Howe had been frustrated at White Plains, and he declared to Germain that the Americans were proving to be unwilling to stand and fight. This was plainly not true, but Howe must have been aware that he was repeatedly failing to deliver the knockout blow he had talked about so freely in the build-up to the campaign. The change in the weather suggested that time was running out to finish the job in one campaign, and the taking of Rhode Island, long considered, may well have been the only move remaining for Howe before going into winter quarters. It would have made for a fairly anticlimactic end to the campaign, but a serious mistake by the Americans was about to hand him something much bigger. In fact, it was to give him his greatest success of the war.
The Americans left behind at the Harlem Heights were now completely isolated and the only sensible course of action would have been to evacuate them as quickly as possible across the Hudson. On the other side of the river, Fort Lee was by now complete and offered an obvious stronghold for the men to move to. At precisely the wrong moment, the American leadership decided to indulge in a game of passing the buck. Nathanael Greene, based at Fort Lee, asked Washington what he thought should be done. The number of men available to him fell between two stools: “If we attempt to hold the ground, the garrison must be reinforced,” he reasoned, “but if the garrison is to be drawn into Fort Washington, and we only keep that, the number of troops on the island is too large.” Washington, making one of his biggest blunders, insisted that Greene must make the decision since he was the man on the spot. Washington also stressed the importance of holding Fort Washington to prevent British shipping from sailing up the Hudson, a dream that had already been conclusively dispelled. There were nearly 3,000 men still on Manhattan Island, and time was running out to extricate them.
Washington was not oblivious to the danger. After Howe’s army turned back toward New York, he claimed to be unsure what the British commander had in mind. He did not believe the campaign was over, but was most fearful of a movement toward Jersey. News of British preparations for the capture of Rhode Island were dismissed by the American general as misinformation; Washington believed an expedition to the southern colonies was far more likely. As for Fort Washington, he believed the enemy would “invest it immediately,” but he made no comment of taking any action to counter this or to remove the men. Washington had an instinctive understanding that Howe would be feeling the pressure to achieve something more before the end of the year (“He must attempt something on account of his reputation; for what has he done as yet with his great army?”), but seemed to miss the point that the capture of nearly 3,000 men at Fort Washington would fit the bill nicely. Again, the specter of the British rampaging through Jersey was more troubling. In a letter to William Livingston, governor of Jersey, Washington advised him to prepare his militia and to pursue a scorched-earth policy; any forage that could not be safely removed was to be destroyed to prevent it from falling into the hands of the British. To help motivate Livingston, Washington painted an apocalyptic picture of the progress of the British troops: “They have treated all here without discrimination,” he warned. “The distinction of Whig and Tory has been lost in one general scene of ravage and desolation.”
As had happened repeatedly, Washington appears to have awakened only slowly to dangers that ought to have been obvious. By November 8 he was feeling his way toward an order to abandon Fort Washington, citing the failure of the fort to impede British shipping on the Hudson. “If we cannot prevent Vessels from passing up,” he wrote to Greene, “and the enemy are possessed of the surrounding country, what valuable Purpose can it answer to hold a Post, from which the expected Benefit cannot be had?” Rather than taking this line of reasoning to its obvious conclusion, however, Washington backed away at the last moment. “I am therefore inclined to think,” he continued, “that it will not be prudent to hazard the Men and Stores at Mount Washington; but, as you are on the spot, leave it to you to give such orders, as to evacuating Mount Washington, as you may judge best.” It was a shocking abrogation of responsibility, but everything Washington had seen of Howe up to that point would have convinced him that a direct assault was the last thing on the British general’s mind. An attempted siege was by far the most likely course of action.
Howe would need no further invitation. General von Knyphausen, with six battalions of Hessians, had been dispatched to Kingsbridge on October 28 and had been encamped on Manhattan since November 2. By November 12, British forces were concentrating in the area. Howe explained his decision to attack the fort to Germain, explaining how it “kept the enemy in command of the navigation of the North River.” It did no such thing, and Howe also mentioned that it was covered by strong ground and “exceeding difficult of access.” In short, it was just the sort of position that had deterred him on several occasions, and was a prime candidate for the sort of siege he had tried to implement at Brooklyn. Although hailed by some as impregnable, the fort was actually vulnerable, having no source of fresh water within its walls. A brief siege would see the cramped garrison surrender with little or no loss to the British.
Instead, Howe planned an ambitious assault. Tellingly, he originally intended it to be a Hessian-only affair, although British troops were later incorporated into the plan. Evidently feeling that the Germans needed to shoulder more of the burden, Howe was perhaps proving a point as much as anything else. Von Heister, whose stock with Howe was at an all-time low, was not involved; the Hessian troops were to be led by von Knyphausen. The addition of British troops also might have opened the door to Clinton’s involvement. He had led the way on Long Island, at Kip’s Bay, and at Throg’s Neck, and Howe had turned to him when von Heister had refused to charge at White Plains. At Fort Washington, however, there was no place for Clinton, suggesting that Howe might already have heard about his petulant outburst during the retreat from White Plains. Clinton had been given command of the planned descent on Rhode Island, but there was time enough for him to take part in the attack on Fort Washington, had Howe wished it.
Nathanael Greene was unconcerned in the face of the obvious preparations and believed the fort could stall the British for a considerable amount of time. He accepted that it could not prevent British shipping from moving along the Hudson, but argued, “I cannot conceive the garrison to be in any great danger,” adding that “the men can be brought off at any time.” The commander at Fort Washington, Colonel Robert Magaw, was confident that he could hold out until the end of the year, but what that would actually achieve was not specified. Washington himself arrived on the scene, although his primary purpose was to get troops into Jersey to counter the anticipated move there. He and Greene consulted on the situation on November 14, but no decision was made. Howe gave the Americans one last chance to see sense, on November 15. He also gave Magaw the thing longed for by every garrison commander: the opportunity to declare that he would defend his post “to the very last extremity.” Greene and General Putnam, who had been in Fort Washington at the time, were making their way across the Hudson when they met their commander-in-chief, mid-river, on his way to inspect the garrison. Assured by Putnam and Greene that the men were in good order and ready for the coming fight, Washington turned back. The following day, the attack began.
Howe was sending men against the same fortifications that he had declared untouchable a matter of weeks ago, but now they were held by a thinly stretched garrison of fewer than 3,000 men. The plan was to drive the Americans from their outer works into Fort Washington itself, and, to prevent them from concentrating their forces to resist, three sections of the defenses would be attacked at the same time. Johann Ewald, who had been asked to reconnoiter the defenses, had declared them to be very formidable, noting that American preparations had been thorough. Trees had been felled to give a clear field of fire, while the naturally difficult terrain had been enhanced with defensive works, including abbatis. Two of the attacking columns moved from the north, von Knyphausen leading a column of Hessian troops, with Cornwallis and Brigadier General Edward Mathew commanding light infantry, the Guards, grenadiers, and the 33rd Regiment. From the south, Percy headed a mixture of British and Hessian regiments. As if to underline the futility of holding the fort in the first place, HMS Pearl sat brazenly on the Hudson to provide fire support. Ewald reported that it took more than four hours for von Knyphausen’s column to dislodge American defenders from their strong positions (the British grenadier officer John Peebles recorded that they were “slow but Steady troops”), but Cornwallis and Percy made much swifter progress. Cornwallis landed his light infantry in 30 flat-bottomed boats and quickly took possession of a defended hill, forcing the rebels back toward the fort. Percy’s advance from the south was so rapid that Howe saw an opportunity to cut off the rebels’ retreat. Sending in the 42nd Regiment by boat, they were able to intercept many of the retreating Americans, capturing 170 of them.
Howe would later write with evident pride of the performance of his men, particularly his beloved light infantry, who had advanced “up a very steep uneven mountain with their usual activity.” It was Colonel Rall, who had earlier distinguished himself at White Plains, who had the honor of reaching Fort Washington first. Advancing to within 100 yards (90 meters), while retreating Americans crammed into the fort, he demanded their surrender. Forgetting his bold claims of the previous day, Magaw was obliged to accept. Close to 3,000 prisoners were taken, with around 150 killed or wounded. Howe did not mention his own losses in his report to Germain. These were considerable, with 78 men killed and 374 wounded. Howe, in fact, had lost more men in taking an isolated fort than he had lost in the Battle of Long Island.
Washington had a tricky job to do. The loss of the garrison at Fort Washington was the most severe blow yet endured by the American army and required explaining. His letter to Congress on the day of the action came uncomfortably close to an attempt to pin the blame on others. Assuring Congress that he had left the decision to Greene, Washington made it clear that it had been Greene’s decision to stand and fight. Washington’s account of the battle included the remarkable assertion that he had sent a note to Colonel Magaw after the British and Hessian forces had pushed his men back into the fort itself, ordering the American commander to hold firm. Washington had then planned to withdraw the garrison on the night of November 16. Perhaps Washington believed he could pull off another night-time evacuation, but his assessment of the situation was badly misjudged. The American losses extended to more than just men, since large amounts of supplies and ammunition also fell into the hands of the British. “I am wearied almost to death with the retrograde motion of things,” he confided to his brother, “and I solemnly protest, that a pecuniary award of twenty thousand pounds a year would not induce me to undergo what I do.” Greene was also deeply disturbed by the loss of Fort Washington and all too aware that the bulk of the blame might fall on him. He declared himself “mad, vexed, sick and sorry” and begged for news of how the defeat was being reported.
Howe’s position was obviously more comfortable, but he had his issues to deal with as well. Although the Hessians had gone a long way to recovering the confidence of their commander-in-chief, and the second wave had brought the more aggressive von Knyphausen as well as the mercurial Ewald, there was still the problem of von Heister. He and Howe were barely on speaking terms (not that they could understand each other anyway). The belated appointment of a liaison officer to smooth dealings between the two men came too late to repair their relationship. Von Muenchhausen was an effective aide-de-camp and might have brought Howe and von Heister closer together (von Heister spoke German and French, Howe English only, while von Muenchhausen was fluent in all three) if there had been any will on the part of the two generals.
The situation with Clinton might still have been rescued. Howe certainly attempted to keep their dealings on a professional footing, but Clinton was unreceptive. The second-in-command was becoming consumed by resentment over the southern expedition fasco and Howe’s role in it. The two men would not work together again and Howe therefore found himself shorn of the support of his two most important subordinates. There were other men to lean on, notably Cornwallis, and so long as he retained the confidence of the politicians at home he had little to be seriously concerned by. Personal animosities were inevitable under the stress of a campaign, but Howe could afford to be pragmatic. He had every reason to believe that he was moving steadily toward a successful conclusion to the war.
That impression was reinforced four days after the fall of Fort Washington. The Americans had failed to remove stores from the white elephant that was Fort Lee, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson. Ineffective when operating in conjunction with Fort Washington, it was entirely purposeless now, but massive quantities of supplies and ordnance were still there when Cornwallis landed troops 7 miles (11 kilometers) above the fort, on the morning of November 20. It was not an easy matter to drag guns up what Howe described as the “narrow rocky road, for near half a mile, to the top of a precipice,” but capturing the fort itself proved more straightforward. The garrison evacuated quickly upon the approach of the British (several inebriated men were left behind) and the fort changed hands without a shot being fired. It could hardly have been a surprise to the Americans that Fort Lee would be the next target in the slow but remorseless advance of the redcoats, but kettles were still warming above fires as the British took possession and Cornwallis spent that night camped outside the fort, “making use of the enemy’s tents.” More importantly, between Forts Washington and Lee the rebels had lost 146 cannon, close to 3,000 muskets and around 400,000 cartridges.
The invasion of New Jersey had begun, but Germain would not read about it until the end of the year. Howe did not bother to inform the American Secretary of events following the stalemate at the Harlem Heights until November 30 and the letter did not reach London until December 29. It would have made for a pleasant late Christmas present, but Germain would have been justified in wondering why Howe had taken so long to inform him that the campaign was still alive and kicking; it was two months since he had last written. The general was gracious enough to offer an apology (“The service in which I have been employed … with advice to the reduction of New York, would not allow of an earlier time to send an account to your Lordship of the progress made from that period.”), and in any event, the contents of the letter, detailing the landing at Kip’s Bay, the capture of New York, the fighting near the Harlem Heights, the Battle of White Plains, and the capturing of Forts Washington and Lee, were so pleasing to Germain that he could afford to overlook Howe’s tardiness in writing. The general had obviously been busy and, condensed into a single letter, the events of the campaign took on a rather dashing air. Howe finished by reporting that Cornwallis was in hot pursuit of Washington through New Jersey and that all seemed well with the army. Clinton was singled out for praise, as were the Hessians. “The Hessian troops, under the command of Lieutenant Generals Heister and Knyphausen,” Howe wrote, “have also exhibited every good disposition to promote his majesty’s interests, and justly merit my acknowledgement of their services.”
There was no sign here that Howe believed they had in any way sabotaged his plans at White Plains, or in any way retarded the progress of his campaign. But then, the campaign was not yet over.