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The Battle of Fort Washington

Fort Washington

War: American Revolution

Date: 16th November 1776

Place: New York, United States

Combatants: British and German troops against the American Continental Army

Generals: General Lord Howe against General George Washington

Size of the armies: 8,000 British and German troops attacked some 2,900 American troops.

Map of the Battle of Fort Washington
Map of the Battle of Fort Washington

Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The British wore red coats and headgear of bearskin caps, small caps or tricorne hats depending on whether the troops were grenadiers, light infantry or battalion company men. The two regiments of light dragoons serving in American wore red coats and leather crested helmets. The German infantry wore blue coats and retained the Prussian style grenadier mitre with brass front plate. The Americans dressed as best they could. Increasingly as the war progressed regular infantry regiments of the Continental Army wore blue uniform coats but the militia continued in rough clothing. Both sides were armed with muskets and guns. The Pennsylvania regiments carried rifled weapons.

Winner: The British and Germans who stormed Harlem Heights

British troops crossing the river

British Regiments:
Composite battalion of grenadiers
Composite battalion of light infantry
Composite battalion of Foot Guards (1st, 2nd and 3rd Guards)
4th Foot later King’s Royal Regiment, now the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment
10th Foot later the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment, now the Royal Anglian Regiment
15th Foot later the East Yorkshire Regiment and now the Prince of Wales’s Own Regiment of Yorkshire
23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers
27th Foot later the Inniskilling Fusiliers and now the Royal Irish Regiment
28th Foot later the Gloucestershire Regiment and now the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment
38th Foot later the South Staffordshire Regiment, now the Staffordshire Regiment
42nd Foot now the Black Watch
43rd Foot later the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and now the Royal Green Jackets
52nd Foot later the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and now the Royal Green Jackets
Fraser’s Highlanders

"British hutted encampment at Dyckman Farm, New York

American Regiments:
Shee’s 3rd Pennsylvania Regiment
Magaw’s 5th Pennsylvania Regiment
Col Moses Rawlings Maryland and Virginia Riflemen
Col Baxter’s Bucks County militia, Pennsylvania

In November 1776 the last position the Americans held on Manhattan Island was the area around Fort Washington on the northern tip, known as Harlem Heights. General Nathan Greene commanded the American positions with a discretion to withdraw if he considered it necessary.

General Howe planned three attacks. Brigadier Lord Percy was to attack from the South up the island. Brigadier Matthews with the light infantry and Guards to cross the Harlem River and attack Baxter on the east side, supported by Lord Cornwallis with the grenadiers and the 33rd Foot. The main attack was to be on Rawlings’ position by Hessian troops commanded by General Von Knyphausen. An additional assault was to be carried out on the same side by the 42nd under Colonel Sterling. (the grenadiers, light infantry, Guards, 33rd and 42nd were the corps regularly used for particularly demanding assignments. It is interesting that the 33rd had a consistently high reputation throughout the1740s and 1750s).

Early on the 15th November Howe called on the fort to surrender. This was refused. A bombardment broke out from British batteries across the Harlem River and the frigate Pearl on the American positions.
At 10am Percy advanced to the attack. At noon Matthews landed on Manhattan and began his assault. Baxter was killed and is militia fled into the fort.

Knyphausen crossed onto Manhattan at Kingsbridge and at 10am began his move south. The two Hessian columns assaulted American positions and after a hard fight with Rawlings’ riflemen the Americans fell back into the fort.

Percy attacked Cadwallader in the South and the 42nd landed on the east side and pushed inland behind Cadwallader’s position, forcing the Americans to fall back to the fort.

With all his troops pinned in Fort Washington under heavy fire, Magaw was forced to surrender to the Hessian general Knyphausen.

Casualties: The British side suffered 450 casualties of which 320 were Hessians. The Americans suffered 2,900 casualties of which the preponderance were prisoners.

Follow-up: Following the battle Fort Lee on the west bank of the Hudson was abandoned and Washington and the Continental Arm retreated to the Delaware.