. On December 13, Lee was captured by British forces led by Banastre Tarleton.

General Charles Lee, Illustration
General Charles Lee. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Battle of Fort Lee, New Jersey in 1776
  • Date November 20, 1776
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Fort Lee, George Washington, Nathanael Greene, Charles Cornwallis
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 13, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update December 9, 2023