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Battle of Harlem Heights

The American army was not faring well with the fighting in New York in the late summer of 1776. They had been defeated on Long Island in August, forced to retreat onto Manhattan Island and failed to halt the pursuing British army at Kip’s Bay on September 15.

American forces took positions on northern Manhattan, stretching in a line across the island. Their heaviest concentration was at Harlem Heights, where they were safe from the guns aboard Lord Howe`s ships.

On September 16, the two sides engaged in a skirmish at what today would be Broadway and 106th Street. The American lines held early in the fighting, but gradually began to recede. As the British advanced, a bugler sounded the “Call to Ground" — the traditional foxhunt signal that the quarry had been trapped in its hole. The call was well known to the Virginians and probably grated on their nerves. Reinforcements arrived and fueled the British drive as far as present-day 125th Street.

George Washington directed Connecticut Rangers under Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton and Virginians under Major Andrew Leitch to advance against the British and attempt to outflank them. They were unable to surround their opponents, but did force the fight back to 106th Street. At that point Washington gave the order to withdraw, fearing that the soldiers were being pulled into a trap. He had no intention of meeting the British in a major engagement.

The fighting at Harlem Heights, really on the Harlem Plains, was not a major battle. The American suffered 60 casualties, including the deaths of Leitch and Knowlton; the British counted about 100 casualties. However, this encounter ended the recent tendency of American forces to flee when faced by British soldiers. This time the American lines held and the British retreated.

General Leslie, the British commander, was rebuked for his performance and a period of relative inaction followed the Battle of Harlem Heights. Both sides rethought their plans and attentions were diverted by the great fire in New York City on September 21.


See also campaigns of 1776 and timeline of the War of Independence.

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