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)!

34. An Obscure Event

For anyone who’s interested, I wanted to pass along a link to a recent article of mine in the Journal of the American Revolution, which is essentially an adaptation of a chapter in my last book, John Haslet’s World, about one of the least-known military engagements of the War of Independence. The Battle of Mamaroneck on October 22, 1776—or the “Skirmish of Heathcote Hill” as termed by some of the few who know of it—was a rare and, to be sure, very limited victory for the Patriot cause during what was otherwise a dismal New York campaign waged by the Continental Army that fall.

This encounter occurred at night, and one of the men who was there—Dr. James Tilton, the surgeon with the Delaware Continental Regiment that was led by Colonel Haslet and known as the “Delaware Blues” from the color of their uniforms—wrote: “I must confess this the most terrible instance of War I have seen; so much is the horror of this terrible business increased by darkness.” Perhaps it’s fitting that the battle or skirmish occurred at night as so many are, well, in the dark about it.

BTW the image above is from a watercolor by Charles M. Lefferts from c.1910—in the collection of the New York Historical Society (NYHS)—entitled Private, Haslet’s Delaware Regiment, 1776. It was originally created for the artist’s study of uniforms in the Revolution and published by NYHS in 1926. According to traditional accounts, the Delaware soldiers wore mitred caps as seen here in 1776, although military historians differ on this. If the Blues did wear such head gear, perhaps they should have carried writing instruments instead of bayonets because, after all, the pen is mitre than the sword (eeesh). In that case, the regiment would have switched to black cocked hats before the end of the year as its soldiers wore those for the remainder of the war.

30. Know Knowlton?

The story of Thomas Knowlton in the Revolution is a brief but inspirational one. This ardent Patriot was only thirty-five years of age when he fell in battle, a legitimate hero in the quest for American independence albeit one who remains largely obscure in our collective historical consciousness. He is, however, recognized by Rev War buffs for the role he played in the early stages of the Revolutionary enterprise.

Leading from the Front

Knowlton was born in Massachusetts in November 1740 but grew up in Ashford, Connecticut, taking up arms as a strapping, fifteen-year-old in the French and Indian War. He married at age eighteen, had nine children who lived to adulthood, made his living as a prosperous farmer, and was chosen a selectman—what we call a local council member today—in his hometown. At six feet tall and with a bright mind, he cut an impressive figure and exuded charisma.

Active in his community and the Ashford militia company, Knowlton became engaged in the rebellion against Britain early on. He played a notable leadership role at the Battle of Bunker Hill (really Breed’s Hill) on the Charlestown peninsula outside Boston in 1775 as a captain in Israel Putnam’s Connecticut Regiment, and his figure makes a prominent appearance in John Trumbull’s renowned painting, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775. The daring Knowlton subsequently led a successful raid against the British in Charlestown in January 1776, and was promoted to major for his exploits at the Bunker Hill engagement and then to lieutenant colonel in August 1776. He formed “Knowlton’s Rangers” as the first intelligence and reconnaissance unit in Washington’s army and created a hero of legendary proportions by selecting young Captain Nathan Hale, one of his officers, to conduct a spy mission in British-occupied New York in accordance with Washington’s orders. (Hale was the only one among the Rangers to volunteer for that assignment but unfortunately was ill-equipped for such a task and paid for that deficiency with his life.)

On September 16, 1776, Knowlton suffered a fatal wound while leading his men at the Battle of Harlem Heights on upper Manhattan Island during what proved to be a rare triumph in an otherwise dismal New York campaign for the American side. In the throes of death’s agony, the stricken officer is reported to have told his eldest son, who was serving under his command, “I am mortally wounded; you can do me no good; go fight for your country.” The fallen colonel was lauded by the army’s adjutant general, Col. Joseph Reed, who in reporting on the engagement to his wife observed that “our greatest loss is poor Knowlton, whose name and spirit ought to be immortal.”

An Intelligent Remembrance

In 1995, the U.S. Military Intelligence Corps Association created the “Knowlton Award” in the colonel’s honor to provide a form of tangible recognition for those determined to have made significant contributions to the Military Intelligence Corps (the Army’s intelligence branch). To qualify, an individual must demonstrate the highest standards of integrity and moral character, and display outstanding professional competence as well.

No greater praise of this unsung Revolutionary stalwart has been adduced than that of his commander-in-chief, who referred to him in death as “the gallant and brave Colonel Knowlton who would have been an honor to any Country.” And we all know Washington never told a lie.

Want More?

If you’d like to dig a little deeper into Knowlton’s story, see my recent Journal of the American Revolution article here.

29. The Largest Battle of the Revolution

August 27 marks the 245th anniversary of the Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn. This was the first major battlefield contest of the Revolutionary War and by some accounts the largest during the entire conflict—with some forty thousand troops involved if one includes naval personnel—as well as one of the worst defeats suffered by the Continental army.

Almost Up the Creek

The image above is from a print based on the 1858 painting by Alonzo Chappell entitled The Battle of Long Island (NYPL Digital Collection). It depicts the heroic stand by Lord Stirling’s brigade along the Gowanus Road during this engagement. The Maryland and Delaware regiments, with their backs to the Gowanus Creek, held off a much larger enemy force long enough to save the Continental Army from a catastrophic fate. According to some accounts, their holding action prompted General Washington to laud them as his “brave fellows.” And those Maryland and Delaware soldiers who eluded the enemy were forced to take the one barely possible escape route available in their desperate situation—swimming across the widest portion of the Gowanus Creek, with the tide flowing in. They were only able to do so because some 400 Marylanders under Lord Stirling—General William Alexander—who were heavy outnumbered and surrounded by the enemy, launched a heroic attack that bought time for the rest of the brigade to make it across the creek.

The Outcome

The determined resistance by Stirling’s brigade was a significant factor in allowing about half the American troops engaged in the battle to reach the safety of their fortifications on Brooklyn Heights rather than being entrapped by the overnight enemy flanking maneuver through the largely unguarded Jamaica Pass that dictated the outcome of this contest. As a result, the plan of attack adopted by General William Howe, the British army’s commander (and devised by his subordinate, General Henry Clinton) yielded a brilliant tactical success but failed in its strategic objective of destroying the rebel force.

The Continental army counted the losses from its defeat at about 300 killed and 1,100 captured but had no reliable estimates of the number wounded. British figures in regard to their casualty count have been regarded as fairly precise, with General Howe reporting just under 400 casualties.

In his first major battlefield engagement as a commanding general, Washington blundered dreadfully. He left roughly half his force on Manhattan Island, which meant he was opposing a superior foe with only about half his strength. After General Nathanael Greene took ill, Washington changed commanders on Long Island twice in one week just before the battle. He failed to ensure his generals were familiar with the terrain they were defending. And early on, he dismissed a large component of his cavalry (the volunteer Connecticut Light Horse, not wanting to pay for the upkeep of their mounts and insisting they serve as infantry) who could have provided him with the scouts he needed to surveil redcoat maneuvers, especially that overnight march through the Jamaica Pass. Leaving such a critical route largely unguarded was probably the worst of Washington’s errors, as it exposed the army’s left to a flanking move that would have had catastrophic repercussions but for the heroics of Stirling’s men.

Washington arguably atoned for his inept performance two days later. On the night of August 29-30, some 9,500 American soldiers, their horses, and most of their equipment evacuated across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan. A mere three stragglers, who could not resist the temptation to loot, were captured on Brooklyn Heights. Washington, who rescued all but five of his cannons, left with the last of the troops. He had lost Long Island but saved his army in one of the most skillful evacuations in military history, conducted at night in small craft on difficult water and undetected by a numerically larger enemy and its imposing fleet. Of course, this maneuver was mightily assisted by the elements: high winds that precluded the British fleet from moving up the Hudson River just prior to and during the August 27 battle; then a storm that engulfed Manhattan and Brooklyn for two days and further stymied the Royal Navy; and finally a thick fog at dawn on August 30 that provided a protective cloak for Washington’s withdrawal across the river.

Some Observations

Delaware Lieutenant Enoch Anderson may have spoken for many a Continental soldier after the Long Island debacle: “A hard day this, for us poor Yankees! Superior discipline and numbers had overcome us. A gloomy time it was, but we solaced ourselves that at another time we should do better.”

From her home in Braintree, Massachusetts. Abigail Adams informed her husband John, serving with the Congress in Philadelphia, of what news had reached the home front: “We Have had many stories concerning engagements upon Long Island this week, of our Lines being forced and of our Troops retreating to New York. Perticuliars we have not yet obtaind. All we can learn is that we have been unsuccessfull there . . . . But if we should be defeated I think we shall not be conquered. A people fired like the Romans with Love of their Country and of Liberty a zeal for the publick Good, and a Noble Emulation of Glory, will not be disheartned or dispirited by a succession of unfortunate Events. But like them may we learn by Defeat the power of becoming invincible.”

In writing to Congressional president John Hancock on September 8, the Continentals’ commander-in-chief anticipated General Howe’s next move: “It is now extremely obvious from all Intelligence—from their movements, & every other circumstance that having landed their whole Army on Long Island (except about 4,000 on Staten Island) they mean to inclose us on the island of New York.” The impulse to avoid this predicament would force the rebels to abandon Manhattan, albeit not for several weeks, and engage the enemy further north in Westchester County, in the next phase of the New York campaign. Washington would be extremely fortunate during this period in at least one respect: the British commanding general was even slower to take action than he. And Howe!