The Battle of Harlem Heights, New York in 1776

September 16, 1776

The Battle of Harlem Heights was fought on September 16, 1776, between the United States and Great Britain, during the American Revolutionary War. The outcome was an American victory, proving the Continental Army could stand up to the British Army and allowing the Americans to retain control of Upper Manhattan Island.

Battle of Harlem Heights, 1776, Americans Attack British at the Fence

This illustration by Alfred R. Waud depicts the American forces attacking the British along the fence. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Battle of Harlem Heights Facts

  • Date — September 16, 1776.
  • Location — Harlem Heights, New York.
  • Opponents — United States of America and Great Britain.
  • American CommanderGeorge Washington, Nathanael Greene, Israel Putnam.
  • British Commander — William Howe, Alexander Leslie.
  • Winner — The United States won the Battle of Harlem Heights.
Washington Before the Battle of Trenton, Painting, Trumbull
General George Washington. Image Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Events in the Battle of Harlem Heights

These events provide an overview of what happened in the Battle of Harlem Heights and what led to the engagement.

  • 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 Richard 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.
  • On the morning of September 15, Washington sent Knowlton’s Rangers to scout British forces south of Harlem Heights.
  • Knowlton and his men engaged British forces, including the Black Watch.
  • Washington sent reinforcements that pushed the British back toward New York City, before ordering his men to fall back to Harlem Heights.

Battle of Harlem Heights Overview and History

Following the Landing at Kip’s Bay on September 15, British forces pushed George Washington and the Continental out of New York City. While the Americans retreated to Harlem Heights, the British formed a defensive line that stretched across Manhattan Island, from the East River to the Hudson River.

British Defenses in New York City

The three anchors of the British defensive line were:

  1. East — The American fort at Horn’s Hook, near the east end of present-day 89th Street, which had been captured by the British.
  2. Center — An outpost at McGowan’s Pass, near the northeast corner of Central Park.
  3. West — Three British warships under the command of Admiral Richard Howe sailed up the Hudson River and stopped near Bloomingdale Village — Broadway and West 100th Street, west of Central Park.

American Forces at Harlem Heights

The Americans were located roughly 7 miles north of the British line, in Harlem Heights, north of West 125th Street. Washington and his men occupied the high ground on a plateau, which provided them with a strong defensive position.

Battle of Harlem Heights, 1776, Battlefield Terrain
This 1930 photo shows the terrain of the battlefield. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The American defenses were organized from South to North and included: 

  1. South — Three defensive lines formed by trenches and forts at 147th Street, 153rd Street, and 159th Street. 
  2. Center — Washington’s headquarters at the Morris House on 161st Street.
  3. North — Further North were American outposts at Fort Washington, at 183rd Street, and troops at Kings Bridge.

Washington had around 12,500 men at Harlem Heights, with 5,000 at Kings Bridge and another 7,500 spread out across the rest of the line. On the south end, facing the British, General Nathanael Greene had roughly 3,300 men. From their position, they overlooked Hollow Way — 125th Street.

The Battle of Harlem Heights Begins

Before dawn on September 16, Washington sent Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton and 120 of his rangers to gather information on the British forces at Bloomingdale Heights — Morningside Heights, south of 125th Street.

Knowlton and his men went south, across Hollow Way, to Bloomingdale Heights. Around sunrise, they were near the farmhouse of Nicholas Jones when they were seen by British pickets. The pickets responded by firing their guns in the air to alert the light infantry and 42nd Highlanders, who were camped nearby. Knowlton and his men fired shots at the British and took cover behind a stone wall. 

The British formed a column and advanced on Knowlton’s Rangers. The two sides engaged in a furious fight and the Americans were forced to retreat to Harlem Heights.

Israel Putnam, General
Israel Putnam. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Washington Sends Reed

When he heard the fighting, Washington went to the redoubt at Point of Rocks, on the southeast corner of Harlem Heights. From there, he could see from Harlem Plains to Bloomingdale Heights. Washington sent Joseph Reed to find Knowlton and see if the British were advancing.

Reed returned around 9 a.m. and told Washington the British light infantry was quickly moving toward Harlem Heights. He suggested to Washington that the Americans should prepare to engage the British.

British Forces Arrive at Harlem Heights

Knowlton and his men returned to Harlem Heights and the British came into view soon after. When the British saw the Americans, they sounded their bugle horns, which was customary for a fox hunt. It was meant as an insult to Washington and the Americans. In a letter to his wife, Reed wrote, “It seemed to crown our disgrace.”

Washington’s Trap

Washington sent 150 men from the command of Brigadier General John Nixon into Hollow Way to engage the British, who had around 300 men. 

Nixon’s men were a diversion because Washington sent more than 200 men to flank the British. including some of Knowlton’s Rangers and Major Andrew Leitch with 3 companies of riflemen companies from Weedon’s Third Virginia Regiment. They crossed the valley on the east side to flank the British.

Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Crary of Rhode Island and his men engaged the British and were quickly joined by the rest of Nixon’s brigade, which was about 800 men. However, Nixon’s men attacked too soon, before the flanking party was in position.

British Retreat

The British were overwhelmed and retreated, taking cover behind a fence near Broadway, between 123rd and 124th streets. The fence offered some protection because it was overgrown with bushes.

Knowlton Killed, Leitch Mortally Wounded

Unfortunately for the American flaking party, they arrived at the fence at the same time as the British. The British quickly turned and engaged Reed’s men. Leitch was mortally wounded in the fight, and Thomas Knowlton was instantly killed.

The Battle at Harlem Heights Escalates

Washington sent reinforcements, including two pieces of field artillery to support the Americans. They helped Reed and his men force the British to evacuate their positions along the fence. The Americans pursued them into the woods. By noon, the British were in a field near Barnard College, on the west side of Manhattan Island, where they took defensive positions and prepared for the American attack.

General William Howe sent British reinforcements, including two cannons to confront the  Americans. By then, 1,800 American troops were in the field, led by General Israel Putnam, General Nathanael Greene, and General George Clinton.

General William Howe, Illustration
General William Howe. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The British forces, under the command of Major General Alexander Leslie, engaged the Americans. The battle lasted for two hours until the British ran low on ammunition and retreated. The Americans chased after them until they came into the range of the guns of the British ships on the Hudson River. When the ships saw the Americans, they opened fire, forcing the Americans to break off the pursuit.

Washington Orders the Americans to Fall Back to Harlem Heights

The Americans were outnumbered and Washington sent his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Tench Tilghman, with orders for them to withdraw. Around 3:00 in the afternoon, the Americans organized and returned to Harlem Heights. As they left, they let out a loud cheer — a mocking response to the British bugle call from earlier in the day.

The Casualties at Harlem Heights

The Americans suffered around 30 killed and 100 wounded. The British and Hessians had 14 killed and 154 wounded.

General Nathanael Greene, Portrait, Illustration
General Nathanael Greene. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Aftermath of the Battle of Harlem Heights

Despite the losses of Knowlton and Leitch, the American victory at Harlem Heights boosted the morale of the troops, who proved they could defeat the British. In a letter to Congress, Washington wrote, “It seems to have greatly inspired the whole of our troops.”

The British defeat added to the tension between General William Howe and his second-in-command, General Henry Clinton, who disagreed with the decision to retreat. Clinton was also upset that British forces had landed at Kip’s Bay instead of Kings Bridge. He believed landing behind Washington and the Continental Army would have cut off their escape route.

General Henry Clinton, American Revolution
General Henry Clinton. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The two sides held their positions for nearly a month. The Americans were essentially trapped between Howe’s army and the Royal Navy. On October 12, Howe tried to land 4,000 troops at Throg’s Neck, however, the Americans were able to stop the landing. Six days later, Howe landed the troops at Pelham Point, 3 miles north of Throg’s Neck, leading to the Battle of Pell’s Point.

Battle of Harlem Heights Interesting Facts

It Happened After the Landing at Kip’s Bay

The Battle of Harlem Heights was an important battle between American and British troops in September 1776, following the British Landing at Kip’s Bay.

The Continental Army was Prepared to Fight at Harlem Heights

Before the British arrived, American forces started building defensive lines along the edge of the Hudson River. When the British landed on Manhattan Island, Americans fell back to these defenses. On September 16, 1776, a day after the Kip’s Bay landing, the British approached General Nathanael Greene and his division, which was located south of the defensive lines.

Knowlton’s Rangers Fought the Black Watch

Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton and men from his Connecticut Rangers, known as Knowlton’s Rangers, headed south to scout the advancing British army. Near Jones’ Farm, they encountered two British battalions, including the 42nd Highlanders, also called the “Black Watch.” Knowlton’s men fought with the British, firing 8 rounds before receiving orders to retreat. The British contingent pursued the Rangers as they retreated to Harlem Heights.

Washington Planned a Counter-Attack

As the British neared Harlem Heights, Washington sent a counterattack led by Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Crary. Major Andrew Leitch’s Third Virginia Regiment joined with Knowlton’s Rangers to flank the British on the right side. Crary’s men engaged the British and were reinforced by another 800 American soldiers.

The American Flanking Manuever Failed

The Black Watch reorganized themselves behind a fence where they met the Americans carrying out the flanking maneuver and successfully stopped the attack. Knowlton was killed and Leitch was mortally wounded. By all accounts, both were exceptional officers.

The Battle Moved to the Where Barnard College Stands

Eventually, the conflict battle shifted to a buckwheat field, which is where Barnard College is today. There, the British received reinforcement and the battle continued. When Washington saw the British forces were increasing, he ordered his men to fall back to Harlem Heights.

Battle of Harlem Heights Significance

The Battle of Harlem Heights was important to the outcome of the New York-New Jersey Campaign because it temporarily forced the British to end their pursuit of Washington and the Continental Army. Further, General William Howe missed another potential opportunity to destroy Washington’s army and end the war, boosting the morale of the Americans and giving them time to regroup.

Battle of Harlem Heights APUSH Review

Use the following links and videos to study the Battle of Harlem Heights, the New York-New Jersey Campaign, and the American Revolutionary War for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Battle of Harlem Heights APUSH Definition and Significance

The definition of the Battle of Harlem Heights for APUSH is a battle that took place in the vicinity of Harlem Heights in northern Manhattan, New York. The American victory boosted the morale of the Continental Army, as it managed to hold its ground against British forces, forcing them to retreat.

The significance of the Battle of Harlem Heights for APUSH is that it allowed the Continental Army to regroup for about a month before British forces attacked. Afterward, British forces were able to push Washington and the Continental Army off of Manhattan Island, out of New York across New Jersey, and eventually into Pennsylvania. 

By December of 1775, the situation for Washington and the Continental Army was desperate, leading him to organize a daring operation to cross the Delaware River and attack a Hessian outpost at Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Night.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Battle of Harlem Heights, New York in 1776
  • Date September 16, 1776
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Harlem Heights, George Washington, Nathanael Greene, Israel Putnam, William Howe, Alexander Leslie, Battle of Harlem Heights Summary, Battle of Harlem Facts, Battle of Harlem Significance, Battle of Harlem Heights Overview, Battle of Harlem Heights Outcome, Battle of Harlem Heights Commanders, Battle of Harlem Heights Events, Battle of Harlem Heights Winner, Battle of Harlem Heights Start Date, Battle of Harlem Heights Casualties, Battle of Harlem Heights Event Length, Battle of Harlem Heights End Date, Battle of Harlem Heights Period
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 26, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 29, 2024