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From George Washington to John Hancock, 16 November 1776

To John Hancock

General Greens Quarters [Fort Lee, N.J.]
16th Novr 1776

Sir

Since I had the Honor of addressing you last,1 an important Event has taken place; of which I wish to give you the earliest Intelligence.

The preservation of the Passage of the North River was an Object of so much Consequence that I thought no pains or Expence too great for that purpose, and therefore after sending off all the valuable Stores except such as were necessary for its Defence, I determined agreeable to the Advice of most of the General Officers, to risque something to defend the Post on the East Side call’d Mount Washington.2

When the Army moved up in Consequence of Genl Howe’s landing at Frog Point, Colo. Magaw was left on that Command with about 1200 Men, and Orders given to defend it to the last. Afterwards reflecting upon the smallness of the Garrison, and the Difficulty of their holding it if Genl Howe should fall down upon it with his whole Force, I wrote to Genl Greene who had the Command on the Jersey Shore, directing him to govern himself by Circumstances, and to retain or evacuate the post as he should think best, and revoking the absolute Order to Colo. Magaw to defend the post to the last Extremity.3

Genl Greene struck with the Importance of the Post, and the Discouragement which our Evacuation of Posts must necessarily have given, reinforced Colo. Magaw with Detatchments from several Regiments of the Flying Camp, but cheifly of Pennsylvania, so as to make up the Number about 2000.4 In this Situation things were Yesterday, when Genl Howe demanded the Surrendry of the Garrison, to which Colo. Magaw returned a spirited Refusal. Immediately upon receiving an Account of this Transaction, I came from Hackinsack to this place, and had partly cross’d the North River when I met Genl Putnam and Genl Greene who were just returning from thence, and informed me that the Troops were in high Spirits and would make a good Defence, and it being late at Night I returned.5

Early this Morning Colo. Magaw posted his Troops partly in the Lines thrown up by our Army on our first coming thither from New York, and partly on a commanding Hill laying North of Mount Washington (the Lines being all to the Southward).6 In this Position the Attack began about Ten O’Clock, which our Troops stood, and returned the Fire in such a Manner as gave me great Hopes the Enemy was intirely repulsed. But at this time a Body of Troops cross’d Harlem River in Boats and landed inside of the second Lines, our Troops being then engaged in the first.

Colo. Cadwalader who commanded in the Lines sent off a Detatchment to oppose them, but they being overpowered by Numbers gave way; upon which Colo. Cadwalader ordered his Troops to retreat in Order to gain the Fort. It was done with much Confusion, and the Enemy crossing over, came in upon them in such a Manner that a Number of them surrendered.

At this Time the Hessians advanced on the North Side of the Fort in very large Bodies, they were received by the Troops posted there with proper Spirit and kept back a considerable time. But at Length they were also obliged to submit to a superiority of Numbers and retire under the Cannon of the Fort.7

The Enemy having advanced thus far halted, and immediately a Flag went in with a Repetition of the demand of the Fortress as I suppose. At this Time I sent a Billet to Colo. Magaw, directing him to hold out, and I would endeavour this Evening to bring off the Garrison, if the Fortress could not be maintained, as I did not expect it could, the Enemy being possessed of the adjacent Ground. But before this reached him he had entered too far into a Treaty to retract. After which, Colo. Cadwalader told another Messenger who went over, that they had been able to obtain no other Terms than to surrender as prisoners of War.8 In this Situation Matters now stand. I have stopped Genl Beall’s and Genl Heards Brigades to preserve the Post and Stores here, which with the other Troops I hope we shall be able to effect.

I dont yet know the Numbers killed or wounded on either Side, but from the heaviness and Continuance of Fire in some places, I imagine there must have been considerable Execution.9

The Loss of such a Number of Officers a⟨nd⟩ Men, many of whom have been trained with more than common Attention, will I fear be severely felt. But when that of the Arms and Accoutrements is added much more so, and must be a farther Incentive to procure as considerable a Supply as possible for the New Troops as soon as it can be done. I have the Honor to be with great Respect Sir Yr most obt Servt

Go: Washington

LS, in Tench Tilghman’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; Df, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Congress read this letter on 19 Nov. (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 6:963).

4The strength of the American garrison at Fort Washington on this date was about twenty-nine hundred officers and men (see note 9). Colonel Magaw reportedly told his captors after his surrender that “there were only 2200 men on the Island in the Morning, but that a Reinforcement, the numbers of which he was not acquainted with, came over during the attack” (Mackenzie, Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 1:109). No other accounts of American reinforcements crossing the Hudson to Fort Washington during the engagement have been found, however, and the danger and difficulty inherent in making a daylight crossing under combat conditions suggest that the last reinforcements probably were sent to Fort Washington during the previous night or earlier (see Freeman, Washington description begins Douglas Southall Freeman. George Washington: A Biography. 7 vols. New York, 1948–57. description ends , 4:252–53, n.134, and Graydon, Memoirs description begins Alexander Graydon. Memoirs of His Own Time. With Reminiscences of the Men and Events of the Revolution. Edited by John Stockton Littell. Philadelphia, 1846. description ends , 191). The Pennsylvania flying camp troops at Fort Washington included Col. William Baxter’s regiment, which had been sent there about 3 Nov., and the regiments of colonels Michael Swope, Frederick Watts, and William Montgomery (see Greene to Magaw, 3 Nov., in Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 1:331–32, and the undated list of Pennsylvania officers at Fort Washington in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:729–30).

5GW, who had gone to Hackensack from Fort Lee earlier on 15 Nov., returned to Fort Lee during the evening after receiving Nathanael Greene’s letter of that date (see GW to the Board of War, 15 Nov. [second letter], n.1, and Greene to GW, 15 Nov., and note 1). GW was crossing the Hudson River from Fort Lee to Fort Washington when he encountered generals Putnam and Greene returning from Fort Washington and decided to go back to Fort Lee for the night. For GW’s visit to Fort Lee between 13 and 15 Nov. and his failure during that time to reverse Greene’s decision to continue holding Fort Washington, see GW to John Augustine Washington, 6–19 Nov., n.10.

6Because the five-sided earthen fort was designed to hold only about twelve hundred men and it had little defensive ditching around it and no barracks, ammunition magazines, or readily accessible source of water, Magaw deployed most of his troops outside the fort’s walls in positions covering the most likely routes of attack. About a mile and a half south of the fort, Magaw’s 5th Pennsylvania Regiment, Cadwalader’s 3d Pennsylvania Regiment, “and some broken companies of Miles’s and other battalions, principally from Pennsylvania,” all under Cadwalader’s command, manned a defensive line across Harlem heights (Graydon, Memoirs description begins Alexander Graydon. Memoirs of His Own Time. With Reminiscences of the Men and Events of the Revolution. Edited by John Stockton Littell. Philadelphia, 1846. description ends , 194). On Laurel Hill about half a mile east of Fort Washington, in positions overlooking the Harlem River, were posted various regiments of the flying camp troops. At the northern end of the high ridge on which Fort Washington stood, about three-quarters of a mile from the fort, Col. Moses Rawlings’s Maryland and Virginia riflemen defended a steep slope facing toward King’s Bridge, which lay about a mile and a half to the northeast. The area west of Fort Washington was not defended because the rugged 230–foot high bank of the Hudson River made it unlikely that any attack would come from that direction.

“The true reason of our loss of Fort Washington, I believe,” an anonymous American correspondent wrote on 17 Nov. from Fort Lee, “was the extensiveness of our lines. We had too few men to oppose the different attacks, and yet, when collected together, too many to garrison the fort” (Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:741; see also Graydon, Memoirs description begins Alexander Graydon. Memoirs of His Own Time. With Reminiscences of the Men and Events of the Revolution. Edited by John Stockton Littell. Philadelphia, 1846. description ends , 191–93).

7General Howe employed four separate forces in attacking Fort Washington. Lord Percy’s corps of British and Hessian troops began the engagement about ten o’clock this morning by advancing on Harlem Heights from the south. After pushing back the American pickets and taking a small advanced redoubt, Percy’s corps halted in front of the first American line to wait for a flanking attack by the 42d Regiment, which was aboard bateaux on the Harlem River near Col. Roger Morris’s house, GW’s former headquarters. Although Howe originally planned for the 42d Regiment to make a feint without landing in order simply to distract the Americans, he changed his mind after the engagement began, and he ordered the regiment’s commander Lt. Col. Thomas Sterling to land his men in the vicinity of Morris’s house, which stood behind the second American line on Harlem Heights, and to attack westward across Manhattan Island to trap the defenders in the first line or at least cause them to abandon their position. It was this landing that Colonel Cadwalader sent a detachment of fifty men under Capt. David Lenox to oppose. Joined soon afterwards by a hundred more men from the first line and about one hundred and fifty men from the fort, Lenox’s detachment inflicted heavy casualties on the 42d Regiment as it rowed across the Harlem River and disembarked, but when the British regulars got ashore sometime shortly after noon, they quickly overwhelmed Lenox’s men and pursued them and some of the other retreating Americans to the Hudson River, taking about one hundred and seventy prisoners. Percy’s corps moved forward about the same time and closely followed Cadwalader’s men as they hastily evacuated their line and retreated to the fort in a generally successful effort to avoid being cut off by the 42d Regiment (see Howe to George Germain, 30 Nov., in Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 12:258–64; Graydon, Memoirs description begins Alexander Graydon. Memoirs of His Own Time. With Reminiscences of the Men and Events of the Revolution. Edited by John Stockton Littell. Philadelphia, 1846. description ends , 194–97, 199–201; Mackenzie, Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 105–8; and Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends , 109–12).

Howe’s other two attacking forces both started at King’s Bridge on the north side of Fort Washington. General Knyphausen’s corps of Hessians and Waldeckers marched by land in two columns to assault the high hill defended by Rawlings’s riflemen, while two battalions of British light infantry and two battalions of British guards, all under the command of Gen. Edward Mathew, were transported on flat boats about a mile down the Harlem River to attack the northern positions on Laurel Hill. The embarkation of Mathew’s men was hindered greatly by the tide, which had been miscalculated in planning the operation, and it was not until noon that they were in position to make their attack. Knyphausen was obliged to hold back his troops until that time in order to coordinate his and Mathew’s attacks. Mathew’s light infantry and guards had little trouble in routing the flying camp troops on Laurel Hill, who offered only light resistance before fleeing to the fort. Two battalions of British grenadiers and the 33d Regiment, under the command of Lord Cornwallis, subsequently landed in support of Mathew’s force. Knyphausen’s corps experienced much greater difficulty in overcoming Rawlings’s riflemen. Fighting from behind a well-placed abatis near the top of a steep, rocky, and heavily wooded slope, the riflemen poured a deadly fire on the attacking Hessians and Waldeckers below until the fouling of their rifles with powder from excessive firing and a determined bayonet charge by the Germans forced them to retreat to the fort (see >Howe to Germain, 30 Nov., in Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 12:258–64; Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends , 109–12; Kemble Papers description begins [Stephen Kemble]. The Kemble Papers. 2 vols. New York, 1884-85. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 16–17. description ends , 99–100; Baurmeister, Revolution in America description begins Carl Leopold Baurmeister. Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776–1784, of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces. Translated and annotated by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf. New Brunswick, N.J., 1957. description ends , 69–70; Ewald, Diary description begins Johann Ewald. Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin. New Haven and London, 1979. description ends , 15–17; Wiederhold, “Capture of Fort Washington,” 95–97; and Graydon, Memoirs description begins Alexander Graydon. Memoirs of His Own Time. With Reminiscences of the Men and Events of the Revolution. Edited by John Stockton Littell. Philadelphia, 1846. description ends , 197, 200).

Edward F. De Lancey in 1877 argued that Howe’s victory at Fort Washington should be attributed principally to the vital intelligence about the fort and its garrison that Howe obtained from Ens. William Demont, the adjutant of Magaw’s 5th Pennsylvania Regiment who deserted to the British on 2 Nov. (see De Lancey, “Mount Washington and Its Capture on the 16th of November, 1776,” in Magazine of American History, with Notes and Queries, 1 [1877], 65–90). For a refutation of De Lancey’s argument, see Ward, War of the Revolution description begins Christopher Ward. The War of the Revolution. Edited by John Richard Alden. 2 vols. New York, 1952. description ends , 2:940. See also Ketchum, Winter Soldiers description begins Richard M. Ketchum. The Winter Soldiers. Garden City, N.Y., 1973. description ends , 133–34, 407, and Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 1:358.

GW visited Fort Washington during the early part of the engagement and observed some of the action on Harlem Heights. Greene says in his letter to Henry Knox of the next day that on this morning he, GW, Israel Putnam, and Hugh Mercer went from Fort Lee to Fort Washington “to determine what was best to be done.” They embarked “Just at the instant” that Percy’s corps appeared on a hill south of the Harlem Heights lines, and by the time they reached Fort Washington, Percy’s men had driven back the American guards and were directly in front of Cadwalader’s front line. “There we all stood in a very awkward situation,” Greene writes. “As the disposition was made and the Enemy advancing we durst not attempt to make any new disposition—indeed we saw nothing amiss. We all urged his Excellency [GW] to come off. I offerd to stay. General Putnam did the same and so did General Mercer, but his Excellency thought it best for us all to come off together, which we did about half an hour before the Enemy surrounded the fort” (ibid., 351–59).

Alexander Graydon in his memoirs includes an account of the loss of Fort Washington by Lambert Cadwalader, who says that after GW and the generals accompanying him arrived at the fort this morning, they “crossed the island to Morris’s house; whence they viewed the position of our troops, and the operations of the enemy in that quarter. Having remained there a sufficient time to observe the arrangement that had been made for the defence of that part of the island, they retired by the way they came, and returned to Fort Lee, without making any change in the disposition of the troops, or communicating any new orders. It is a fact, not generally known, that the British troops took possession of the very spot on which the Commander-in-chief, and the general officers with him, had stood, in fifteen minutes after they left it” (Graydon, Memoirs description begins Alexander Graydon. Memoirs of His Own Time. With Reminiscences of the Men and Events of the Revolution. Edited by John Stockton Littell. Philadelphia, 1846. description ends , 199–200; see also Mackenzie, Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 109).

8“The Rebels,” Frederick Mackenzie says in his diary entry for this date, “were driven on all sides, and by one o’Clock as many of them as The Fort would hold were driven into it, and the remainder into the ditch, and an unfinished outwork. The [British and German] troops being drawn round the Fort at a proper distance the place was immediately summoned, about 3 oClock they surrendered, and about 4 o’Clock they marched out” (ibid., 106).

The letter summoning the garrison to surrender that British Adjutant Gen. James Paterson wrote Magaw this afternoon reads: “The Commander in Chief [Howe] demands an immediate & categorical Answer to his second Summons of Fort Washington. The Garrison must immediately surrender Prisoners of War, and give up all their Arms, Ammunition, & Stores of every kind, and send two Field-Officers to Head-Quarters as Hostages for so doing. The General is pleased to allow the Garrison to keep Possession of their Baggage, and the officers to have their Swords” (Tatum, Serle’s Journal description begins Edward H. Tatum, Jr., ed. The American Journal of Ambrose Serle: Secretary to Lord Howe, 1776–1778. San Marino, Calif., 1940. description ends , 142; see also Mackenzie, Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 108–11; Kemble Papers description begins [Stephen Kemble]. The Kemble Papers. 2 vols. New York, 1884-85. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 16–17. description ends , 1:100; Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends , 112; and Extract of a Letter from an English Officer, 26 Nov., in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:855–56).

The note that GW sent to Magaw has not been identified. It was carried by Capt. John Gooch of the 9th Continental Regiment, a friend of General Greene. Gooch, William Heath says in his memoirs, volunteered for the mission. “He ran down to the river, jumped into a small boat, pushed over the river, landed under the bank, ran up to the fort, and delivered the message—came out, ran and jumped over the broken ground, dodging the Hessians, some of whom struck at him with their pieces, and others attempted to thrust him with their bayonets—escaping through them, he got to his boat, and returned to Fort Lee” (Wilson, Heath Memoirs, 97). An anonymous correspondent who wrote on 17 Nov. from Fort Lee, says that Gooch reported to GW that Fort Washington “was so crowded that it was difficult to pass through it, and as the enemy were in possession of the little redoubts around it, they could have poured in such a shower of shells and richochet-balls, as would have destroyed hundreds in a little time. And the flag arriving at this moment with the promise of the preservation of their baggage, and safety to their persons, in case of a surrender, prudence dictated that it should be given up” (Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:741).

9General Howe says in his letter to Lord Germain of 30 Nov. that 2, 870 Americans were captured at Fort Washington and the American casualties were three officers and fifty men killed and six officers and ninety men wounded (Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 12:258–64). Joshua Loring’s undated return of American prisoners, which Howe enclosed in his letter to Germain of 3 Dec., indicates that 2,818 American officers and men were captured at Fort Washington (see ibid., 10:417, and Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:1057–58), and an undated list of American officers killed and wounded at Fort Washington shows that four officers were killed and at least three officers were wounded (see ibid., 729–30). If Loring’s return is correct and the wounded but not the dead are included in its figures, there were at least 2,872 Americans at Fort Washington on 16 November. An unknown but small number of Americans escaped across the Hudson (see Graydon, Memoirs description begins Alexander Graydon. Memoirs of His Own Time. With Reminiscences of the Men and Events of the Revolution. Edited by John Stockton Littell. Philadelphia, 1846. description ends , 235, and Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends , 111).

British losses in the attack on Fort Washington were 19 officers and men killed, 102 officers and men wounded, and 7 men missing. The 42d Regiment, which made the flanking attack near Morris’s house, had 9 officers and men killed and 73 officers and men wounded. The Germans lost 58 officers and men killed and 272 officers and men wounded. Casualties were particularly heavy in two of the Hessian regiments that participated in the attack on Rawlings’s riflemen. Knyphausen’s regiment had 7 officers and men killed and 66 officers and men wounded. Wutginau’s regiment had 16 officers and men killed and 64 officers and men wounded. The total casualties for Howe’s army during this engagement are 77 killed, 374 wounded, and 7 missing (see Mackenzie, Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 1:110; see also the British and Hessian casualty return, 1 Dec., in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:1055–57).

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