Battle of Fort Washington Summary
The Battle of Fort Washington was fought on November 16, 1776, between the United States of America and Great Britain. It was a key battle in the Northern Theater of the American Revolutionary War, and the last battle in New York during the New York-New Jersey Campaign of 1776–1777. Following the British victory at the Battle of White Plains on October 28, General George Washington and the Continental Army moved to North Castle Heights, north of White Plains. Instead of attacking Washington, General William Howe turned his forces south and moved toward Fort Washington. The fort was located on a hill on the northern end of Manhattan Island and overlooked the Hudson River. It was the last American stronghold on Manhattan Island and was under the command of Colonel Robert Magaw. Directly across the river from Fort Washington, on the New Jersey side, was Fort Lee. The British gained a significant advantage when an American defector delivered a plan for the defenses of Fort Washington. In preparation for the British attack, Washington sent reinforcements to help defend Fort Washington and moved his own army to Fort Lee. The British moved into position on November 14 and sent a messenger to Fort Washington and asked Magaw to surrender, which he refused. The Britsh launched their attack on the morning of November 16. Around 3:00 in the afternoon, after hours of intense fighting, the fort was surrounded and Magaw had no choice but to surrender. The Americans suffered heavy casualties and the loss of Fort Washington made it impossible to defend Fort Lee. Washington abandoned Fort Lee and retreated to Pennsylvania.
Battle of Fort Washington Facts
- Date Started: The Battle of Fort Washington was fought on Saturday, November 16, 1776.
- Date Ended: The battle ended on November 16, 1776.
- Location: It was fought near Washington Heights, New York, on Manhattan Island.
- Theater: The Battle of Fort Washington took place in the Northern Theater of the American Revolutionary War.
- Campaign: The battle was part of the New York and New Jersey Campaign of 1776–1777.
- Who Won: Great Britain won the Battle of Fort Washington.
History of the Battle of Fort Washington
Fort Washington and Fort Lee Defend the Hudson River
After the Siege of Boston, American forces moved to New York City and built defenses to protect the city from an expected British attack. As part of the defenses, Fort Washington and Fort Lee were built to defend the Hudson River and keep British forces from sailing north to the Hudson Highlands. Fort Washington was on the east side of the river, on the northern end of Manhattan Island. Fort Lee was on the west side of the river, in New Jersey.
Fort Washington was massive — roughly 4-5 acres — and sat on top of a hill, at the highest elevation on Manhattan Island. However, Americans had rushed to build the fort, so it was crude. The walls were basically piled mounds of dirt, and the rocky terrain of the hill made it nearly impossible to dig defensive trenches right around the fort. However, the fort had significant defenses in the hills around it, including three lines of trenches.
Howe Pursues Washington in New York
Following the British victory at the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, they invaded Manhattan Island and took control of New York City. Afterward, General William Howe turned his attention to the pursuit of Washington and the Continental Army.
American forces were able to slow the British advance with a victory at the Battle of Harlem Heights and a successful delaying action at the Battle of Pell’s Point. However, Washington was forced to move the Continental Army north, further from New York City.
Greene Convinces Washington to Defend Fort Washington
On October 16, two days before the Battle of Pell’s Point, Washington held a council of war with his officers. They discussed how to continue to defend Manhattan Island. At the time, they were maintaining defensive positions along a stretch of nearly 40 miles, from Kings Bridge down to Harlem. Fort Washington was almost at the halfway point of the line.
The council voted to try to maintain the entire line, instead of just trying to hold the fort. This left defenses spread out in the face of Howe and his force of roughly 20,000 troops. If Howe decided to concentrate his forces on Fort Washington, there was little chance it could be defended against that many men. General Charles Lee, Washington’s second-in-command, was not convinced it was the right decision but voted in favor of the plan.
Further influencing the decision was Congress asked Washington to hold Fort Washington. There was also a chance that Howe would decide to move into winter quarters, and hold off on attacking the fort until the spring of 1777.
Washington Moves to White Plains
After Pell’s Point, Washington moved the army to White Plains over the course of 10 days, but left a garrison of around 1,200 men at Fort Washington, under the command of Colonel Robert Magaw. Meanwhile, the British slowly advanced toward White Plains and Howe received reinforcements of around 8,000 Hessian troops under the command of Wilhelm von Knyphausen.
The British attacked American forces at Chatterson’s Hill outside of White Plains on October 28, overwhelmed them, and forced Washington to retreat to North Castle Heights. Howe intended to attack Washington, but heavy rains and poor weather kept him from advancing, so he decided to move south to attack Fort Washington.
Preparations for the Battle of Fort Washington
On October 27, British troops under the command of Lieutenant General Hugh Percy tried to sail up the Hudson and launch an attack on the fort, but he was forced to turn back after being bombarded by the guns from Fort Washington and Fort Lee. Percy could not return fire, because the guns on his ships could not elevate high enough to fire on the forts.
Unfortunately, on November 2, Magaw’s assistant, William Demont, deserted the fort and delivered a detailed plan of its defenses to Lieutenant General Percy. Percy sent a messenger to General Howe with the information.
After receiving the information, Howe started to move from White Plains toward Fort Washington on November 5. Washington did not know where Howe was headed, so he responded by dividing his army and moving into defensive positions.
- Charles Lee was sent to the east side of the Hudson River to defend against a British attack that would allow them to invade New England. Lee had around 7,000 men.
- William Heath and around 3,000 men were sent to Peekskill, New York to defend the path to the Hudson Highlands.
- Washington took 2,000 men and marched to Fort Lee.
On November 8–9, a small group of 25-30 Hessian troops advanced on Fort Washington, but American troops, about two dozen total, were able to hold them off.
On November 8, Washington sent a letter to General Nathanael Greene and suggested it would be futile to try to continue to defend Fort Washington. However, he left the decision up to Greene. Greene decided to hold the fort. It turned out to be one of the few bad decisions he made throughout the war.
Washington arrived at Fort Lee on November 13. Greene and Washington met and Greene insisted on continuing to defend the forts on the Hudson.
Despite Demont’s defection, Magaw believed he could hold Fort Washington against a British assault, and could even withstand a siege of more than a month. Not only had the fort successfully defended itself, but Magaw had nearly 3,000 men defending it.
Magaw sent troops to man the defenses along the line from Kings Bridge to Harlem.
- Colonel Moses Rawlings and 250 riflemen from Maryland and Pennsylvania were sent to Forest Hill on the north end.
- Lieutenant Colonel John Cadwalader was sent south to Harlem Heights with the 3rd and 5th Pennsylvania regiments.
- Colonel Israel Hutchinson and the 27th Massachusetts Regiment were also sent south to Harlem.
- Colonel William Baxter was sent to Laurel Hill, east of the fort, with his Bucks County Militia.
In total, the Americans were defending a massive area that was roughly four miles long and nearly a mile wide.
Howe’s Plan to Attack Fort Washington
Howe moved his army from White Plains and joined up with Hessian troops under the command of General Wilhelm von Knyphausen. Howe intended to attack Fort Washington with three separate columns:
- Howe and Knyphausen would attack from the north at Forest Hill.
- Lieutenant General Percy would attack from the south.
- General Charles Cornwallis and General Edward Matthew would attack from the east.
Howe also planned a feint — a move to deceive the Americans. The 42nd Highlanders, a Scottish infantry regiment also known as the “Black Watch,” were going to land on the east side of Manhattan Island and move on to Fort Washington from the south.
Howe also positioned two 32-gun frigates, the Pearl and Repulse, to guard the river on the west side of Fort Washington.
The attack was supposed to happen on November 12, but heavy rain delayed the plan.
Magaw Asked to Surrender Fort Washington
On November 15, Howe sent Lieutenant Colonel James Patterson to Fort Washington under a flag of truce. Patterson delivered a message, asking Magaw to surrender. Magaw, believing Howe intended to slaughter the garrison if he refused to surrender, insisted on remaining at the fort. He sent a letter back to Howe and said he was “…determined to defend this post to the very last extremity.”
After Magaw’s refusal, Nathanael Greene, and Israel Putnam went to Fort Washington to meet with Magaw and assess the situation. They were followed by General Washington himself. Greene and Putnam told Washington the situation was under control and the men were in good spirits, so the three of them went back to Fort Lee.
Events at the Battle of Fort Washington
British Troops Move Into Position
During the night of the 15th, Knyphausen and his Hessian troops into position on a fleet of flatboats. The oars were muffled, so the Americans could not hear them as they moved past Fort Washington, down to Harlem. The flatboats started moving Matthews and his men across into position, but they were delayed by low tide.
Washington Surveys the Scene
The next morning, Washington, Greene, Putnam, and Hugh Mercer crossed back over to Fort Washington to assess the situation. While they crossed over the Hudson, the British started a bombardment of the fort. The four of them landed on Manhattan Island, climbed a hill, and observed the situation from the Morris Mansion, which Washington had used as his headquarters earlier in the campaign. Around 11:00, the British troops were finally in place and the attack started.
The British and Hessian Forces Attack
Knyphausen attacked the American redoubt on the north end at Forest Hill and had his men charge with their bayonets fixed. The Americans held the line and pushed the Hessians back — five times. On the sixth attack, the Americans, who were out of ammunition, were overwhelmed and suffered heavy casualties. When the redoubt fell, the Hessians moved south to Fort Washington. At that point, Washington decided there was nothing they could do and they needed to go back to Fort Lee. Within 15 minutes, the spot was overrun by British forces.
The British under the command of General Mathews attacked the Americans at Laurel Hill. Colonel Baxter was killed and his men broke ranks and retreated to the safety of the fort.
To the south of Fort Washington, the Black Watch Regiment, under the command of Colonel Thomas Stirling, received orders from General Cornwallis to attack. Lieutenant Colonel Cadwalader and his men were eventually overrun and also retreated to Fort Washington.
Lieutenant General Percy and his men followed the Black Watch and marched on the fort from the south. Percy advanced with two columns, scattering American forces along the way. As Percy approached the fort, he was joined by Stirling, Cornwallis, and Mathews, which completely blocked any opportunity for the Americans to escape to the south or east.
The Americans are Trapped in Fort Washington
The retreating American troops jammed into Fort Washington. It is estimated there were around 2,500 men within the dirt walls. The British and Hessian forces moved their artillery into position and Knyphausen sent a messenger under a white flag to ask for Magaw’s surrender. Magaw asked for his men to be spared, and to be allowed to keep their weapons. Knyphausen denied the request and gave Magaw 30 minutes to make a decision. After that, the assault on the fort would begin and no lives would be spared.
Around the same time, Captain John Gooch from Rhode Island arrived with a message from Washington, asking Magaw to try to hold out until nightfall, which would provide an opportunity to evacuate the fort under cover of darkness. Magaw responded, telling Washington he had started negotiations and could not turn back.
Magaw Surrenders Fort Washington
Magaw met with Knyphausen and surrendered around 3:00 in the afternoon. An hour later, the Americans marched out of Fort Washington, surrendered their weapons, and effectively ended their defense of Manhattan Island and New York City.
What Happened After the Battle of Fort Washington?
Fort Washington Becomes Fort Knyphausen
The British captured the fort, the artillery, and all the American supplies. It was a significant loss for Washington’s forces and a devastating blow to the morale of the Continental Army. The British rebuilt the fort, named it Fort Knyphausen, and it was occupied by Hessians for the rest of the war. They also rebuilt the redoubt at Forest Hill, north of Fort Washington, and called it Fort Tryon.
British Prison Ships in New York
More than 2,800 Americans were taken prisoner after the surrender of Fort Washington. Most of them were held on floating prison ships where the conditions and treatment were horrible. It is estimated that more Americans died on the prison ships in Wallabout Bay and the East River than were killed in all the battles of the war.
Washington Abandons Fort Lee
On November 19, 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.
General Charles Lee Defies Washington
During Washington’s retreat, American morale dropped to a low point. In Philadelphia, some members of the Continental Congress questioned Washington’s ability to lead the army. There were rumors the British intended to turn toward Philadelphia and take the city. Making matters worse, a rift developed between Washington and his second-in-command, General Charles Lee. Washington asked Lee to join him in New Jersey, but Lee moved slowly and started to openly question Washington’s decision-making. Lee was at Basking Ridge, New Jersey, on the move to join Washington, when he was captured by British troops.
Washington Gathers Forces in New Jersey
Washington settled in at Buckingham Township with his men, along with forces under the command of Nathanael Greene, William Alexander, and Henry Knox. they were joined by General John Sullivan on December 20. General Horatio Gates arrived after that. Despite the additional forces, Washington was faced with expiring enlistments for many of the men. On January 1, most of them would be able to leave and go home. Washington had roughly 7,500 men left, and only 6,000 of them were healthy enough to fight. Meanwhile, around 1,500 Hessian troops settled in for the winter at Trenton, not far from where Washington was.
Washington Plans to Attack Trenton on Chrismas Day
Despite the dire circumstances, George Washington was not about to give in and he devised a plan to attack the Hessians at Trenton on Christmas Day.
Important Facts about the Fort Washington Battle
- In June 1776, a group of prominent American officers, including Nathanael Greene, William Heath, Henry Knox, and Israel Putnam, surveyed the area and decided to build a fort on a hill that was the highest point on Manhattan Island.
- Rufus Putnam oversaw the construction of Fort Washington.
- Fort Washington was shaped like a pentagon and had five bastions.
- In July 1776, General Washington instructed General Hugh Mercer to build Fort Lee on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.
- During the attack at Forest Hill, John Corbin, an artilleryman from Pennsylvania, was killed. His wife, Margaret Corbin, took his place until she was wounded with grapeshot.
Significance of the Battle of Fort Washington
The Battle of Fort Washington is important to the history of the United States because of the role it played in the American Revolutionary War. After the British victory, it seemed that all hope was lost for the Americans. Not only was George Washington criticized for being indecisive, but he was faced with the very real possibility that he would have no army on January 1, 1777. Despite the American Cause being at its lowest point since the war started, it set the stage for one of the greatest moments in American history — the Crossing of the Delaware River and the Battle of Trenton.
Military Commanders at the Battle of Fort Washington
- Robert Magaw
- Moses Rawlings
- John Cadwalader
- Israel Hutchinson
- William Baxter
British and Hessian Forces
- William Howe
- Wilhelm von Knyphausen
- Hugh Percy
- Charles Cornwallis
- Edward Matthew
- Thomas Stirling
Battle of Fort Washington Resources
Use the following links to learn more about the Battle of Fort Washington and the New York and New Jersey Campaign.