This Day In History: Washington Wins the Battle of Harlem Heights (1776)

The American War of Independence did not go initially very well for the Patriots. They had little or no experience of fighting a conventional war and they were taking on the greatest power on earth. The British Empire at this time stretched across the world and it could call on almost limitless resources and had a professional army and they  could afford to hire the best mercenaries in Europe. On this day in 1776, General George Washington arrives at Harlem Heights, on the island of Manhattan. The patriots were in disarray after they had been defeated the previous day.  Washington had  rushed to Harlem Heights in order to prevent the patriot forces in the area from disintegrating. Washington  takes command of a group of retreating Patriots  troops who are in a state of panic.  They had been badly defeated by the professional British troops the day before near the site of the present 34th Street in Manhattan. The forces of King George III had all but taken control of the strategic island. The Continental Army had been driven to the northern point of the island and were in danger of being forced to capitulated or simply returned to their home states. Many of the Patriots came from outside the New York area and had doubts about serving outside their native states.

Brooklyn, New York -- August 27, 1776 Colonel Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, a hero of the Revolutionary War and father of Robert E. Lee, once commented that during the war "the state of Delaware furnished one regiment only; and certainly no regiment in the army surpassed it in soldiership." At the Battle of Long Island, the actions of the Delaware Regiment kept the American defeat from becoming a disaster. Fighting alongside the 1st Maryland Regiment, the soldiers from Delaware may well have prevented the capture of the majority of Washington's army - an event that might have ended the colonial rebellion. Organized in January 1776 by Colonel John Haslet, the Delaware Regiment was noted as the best uniformed and equipped regiment of the Continental Army. Delaware's blue jackets with red facings and white waistcoats and breeches would later become the uniform for all the Continental troops. During the Battle of Long Island, the Delaware and Maryland troops were positioned on the right of Washington's line. They defended the most direct route from the British landing site in south Brooklyn to the American fortifications in Brooklyn Heights. Though the troops faced the fiercest fighting of the day, they held their ground long enough to allow the remainder of Washington's army to safely retreat to the fortifications. However, the Delaware regiment was outflanked and forced to retreat, taking 23 prisoners with them, through marshland and across the Gowanus creek. Two nights later, Washington entrusted his Delaware and Maryland soldiers to be the rear guard as he secretly withdrew his army from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Today, the 175th Infantry Regiment, Maryland Army National Guard, preserves the legacy of the 1st Maryland Regiment. The 198th Signal Battalion, Delaware Army National Guard, perpetuates the proud lineage of the Delaware Regiment.
Patriot Soldiers in action in 1776

In  September 16, 1776, General Washington ordered the Continentals to hold their positions at Harlem Heights. He sent a detachment of rangers under Captain Thomas Knowlton  to discover the positions and the movements of the British. The Rangers were also ordered to launch an attack on the British lines. As they did Washington sent a second force of Patriots to attack the British lines on their right flank. This attack forced the British to retreat from their positions.  The battle of Harlem Heights was not a major battle  and it is estimated that both sides lost about 70 men each. One of the American casualties was Captain Thomas Knowlton, the commander of the Rangers who contributed so much to the success of the Americans that day.

This action was very important because it helped to restore the morale of the Patriots and the Continental Army. The Americans failure to stop the British taking much of Manhattan had raised serious doubts about the ability of the Americans to resist the British. The action also restored the Patriots confidence in Washington and proved to them that he was the right leader for their army.

Despite the American failure to stop the British invasion of New York City the previous day at Kip’s Bay, the successful Battle of Harlem Heights restored public confidence in the American troops and lifted the spirits of the Continental Army. The Americans and British each lost approximately 70 troops in the fighting. One of the Americans lost was the Ranger leader, Captain Thomas Knowlton. The area in and around New York was to see many other battled during the American Revolution.