George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General William Heath, 19 January 1777

From Major General William Heath

William’s Tavern [N.Y.] Jany 19th 17771

Dear General,

I have just received the honor of yours of the 14th & 17th Inst.

Yesterday morning about Sunrise our Troops in Three Divisions arrived in the Neighbourhood of Fort Independence—the Right Division by the Albany Road, the Centre by Stephen Ward’s,2 & the left by East Chester—Upon our Approach the Enemy fled to Fort Independence; leaving 15 Muskets at one place & Ten at another, besides Blankets &c.3

I summoned the Fort to surrender—I have taken the Liberty to enclose a Copy4—The Answer to the Summons was verbal, and in Substance, that as the Americans were excepted, that they altho’ Britons had no Answer to return—they afterwards fired a number of Cannon at us from the Fort which we returned.

We are just informed by Two Deserters from the Fort, that the Garrison—consists of about 350 Men—that the last night they had a Twelve pounder sent to the Fort—And that General Agnaw moved up yesterday with his Brigade & took post, at the Northermost woody Hill between Fort Washington & Kingsbridge and about 1200 Hessians near the Fort—between Two & Three Hundred Hessians are in the Houses just over the Bridge.

We took one Light Horse-man with Horse &c. compleat, & one Soldier,5 & have had one man killed by a Cannon Ball this day—Tomorrow we intend to make an Attack upon the Hessians at the Bridge, if they should not be reinforced—they have Two Pieces of Cannon well posted—Our Troops are all Militia, and altho’ perhaps as good as any Militia, yet they are not disciplined—Our Numbers are about 3000, but they begin to go home already—the want of Covering, the Weather Cold &c. causes many Complaints—much will depend on the Success of our Attack tomorrow.

I have approved of the Sentence of the Court Martial on Strang, & have ordered him to be executed on Wednesday next at Eleven O’Clock before noon.6

A Hessian Major Son of One of their Generals commands Fort Independence. I have the honor to be Very respectfully your Excellency’s Most Humble Servant

W. Heath

LS, DLC:GW; ADfS, MHi: Heath Papers. Heath extensively revised the draft before giving it to an aide for copying.

1Heath moved to a tavern located near the eastern side of Williams’s Bridge in Westchester County on 18 Jan. when three American divisions marched against Fort Independence in the Bronx (see Wilson, Heath’s Memoirs description begins Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. Heath’s Memoirs of the American War. 1798. Reprint. New York, 1904. description ends , 119). Williams’s Bridge, originally built in the 1670s on land adjacent to a farm later owned by John Williams, crossed the Bronx River about two miles from the fort near New York City’s modern-day 210th Street.

2Stephen Ward’s house, Tuckahoe, located on the White Plains post road in present-day Yonkers, often served as a rendezvous point for American foraging parties until the British burned it in November 1778. British general William Howe briefly established his headquarters at the house in late October 1776. Judge Stephen Ward (1730–1797) represented Eastchester in the New York provincial congress in 1775 and 1776 and in the New York state senate from 1780 to 1783.

3The draft contains an additional sentence that Heath struck out: “A number of the Enemy appeared on the Island, back of Hyetts House, we Immediately run two Field peices Upon the Heights above Harlem River, and Cannonaded them and have drove them from the Ground on which they were Posted.” In his memoirs Heath describes the American attack on Fort Independence in greater detail: “17th.—At night the three divisions began to move towards Kingsbridge; Gen. Lincoln’s, from Tarrytown, on the Albany road; Generals Wooster and Parsons’s, from New Rochelle and East Chester, and Gen. Scott’s in the centre from below White Plains. The several distances and rate of marching were so well calculated, that, on the 18th, just before sunrise, the three divisions, although so far apart, arrived at the out-posts of the enemy almost at the same instant. Gen. Lincoln’s on the heights above Col. Van Cortland’s; Wooster’s at Williams’s; and Scott’s on the back of Valentine’s. Our General [Heath], who moved with the centre division, knew that Valentine’s house was the quarters of one of the guards; he did not know but it might be defended; as he approached it, he ordered Capt. Lieut. [David] Bryant to advance a field-piece to the advance-guard, and if there was any opposition from the house, to cannonade it immediately. He then ordered 250 men from the head of the column (as it was moving on) to incline to the right, and by a double step to push into the hollow, between the house and the fort, to cut off the guard who were at the house, in case they should run towards the latter. At this instant, two light-horsemen who had been sent out by the enemy as the day broke to reconnoitre the vicinity, came unexpectedly at the descent of a hill, plump upon the head of Wooster’s column. They attempted to turn about, but before it could be fully effected, a field-piece was discharged at them; one of them was pitched from his horse and taken prisoner, the other galloped back to the fort, holloing as he passed, ‘The rebels! The rebels!’ This set all the outguards and pickets running to the fort, leaving in some places their arms, blankets, tools, provisions, &c. behind them. Those who fled from Valentine’s, and the Negro Fort, were fired at as they ran, but none were killed: one, who could not run so fast as the rest, was taken prisoner. Ten muskets were taken at Valentine’s house. The guard above Van Cortland’s was as completely surprised as the others, where Gen. Lincoln took about 40 arms, some blankets, &c. &c. The left and centre divisions moved into the hollow, between Valentine’s house and the fort, from whence our General immediately sent a summons to the commanding officer of the fort to surrender” (Wilson, Heath’s Memoirs description begins Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. Heath’s Memoirs of the American War. 1798. Reprint. New York, 1904. description ends , 118–20).

4The enclosed copy of Heath’s summons to the British to surrender Fort Independence, written from “Vollintines House” on 18 Jan. and located in DLC:GW, reads: “Major General Heath commanding the Continental Troops now investing Fort Independence, being desirous as much as possible to avoid the Effusion of Blood, especially of those whom he thinks not immediately interested in the present Contest; Offers to the Garrison that if they immediately surrender the Fort, they shall (except the Americans) retain their Baggage; and the Officers their Side Arms, and shall be conducted to a Place of Safety, where they shall enjoy every mark of Humanity and Kindness, which their Brethren lately taken in the Jersies are daily experiencing to their great Satisfaction. Twenty Minutes only can be allowed for the Garrison to give their Answer; and should it be in the negative they must abide the Consequences” (see also 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 , 1:108; New-York Gazette: and the Weekly Mercury, 23 and 30 Jan. 1777).

5At this point in the draft Heath struck out the phrase “The Enemy left their Fires Burning.”

6Daniel Strang’s scheduled execution for Wednesday 22 Jan. was delayed to Monday 27 Jan. (see Heath’s first letter to GW of 30 January).

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