Episode 113 The Fall of Fort Washington


Hello and thank you for joining the american revolution today episode one thirteen the foale fort washington in last week's episode we saw general washington pulled continental army out of white plains new york and crossed the hudson river into new jersey british general the williams how pursued a policy of slow but deliberate overwhelming force. He never gave washington an opportunity to strike at any extended attended vulnerability but his glacial pace also meant that he never could capture the continental army or force any sort of determinative battle. All the continental army still had one outpost on manhattan that was fort washington. The americans had built fort washington in order late to prevent the royal navy from sailing up the hudson. It sat along the river on the new york side with fort lee formerly fort constitution on on the new jersey side any british ship passing up the river would be subject to an artillery assault from both sides the experience over the summer showed that the forts never accomplished their purpose with a good tailwind british navy could sail right past both forts suffering only minor damage wjr admiral richard how regularly sent ships up river for little purpose other than proving he could by november seventeen seventy six six with all the rest of the continental forces out of manhattan for washington sat as the last bastion of defence on the island against the british british army general how was ready to move into winter quarters but not before he dealt with this last holdout the americans had spent spent a year and a half building up the defenses at fort washington. They had increased the size of the garrison to about three thousand defenders. The afford had plenty of cannon soldiers and food to withstand a siege of several months in fact the fort was far too small for all the men and most had to be deployed outside of the fort general washington had to worry about the main army that he was taking into new jersey washington wanted to stay between the british and philadelphia figuring that they might move on the seat of congress. If given the opportunity he divided his force giving a portion to general general charles lee to take north further up river into the hudson valley. Lee's army would prevent any british attempt to move toward albany. Perhaps making a coordinated attack on fort ticonderoga in cooperation with general carlton's forces in canada washington winton left general nathaniel greene with a separate command affords washington and lee on november eighth washington wrote to greene saying that the fort art was useless at keeping british ships from moving up and down the river that it seemed in imminent danger of attack and that it probably was not worth risking the men i and supplies that were held there. They should evacuate across the river to new jersey washington though left the final decision up to green who was is on the scene and had a better idea what was going on up until this time general green had no actual battlefield experience he he had arrived in cambridge for the siege of boston a few weeks after lexington and concord. He was back in rhode island. During the battle of bunker hill washington had ordered him to be ready for an invasion from the north of boston. During the battle of dorchester heights to the south of boston that invasion from the north never happened happened with general greene moved with the army to new york he had been in command of the forces on long island but became deathly. Ill a few weeks exp before the battle and had to sit out that one to his initial rise to general seemed to be based primarily on the fact that congress wanted someone from rhode island island and that he kept a fairly well disciplined camp at the siege of boston he would prove his value as general later the war but at fort washington cream was not only his name it also described his battlefield experience green ignored washington's advice to abandon hand in the fort. Even though british siege would probably prevail green hope to make the british pay for the real estate with their lives. Perhaps another bunker hill. He expected that when things got too hot is men could escape across the hudson river into new jersey green did not occupy fort washington himself green set up his command across the river at fort lee new jersey instead he left the honor of command at fort washington and to colonel robert magaw of pennsylvania mcgaw was an irish emigrant who had worked as a lawyer in western pennsylvania before the war began dan he was an ardent patriot who supported the cause in pennsylvania politics part of the radical patriots of western pennsylvania who had been challenging the more conservative leaders in philadelphia. He also became an associated shortly after lexington and concord the associated press. Were the pennsylvania militia that really took up arms for the first time in the colony. After the war began other than a few years participation in that local militia mogole really it did not have any military experience before marching up to cambridge in seventeen seventy five. He was part of thompson's regiment of riflemen. Among among the first pennsylvanians to join the new england army at cambridge where he served as a major when he remained with the continental army at the end of seventeen and seventy five as most of the army was going home. He received a promotion to colonel. After the army moved to new york colonel mcgraw commanded the fifth pennsylvania battalion and took direct command at fort washington under the direction of general green despite washington's misgivings his his officers at the scene thought the fort could withstand a lengthy siege if it seemed their defenses would fail they expected to be able to retreat across the hudson river to new jersey chrissy but green did not even think there would be a siege he expected the british to go into winter quarters tackling the fort the following spring general hal however had no plans to end the campaign just yet. It was already november as expected. He did not want to maintain a siege over the winter. He was looking to wrap up the fighting season but before ending the fighting season he thought he could clear the last american rebels off manhattan. The bulk of the continental army had already fled the area. How had almost all of the forces under his command available to take the fort how ordered the newly arrived hessian general knipe housing to take up a position just north of the fort with two columns comprising over four thousand hessian soldiers wilhelm baron vaughn knipe housing was the second in command of all hessian forces in america. He was an experienced officer officer. Who had served under frederick. The great in his prussian army british general lord percy who had saved the british expedition to concord and who had most recently distinguished himself in the invasions on long island had already taken a position to the south of the fort with between four and five five thousand british and hessian soldiers from their percy monitored the americans during the weeks when the main british army was gently nudging the main continental nedal army out of harlem heights and white plains admiral richard how the navy brought up several ships of the line up the river to fire on afford from the west the admiral even came ashore to work with general percy in the assault from the south general william how took up a position with his main army directly to the east of the fort he and general lord cornwallis and general edward maith you lead lead over four thousand regulars including eight hundred highlanders of the black watch in a direct assault from the east in total general how had about thirteen thousand british and hessen shoulders ready to take the three thousand defenders at fort washington. Not all of these would be engaged in the actual battle about five thousand ended up being held in reserve. How had a pretty good idea of the fort's defenses a few weeks earlier macos agenda william demont deserted his post and entered the british lines he brought with him sketches of the fort's defenses says and intelligence about garrison that was deeply divided he noted that the fort had no internal water source but had to carry water from the the river there were also no barracks nor protected ammunition bunkers in the fort the outer defenses leading up to the fort were rather weak and there were miles of defenses around the fort that had far less soldiers than were needed to defend them many weeks spots in the line would allow the british to push back the defenders offenders to the ford itself from there the british could bring up cannon to nearly point blank range they could knock down the walls and also lobbed shells els directly into the fort on november tenth washington arrived on the scene from the new jersey side from there. He hoped to evaluate personally personally whether to abandon fort washington prior to any attack washington discussed the matter with his officers but hesitated to make any final decision asian on the matter by november twelve two days later. How had his force in place. His men sat for several days though giving the americans americans yet another opportunity to assess the situation and retreat at night across the river on november fifteenth british lieutenant colonel james james patterson approached the fort under a flag of truce is message ordered the immediate surrender of the fort and said that if a surrendered did did not happen in the next two hours everyone in the fort would be put to the sword no surrender it was a bit of bluster that the americans did not believe they knew general how would never permit such a massacre mccall rejected the demand and sent patterson back to his lines. He also also sent word of the surrender demand across the river to general green by this time washington had left for lee to find more comfortable quarters for himself in hackensack. He still did not expect the british to launch an attack at fort lee general greene received news of the surrender demand and forwarded read the news to washington in hackensack. He told washington he left standing orders with mcgaw to defend the fort until receiving further orders green then went across the river himself to fort washington along with general israel putnam to discuss the situation with mcgaw as i said said like green mcgaw was not an experienced officer he was confident that he could hold out against the british for at least a month and was in no mood to surrender under or retreat that evening after dark green and putnam returned back across the river as they made their way they encountered general washington in a boat headed toward them mid river washington had received greens message and rush to get to fort washington himself the generals conferred on their boats still sitting in the middle of the hudson river they told washington that mogole remain confident and prepared to defend the fort green and putnam had approved his defensive plan and convinced washington that they should wait until morning before doing anything further the three generals than return to the new jersey side general hal had given the americans days to retreat delivering terms on the morning of the fifteenth eighteenth turned out to be his final warning. He gave the americans an opportunity to pull off another night escape this time though the americans declined the offer they were going to stand and fight near dawn on the morning of november sixteenth hessian forces from the north began storming the outer trenches at the same time general percy's forces a mix of hessian and british forces from the south began storming the outer trenches from southside site general hal ordered an artillery bombardment of the fort from the east the speed of the attack seemed to surprise the americans who began dan retreating from their outer defences back into the fort itself then almost as suddenly as the attack began it stopped general general house sent orders to both knife housing and percy to halt their attacks and pull back house maine infantry under generals matthew and cornwallis. I did not get across the harlem river and time and were not ready both naipaul's and and percy's attacking forces later grumbled that they had been succeeding succeeding before they had been ordered to stop and suffered far more casualties when they resume the attack later that morning after the americans were ready for them when the attacks started that morning general washington along with generals greene putnam and mercer crossed over the river and took a position of observation asian at a house on a hill a few miles from the fort the british kept getting closer to their position until the generals urged washington to leave were captured green even offered to stay behind and monitor things but insisted that washington leave finally washington agreed that they all should leave the group left only about fifteen minutes before the enemy took the hill had washington a bit slower or the british a bit faster one squad might have captured almost all of the top leadership of the continental army at eleven. AM the main british force under cornwallis wallace and matthews finally got into position and the advance resumed on all fronts nine thousands hashes to the north had a particularly difficult time trudging through swamps then having to climb up iraqi cliff area where several soldiers fell to their deaths all the while they came under fire from american cannons and rifleman one of the artillery lists that day was john corbin who was killed in the british assault. The only reason i mentioned his name as one of hundreds of otherwise anonymous casualties of this battle is that his wife margaret was with him. I'm on the field dressed as a man and assisting him with the cannon when he died margaret corbin took his position on the cannon and continued loading and firing she soon also took a hit and had to leave the field another rare example of women fighting in combat during this war after a couple of hours. The american riflemen had to retreat sustained fire had failed their barrels. They could not continue to fire until they clean their weapons so they retreated back to the fort. Many other defenders acquitted themselves well but the overwhelming number of attackers eventually forced the defenders to withdraw inside the ford itself. Colonel macos overcrowded garrison was pinned down by a steady and massive passive artillery bombardment he received a message from washington urging him to hold out until dark a short time later mughal learned that the hashes had reached the fort walls and were demanding that he surrender or they would kill everyone in the fort mughal tried to delay requesting four hours to respond but was given only thirty minutes this time mcgaw saw that his defense would not hold and agreed to surrender few men were able to escape a handful swam across the hudson river but most had to lay down their arms and surrender by by four p m the battle was over and the prisoners were being marched out of the fort under guard the victors rebranded fort washington as fort knipe house awesome and they would hold that for for the next seven years british recorded losses of one hundred twenty eight killed wounded or missing while the heavens john's lost three hundred twenty six. There's some evidence that henson's killed some of the american prisoners particularly rifleman after surrender out of anger and frustration from their losses the terms of surrender promise that the garrison would be permitted to keep their personal baggage yet <unk> as the british end hashes marsh they're prisoners out of the fort they strip them of all valuables including even some of their clothing hessian chance literally cut the backpacks off of prisoners as they march and did not hesitate to kick and beat the prisoners. The victors shouted that they where traders and that they should all be killed on the spot among the prisoners. The british found a few deserters who had joined the continental army. These former regulars were sentenced to death some desperately search to find george washington among the prisoners disappointed to learn that he he and the other generals were safely across the river in new jersey washington watch the surrender through a telescope something that he later described as giving giving him great mortification the american suffered only fifty nine killed and ninety six wounded but the real loss was the capture of the the fort and its garrison the british took about two hundred and thirty officers and twenty six hundred soldiers as prisoners most of those those men probably would have been better off being killed in battle. Many wounded would die in the next few days or weeks as they went untreated were denied food food and water and kept in terrible conditions. Even those who survived the battle without injury faced horrific conditions they would spend the next several years in warehouses or aboard prison ships in new york harbor in the care of joshua loring as you may recall lowering was the husband of general house mistress as a reward for his compliance and discretion how gave him charge of prisoners of war loring hiring made a small fortune embezzling money for the food and care of the prisoners allowing most of them to starve to death or die from disease brought on by hunger and other horrific ariffin conditions by one estimate more than two thirds of the prisoners captured that day would die slow horrific deaths within the next eighteen eighteen months officers who were taken prisoner tended to do a little bit better than enlisted men while some of them were treated roughly in the weeks after capture most were eventually allowed to live on parole either on long island or in new york city they can arrange for their own quarters on the promise that they would not try tried to escape or take up arms until exchanged colonel mccaw ended up living at the home of record van brunt in grayson long island and he would be held as a prisoner on parole for nearly four years but that time didn't end up being so bad for him while a prisoner listener he married confronts daughter marietta in late seventeen eighty. He was finally exchanged and the couple returned to mcgraw's home in carlisle. Pennsylvania nia is neighbors hailed him as a returning hero at elected him to the pennsylvania legislature the ford itself along with all of its cannon ammunition acquit and food fell into british hands leaving the continental army without those desperately needed goods on the other hand. The continental the army also had three thousand less mouths to feed the fall of fort washington would be the greatest loss of soldiers for the continental army until near the end of the war. The staggering loss caused congress and many americans not to mention other officers to question not only general greene's judgment but but also general washington's is decision to divide his forces in the face of the enemy and leave the garrison at for washington to be a sitting duck lead many to doubt his judgment washington was too indecisive. Perhaps it was time to consider a replacement next week. The british crossed the hudson and take fort lee in new jersey. Hey thanks for joining the american revolution podcast <music> after show. Wanna give a shout out today to dave salvatori. One of the shows robert morris circle supporters on patron. Dave dave recently wrapped up his american revolution today podcast however he has plans in the works for a new project involving the revolution dave. You've told me about his upcoming project but i don't think it's ready for public disclosure yet. You can still sign up for his email list to get an announcement about 'bout his new podcast project involving the american revolution and other news just go to his site amr of today dot com also mentioned that both dave ad i plan to be at history camp virginia on november sixteenth at george mason university. If you want to ten go to history camp dot org for more details on today's episode. I discussed the fall of fort washington. This really was a disaster astor. General washington was still not experienced or confident enough to withdraw from a bad fight. He did not want to be the general who was always running away. Many of his other less experienced generals shared the same notion and this really led to this disaster washington and his officers failed to take general house multiple hints that it was time to go as a result three thousand soldiers gers were captured to be fair. Washington did think that the army should have been evacuated but he was not sure enough to order it. He left the final title decision to the commander he had put in charge. General nathaniel greene on many occasions taking the advice of subordinates had worked out well for washington but not this time green as i said in the episode was completely inexperienced as a combat commander although he would go on to do great things later in the war this was not his greatest moment but fortunately did not completely destroy his reputation for the future my book recommendation this this week is washington's general nathaniel greene and the triumph of the american revolution by terry galway there are or a number of pretty good green biographies out there but many just focus on his southern successes later in the war. One reason i like galway's book is that it gives more balanced look at his life from his quaker roots to his death. Only a couple of years after the end of the war. It's a good solid and well-balanced biography over three hundred pages not counting notes and index and it was first published in two thousand four the author galway oy is a professor of history as well as a newspaper columnist. He's written about a dozen books but no others on the american revolution but as i said if you're looking for a good biography on green i think you should check out terry. Galway's book well mine recommendation. This week is the british history tree podcast if you like history podcasts. I think you'll enjoy this one. After a few introductory episodes the show begins with the roman roman empire. It's go in chronological order and hundreds of episodes. Later is only up to the ninth century the host jamie does a great job telling a story well giving you indepth information about the long and winding country that eventually gave birth to the united states. If you want lots more back story on how we got to the american revolution check out the british podcast available on all major platforms arms or at the british history podcast dot com well. That's all for this week. I hope you will join me again next week for another american revolution podcast.

Coming up next