This Day in History: George Washington’s victory at Harlem Heights
On this day in 1776, the Americans fought and won the Battle of Harlem Heights. It was a much-needed victory—and George Washington’s first on the battlefield.
Only weeks before, the Americans had suffered a crushing defeat at Brooklyn Heights. Following the defeat, they’d made a miraculous escape across the East River and into Manhattan, but they had been run out of New York City not too long after that. (See August 29 history post.)
On the morning of September 16, Washington received word that the British were advancing on the American position in Harlem. He sent 150 rangers under Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton to investigate. Those rangers ran into the British redcoats and, after a brief skirmish, were forced to flee back toward Washington and the main body of the army. The British were playing bugle calls, as if they were hunting foxes. “I never felt such a sensation before,” wrote one officer, “It seemed to crown our disgrace.”
“It was a clever, if cruel, way to jangle the nerves of the squire of Mount Vernon,” Washington biographer Ron Chernow notes. Of course, Washington didn’t take the insult lying down! Ignoring the bugle calls meant to humiliate him, he instead decided to counterattack. He sent one brigade to attack the British directly. Then he sent the rangers and some Virginia Continentals to work their way south, around the right flank of the redcoats. They were supposed to open fire when they were behind the British, thus entrapping them.
The attack did not work as well as it should have, because the Rangers and Continentals turned too early and attacked the center, rather than the rear, of the British flank. Nevertheless, a “pretty Sharp Skirmish” ensued and lasted for hours. During this skirmish, Knowlton was hit and fell. Upon being asked if he was badly hurt, the mortally wounded Knowlton responded that he was, but “I do not value my Life if we do but get the Day.”
Knowlton got his wish. The Americans held their own, and the British were eventually forced to retreat. “[We] drove the dogs near three miles,” one of Knowlton’s men wrote.
A Virginian, George Weedon, later wrote of the outcome. “Upon the whole,” he reported, “[the British] got cursedly thrashed.”
The victory provided a tremendous morale boost to Washington’s men at a time when they sorely needed it. Adjutant General Joseph Reed later summarized the situation to his wife: “You can hardly conceive the change it has made in our Army.”
David McCullough, 1776 (2005)
Life and correspondence of Joseph Reed: military secretary of Washington (William Bradford Reed ed. 1847)
Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (2010)
Letter from George Washington to Major General Philip Schuyler (Sept. 20, 1776)
John Jay, Battle of Harlem Plains: Oration Before the New York Historical Society (Sept. 16, 1876)