Battle for Fort Washington


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Fort Washington MapWashington, FORT, CAPTURE OF. On the day of the battle of White Plains in 1776, General Knyphausen, with six German regiments, crossed the Harlem River and encamped on the flat below Fort Washington and King's Bridge (See Enlarged Map of Fort Washington Battle). That fort was a strong work, supported by outlying redoubts. It was on the highest point of land on Manhattan Island. When George Washington heard of the peril that menaced it, he advised General Greene, in whose charge both it and Fort Lee, on the top of the palisades on the west side of the Hudson River, had been left, to withdraw the garrison and stores, but left the matter to that officer's discretion. When he arrived there (November 15) he was disappointed in not finding his wishes gratified. Greene desired to hold the fort as a protection to the river; the Congress had ordered it to be held till the last extremity, and Colonel Robert Magaw, its commander, said he could hold out against the whole British army until December. Washington was not satisfied of its safety, but yielded his judgment, and returned to Hackensack. There, at sunset, he received a copy of a bold reply which Magaw had made to a summons to surrender sent by Howe, accompanied by a threat to put the garrison to the sword in case of a refusal. Magaw had protested against the savage menace, and refused compliance. Washington went immediately to Fort Lee. Greene had crossed over to the island. Starting across the river in a small boat, Washington met Greene and Putnam returning; and being informed that the garrison were in fine spirits, and could defend themselves, he went back to Fort Lee.

Early on the morning of the 16th Howe opened a severe cannonade from the heights on the Westchester shore. Under its cover the attack was made in four columns. Knyphausen, with his Germans, moved up from the flats along the rough hills nearest the Hudson. At the same time Lord Percy led a division of English and German troops to attack the lines on the south. General Mathews, supported by Lord Cornwallis, crossed the Harlem near King's Bridge, with guards, light infantry, and grenadiers; while Colonel Sterling, with Highlanders, crossed at a point a little above the present High Bridge. The outworks of the fort were defended on the north by Colonel Rawlings, with Maryland riflemen and militia from Mercer's Flying Camp, under Colonel Baxter. The lines towards New York were defended by Pennsylvanians, commanded by Colonel Lambert Cadwalader. Magaw commanded in the fort Rawlings and Baxter occupied redoubts on heavily wooded hills. By a simultaneous attack at all points, the battle was very severe outside of the fort. The British and German assailants pressed hard upon the fort, and both Howe and Knyphausen made a peremptory demand for its surrender.

Resistance to pike, ball, and bayonet, wielded by 5,000 veterans, was in vain, and Magaw yielded. At half-past one o'clock (November 17) the British flag waved in triumph over Fort Washington. The Americans lost in killed and wounded not more than 100 men, while the British lost almost 1,000. The garrison that surrendered, with militia, numbered about 2,500, of whom more than 2,000 were disciplined regulars. Washington, standing on the brow of the palisades at Fort Lee, saw the surrender. The name of the fortification was changed to Fort Knyphausen. Its garrison soon filled the prisons on land and water at New York. Recent discoveries show, that the fall of Fort Washington was accomplished through the agency of treason. See Edward F. Delancey's paper on Fort Washington, read before and published by the New York Historical Society in 1878.



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