From The Occupation Of New York To The Taking Of Fort Washington, September 15th To November 16th, 1776

As found in the book, "The Hessians The Revolution", By Edward J. Lowell.



There is not much to remind the present inhabitant of New York of the little city that lay at the south end of Manhattan Island a hundred years ago. It was a pretty place, with large, comfortable houses, built mostly of yellow brick. Within were low-studded rooms, with sanded floors, and high, painted ivainscots. The sideboards, of solid mahogany, in the better houses, shone with pewter for every-day use; and there was often solid silver, for state occasions. The streets were crooked and had gutters in the middle, but were fairly clean, and bordered with trees. Before the war there had been over twenty thousand inhabitants, but many of these had fled on the approach of the contending armies. There were many Tories, especially among the rich.

At the time when Washington retreated from Brooklyn, New York was defended by a permanent fort, called Fort George, at the west end of the Battery, and by temporary works thrown up at various places along the shore. On the north, or landward, side, a barrier crossed Broadway near the Bowling Green, and there was another near the site of the present Centre Market.

Beyond the fortifications lay the country, “the most beautiful,” says a Hessian officer, “that I have ever seen.” [Footnote: Lieutenant Hinrichs, in Schlözer’s “Briefwechsel,” vol. ii. p. 108.] Corn-fields, meadows, and orchards covered the charming land, and from the hill-tops the old colonial houses, each surrounded by its piazza and crowned with its balustrade, looked down on the smiling landscape. The Hessian lieutenant, in his enthusiasm, calls them palaces; and truly, there was a dignity in the best domestic architecture of the time that makes that name hardly inappropriate.

In spite of the anxiety of Washington and of Congress to keep possession of New York, the town was clearly indefensible. The British had complete command of the harbor, and a greatly superior force on land. Consequently, when, on the 15th of September, 1776, the royal troops landed on the island, the only care of Washington, who had for several days been removing guns and stores, was to bring off the rear-guard of his army before its retreat should be prevented by the British. The landing was effected under protection of English ships of war at a place called Kip’s Bay, near East Thirty - fourth Street. My Hessian lieutenant calls it four miles from New York, but he overstates the distance. The Hessians, with the advanced guard, were, as usual, the chasseurs and grenadiers under Von Donop. These marched immediately on New York, while the English light infantry and Highianders hastened to occupy the Incleberg, now known as Murray Hill. The Americans, meanwhile, under old Israel Putnam, were making the best of their way up the roads nearest the North River, towards Bloomingdale.

No opposition was made to the landing of the British. The New England militia, who should have delayed that operation, behaved very badly, drawing on themselves the violent indignation of Washington. It is said that a part of the American army would undoubtedly have been cut off in consequence of this panic, had not Mrs. Murray detained Sir William Howe by her hospitable reception, and the attractions of her old Madeira. The worthy lady kept the British general in good humor for two hours, while her ragged and hungry countrymen escaped from his grasp. Never have the hospitalities of Murray Hill answered a better purpose.

On the 16th of September a smart skirmish took place in the neighborhood of Manhattanville. Some British light infantry and two battalions of Highianders were driven back, and were in a somewhat precarious position, when the omnipresent chasseurs and grenadiers advanced to their assistance, and some other German regiments were also put in motion. Washington, fearing that the enemy were sending a large body to support their party, as was indeed the case, ordered a retreat. Of the English, two hundred and eighty were killed and wounded; of the Americans, about sixty. This action, in which the latter behaved very well, and inflicted a comparatively heavy loss on the British, did much to bring back their confidence after the reverses and retreats of the preceeding days.

The British general had given strict orders to respect personal property, and presently the rich owners of country-houses, who had fled at the approach of the royal forces, leaving their possessions in charge of their servants, began to return. Lieutenant Hinrichs, of the Hessian chasseurs, who had received orders on the 15th of September to prevent depredations, had earned thereby the gratitude of the inhabitants. He was wounded in the skirmish of the 16th, and forced to look for quiet and good nursing. He took shelter with a widow named Oglyby (Ogilvie?) near Hornhook, on the East River, and had the satisfaction of seeing her whole family meet again after the separation caused by the perils of war. Grandfather, mother, and grandchildren, together with the black slaves and their children, met and embraced with so much affection that our good-natured lieutenant was much moved, and passed a feverish night. It is needless to say that his hosts treated him with the greatest kindness. He recovered from his wound, and from others which he afterwards received in the course of the Revolution, and died a Prussian lieutenant-general in 1834.

The city of New York had been but five days in the hands of the British when, on the night of the 20th to the 21st of September, a fire broke out in a low drinking-house near Whitehall S1ip The weather had been dry and hot. A gale was blowing from the southwest. The fire spread with frightful rapidity. The east side of Broadway was burned as far up as Exchange Place. Then, the wind having veered to the southeast, the fire crossed Broadway above Morris Street, and extended to Barclay Street, burning old Trinity Church, but sparing St. Paul’s. The fire was at last mastered, mainly by the exertions of soldiers and sailors. Bancroft is positive that this fire was not the work of incendiaries. Such, however, was not the idea of the

British and Hessians at the time, and some modern historians believe their accounts. Sir William Howe states in his report that fire was set in various places. Donop is said by Eelking to have written in his diary that the conflagration was arranged by an American colonel named Scott, who had previously been a lawyer. This man had employed forty desperate fellows, who were provided with all sorts of combustibles, and who set fire to various houses belonging to Tories. According to this story, Scott was arrested, and the whole plan in writing was found upon him. In support of the opinion of those who believe that the fire was set by the Whigs, is the undoubted fact that several leading Americans had advised burning New York, and that the plan had even been proposed by Washington to Congress,[Footnote: Washington, vol. iv. p. 74.] which rejected it. On the other hand, panic and fury, stories of incendiarism, and acts of violence are almost invariable accompaniments of a great conflagration. Statements made at such a time should always be taken with the greatest caution. The story concerning Scott is, I believe, entirely unconfirmed. It is certain that sundry persons were killed by English soldiers during the progress of the fire, and Bancroft says that one poor man, who happened to be a Tory, was hanged by the heels until he died. On the ioth of October, 1776, General Howe embarked the greater part of his troops with the intention of again trying to cut Washington’s line of retreat and shut him up in Manhattan Island. For four days the British were detained in the East River by an adverse wind, and only passed Hell Gate on the afternoon of the 14th. The fleet lay at anchor that night and started at six the next morning, but was detained by winds and tides, and did not reach Throg’s Neck (or Frog’s Point, as Washington calls it), until nightfall. Here Howe had previously landed his advanced guard, but Washington had been beforehand with him, and had occupied the passes leading to the mainland. Howe consequently determined to push on and effect a landing at East Chester. This he succeeded in doing on the i8th of October, after a sharp skirmish. The British army lay on its arms that night, with its left wing protected by a creek near East Chester, and its right near New Rochelle. The Americans, meanwhile, were making the best of their way to White Plains, where they took up a strong position and intrenched it. Just at this juncture the Second Division of Hessians joined the rest of the army. It consisted of three thousand nine hundred and ninety-seven men, commanded by Lieutenant - General Wilhelm von Knyphausen, and had left Cassel early in May. The Waldeck regiment, six hundred and seventy strong, came with this division, as also the second company of chasseurs, under Captain Ewald. Thus the German corps under the command of General von Heister was brought up to about thirteen thousand four hundred men. The new division was left to hold New Rochelle during the British advance on White Plains.

Captain Ewald and his second company of chasseurs had not long to wait before coming into action. On the 23d of October, while attempting a reconnoissance, they were met by a superior force of riflemen, and would have been driven back had not the Highianders come to their assistance. One lieutenant and six men were wounded, of whom four afterwards died of their wounds. This is the German account in Eelking’s book. I will now give that of General Washington’s aide-de-camp in his report to the President of Congress: “On Wednesday there was also a smart skirmish between a party of Colonel Hand’s riflemen, about two hundred and forty, and nearly the same number of Hessian chasseurs, in which the latter were put to rout. Our men buried ten of them on the field, and took two prisoners, one badly wounded. We sustained no other loss than having one lad wounded, supposed mortally.”[Footnote: Washington, vol. iv. p. 524. The MS. journal of the Grenadier Battalion von Minnigerode gives Ewald’s loss at four killed, three wounded, and two missing. I have not found any mention of this skirmish in Ewald’s “Belehrungen.”] This is about as near as such reports usually come to each other.

On the 28th of October, Sir William Howe found Washington’s army advantageously posted behind the village of White Plains. It numbered somewhat more than thirteen thousand men, of whom about fifteen hundred occupied Chatterton Hill, on the extreme right of the American position, and were separated from the main body by the river Bronx. Sir William determined to attack this right wing. One English and two Hessian regiments, supported by the Hessian grenadiers, forded the Bronx and scaled the steep and rocky sides of the hill.. The regiment Von Lossberg was obliged to charge through a burning wood, and to face the heaviest American fire. Its loss in killed and wounded was not far from fifty men. The result of the contest might have been doubtful, had not Colonel Rall, commanding his own regiment and that named after Knyphausen, also forded the Bronx, outflanked the Americans, and assisted the troops which were making the attack in front. The river was deep, and the Hessian soldiers hesitated to enter it. Lieutenants Wiederhold and Briede dashed in first to set them an example. We shall hear more of the former of these officers.[Footnote: See Wiederhold’s (MS.) diary. Unless Ewald is mistaken, Wiederhold, although still a lieutenant, cannot have been very young at this time. He had already distinguished himself in 1762.—Ewald’s “Belchrungen,” vol. iii. p. 130.] The second fell a few days later at the taking of Fort Washington.

Some of the Americans fought fairly well on this occasion, against much superior numbers. They had an undoubted advantage of position, and made good use of it, inflicting a loss of about two hundred and eighty killed and wounded on their enemy. Howe mentions in his despatches the good service done by the English and Hessian artillery. Heister’s adjutant- general says that the Hessian field-pieces made such a “thunder-storm” that one could neither see nor hear. The Americans had but three small cannon on the hill.[Footnote: For the action at White Plains: Bancroft, vol. ix. pp. 181—183; Eel- king’s “Hulfstruppen,” vol. i. pp. 71—77; Washington, vol. iv. pp. 526— 529; MS. journal of the Grenadier Battalion von Minnigerode; of the Regiment von Lossberg (Heuser); Wiederhold’s Diary.]

The American army at this time was largely composed of militiamen, sent by the various states for short periods of service. These militiamen were in great measure ill-armed and in rags, undisciplined, and commanded by officers who had but a few months before left the desk or the plough. While some of these improvised officers were persons of character and talent, others possessed no merit but their ability to raise men. The men thus raised would consider and treat such an officer as an equal, “and, in the character of an officer,” says Washington, “regard him no more than a broomstick.” [Footnote: Washington, vol. iv.p. 113.] Some of the Americans had distinguished themselves by deeds of valor, but, like all raw recruits, they were subject to panics, often entirely unreasonable. These facts must constantly be borne in mind, or the story of the Revolution becomes incomprehensible. Sir William Howe, on the other hand, commanded a regular, disciplined soldiery, scarcely to be surpassed in Europe, and provided with everything desirable for the conduct of a war.

For three days after the engagement at Chatterton Hill the armies stood facing each other and strengthened their fortifications. On the night of the 31st of October, Washington retreated to a strong position above White Plains, and Howe on the morrow, after harassing the American rear-guard, turned his attention to a new scheme.

On the highest point of New York Island, where a hill rises two hundred and thirty-eight feet above the level of the Hudson, the Americans had built a five- sided earthwork and called it Fort Washington. The fort mounted thirty-four cannon, but without case- mates. The ground about it was well suited for defense, and was occupied by smaller works of no great strength. The whole formed a barrier across the upper end of Manhattan Island, preventing the English from making any expedition by land, and rendering winter- quarters in New York neither safe nor comfortable. On the Jersey side of the Hudson, on top of the Palisades, opposite Fort Washington, stood Fort Lee. Between them, Putnam had undertaken to build an impassable barrier, that should close the river against the British. The works were under the immediate command of General Greene. On the morning of October 9th, however, the obstructions had been broken through and the forts passed by two British ships of forty-four guns each, a frigate of twenty guns, and three or four tenders, which had captured or destroyed two American row-galleys on the river.[Footnote: Bancroft, vol. ix. p. 174; Washington, vol. iv. p. 548.] In view of these facts, Washington wished to abandon the fort named after himself, which was in danger of being surrounded. Greene was of the opposite opinion, and Congress shared the delusion of Greene. The authority of the commander-in-chief was so limited that he did not succeed in making his own views prevail. Instead of being withdrawn, the garrison of Fort Washington was strengthened, until Lieutenant-colonel Magaw, who commanded it, had nearly three thousand men under his orders. The ground to be occupied was two miles and a half long—from a line a little south of the present Trinity Cemetery to the hills above Tubby Hook—and included a redoubt on Laurel Hill.[Footnote: Bancroft, vol. ix. p. 189.]

It was on the 16th of November, 1776, that this fort was stormed by Sir William Howe’s army. The attack was made simultaneously by four columns, advancing against four different points, but that which bore the brunt of the fighting, and to which the glory of the day belonged, was composed of Hessians under Knyphausen. This force crossed over to New York island by Kings Bridge at half-past five in the morning, and was divided into two columns, the right-hand one under Colonel Rall, the left under Major-general Schmidt. In this column Wiederhold was with the advanced guard. For a long time the Germans had to stand quiet, while the English columns got into position and began the attack. Meanwhile Cornwallis had taken the American battery on Laurel Hill. Earl Percy, with two English and one Hessian brigade, had threatened the American works on the south, and Colonel Sterling, with the Highianders, had crossed Harlem River behind the force opposed to Percy, and threatened to cut off its retreat. In doing this the Highlanders had to charge up a steep bank, and lost about ninety men. Colonel Cadwalader, who commanded the Americans in this neighborhood, had been obliged to retreat, and his men, instead of rallying outside of Fort Washington itself, had rushed into the narrow enclosure, impeding the defensive operations of its proper garrison.

It was between ten and eleven o’clock. The moment for the Hessians to attack had come at last. They waded through a marsh, and climbed the precipitous, rocky hill on which the fort was built. In vain did the riflemen shoot them down. In vain did the artillery rain grape and ball among them. Knyphausen, himself, was continually in the thickest of the fight, “so that it is wonderful,” writes Wiederhold,“that he came off without being killed or wounded.” The ground was so steep in places that the men had to pull themselves up by the bushes. At last they reached the top, where there was a level space. “Forward, all my grenadiers !“ cried Rail. The drums beat, the bugles blew, the men shouted Hurrah! Hessians and Americans were mingled in a mass, all rushing wildly towards the fort.

The outer works were taken, and their defenders driven back to add to the confusion in the main fort. Colonel Rail called one of his captains. “Hohenstein,” said he, “you speak English and French; take a drummer with you, tie a whitc cloth on a gun-barrel, go to the fort and call for a surrender.” “I did this at once,” writes the captain,” but they kept firing at me and the drummer until we came to the glacis, where the rebels led us off with our eyes bound. They sent me a Cobnel,[Footnote: Cadwalader.] who was second in command, to whom I made the following proposal: He should immediately march out of the fort with the garrison, and they should lay down their arms before General von Knyphausen. All ammunition, provisions, and whatever belonged to Congress should be faithfully made known. On the other hand, I gave him my word that all, from the commanding officer down, should retain their private property. Finally, a white flag should be immediately hoisted, to put a stop to all hostilities. The commander asked for four hours’ time to consider, which, however, I refused, and allowed him only half an hour to speak with his officers. When the half-hour was past the commander came himself, and his fate seemed hard to him. Thereupon he said: ‘The Hessians make impossibilities possible.’ I then said to him: ‘General von Knyphausen is a hundred paces off. Come with me, on my safe conduct, and see if he will give you better terms.’ He was contented with this and went with me.”

To Knyphausen Magaw surrendered, in spite of a message from Washington, promising to attempt to bring off the troops, if he could hold out until night. The place, however, was untenable. The Germans lost fifty-six officers and men killed and two hundred and seventy-six wounded [Footnote: MS. journal of the Regiment von Lossberg (Heuser).] in the attack, the English more than one hundred and twenty. The Americans lost less than one hundred and fifty killed and wounded, but about twenty-eight hundred prisoners, among whom were some of their best soldiers. They also lost a good deal of artillery and many arms and accoutrements. The quartermaster of the Grenadier Battalion von Minnigerode says, in speaking of this battle, that if it had not been for the prisoners, the loss of the Germans would have been far greater than that of the rebels, and that this is because of the manner in which the latter fight. They lie singly behind trees, bushes, stone walls, and rocks, shoot at long range and with certainty, and run away very fast as soon as they have fired. The Germans cannot shoot a third so far, and can still less catch them running, and the ground here is such that field artillery can seldom be brought up to an attack.

The Hessians are said to have given no quarter, during the charge, to the riflemen whom they found in the outworks and the woods. The Americans, many of whom must have seen this, were naturally uneasy at the time of the surrender. The popular imagination had made fiends of the Hessians. Captain von Malsburg relates that when he came into the fortress he found himself surrounded by officers with fear and anxiety in their faces. They invited him into their barracks, pressed punch, wine, and cold cakes upon him, complimented him on his affability, which seemed to astonish them, and told him they had not been led to expect such from a Hessian officer. They begged for his protection, and he, in return, lectured them on the sin of rebellion against their good king.

The garrison marched out between the regiments Rall and Lossberg, laid down their arms, and gave up their banners, which were yellow, white, and light blue. Knyphausen is said to have looked on these “with disdain.” The attitude is characteristic of the Hessian feeling of the moment, and the American reader must find consolation in the fact that within six weeks the colors of the regiments Rail and Lossberg were in the hands of Washington’s army.

The Hessians gained great credit by this action. Schmidt, Stirn, and Rall, and the troops under their command, were mentioned in general orders, and the captured fort was named Fort Knyphausen. No disgrace can attach to the Americans in the fort, who made a creditable resistance against great odds. The blame lies with those generals who insisted on holding the fort after the abandonment of the island by the main army under Washington, and after the obstructions in the Hudson had been passed by the British ships.[Footnote: For the taking of Fort Washington, see Washington’s report; Washington, vol. iv. pp. 178—181; also, Bancroft, vol. ix. pp. 189—193; Eelking’s “Hiilfstruppen,” vol. i. pp. 84—97; MSS.Wiederhold’s Diary, Journals of the Grenadier Battalion von Minnigerode, of the Regiment von Lossberg (Heuser), of the same (Piel), of the Regiments von Huyn and von Knoblauch.]

Operations In New Jersey And Pennsylvania.

[ The Hessians In The Revolution ]