Battle of Harlem Heights

Battle of Harlem Heights

The Battle of Harlem Heights was fought in the New York Campaign of the American Revolutionary War. The action took place in what is now the Morningside Heights and west Harlem neighborhoods of Manhattan in New York City on September 16, 1776.

The Americans—under Generals George Washington, Nathanael Greene, and Israel Putnam, totaling around 2,000 men—held a series of high ground positions in upper Manhattan against an attacking British division totaling around 5,000 men under the command of General Alexander Leslie. British troops made what became a tactical error by sounding a fox hunt bugle call while in pursuit, meant to insult the Continentals, who were in orderly retreat. This instead infuriated the Americans who galvanized to hold their ground. The battle went a long way to restore the confidence of the Continental Army.


The British

On the evening of the 15th, the British were encamped in what is today Central Park, around 96th street. Howe established his headquarters at a mansion at what is now 50th street.

The Americans

When choosing to withdraw from New York, Washington decided that the heights north of Harlem Plains were the best position to occupy. [Johnston (1897) pg.48] The American encampment stretched from what is today 161st street, to 125th street. Washington had about 9,000 men fit for duty on the morning of the 16th, much of which were from the Battle of Long Island. [Johnston (1897) pg. 48] Less than half of the troops were continentals, and the remainder were state levies or militiamen.

In the course of the prior three weeks, three lines of entrenchments and redoubts were projected across the heights. The first of these was begun during the battle, and included three small redoubts.

The Battle


Knowlton's Rangers moved out before dawn. At sunrise the party encountered the British pickets by a farmhouse. [Johnston (1897) pg.58] As the party approached the farmhouse they were spotted by the British from the picket line. A brief skirmish broke out, but when the British began to turn on the American flank, Knowlton ordered an organized retreat. [Johnston (1897) pg.62]

The Main Battle

The American rangers were followed through the woods and field of Harlem by British Light troops. The British troops began to sing and sounded their bugle horns to signal that it was a fox-chase. Upon hearing this, an officer went to Washington and asked for reinforcements. Washington was reluctant but he devised a plan to entrap the British troops. The plan was to make a feint in front of a hill, and then draw the British troops into a hollow while waiting for the flanking part to entrap them. The plan worked, and the British troops were drawn into the hollow, and were engaged by troops from the Continental Army. [Johnston (1897) pg.59]

The flanking party arrived an hour later. It consisted of Knowlton's Rangers, which had been reinforced by three companies of riflemen, in total about 200 men. As they approached, an officer accidentally misled the men, and the firing broke out too early, causing the flanking movement to fail. The British troops, realizing their position, retreated to a field, in which there was a fence. The Americans soon pursued, and during the attack Knowlton was killed. Despite his death, the American troops pushed on, driving the British troops beyond the fence to the top of a hill. For two hours, the British troops held their ground at the top of the hill. However, the Americans, once again, overwhelmed the British troops and forced them to retreat into a Buckwheat field. [Johnston (1897) pg.61]

Washington had originally been reluctant to pursue the British troops, but after seeing that his men were fighting with fine spirit and dash, sent in reinforcements and permitted the troops to engage in a direct attack. By the time all of the reinforcements arrived, nearly 1,800 Americans were engaged in the Buckwheat Field. To direct the battle, members of Washington's staff such as Nathanael Greene were sent in. During this time, the British troops were also reinforced, gathering to about 5,000 men. [McCullough (2005) pg.218]

Despite the American reinforcements, the British troops held their positions against the American assault. For nearly two hours the battle continued in the field and in the surrounding hills. Finally, the British troops were compelled to withdraw, but the Americans kept up close pursuit. The chase continued until it was heard that the British reserves were coming, and Washington fearing a British trap, ordered a withdrawal. [McCullough (2005) pg.218]


The British and Hessians suffered 90 killed and 300 wounded. The Americans had only about 30 killed and 100 wounded, including among the dead Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton and Major Andrew Leitch.



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