Siege of Fort Washington, 15-16 November 1776

One of the few sieges during the American War of Independence. Fort Washington was one of a pair of forts on opposite banks of the Hudson River, built to prevent British warships gaining access to the upper reaches of the river. The fort was built on the Heights of Washington, a strong position 230 feet above the Hudson, but its outer defensive lines were too long (five miles) and too far from the Fort. The Fort’s guns were thus unable to support the defenders of the outer lines, while the outer lines required a very large garrison to defend. In November 1776 the American garrison was three thousand strong and included a strong contingent of the precious Continentals.

By the end of October, Fort Washington was the only remaining American possession on Manhatten Island, Washington having withdrawn to White Plains on the mainland. The British under General Howe could outnumber the garrison at least three to one. Worse, British warships soon proved themselves able to pass between Forts Washington and Lee without suffering serious damage. Washington was now faced with two questions – could his men defend Fort Washington, and if so should they?

The events leading up to the loss of the fort cast an interesting light on Washington’s style of leadership. On 8 November he wrote to Nathanael Greene, the local commander, expressing his doubts that the fort could be held, but he fell short of giving a firm order to withdraw, merely suggesting that he would not want to risk loosing the men or supplies in the fort. Both Greene, and the commander of the fort – Colonel Robert Magaw – were confident that it could be defended against a British assault. Washington always wanted to see a situation himself before making a decision, and on 14 November he paid a visit to Fort Washington. This inspection apparently confirmed his pessimism about the wisdom of attempting to defend the fort, but he allowed himself to be convinced by Greene and Magaw. Fort Washington was to be held.

The day after Washington’s visit, the British made their move. Howe moved his men into position around the vulnerable American lines and prepared to attack on all three sides at once. Howe gave Magaw the chance to surrender, but he declared that he was prepared to defend the fort to ‘the last extremity’.

The attack was launched on 16 November. From the north General Wilhelm von Knyphausen led the Hessians against Maryland and Virginian regiments commanded by Lt. Colonel Moses Rawlings. They were to meet the most determined opposition, and suffered heavy casualties. From the west General Edward Mathews, with Cornwallis in reserve faced militiamen, while in the south General Percy, who had saved the day after Lexington and Concord, faced Pennsylvanians commanded by Lt. Colonel Lambert Cadwalader.

The British suffered heavy casualties, with 300 dead, but after three hours of fighting all three attacks had succeeded. The remaining American troops were forced back into the fort, where their morale collapsed. Reaching that last extremity, Magaw surrendered that afternoon. American losses were 54 killed, 100 wounded and 2858 captured for a total of over 3000 men lost in a single days fighting. Washington was soon to feel their lose bitterly as he was forced into a retreat that only ended at the Delaware River in early December. Briefly the American cause looked to be in great peril as Cornwallis repeatedly came close to catching Washington in the pursuit across New Jersey. It was only the unexpected victories at Trenton and Princeton that revived American hopes at the end of the year.
How to cite this article: Rickard, J (25 April 2006), Siege of Fort Washington, 15-16 November 1776 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_fort_washington.html

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