Back in Manhattan, Washington’s troops begin to despair. Riots break out throughout the city, with gangs of soldiers looting and stealing. There are rumors that Washington lacks the skills to lead effectively. However, Henry Knox’s loyalty to Washington never falters. Washington himself begins to question whether New York has become a lost cause.
Washington’s resounding defeat in Brooklyn causes the troops to question his authority more than ever. Even a powerful, charismatic general needs some victories on the battlefield in order to inspire his men—otherwise, he offers only empty words and gestures.
Washington sends a letter to the Continental Congress in which he raises the possibility of leaving New York. The Congress writes back, instructing Washington to ensure that no damage will be done to the city if he pulls out. Privately, Nathanael Greene urges Washington to leave New York as soon as possible, since there’s no telling when the British will strike. Greene also recommends that Washington burn New York, so that it won’t be of any use to the British. Congress refuses to permit this. Washington can’t make up his mind whether to stay in New York or leave. Meanwhile, hundreds of soldiers desert, and many others suffer from disease.
The Continental Congress was at least willing to entertain the idea of burning Boston to the ground if it meant keeping the city from strengthening the British military, but they are unwilling to entertain a similar possibility with New York. The passage doesn’t explain exactly why this is, but perhaps the Congress, emboldened by the Declaration of Independence, isn’t desperate enough to authorize such drastic measures.
The Continental Congress decides to send a delegation of three people (Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge) to meet with Admiral Lord Richard Howe. The meeting is unproductive: Howe demands that the Americans “tread back” on their claims of independence. The three delegates respond that this is impossible, and Howe refuses to negotiate further.
At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, American leaders hadn’t made specific reference to independence. But now, independence is a crucial, non-negotiable part of the American cause, suggesting that the Revolution has become more idealistic than it was in its beginnings.
On September 13, two British ships sail up the East River and anchor in Bushwick Creek. The Americans fire on the ships, but do no damage. By the afternoon of September 14, the British army has moved north, to Harlem Heights, and Washington is forced to prepare for another battle.
Another battle between the British and the Americans is approaching. The British seem eager to exploit the weak position of the Americans, who suffered a horrible defeat just a few weeks before.
On the British side, General Clinton argues with General William Howe about the best way to proceed with the invasion. Howe supports an invasion through Kips Bay, whereas Clinton thinks it would be better to proceed via the Harlem River. Howe overrules Clinton. He then gives the troops a lackluster speech, telling them of a plan to invade on September 15 and urging them to depend on their bayonets. Notably absent from the speech is any trace of the inspirational rhetoric that Washington uses for his troops.
Once again, the passage stresses that General Howe is a weak commander placed in charge of a first-rate army. He’s not a compelling speaker or leader in the way that Washington is, but in a way, he doesn’t need to be, since his soldiers are experienced and trained to a far greater extent than their American foes.
Around ten o’clock on September 15, British boats make landfall in Kips Bay, located on the east side of Manhattan. The early hours of the battle are humiliating for the Americans—they run from the British attack, confirming British soldiers’ beliefs that the Americans are cowards. By the late afternoon, well over 10,000 British troops have landed. The Americans continue to flee, infuriating Washington.
The passage conveys the humiliation of the American troops, but also suggests that they had no other choice but to run away: they were so badly outnumbered that they could never have won, even if they were the best, most disciplined troops on the planet. Again, Washington seems to be a good general in charge of a small, amateurish army, while Howe is a weak general in charge of a big, well-trained army.
The British forces don’t pursue the Americans. Had they done so, they could have trapped the Americans in Manhattan, and perhaps ended the war. As an explanation for the sheepishness of the British army, a rumor is circulated among American soliders that a woman named Mrs. Robert Murray invited General Howe to tea in her home, where she delayed him from sending orders for two hours, allowing the Americans to escape. The truth, however, is simpler: Clinton’s orders were simply to drive back the Americans and then wait for his arrival in the afternoon. The British believe they’ve won another great victory—even though, as a result of Howe’s decision, it’ll be “the Americans’ turn to claim success” the very next day.
For the second time in one chapter, General Howe fails to capitalize on his advantage and wipe out the Americans once and for all. It’s noteworthy that Americans invented a legendary woman to delay Howe from giving further commands, since the truth is actually much more embarrassing for Howe: he was in a position to give whatever orders he wanted, and he simply didn’t see the clear path to victory.
George Washington rides to Harlem Heights. There, he and Nathanael Greene witness the British chasing the American troops. Washington orders a counterattack of three companies of Virginian soldiers, headed by Colonel Thomas Knowlton, who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Knowlton botches the counterattack by firing on the British before his soldiers cut off their path of retreat. Frustrated, Washington calls off the attack. Before he can do so, however, Knowlton is killed. The American troops have killed hundreds of British soldiers—heavier losses than the Americans have sustained—but they’ve also lost Knowlton, a talented commander.
Even though Washington’s counterattack is a failure, it’s an important moment in Washington’s career as a general. In the middle of a humiliating retreat, Washington takes the initiative and organizes his troops for a counterstrike when the British are least expecting it. In short, the passage foreshadows Washington’s more ambitious, successful counterstrikes in New Jersey, the subject of Chapter Seven.
Washington and his troops are now based out of Harlem Heights, the rocky area overlooking the Harlem River. This is an excellent strategic position. However, the British army now occupies most of Manhattan. While his troops enjoy the beauty of the island, General William Howe plans a new assault on the American troops.
For the time being, Washington’s army still seems to have a chance of preserving its position in New York. In Harlem Heights, they’ve occupied high ground—a strategically advantageous position that’s similar to the position of Dorchester Heights relative to Boston.
On the night of September 20, a fire breaks out in New York. (This is quite common in American cities at the time, especially in the summer.) The fire burns down a sizeable chunk of the city. One reason the fire is so deadly is that there are no warning bells left in New York—Washington had them melted down to make cannons. By the next morning, the fire has burned itself out, but hundreds of homes have been destroyed. Many British soldiers believe the fire was the “work of the enemy.”
It might seem a little too convenient that New York burned down a couple days after Washington’s army left for Harlem Heights, especially considering Washington’s correspondence with the Continental Congress about preventing the city’s resources from strengthening the British army in any way.
In his letters to the Congress, Washington claims that the fire was a “lucky accident.” However, as part of the investigation in the fire, the British troops arrest a man named Nathan Hale. Hale is found to be in possession of firebrands, and he’s promptly hanged for starting the fire. Before his execution, Hale admits to being an American spy, and historians now know that he that he served under General Thomas Knowlton. Hale’s duties as a spy for Washington still aren’t entirely clear.
Ultimately, McCullough doesn’t take sides in the historical debate over whether or not Washington ordered the destruction of New York. While there’s some evidence that spies working on his payroll burned the city, the evidence isn’t conclusive, and it’s likely that we’ll never know exactly what happened.
In Harlem Heights, American soldiers are deserting every day. Washington seems calm, even though he’s secretly frightened that his army is about to be defeated for good. By the middle of September, however, the Continental Congress has issued payments for every soldier in Washington’s army. The Congress also institutes new, harsh punishments for deserters.
Even in a crisis, Washington affects an image of calm, wise leadership. But he doesn’t simply depend on his charisma: he knows that he needs to offer his men concrete reasons to stay in the army. Thus, he increases punishments and pays wages upfront.
As October begins, more British ships sail into New York. On the morning of October 9, the Americans open fire on three British warships moving up the Hudson River. The warships fire back, and though the ships sustain considerable damage, the British prove “that the Hudson was undeniably theirs to employ as they wished.”
Once again, the British demonstrate that they can surround the Americans whenever they wish, thanks to their naval superiority.
The British are planning to outflank the American army by water. On October 12, they send an armada up the East River. Washington quickly realizes that his army is doomed unless he acts fast. Using Lord Stirling and John Sullivan, both of whom have recently been returned to the army through prisoner exchanges, Washington orders his forces to withdraw from Harlem Heights and march north.
To his credit, Washington realizes early on that the British navy is too strong and, as a result, he has no chance of defending his position in Manhattan. This is another instance when Washington’s pragmatism and level-headedness outweigh his sense of pride.
On October 16, Washington holds another military council: John Sullivan, Lord Stirling, Mifflin, and Henry Knox are all present. Also present is Charles Lee, whom Washington has reappointed his second-in-command. (Washington has also changed the name of Fort Constitution to “Fort Lee” in Lee’s honor.) The commanders agree that they should try to defend Fort Washington, located north on the Hudson. Lee later claims he opposed defending Fort Washington, though this is false, based on the minutes of the meeting.
Charles Lee was stationed in New York while Washington and his troops were still in Boston. Washington clearly respects Lee, and he’s familiar with Lee’s leadership style, since they fought in the backwoods together years ago. However, as the passage foreshadows, Lee is sometimes more concerned with his own reputation than with being loyal and honorable.
On October 18, while Washington’s forces march toward Westchester, the British land at Pell’s Point. The British forces immediately encounter a small but well-prepared American force. The Americans, who number 750, kill many British soldiers before retreating. The British losses at Pell’s Point inspire General Howe to proceed cautiously in case of another American assault. Howe is planning to maneuver the Americans onto an open field and defeat Washington “in one grand, decisive victory.”
General Howe’s slow pace isn’t always a weakness. Here, he makes a sound decision by choosing to proceed slowly: he knows that small American squads can do a lot of damage to his army. However, the passage shows that Howe is still strongly committed to idealistic notions of warfare: he thinks that he needs to defeat the Americans in one momentous battle. In reality (and as Chapter Seven will show), the American Revolution is more often comprised of quick skirmishes and surprise attacks of the kind that are Washington’s expertise.
On October 28, a full ten days after landing at Pell’s Point, the British forces (along with the Hessian mercenaries) march to White Plains, where they fight Washington’s troops, who are based at the top of Chatterton’s Hill. As a result, the British and German troops have to fight an uphill battle. In the end, the British side emerges victorious, but also sustains heavier losses.
Echoing their original “victory” at Bunker Hill, the British defeat the Americans in battle even though they lose far more men, confirming that they can afford a greater number of casualties than the Americans can.
Washington’s forces retreat to the Bronx River after the Battle of Pell’s Point. To their surprise, the British forces don’t pursue them. On November 5, the British army swerves off in a different direction, toward the Hudson River. Some of Washington’s generals believe the British are headed for Fort Washington, while others suggest that the British are sidestepping Washington’s forces altogether and preparing to move into Philadelphia. Washington, however, is confident that General Howe will attack again. He’s not sure if he should pull troops out of Fort Washington or leave them where they are stationed.
This passage gives readers a window into Washington’s decision-making process. While Washington makes an effort to appear composed, he’s often an indecisive leader. Here, for instance, he doesn’t seem to know whether to retreat altogether or leave some men behind.
Washington decides to divide his troops into four groups. He allocates 7,000 troops to remain under the command of General Charles Lee, who will be stationed east of the Hudson. 3,000 troops will guard the Hudson Highlands, north of Manhattan. 2,000 troops will go with Washington into New Jersey. Finally, Nathanael Green will command the troops in Fort Washington. Greene is confident that he’ll be able to hold out against British forces, while Washington is more inclined to leave New York altogether. Fort Washington isn’t as strong as Greene believes—in part because it has no water supply.
Washington makes yet another major tactical error by dividing his army in four, considering how badly he’s outnumbered by the British forces. Washington made a similar mistake in the charge against the British invasion of Long Island, and it seems clumsy of him to make the same mistake again in less than a month, but it suggests a general atmosphere of panic and confusion.
In November, the British receive two critical pieces of information. First, the plans for Fort Washington are delivered by Captain William Demont, who has defected from the American army. Second, a series of Washington’s letters to the Continental Congress are stolen from a careless messenger. The letters reveal Washington’s decision to divide his forces into four groups, and suggest his frustration with his men. General William Howe begins to formulate a new plan: he decides to attack Fort Washington while Washington is away in New Jersey. On November 15, Howe sends Captain James Paterson, waving a white flag, to deliver a message to Fort Washington: surrender or “face annihilation.” The Americans refuse.
The British have multiple advantages over the Americans. First, they know how to take Fort Washington, since they’ve intercepted the plans. Second, they outnumber Washington’s men. Finally, Washington’s men are divided, and weaker as a result. Howe seems confident that he can wipe out Washington’s troops once and for all, hence his offer of peace.
On November 16, Washington crosses the Hudson with his generals on a scouting mission. They hear the noise of cannons assaulting Fort Washington. Nathanael Greene suggests that Washington keep himself safe by staying away from the fort while other generals go back and fight, but Washington insists that they everyone stay away from Fort Washington. The British forces attacking Fort Washington number 8,000. By the early afternoon, the British have driven all 2,000 Americans back into the fort, where they can barely fit, and by 4pm, the American forces have surrendered.
Once again, the British defeat the American troops not so much because of their greater tactical ingenuity but because their army is four times the size of the American army. Clearly, Greene has made a big mistake in thinking that Fort Washington is impervious to assault.
The defeat at Fort Washington is perhaps the most crushing blow the Americans are dealt during their time in New York. 2,000 Americans are captured. George Washington is said to have wept at the sight of his empty fort. Nathanael Greene’s confidence that Fort Washington could be defended has proven false. But of course, it’s ultimately George Washington’s fault that the fort was captured. Washington doesn’t dismiss Greene altogether, but he begins to think less of him as a result of the defeat.
Chapter Six is full of defeats for the Americans, and the taking of Fort Washington is perhaps the most humiliating of them all, since the British are able to occupy it relatively easily. Washington has suffered some huge challenges to his confidence in himself and his commanders, such as Greene. Still, it’s a sign of Washington’s self-control that he doesn’t fire Greene out of spite.
Soon after capturing Fort Washington, General William Howe sends troops to Fort Constitution, now named Fort Lee. Washington gets word of the impending attack, probably through a British deserter, and orders the American troops to abandon the fort at once. When the British arrive, they find the fort deserted. Meanwhile, George Washington leads his remaining troops into New Jersey.
For the last time in Chapter Six, Washington and his troops flee from the British army, suggesting that they now know that they’re incapable of defeating their opponents in battle.