At an elevation of 280 feet above the Hudson River, the stout earthen walls of Fort Washington in Manhattan (now part of the base of the George Washington Bridge) bristled with scores of Patriot cannon.
The citadel’s lines of defense and redoubts sprawled for nearly a mile and half; rocky slopes and a sheer cliff belied a false aura of impregnability. In November 1776, nearly three thousand Americans, including a contingent of Marylanders led by Major Otho Holland Williams, manned its ramparts. The saga of Fort Washington is one of tragedy, courage, and triumph – a tiny victory recorded in personal accounts of several intrepid Americans who possessed a profound devotion to a newly formed country and one of its flags.
Washington’s army had been in retreat since the Battle of Brooklyn in late August. They had won an important victory at Harlem Heights in September. The following month, at White Plains, they inflicted significant casualties on the British; however, the Americans were ultimately defeated. Fort Washington held the last major pocket of American troops in Manhattan.
Against his better judgment, George Washington had left troops behind to guard the fort that bore his name. He relied on the advice of General Nathanael Greene, who argued that it was necessary to hold the citadel to prevent the Royal Navy from sailing up the Hudson River.
Although the fort possessed an impressive array of works, it was poorly designed. Artillery casements and wells did not exist within the fort, and the troops had to haul water from the river below. A week earlier, American Adjutant William Demont, one of the war’s worst, yet least-known, traitors, had fled the fort and deserted to British lines, revealing to the enemy the fort’s order of battle and its plans. This act of treason made a breach of Fort Washington’s flawed defenses nearly inevitable.
To crush Fort Washington, General William Howe gathered the bulk of his army. The story of their attack is recounted in a new bestselling book Washington’s Immortals, which chronicles the efforts of the elite troops of Maryland, some of whom played a key role at the fort. This unique book is the first Band of Brothers treatment of the American Revolution, capturing the most important elements of nearly every significant battle of the War of Independence.
In the morning hours of November 16, the British converged on three sides of Fort Washington at once. Three thousand Hessians, including Colonel Johann Rall (later the commander of Hessian forces at Trenton), landed in the north, while General Hugh Percy pressed from the south, and Charles, Earl Cornwallis hit the fort from the east. The Hessians scaled the steep grade on the north side of the fort, fighting and maneuvering around the obstacles the Americans had placed in their path, all the while facing a deadly hail of lead. For more than two hours, the Marylanders and others kept Britain’s German allies at bay by holding a crucial pass. At first, Washington had “great hopes the enemy was entirely repulsed.” Eventually, however, the determined Hessian fighters ascended to the top of the hill.
More than twenty-eight hundred Americans were now trapped in a fort devoid of water and vulnerable to bombardment from British ships on the Hudson. After breaching the main ramparts, Rall sent a messenger with a white flag tied to a musket to request the fort’s surrender. He demanded that the men surrender their arms and ammunition. The brave Hessian commander assured them that they would be allowed to retain their personal effects. The Americans had thirty minutes to decide. While Washington sent messages from the other side of the Hudson River encouraging his troops in Fort Washington to hold out, the fort’s commander did not believe they could last much longer. Rather than see his men slaughtered, he surrendered. The British captured over 2,838 prisoners, along with dozens of brass and iron cannon.
Among the captured was Major Otho Holland Williams, who had been injured in the fight, his blood staining his military commission. The State of Maryland promoted Major Williams, while he was confined to a tiny, windowless cell, to command a Maryland regiment (at Fort Washington, Williams was the major, or second in command, of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment); eventually, he gained his release in a prisoner exchange.
Miraculously, a few men avoided both confinement and death, including Marylander Lawrence Everhart, who had fought in other New York battles. He and a few others “escaped in a boat to Fort Lee, thence to Hackensack.” In New Jersey, Everhart met Washington, who witnessed the capture of the fort through his spyglass. Everhart later recalled a moving experience: “Here [I] saw Gen George Washington in tears walking the porch.”
Enraged after losing so many of their men in the battle, the Hessians stormed into Fort Washington and began slaughtering the Americans inside—despite their surrender. The British officers eventually put an end to the carnage, but the mercenaries’ anger was not yet quelled. As the prisoners exited the fort, a long line of Hessians and some of the Redcoats formed up on either side, forcing the Patriots to endure a gauntlet of abuse and humiliation. They hurled taunts, insults, and an occasional kick or punch at the defeated men and robbed them of their few possessions. Many of the Americans were filthy and did not have shoes, prime targets for their jeering enemies.
The Americans lost the fort, but they were far from broken. A British officer ordered an American named Richard Thomas Atkinson to carry the American colors out of Fort Washington. As he exited the structure and before entering the gauntlet, Atkinson furtively “lowered the colours” (history has not recorded the exact flag flown over the fort), handing them to another soldier in the long line of Americans. The British tried in vain to recover the flag. At the risk of his life, the soldier “put them within his breeches” and kept them safe, rather than hand the colors over to the enemy.
A significant number of the men of Fort Washington would be transported to “hell ships,” British prison ships in New York harbor where 10,000 to 18,000 Americans eventually perished. Forgotten, these intrepid warriors died on floating concentration camps, their emaciated bodies unceremoniously tossed overboard like bags of garbage.
Incredibly, the soldier who secretly retained the flag escaped and later triumphantly handed the colors to General George Washington himself.
Listen to Patrick O’Donnell discuss this story on Breitbart News Daily on SiriusXM:
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of ten books. Washington’s Immortals is his newest book. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickKODonnell.com @combathistorian