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This Day in History: The Battle of Fort Washington

On this day in 1776, the British capture Fort Washington. It was the latest in a nearly uninterrupted string of defeats for Americans in and around the New York area. The latest of these had occurred at White Plains.

At that battle, George Washington had once again found himself retreating. He expected British General William Howe to pursue and launch another attack, but Howe left the area instead. (See October 28 history post.) Where was Howe going? Washington had no idea. Was he headed to New Jersey? Or to Forts Washington and Lee? These two forts were supposed to keep British ships from sailing up the Hudson River.


Washington wondered if it was worth defending Fort Washington, which had proven relatively ineffective. To Major General Nathanael Greene, Washington observed that he was “inclined to think it will not be prudent to hazard the Men & Stores at Mount Washington.” He did not order an evacuation, however. He left it to Greene’s discretion: “[B]ut as you are on the Spot, [I] leave it to you to give such Orders as to evacuating Mount Washington as you judge best.”


Greene responded that he could not “conceive the Garrison to be in any great danger [as] the men can be brought off at any time” to safety. Fort Washington’s commander, Colonel Robert Magaw, was also optimistic, estimating that the fort could withhold a siege, at least through the end of December.


The matter was debated, again, when Washington traveled to Fort Lee on November 13. Still, no decision was made to evacuate the fort. Washington himself would later question his own indecision on this issue.


On November 15, Howe sent an emissary to demand surrender of the fort. Magaw refused, saying he was “determined to defend this post to the very last extremity.” Washington STILL did not give an order to evacuate! Instead, he accepted a report that the “Troops were in high Spirits and would make a good Defence.”


An attack began the next morning. Howe had 8,000 soldiers. By contrast, Magaw was in a bit of an odd position. The fort was intended to hold only 1,200 men, but Magaw had more than 2,800! The fort was too crowded—and yet Magaw was badly outnumbered. One person summarized the dilemma: “We had too few men to oppose the different attacks, and yet, when collected together, too many to garrison the fort.”


By late afternoon, Magaw was forced into surrender. Most of the American forces were captured. Making matters even worse, the fort had been stocked with much in the way of ammunition, arms, and supplies. The Continental Army needed these provisions! But now they were captured, too. A few days later, the British would take Fort Lee as well. Washington and his army fled into New Jersey, with General Charles Cornwallis hot on his heels.


Naturally, that is not the end of the story for Washington’s army. Stay tuned for the rest of the story in upcoming weeks!


P.S. Remember the legend of Molly Pitcher, based in part on Margaret Corbin, the woman who took over her husband’s cannon when he was killed in the middle of a battle? Today’s battle is the one in which she fought. (See January 22 history post)

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