Landing at Kip's Bay


Landing at Kip's Bay

The Landing at Kip's Bay was a British maneuver during the New York Campaign in the American Revolutionary War on September 15, 1776, occurring on the eastern shore of present-day Manhattan. The battle was a decisive British victory, and resulted in the withdrawal of American militia to Harlem Heights.

Background

After losing the Battle of Long Island, General George Washington and his army of 9000 troops had escaped in the night of August 29–30 to York Island. [ McCullough, "1776", 188–91.] Despite showing discipline and unity during the evacuation of Long Island, the army quickly devolved into despair and anger. Soldiers looted New York houses and deserted by the hundreds. Entire state militias disbanded and departed for home, discouraged. Leadership was questioned in the ranks, with soldiers openly wishing for the return of General Charles Lee. [McCullough, "1776", 201–02.] Washington sent a missive to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia asking for some direction — specifically, if New York should be abandoned and burned to the ground. "They would derive great conveniences from it, on the one hand, and much property would be destroyed on the other," Washington wrote. [McCullough, "1776", 203.]

Meanwhile, British troops, led by General William Howe, were moving north up the east shore of the East River, towards King's Bridge. During the night of September 3 the British frigate "Rose", taking advantage of a north-flowing tide and towing thirty flatboats, moved in and anchored in the mouth of Newtown Creek, across from Kip's Bay. The next day, more transports and flatboats moved up the East River, and the two frigates "Repulse" and "Pearl" sailed into the Hudson. [McCullough, "1776", 203–04.]

On September 5, Nathanael Greene, recently returned to duty from a serious illness, sent Washington a letter urging an immediate withdrawal from New York. Without possession of Long Island, Greene argued, New York could not be held. With the army in its scattered situation on York Island, it was impossible for the Americans to stop a British attack, and another decisive defeat would be catastrophic. He also recommended burning the city; once the British had control, it could never be recovered without a comparable or superior naval force. There was no American benefit to preserving New York, Green summarized, and recommended that Washington convene a war council. [McCullough, "1776", 205–06.] By the time the council was gathered on September 7, however, a letter had arrived from John Hancock stating Congress's resolution that although New York should not be destroyed, Washington was not required to defend it. [McCullough, "1776", 206.] [Middlekauff, "The Glorious Cause", 354.] Congress had also decided to send a three-man delegation to confer with Lord Howe — John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Rutledge. [McCullough, "1776", 207.]

On September 10, British troops moved onto Montresor's Island from Long Island, at the mouth of the Harlem River. Two days later on September 11, the Congressional delegation arrived on Staten Island to meet with Howe for several hours. The meeting, in which Lord Howe did the majority of the talking, came to nothing. It did, however, postpone the upcoming British attack, allowing Washington more time to decide if and where to confront the enemy. [McCullough, "1776", 207–08.]

In a September 12 war council, Washington and his generals made the decision to abandon New York. Four thousand troops under General Israel Putnam would remain behind as a rear guard while the main army moved north to King's Bridge. On the afternoon of September 13, major British movement started as the warships "Roebuck" and "Phoenix", along with the frigates "Orpheus" and "Carysfort", moved up the East River and anchored in Bushwick Creek, carrying 148 total cannons and accompanied by six troop transport ships. [McCullough, "1776", 208.] By September 14 the Americans were urgently moving stores of ammunition and other materiel, along with American sick, to Orangetown, New York. [Fischer, "Washington's Crossing", 102.] Every available horse and wagon was employed in what Joseph Reed described as a "grand military exertion". Scouts reported movement in the British army camps but Washington was unable to determine where the British would strike. Late that afternoon, most of the American army had moved north to King's Bridge and Harlem Heights, and Washington followed that night. [McCullough, "1776", 208–09.] [Fischer, "Washington's Crossing", 102]

Battle

The bulk of the American forces prepared to fight near the then-small village of Harlem at the northern end of York Island. Protected by small earthworks, the American line at Kip's Bay was about 500 Connecticut militia troops under the command of Colonel William Douglas. Many of the American troops were inexperienced and had no muskets, but carried homemade pikes made from poles with attached scythe blades. After having been awake all night, and having had little or nothing to eat in the previous twenty-four hours, the Americans awoke to five British warships in the East River near Kip's Bay, at the present line of 33rd Street. [McCullough, "1776", 210–11] Admiral Richard Howe of the British forces sent a noisy demonstration of Royal Navy ships up the Hudson River early on the morning of September 15, but Washington and his aides determined that it was a diversion and maintained their forces at the north end of the island. [Fischer, "Washington's Crossing", 102] As the American troops at Kip's Bay lay in the ditches, the British ships, anchored 200 yards offshore, lay quiet. The day was oppressively hot. At about ten o'clock, across the river at Newtown Cove, a first wave of more than eighty flatboats carrying 4000 British and Hessian soldiers, standing shoulder to shoulder, began crossing towards Kip's Bay.

Using flat-bottomed boats for an amphibious landing, the British, under the command of General Henry Clinton began their invasion. Around eleven in the morning, the five warships began a salvo of broadside fire that flattened the flimsy American breastworks and panicked the Connecticut militia. "So terrible and so incessant a roar of guns few even in the army and navy had ever heard before," wrote Ambrose Serle, private secretary to Lord Howe. Nearly eighty guns fired at the shore for a full hour. The Americans were half buried under dirt and sand, and were unable to return fire due to the smoke and dust. After the guns ceased, the British flatboats appeared out of the smoke and headed for shore. By then the American troops were in a panicked retreat.

Although Washington and his aides arrived from the command post at Harlem Heights soon after the landing began, he was unable to rally the retreating militia. About a mile inland from Kip's Bay, Washington rode his horse furiously among the men, roaring and cursing. Unable to reverse the tide of the retreat, he threw his hat to the ground and shouted, "Are these the men with which I am to defend America?"McCullough, "1776", 212.] When some fleeing men refused to turn and engage a party of advancing Hessians, Washington is said to have flogged some of their officers with his riding crop. [Middlekauff, "The Glorious Cause", 355] The Hessians shot or bayoneted a number of American troops who were trying to surrender. Two thousand Continental troops under the command of Generals Samuel Parsons and John Fellows arrived from the north, but at the sight of the chaotic militia retreat, they also turned and fled. Washington, still in a rage, rode within a hundred yards of the enemy before his aides managed to get him off the field. As more and more British soldiers came ashore, including light infantry, grenadiers, and Hessian Jägers, they spread out, advancing in several directions. By late afternoon, another 9000 British troops had landed at Kip's Bay and sent a brigade down to abandoned New York, officially taking possession. While most of the Americans managed to escape to the north, not all got away. "I saw a Hessian sever a rebel's head from his body and clap it on a pole in the entrenchments," recorded a British officer. [McCullough, "1776", 211–213.] The southern advance pushed for a half mile to Watts farm (near present-day 23rd Street) before meeting stiff American resistance. The northern advance stopped at Inclenberg (now Murray Hill), just west of the present Lexington Avenue, due to orders from General Howe to wait for the rest of the invading force. This was extremely fortunate for the thousands of American troops south of the invasion point, who would have been cut off from the main army had Clinton continued west to the Hudson and sealed off their escape route. [McCullough, "1776", 213]

General Putnam, leading the several thousand American troops who were defending the southern portion of York Island, was trying to escape back to the relative safety of Harlem. He had set off on a forced march down the east side of the island and almost led his troops directly into the British invaders. Aaron Burr, a twenty-year-old lieutenant in the Continental Army, convinced Putnam to head north along the Hudson instead. Trying to avoid being cut off by a westward British advance, the Americans briefly passed within a mile of the enemy. Greeted by cheers after having been given up for lost, Putnam and his men marched into the main camp at Harlem after dark. When Henry Knox arrived later after a narrow escape by seizing a boat on the Hudson, he also was excitedly greeted and was even embraced by Washington. [McCullough, "1776", 213–214.]

Aftermath

The British were welcomed by the New York population, pulling down the Continental Army flag and raising the Union Jack. Howe, who had wanted to capture New York quickly and with minimal bloodshed, considered the invasion a complete success. Not wanting to continue battling with the Americans that day, Howe stopped his troops short of Harlem. [McCullough, "1776", 212–13] [Matloff, "American Military History", 65]

Washington was extremely angry with his troops' conduct, calling their actions "shameful" and "scandalous". The Connecticut militia, who already had a poor reputation, were labeled cowards and held to blame for the rout. However, some opinions were more circumspect, such as General Heath, who said "The wounds received on Long Island were yet bleeding; and the officers, if not the men, knew that the city was not to be defended." If the Connecticut men would have stayed to defend York Island under the withering cannon fire and in the face of overwhelming force, they would have been annihilated. [McCullough, "1776", 214–15]

The next day, September 16, was the Battle of Harlem Heights. [McCullough, "1776", 216]

References

Notes


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