The Battle for New York, 1776: Washington’s Incompetence Overshadowed by Howe’s?

After reading Ferling’s account of the war in New York in the summer of 1776, I came to the conclusion that the best officer in the Continental Army was General William Howe. After Howe’s abandonment of Boston, Washington rightly surmised that Howe would move on New York City. Both men understood the strategic importance of the city’s central location within the colonies, that its harbor would allow British vessels easy access to the entire coastline, and that it would provide an avenue up the Hudson River with which to separate New England from the middle and southern colonies. Washington sent Charles Lee to prepare for the defense of New York, and Lee did an admirable job, though he understood that the Continental army ultimately would not be able to hold the city. Instead, Lee envisioned a defensive action that would cost so many British lives that the enemy might lose its will to fight. Although Washington wished for more men and equipment with which to defend New York, he was satisfied that his army was prepared to meet the British when they arrived.[1]

Howe arrived in early July and his army offloaded on to Staten Island. Once there, the British waited for nearly two months, giving time for the Continentals to further improve their defenses. The chief reason for Howe’s delay was that he was opposed to the actions of Parliament that had precipitated the war, and he hoped to induce Washington into ending the rebellion by offering concessions to the colonies.[2] Washington was not interested in negotiations, however, and Howe attacked on August 22.

The first major mistake Washington committed was to divide his army and place them in various positions across Long Island and Manhattan. Washington was obviously interested in being able to defend nearly anywhere Howe chose to land, but by dividing his forces in such a manner, he ensured his men would be outnumbered no matter where the attack came.[3] In the first battles, which occurred on Long Island, British forces routed the Continentals and the Americans were pushed to the East River opposite Manhattan. Washington decided to evacuate his men to Manhattan, and they did so in a risky move under cover of rain, night, and fog. Howe and some of his officers, upon realizing their quarry had slipped from their grasp, decided this meant that the rebels would be open to negotiations. Others on Howe’s staff believed that had the operation been better conducted, the Americans could have been crushed, and their escape simply meant hostilities would drag on.[4]

Washington, at least realizing the superiority of the British army he was facing and understanding that his army’s escape from Long Island was very fortunate, decided that New York should be abandoned so that the Continentals might live to fight another day. Unfortunately, he listened to the advice of his officers, who maintained that New York City needed to be defended at all costs. Washington again divided his forces and awaited Howe’s attack, which did not occur until September 15, seventeen days after the Continentals had escaped across the East River. Had Howe acted sooner, he may have easily defeated the dazed and demoralized Americans on Manhattan. After a brutal landing assault, the terrified Americans abandoned their positions on the East River and fled. Howe once again paused, allowing the Continentals to flee north to Harlem Heights. Once again, had the British moved more quickly after their initial attack, they may have blocked all the roads on Manhattan and trapped the American army on the southern end of Manhattan.[5]

Now Washington inexplicably paused. Rather than complete the evacuation of New York City, he remained at Harlem Heights, facing the possibility that Howe could land forces up the Hudson River and trap the Americans. Fortunately for Washington and the Continental army, Howe remained wobbly and indecisive and chose not to press the attack immediately. The British finally did land upriver, at King’s Point, but they chose a poor place to debark, and their mistake allowed Washington to escape once again by a prayer and a whisker.[6]

I think the Battle for New York was a tactical victory and a strategic defeat for the British. Howe’s caution and delays cost his army a total victory that very well may have ended the rebellion. For his part, Washington committed numerous tactical errors, but in each case he and his men were saved by Howe’s unwillingness or inability to capitalize on his earlier successes. In the end, Washington displayed poor generalship, but he and his men were rescued over and over by the even poorer generalship of Howe.

[1] John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 120-22.

[2] Ibid., 124-25.

[3] Ibid., 129.

[4] Ibid., 129-36.

[5] Ibid., 137-42.

[6] Ibid., 142-45.

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