“A Cursed Affair”: The Loss of Fort Washington

“But alas! we must no longer think of holds and fortresses on the North River. There are, I hear, various opinions respecting the taking [of] fort Washington, some think that it was too easily surrendered, others say our men behaved well and that it could not possibly be help’d.” [1]

A View of the Attack against Ft. Washington, and Rebel Redoubts, near New York on the 16th of November, 1776, a drawing by Captain Thomas Davies, Royal Artillery. I.N. Phelps Stokes Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. This image depicts British and German troops approaching the fort by the Harlem River.

A View of the Attack against Ft. Washington, and Rebel Redoubts, near New York on the 16th of November, 1776, a drawing by Captain Thomas Davies, Royal Artillery. I.N. Phelps Stokes Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. This image depicts British and German troops approaching the fort by the Harlem River.

The November 16, 1776 capture of Fort Washington by the British was a particularly powerful blow against the Revolutionary cause. George Washington later wrote to his brother, John Augustine Washington, that the loss at the fort “is a most unfortunate affair, and has given me great mortification; as we have lost not only two thousand men that were there, but a good deal of artillery, and some of the best arms we had.”[2] Of the more than two thousand men captured at Fort Washington, at least four hundred of them were Marylanders.[3]

The battle at Fort Washington was almost never fought– General Washington had agonized over the decision to defend the fort. He finally called together a council of General Officers, and General Nathanael Greene prevailed upon Washington that the fort was too strategically important to abandon. After the battle, with the benefit of hindsight,  General Lee wrote to Washington, “Oh General, why would you be over-persuaded by men of inferiour judgment to your own? It was a cursed affair.” [4] Ultimately, the price that the Americans paid in the attempt to defend the fort was higher than what the post was worth. Days later, Washington would opt to completely evacuate Fort Lee rather than make a stand and risk losing another garrison.

“Otho Holland Williams” by Peter Egeli after Charles Willson Peale. Maryland State Art Collection.

The defense of Fort Washington began on the morning of November 16, a day after the commander of the post, Colonel Magaw, rejected the British demand to surrender, defying the British threat to execute every man if the Americans resisted. The next day, with the attack under way, the Americans scrambled to cover the extensive defenses of the fort. A major factor in the Americans’ defeat was the size of the redoubts, which were difficult to defend effectively with the relatively small number of soldiers within the fort. The Maryland riflemen under Lieutenant Colonel Moses Rawlings and Major Otho Holland Williams defended a pass to the north of the fort against a Hessian battalion. The initial engagement gave Washington “great hopes the enemy was entirely repulsed.”[5]  However, the Americans were soon overpowered by the British force of 13,000– more than four times the number of defenders. The Marylanders fought at the northern pass for two hours before they were forced to withdraw to the fort. The defenders were battered; Major Williams was shot in the thigh and Lt. Colonel Rawlings was wounded “slightly in the small of the leg”.[6] The American commander, Colonel Magaw, surrendered in the face of such overwhelming numbers.

Four hundred Marylanders were in the hands of the British on November 16, 1776. The prisoners included the 200 men of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment under Rawlings, 160 of General Beall’s troops from the Maryland Flying Camp, Captain Long’s company, and Captain Hardman’s company.[7] After the surrender, a number of the riflemen, probably including  Marylanders under Lt. Colonel Rawlings, were killed by the Hessians in retribution for the high casualties they had suffered while storming the fort.[8]

Their first night in captivity the men began the march to Manhattan, which by then was under British control. Most of the prisoners wouldn’t eat again until Monday, two days later, when they were given molded biscuits and raw pork.[9] The prisoners were cooped up in churches and stables or placed on the notoriously brutal prison ships. No matter where they ended up, the soldiers were forced to contend with hunger, illness, and the impending winter, leading to appallingly high casualty rates for American prisoners of war.

The defeat at Fort Washington was the latest in a string of demoralizing losses. After the capture of the fort and its defenders, General Washington wept “with the tenderness of a child.”[10] In Philadelphia, Samuel Chase, correspondent to the Maryland Council of Safety and signatory to the Declaration of Independence, grimly pondered the rumors of Howe making an attack on that city. Nearby, Fort Lee would soon be evacuated to avoid the same calamitous loss. The future of the Revolution was not promising at this juncture– the enlistments of the soldiers in the Continental Army were expiring, and the progress of the war gave the men little incentive to reenlist. Dispirited, but still alive, Washington and the American Army retreated to New Jersey, leaving Fort Washington in the hands of the British until the end of the war.


-Emily
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