|September 1776||Col. Moses Rawlings||View from Fort Washington|
The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799
The extensiveness of the defensive works that the Army had constructed for the defense of New York City, and the expenditure of time and resources devoted to this, was one of the reasons that there was hesitation by some in the command to abandon & evacuate NYC. Washington wrote to Congress, regarding the dilemna facing the American cause, on September 8,1776, reporting on the Council of War meeting the previous day. [Note. The record of this council of war (held September 7) is missing from the Washington Papers. It was evidently missing in 1781, as there is a blank page left in the Varick Transcripts where it should have been entered.]
George Washington to Continental Congress, September 8, 1776
Head Quarters, New York, September 8, 1776.Before the landing of the Enemy on Long Island, the point of Attack could not be known or any satisfactory Judgment formed of their Intentions. It might be on Long Island, on Bergen or directly on the City, this made it necessary to be prepared for each, and has occasioned an Expence of Labour which now seems useless and is regretted by those who form a Judgment from after Knowledge. But I trust, men of discernment will think differently and see that by such Works and preparations we have not only delayed the Operations of the Campaign, till it is too late to effect any capital Incursion into the Country, but have drawn the Enemy's forces to one point and obliged them to decline their plan, so as to enable us to form our defence on some Certainty. It is now extremely obvious, from all Intelligence, from their movements and every other circumstance, that having landed their whole Army on Long Island (except about 4000, on Staten Island) they mean to enclose us on the Island of New York by taking post in our Rear, while the Shipping effectually secure the Front, and thus either by cutting off our communication with the Country, oblige us to fight them on their own Terms, or surrender at discretion, or by a brilliant Stroke endeavour to cut this Army in pieces and secure the Collection of Arms and Stores which they well know we shall not be soon able to replace. Having therefore their System unfolded to us, it became an important consideration how it could be most successfully opposed. On every side there is a Choice of difficulties and every Measure on our part (however painful the reflection is from experience) to be formed with some Apprehension that all our Troops will not do their duty.
In deliberating on this Question it was impossible to forget, that History, our own experience, the advice of our ablest Friends in Europe, the fears of the Enemy, and even the Declarations of Congress demonstrate, that on our Side the War should be defensive. It has even been called a War of Posts. That we should on all Occasions avoid a general Action, or put anything to the Risque, unless compelled by a necessity, into which we ought never to be drawn.
The Arguments on which such a System was founded were deemed unanswerable and experience has given her sanction. With these views, and being fully persuaded that it would be presumption to draw out our Young Troops into open ground, against their Superiors both in number and Discipline; I have never spared the Spade and Pick Ax; I confess I have not found that readiness to defend even strong Posts, at all hazards, which is necessary to derive the greatest benefit from them. The honor of making a brave defence does not seem to be a sufficient stimulus, when the success is very doubtful, and the falling into the Enemy's hands probable. But I doubt not this will be gradually attained. We are now in a strong Post, but not an Impregnable one, nay acknowledged by every man of Judgment to be untenable, unless the Enemy will make the Attack upon Lines, when they can avoid it and their Movements indicate that they mean to do so. To draw the whole Army together in order to arrange the defence proportionate to the extent of Lines and works, would leave the Country open to an Approach and put the fate of this Army and its Stores on the hazard of making a successful defence in the City, or the Issue of an Engagement out of it. On the other hand to abandon a City, which has been by some deemed defensible and on whose Works much Labour has been bestowed, has a tendency to dispirit the Troops and enfeeble our Cause. It has also been considered as the Key to the Northern Country. But as to this I am fully of opinion, that by Establishing of strong posts at Mont Washington on the upper part of this Island and on the Jersey side opposite to it, with the Assistance of the Obstructions already made and which may be improved in the Water, that not only the navigation of Hudson's River but an easier and better communication, may be effectually secured between the Northern and Southern States. This I believe every one acquainted with the situation of the Country will readily agree to, and will appear evident to those who have an Opportunity of recuring to good maps. These and the many other consequences, which will be involved in the determination of our next measure, have given our Minds full employ and led every one to forma Judgement, as the various objects presented themselves to his view. The post at Kings Bridge is naturally strong and is pretty well fortified the Heights about it are commanding and might soon be made more so.
These are important Objects and I have attended to them accordingly. I have also removed from the City all the Stores and Ammunition, except what was absolutely Necessary for its defence and made every other Disposition that did not essentially enterfere with that Object, carefully keeping in view, until it should be absolutely determined on full consideration, how far the City was to be defended at all events. In resolving points of such Importance, many circumstances peculiar to our own Army, also occur; being Provided only for a Summers Campaign, their Cloaths, Shoes and Blanketts will soon be unfit for the change of weather which we every day feel. At present we have not Tents for more than 2/3ds., many of them old and worn out, but if we had a Plentiful supply the season will not admit of continuing in them much longer....
With these and many other circumstances before them, the whole Council of General Officers, met Yesterday, in order to adopt some general line of Conduct to be pursued at this important crisis; I intended to have procured their seperate opinions on each point, but time would not admit I was Obliged to collect their sense more generally than I could have wished; We all agreed that the Town was not tenable if the Enemy was resolved to bombard and Cannonade it: But the difficulties attending a removal operated so strongly, that a Course was taken between abandoning it totally and concentring our whole strength for its defence; nor were some a little influenced in their Opinion, to whom the determination of Congress was known, against an Evacuation totally; suspecting that Congress wished it to be maintained at every hazard,It was concluded to arrange the Army under three Divisions 5000 to remain for the defence of the City, 9000 to remove to Kingsbridge, as well to Possess and secure those Posts, as to be ready to Attack the Enemy, who are moving Eastward on long Island, if they should attempt to land on this side; The remainder to occupy the intermediate space and support either, that the sick should be immediately removed to Orange Town [in same correspondence Washington informs congress that 1/4 of the Army has succumbed to disease]--and Barracks prepared at Kingsbridge with all expedition, to cover the Troops; there were some Generals in whose Judgments great confidence is to be reposed, that were for an immediate removal from the City, urging the great danger of one part of our Army being cut off, before the other can support it, The extremities being at least 16 Miles apart; that our Army when collected is inferior to the Enemy; that they can move with their whole force to any point of Attack and consequently must succeed, by weight of numbers, if they have only a part to oppose them; that by removing from hence we deprive the Enemy of the Advantage of their Ships, which will make at least one half of the force to attack the Town; that we keep them at bay, but put nothing to the hazard and at all events keep an Army together, which can be recruited another Year; that the unspent Stores will also be preserved, and in this case the heavy Artillery can be secured.--But they were overruled by a Majority, who thought for the present a part of our force might be kept here and attempt to maintain the City a while longer. [Note: General Greene was urgent for the immediate evacuation of New York and the destruction of the city. The entire difficulty over New York rested with the strong loyalist element and the natural objection to a heavy property loss, which latter placed too great a strain upon the immature and green patriotism of the citizens. John Jay was one of the few New Yorkers who was willing to see the city destroyed rather than allow it to become an advantage to the British. Greene's arguments are in the Washington Papers under date of Sept. 5, 1776, and fill seven pages. They are printed in Force's American Archives, Fifth Series, vol. 2, 182.] I am sensible a retreating Army is incircled with difficulties, that the declining an Engagement subjects a General to reproach and that the common Cause may be in some measure affected by the discouragements which it throws over the minds of many; nor am I insensible of the contrary effects, if a brilliant stroke could be made with any Probability of success, especially after our loss upon Long Island: but when the fate of America may be at stake on the Issue; when the Wisdom of cooler moments and experienced Men have decided that we should protract the War if Possible; I cannot think it safe or wise to adopt a different System, when the season for Action draws so near a close. That the Enemy mean to Winter in New York there can be no doubt; that with such an Armament they can drive us out is equally clear. The Congress having resolved, that it should not be destroyed, nothing seems to remain but to determine the time of their taking Possession It is our Interest and wish to prolong it, as much as possible, provided the delay does not affect our further measures. The Militia of Connecticut is reduced from 8000 to less than 2000 and in a few days will be merely nominal; the arrival of some Maryland Troops &c. from the flying Camp, has in a great degree supplied the loss of Men, but the Ammunition they have carried away will be a loss sensibly felt. The impulse for going home was so irrisistable, it answered no purpose to oppose it, tho' I could not discharge, I have been obliged to acquiesce; and it affords one more melancholy Proof how delusive such dependences are. ....
*The Americans cast up a redoubt at Turtle Bay, on the East River, between Forty-fourth and Forty-sixth Streets; a breast-work at the Shot Tower, Fifty-fourth Street; another at the foot of Seventy-fourth Street; a third at the foot of Eighty-fifth, near Hell Gate Ferry; and a strong work called Thompsons Battery, upon Horns Hook (now a beautifully shaded grassy point), at Eighty-ninth Street. This redoubt commanded the mouth of Harlem River and the narrow channel at Hell Gate. They also built a small work upon Snake Hill (now Mount Morris, in Mount Morris Square), near Harlem, and a line of breast-works near the Harlem River, extending from One hundred and Thirty-sixth Street to Bussings Point, near MCombs Dam.
Upon each side of "Harlem Cove," at Manhattanville, a battery was constructed (One hundred and Thirty-first and One hundred and Thirty-third Streets), and along the central hills whereon the Convent of the Sacred Heart stands was a line of works extending to One hundred and Fiftieth Street. These were small batteries, without connecting breast-works, and overlooked Harlem River. From near "The Grange" (the country residence of General Hamilton, yet standing), in the vicinity of One hundred and Fifty-first Street, was a line of intrenchments, with three batteries and abatis extending to the Hudson, a distance of almost a mile. The batteries of this line were upon three eminences. Almost upon the line of One hundred and Sixty-first and One hundred and Sixty-second Streets, was another line, with three batteries and abatis. These formed the "double lines of intrenchments," mentioned in the histories.
The quite prominent outlines of a redoubt on the lofty bank of the Harlem River, at the foot of One hundred and Fifty-sixth Street, were pointed out to me by Henry OReilly, Esq., who resides near. From this redoubt, down the steep hill to the cove where Colonel Stirling landed , the old road is yet (1852) open and passable.
From Colonel Morriss (Madame Jumels) house was a line of shallow intrenchments to the North River, with a single battery upon the eminence above the residence of the late Mr. Audobon the ornithologist, a little north of Trinity Cemetery. Upon the high west bank of the Harlem, yet rough and wooded, were two breast-works. These the British afterward strengthened, and called it Fort George. This was between One hundred and Ninety-second and One hundred and Ninety-sixth Streets. On the Kings Bridge road below, at Two hundred and Sixth Street, a strong four-gun battery was erected."--Lossing's
Fort Washington, situated between One hundred and Eighty-first and One hundred and Eighty-sixth Streets, upon the highest eminence on the island (between ten and eleven miles from the City Hall), was a strong earth-work of irregular form, covering, with its ravelins, several acres. It contained an inner work, a sort of citadel, within which was the magazine. About twenty heavy cannons were mounted upon it, besides several smaller pieces and mortars. Its chief strength consisted in its position. On the promontory below it (Jefferys Hook), where the Telegraph mast stands (between One hundred and Seventy-sixth and One hundred and Seventy-seventh Streets), was a redoubt, intended as a covering to chevaux de frise constructed in the channel there. The banks of this redoubt, among dwarf cedars upon the rocks, are yet (1855) very prominent. Northward of Fort Washington, on the same lofty bank of the Hudson,
between One hundred and Ninety-fifth and One hundred and Ninty-eighth Streets, was a redoubt with two guns, which was afterward strengthened by the British and called Fort Tryon. Near the extreme point of this range, at Spyt den Dyvel Kill (Spite the Devil Creek), at Two hundred and Seventeenth Street, was a little redoubt of two guns, called Cock Hill Fort; and across the creek, on Tetards Hill, was a square redoubt, with bastions, called Fort Independence. At the point where the Hudson River rail-way strikes the West Chester shore, was a small battery, and upon a hill commanding Kings Bridge from the south side, between Two hundred and Twenty-fifth and Two hundred and Twenty-sixth Streets (just above the present mill), was a redoubt. This was strengthened in 1781 by the British, and called Fort Prince, in honor of Prince William (afterward William the Fourth), then in New York.
The embankments of Fort Washington, and all of the works mentioned in this paragraph, are yet visible. Those of the Citadel of Fort Washington are well defined. The military works mentioned in this note, with those in the note [above], composed the whole of the Revolutionary fortifications upon Manhattan Island, except some breast-works at MGowans Pass, between One hundred and Fifth and One hundred and Eighth Streets and the Fifth and Sixth Avenues, now known as Mount St. Vincent.