The American Revolutionary War: The Battle of Harlem Heights (New York), September 1776

On the morning of August 30, 1776, it was apparent that the British had totally routed the colonists in the Battle of Brooklyn (Long Island). But the British commander, General Howe, did not press their advantage and immediately attack the American forces on the southern end of York Island (now Manhattan).

General Washington at his New York City headquarters obviously knew that the British would be attacking the City and the Island, but did not know where or when.

The Battle of Brooklyn was mentioned in a September 3rd letter from my maternal fifth great-grandfather, Perley Brown, to his wife from New York City. He also said that British ships were now “within ear shot” of the City and that he and the others “expect the [British] Regulars will try to take the City.” Another such letter from him on September 9th said “the Enemy have got a Brestwork [sic] about seven miles above the City [in Brooklyn Heights] on long island and they fire actrost [sic] to a foart [sic] of ours [sic] and our men at them.” He added, “they have wounded two men and kild [sic] one.”[1]

On September 12th (the day after the unsuccessful Staten Island Peace Conference), Washington decided to abandon New York City and ordered the main part of the Continental Army to move north on the island as soon as possible to King’s Bridge connecting the island with what is now the Bronx.[2]

Harlem Heights map

By September 14th most of this American force had reached the Harlem Heights[3] on the west side of the island and King’s Bridge at the northern end of the island. The balance of the forces remained at the southern end of the island.

British ships at Kips Bay

On the morning of the 15th five British frigates sailed up the East River and near Kips Bay (on the east side of Manhattan and just south of the present-day U.N. Headquarters) started a cannon bombardment of the island. Thereafter 13,000 British troops left the ships and invaded the island from the east in flat-boats. Some of the British soldiers immediately marched south to occupy New York City.

Simultaneously the last of the American troops marched north from New York City on the west side of the island to reach their colleagues at Harlem Heights. Perley Brown was in this contingent, and in an October 4th letter to his wife said, “on the 15 of September we left new York and Before we could get out the [British] Regulars Landed on the island and intended to stop our retreat.” Perley continued, “they fired their cannon from there [sic] ships [on the Hudson River] which came very [near] to us.”

Harlem Heights Battle
Harlem Heights Battle

On September 16th 5,000 British troops reached the 1,800 American soldiers on Harlem Heights. The British attacked, and their bunglers sounded a fox-hunting call know as “gone away,” meaning that the fox is in full flight from the hounds. The Continentals, who had been in orderly retreat, were infuriated by this insult. They halted and counter-attacked. The British retreated and withdrew.


This battle was mentioned in Perley Brown’s October 4th letter to his wife from “Harlom [sic] Camp.” He reported, “on the 16 they came up to our lines at the upper end of the island at harlom [sic] where our Camp is now.” He added, “we had a sharp ingagement [sic] which lasted about two [h]ours” and had “about 20 kild [sic] and about 70 wounded.”

The British suffered 14 to 90 killed and 78 to 300 wounded. The Americans had 30 killed and 100 wounded.

Troop movements for Battle of Harlem HeightsThe map of Long Island and Manhattan Island shows the troop movements leading up to this Battle.

The map to the right of Long Island and Manhattan Island shows the movement of troops leading up to the Battle of Harlem Heights.

This victory, minor though it was, was the first victory of the War for General Washington and bolstered American morale.

[1] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 17-25 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).

[2]   In addition to the hyperlinked sources in this post, it also draws from David McCullough, 1776 at 208-219 (New York; Simon & Schuster 2005); T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frank Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 151 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Eleven (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).

[3]  This area is now known as Morningside Heights, 110th to 125th Streets from Riverside Drive on the west to Morningside Drive on the east. It is the home today of such institutions as Columbia University, Barnard College, Grant’s Tomb, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Union Theological Seminary and St. Luke’s Hospital.

Today’s Morningside Heights

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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