Are these the men with which I am to defend America?
In the aftermath of the Battle of Long Island, General George Washington once again confronted the conundrum of how to defend an island without a navy. Though he did what he could to secure his position–sinking several hulks in the Hudson, posting strong batteries along the shore, even stringing chain across the river–none of these strategies prevented British warships from coming and going whenever they pleased and the wind allowed. Indeed, his recent defeat on Long Island had only made the problem more maddening. First, he had lost Brooklyn Heights to the enemy, a position that he believed essential to holding New York from the outset. Second, although his army was no longer divided, it had been diminished by almost 1,500 men–and that was just the beginning of his losses. Shaken in spirit and increasingly convinced of the impossibility of holding the city, whole companies simply started hiking for home. Of the 8,000 Connecticut men in the army, 6,000 were gone inside a week. Worried that he might be cut off and trapped on Manhattan, Washington posted the better part of his remaining forces so as to protect his rear and keep open a line of retreat into Westchester. Nearly ten thousand troops dug in on lines at Harlem Heights and Kings Bridge at the northern end of the island. Another five thousand were posted mid-island along the East River shore to oppose a landing there, while his best guns with their crews plus the remaining four thousand of his infantry were still on the Battery at the southern tip. It may be that this was the best that could be done with an insoluble problem, but Nathanael Greene, recovered now from his fever, did not like the looks of it, and urged that the city be abandoned and burned to prevent its falling to the enemy. This Washington was not yet prepared to do, but his defeat and deliverance on Long Island had taught him to think anew about the broader nature of the problem. Decisive battle, he reasoned, was not the way to win this war. “We should on all occasions avoid a general action or put anything to the risk,” he reasoned, “unless compelled by necessity, into which we ought never to be drawn.” If America could simply “protract the war,” the British will to continue the contest might eventually be exhausted. It might be possible to win simply by not losing.
Necessity, however, was about to compel Washington to fight. Having given the Americans a leisurely two-week breather, the Howes sent five frigates up the East River on the night of 14 September where they dropped anchor off Kip’s Bay–opposite what is now 34th Street. In the hazy heat of the following morning, the 86 guns of the frigates smashed the flimsy earthworks constructed by the militiamen on the East River shore. Some of these men simply took to their heels, and those who remained peered through the clearing powder smoke to see a flotilla of flat-bottomed barges carrying ten battalions of British light infantry and Hessian grenadiers. Their response was panic, immediate and nearly complete, which sent them hustling north up the Boston Post Road as fast as they could go. Part of the problem was simple inexperience–or the recent memory of the worst kind of experience. Some of those who fled their trenches had slogged across Gowanus Creek in a hail of gunfire two weeks earlier. The other part of the problem was a fundamental failure of leadership, for there was sufficient strength at hand and five regiments of reinforcements nearby to contest the enemy landings. But old William Spencer, the Connecticut major general posted here had no more command of the situation than the rawest country boy in the ranks. Nor could Washington do any better; riding to the scene of this fresh disaster, he met the headlong mob somewhere in the neighborhood of modern 42nd Street and tried to rally them, but the sight of the approaching British light infantry just then was more inspiring than the presence of the tall Virginian. Now Washington, long known for his icy self-control, simply exploded into a towering, cursing, white-hot rage, striking officers and men alike with his riding crop as they surged past. “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” he shouted in despair. His rage spent, he now sat slumped in his saddle amid the detritus of a rout. Virtually alone, he was within moments of becoming a prisoner himself when an aide took his reins and turned the commander north to follow the retreat to Harlem Heights in stunned silence.
Though Washington was in no frame of mind to contemplate good fortune, in fact he was even then enjoying some luck. The British, having gained so much with so little effort, moved cautiously north in the wake of the flight from Kip’s Bay, properly expecting an American counterattack. Moving up the east side of the island, they were inadvertently holding open an escape route on the west side for Putnam’s five thousand troops from the Battery. Though forced to abandon his guns and stores, Putnam drove his men north with relentless energy. If Howe’s pursuit, now reinforced by fresh landings, had turned aggressively westward, they might have crushed the flank of Putnam’s strung-out column and perhaps driven the Americans into the Hudson River. In the end it was a close thing, but Putnam’s energy and Howe’s caution decided the race in favor of the Patriots. By sundown the whole of Washington’s army, though whipped again, was digging in on Harlem Heights while Royal Marines were raising the Union Jack in triumph over New York City.
By dawn the next day Washington was regaining some measure of composure. He wrote to Congress that he could win on Harlem Heights–if Howe would attack and if his men would act with “tolerable resolution.” Even then, Thomas Knowlton, the tall Connecticut colonel who had held the rail fence on Breed’s Hill, was taking the fight to the British, though his wasn’t much of an attacking force, no more than 120 Connecticut Rangers in sum. They collided with the 42nd Highlanders–the famous Black Watch–and a couple of battalions of light infantry just south of Harlem Heights in a broad depression known locally as the Hollow Way. A sharp little firefight was ignited, and the two lines exchanged volleys on open ground until the weight of British numbers threatened to overwhelm Knowlton’s tiny force, whereupon he broke off the fight and fell back in good order. The British, however, mistaking orderly retreat for another headlong rout, sent the light infantry forward in immediate pursuit–whooping and bugling contemptuous fox-hunting calls as they came. If this was arrogance on the part of the British, it was an opportunity for the Americans. Now Washington ordered Knowlton back into the Hollow Way, this time supported by three Virginia rifle companies. At the edge of a buckwheat field, a serious stand-up fight ensued, which succeeded in driving the light infantry back on the 42nd’s lines. As the fighting surged back and forth over the next hour, Washington hustled three more outfits into the contest–Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maryland men, some of them the same militiamen who had fled so ingloriously from Kip’s Bay. Then the seemingly impossible happened: the kilted Scots of the Black Watch, famed throughout the empire for their fearless combativeness, broke and ran back through the buckwheat. Only the timely arrival of Hessian grenadiers kept their retreat from becoming a rout, a deliverance not without a humiliating sting of its own. But for the Americans, it was an extraordinary and expansive moment. As a Pennsylvania boy remembered, “the pursuit of a flying enemy was so new a scene that it was with difficulty that our men could be brought to retire… they gave a Hurra! and left the field in good order.”
For many, it was also a transformative moment. The men in the ranks began to feel a confidence in their own fighting abilities and, perhaps just as important, confidence in their leadership. Though the redoubtable Knowlton and a hard-fighting Virginian, Major Andrew Leitch, were killed early in the fight, Washington had handled his regiments with crisp and purposeful efficiency. He had provoked a fight, won a smart little skirmish, and broken off the fight on his own terms. “You can hardly conceive the change it has made,” wrote Washington’s adjutant Joseph Reed. “The men… feel a confidence which before they had quite lost.” Although Washington would have to be satisfied by this brief check of the British advance, he did not entirely share Reed’s confidence. He had thus far saved his army but lost the city he had come to defend. Still, his Continentals had shown skill and spirit when properly lead, both in Brooklyn and at Harlem Heights. But if he had to continue to rely in large part on militiamen, he wrote to Congress, only “certain and irretrievable ruin” lay ahead. General Howe was dug in opposite Harlem Heights on his front, and Washington looked for Admiral Howe to strike at Kingsbridge or Westchester in his rear with the first good following wind. As Washington wrote privately to his cousin Lund Washington in undisguised despair: “Such is my situation that if I were to wish the bitterest curse to an enemy on this side of the grave, I should put him in my stead with my feelings.”
But the Howes did not move on the first favorable wind. For a full month the British stood down while the Howes spun out yet another peace initiative. This time their peace proclamation appealed directly to the American people with frank simplicity: a Rebel could keep his head and his land by the prompt return to obedience to George III. If enough colonials came forward in the next sixty days, the Declaration of Independence might well go into the dustbin of history, and “a permanent union” of England and America would be established. In this effort, the Howes were not as naive as they might seem from this distance. It may be that they feared their political enemies back in London–Lord George Germain and his cabal in particular–more than they feared General Washington. Indeed, when news of the proclamation reached London at the end of November, Germain, in the time-honored way of stay-at-home politicians, scoffed at the Howes’ “sentimental way of making war.” Germain’s dearest wish was in fact to see heads roll in America. The ruthless confiscation of American lands which would be sure to follow would further empower him and enrich his friends. Again, in seeking peace by reconciliation, the Howes may have been thinking anxiously about the history lesson to be read in John Bull’s Other Island–Ireland. There a war of conquest begun in the time of the Tudors had displaced and dispossessed the native ruling class; the result was a long, fruitless agony for both conquered and conquerors–a bloody business that continues down to our own day. Thoughtful men might wonder how the ministry hoped to bring an entire continent peacefully and productively into the empire when it could not do so with the tiny island across the Irish Sea. Others might wonder what would happen to the British nation and its ancient constitution if the idea of liberty itself became a spoil of war.
Although many discouraged Americans did come forward to declare their allegiance to the king, whatever hopes the Howes nourished for an immediate peace went up in flames on the night of 20 September along with something like a quarter of New York City. Congress had in fact forbidden Washington to burn the city, and controversy and uncertainty have always surrounded this event. But the fires were set so simultaneously and spread so systematically that it is very difficult not to see an American fifth column at work. A south wind carried the flames of a dozen burning buildings throughout the city, and by the morning of the 21st five or six hundred Manhattan structures were in ashes. All Washington would say, rather disingenuously, was that “Providence, or some good honest fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves.” As the city’s fires smoldered out, several of those good, honest fellows–including young Connecticut Captain Nathan Hale, certainly a spy and perhaps an arsonist as well–went to the gallows. But if Washington had denied some comfort to the British camp, he was no closer now to a real plan to turn back the British than he was when Nathanael Greene urged him to burn the city and retreat to Westchester back in high summer.