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Battle of Fort Washington

Battle of Fort Washington

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Fort Washington occupied a hilltop position some 230 feet above the Hudson River in northwestern Manhattan. Fort Washington was handicapped by its relatively small size and lack of an interior water supply.During the construction of neighboring Fort Lee in the summer of 1776, General Israel Putnam suggested that old ships be sunk in the river in the vicinity of the forts to provide additional obstacles to the British Navy. That precaution was taken and it increased the belief of Nathanael Greene, commander of both forts, that his position was basically secure.In the wake of the American defeat at White Plains in late October, Major General William Howe chose to forgo a direct assault against the Continental Army and instead turned his attention to Fort Washington.In early November, William Demont, an American deserter, handed over drawings of the fort to British officers, enabling them to refine their attack plans for maximum effect. The event deeply disturbed George Washington, who had harbored considerable misgivings about trying to hold Fort Washington. Washington’s suggestion that the fort be abandoned was rejected by the confident Greene, who left Colonel Robert Mcgaw of Pennsylvania in command of the installation, and joined the staff at headquarters in New Jersey.On November 15, a British officer was sent to Fort Washington under a flag of truce. He demanded the facility's immediate surrender, then threatened that if his offer were refused, no quarter would be given to the defenders in the coming battle. Washington, Putnam and Greene crossed the Hudson from Fort Lee to examine conditions at Fort Washington, but concluded that they could not offer assistance and returned to New Jersey.The British then launched a coordinated three-pronged attack and were met with initially stiff resistance. So many soldiers from the outside positions sought refuge in Fort Washington that its effectiveness was impaired by overcrowding.A vital contribution was made to the British cause by German forces under Colonel Johann Rall when they managed to scale the precipitous north wall of the fort. A number of British officers believed that had the soldiers in Fort Washington been massacred, then American resolve would have been weakened and the war would have come to a rapid end.The British listed 67 killed, 335 wounded and six missing. Hundreds were incarcerated on unbelievably squalid British prison ships where they died in large numbers because of malnutrition and disease.The loss of Fort Washington exerted a deep impact on the commander-in-chief. In the future the general relied less on the suggestions of others and more on his own intuition.Another result of the loss was the increasingly critical stance taken by Charles Lee. Never one to hide his light under a bushel, Lee corresponded directly with members of Congress, suggesting that the inept Washington be replaced and shamelessly offering himself as a replacement.

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

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