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This Day in History: An Escape from Fort Independence

On this day in 1777, Major General William Heath retreats from Fort Independence. His decision ends a failed mission to harass and distract the British.

Several weeks earlier, George Washington had instructed Heath to gather militia and “move down towards New york with a Considerable force as if you had a design upon the city.” Heath could distract the British, perhaps forcing them to remove some troops from New Jersey. If things went well, perhaps Heath could even launch an attack. As Washington wrote: “[A]vail yourself of every favorable oppertunity of attacking the enemy, when you Can do it to advantage.”

William Heath

Heath executed his plan to storm Fort Independence on January 17. The militia moved toward the fort in three columns, arriving at the British outposts on the morning of the 18th. Heath later wrote that the enemy “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.”

It was an illustrious beginning to an operation that would soon disintegrate.

Heath was attacking a fort that was well-defended, a fact that he would have known if he had bothered to reconnoiter it in advance. One militia officer, Timothy Pickering, later noted that the fort was “ditched, fraised, and surrounded by an abatis.” The fort’s commanders would had to have been “fools and arrant cowards” to worry about the American threat.

Heath didn’t seem to notice. He sent a demand for immediate surrender. The Hessians inside the fort ignored it. Instead, they began firing cannon at the American force. For nearly two weeks, the two sides exchanged fire and engaged in skirmishes. Heath’s ammunition soon became useless “from their being so much wet” and the militia suffered from “fatigues and distress . . . from cold and want of cover for the week past.” The militia generals worried about Heath’s decision-making.

Heath finally abandoned the siege on January 29. He wrote Washington, seemingly making excuses. “[O]ur Army is all Militia,” he wrote, “and your Excellency well knows that they are by no means adequate to such an Enterprise.” Heath determined that his last job was to “collect the Forage, protect the well disposed, and curb the Disaffected.”

He failed at that, too! Instead, he went into a panic when he saw British transports in the waters around Long Island on January 30. One historian writes that Heath “ordered an immediate retreat that did not come to a halt until he had raced all the way to White Plains. This headlong flight from fantasy (the British were not at all concerned with Heath’s doings) proved the capstone to two weeks of incredible and exhausting foolishness, a fitting end to the siege of Fort Independence. Heath had been sent on this expedition to frighten the British, but he succeeded only in amusing them.”

Washington was pretty unhappy! He told Heath: “I wish your summons had never been sent, as I am fearful it will expose us to the ridicule of our Enemies.” Pickering felt pretty much the same way. He wrote: “After enduring a variety of hardships, we returned, doing nothing and getting nothing….The expedition was disgraceful.”

Needless to say, it was a low point on our road to independence.

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