43. The U.S. Army’s First Victory

The image of the Battle of Harlem Heights above is from a nineteenth-century print engraved by James Charles Armytage based on the Battle of Harlem by Alonzo Chappel (1859). It depicts the 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot—known as “The Black Watch”—retreating under American fire (NYPL, Emmet Collection).

What Happened?

The Battle of Harlem Heights is a largely unappreciated milestone in American military history. The engagement on upper Manhattan Island on September 16, 1776 marked the first combat success for George Washington’s troops in the quest for independence from Great Britain and presaged the gradual emergence of an effective fighting force among the citizen-soldiers who made up the Continental Army and bore the brunt of young America’s struggle against the mother country. The cooperative effort of regiments from New England (Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island), Maryland, and Virginia—whose men lacked any sense of national identity before the Revolution—indicated the potential for this fledgling army to cohere around a common national purpose and affiliation and become the primary instrument for securing America’s right to political and economic self-determination.

What Dd It Mean?

The clash at Harlem Heights had little, if any, short-term impact on the course of the war but contributed to the development of a fighting spirit and a greater sense of interregional cohesion among Washington’s soldiers. For the British and Hessians, it was easy to dismiss the significance of this event because at the end of the day, no ground changed hands. That said, the battle must have made an impression on at least some of the Crown’s soldiers since the resistance they encountered was very different from what they had met to that point, even from what had been demonstrated the day before when they chased the defenders up Manhattan Island with ease after landing at Kip’s Bay on the East River (the site of today’s Thirty-fourth Street). Although British General William Howe’s estimate of redcoat and Hessian casualties on the day after their landing was typically understated, those among his officers who knew the extent of their losses (perhaps three times that of the Americans) may have begun to sense a new and unsettling reality—that the task of suppressing this insurrection might be far more difficult than they had anticipated. Indeed, Lieutenant Lotus Cliffe of His Majesty’s 46th Regiment observed afterwards that if the affair at Harlem Heights  “was a scheme of Washington’s, it certainly was well-concerted.”

What’s Up?

“This will be a good one.” That’s how historian Mark Edward Lender (author of Cabal: The Plot Against General Washington) assesses the manuscript for the upcoming book, The Battle of Harlem Heights, 1776, which is under contract with Westholme Publishing as part of its Small Battles series. I have been working on this project since last summer and anticipate its release in late 2022 or early 2023. Westholme is collaborating with a pair of distinguished scholars—Lender and James Kirby Martin (author of Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered), series editors—to offer a new perspective on the story of America’s early military conflicts that focuses on these engagements at their most intimate and revealing level. More information about the series is available on the Westholme Recent News page if you scroll down to Announcing a New Series: Small Battles: Military History as Local History.

The new book will seek to convey an enhanced appreciation of the battle and to raise the historical profile of a key participant who is largely unknown except among Rev War aficionados—Colonel Thomas Knowlton of Connecticut, who led an elite contingent known as Knowlton’s Rangers, the U.S. Army’s first intelligence and reconnaissance unit. The colonel and his Rangers precipitated and were especially conspicuous in the battle, and the extensive focus on him and the men he led will make for a distinctive narrative. No other modern-day work includes this level of detail about Knowlton’s life, in particular his remarkable record in the early stages of our war for independence and his role as the father of American military intelligence, all of which ended with his ultimate sacrifice at Harlem Heights. He was lauded by Washington in his General Orders following the battle as “the gallant and brave Colonel Knowlton who would have been an honor to any Country.” (More about him here if you’re interested.)

P.S. Oh yeah, Happy Mom’s Day (for those of you who qualify)!