Cover image for The battle for New York : the city at the heart of the American revolution
The battle for New York : the city at the heart of the American revolution
Schecter, Barnet.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Walker & Co., [2002]

Physical Description:
viii, 454 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
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E241.L8 S33 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
E241.L8 S33 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
E241.L8 S33 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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On September 15, 1776, the British army under General William Howe invaded Manhattan Island, landing at an open field on the banks of the East River, roughly where the United Nations sits today. George Washington's Continental Army, still in disarray after its miraculous escape following the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn some two weeks earlier, retreated north to Harlem Heights, leaving New York in British hands. Control of the city was Howe's primary objective; located at the mouth of the strategically vital Hudson River, it had become the centerpiece of England's strategy for putting down the American rebellion. However, as Barnet Schecter reveals in his stirring narrative, far from furnishing a key to the colonies, New York proved to be the fatal albatross that strangled the British war effort.

The Battle for New York tells the story of how the city became the pivot on which the American Revolution turned--from the political and religious struggles of the 1760s and early 1770s that polarized its citizens and increasingly made New York a hotbed of radical thought and action; to the campaign of 1776, which turned today's five boroughs and Westchester County into a series of battlefields; to the seven years of British occupation and martial law, during which time Washington and Congress were as focused on getting the city back as the British were on holding it. The extraordinary campaign in the fall of 1776, which forms the dramatic heart of Schecter's chronicle, has been overshadowed by more famous engagements at Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Yorktown, and by the winter at Valley Forge. Yet the contest for New York was by far the largest military venture of the Revolutionary War; it involved almost every significant participant in the war on both sides; and there can be little doubt that during this campaign, the fate of America hung in the balance on several occasions. Moreover, the outcome had a direct impact on the major turning points of the rest of the war.

Schecter delights in linking eighteenth-century events with the city's modern landscape, illuminating the forgotten battlefield that remains in our midst. He skillfully weaves into his narrative the memorable and passionate voices of those who were there--American private Joseph Martin, British second-in-command Henry Clinton, patriot-turned-Tory William Smith, minister Ewald Shewkirk, Nathan Hale, Benedict Arnold, and many others--thereby tracing the impact and meaning of the revolution in personal terms and giving his story a powerful human dimension. A profound and memorable saga in its own right, The Battle for New York offers valuable new insight into the American Revolution.

Author Notes

Barnet Schecter is a Manhattan-based writer. His interest in architecture, urban planning and in New York City evolved from his first career, as a sculptor. He holds a B.A. in History, magna cum laude, from Yale University, where he also took courses in the art school. He then moved to New York City to study sculpture full-time at the NY Studio School in Greenwich Village. He holds an M.F.A. in Sculpture from Queens College, CUNY and his work, including large outdoor commissions in bronze and concrete, is represented in numerous private collections in the United States, and has been exhibited in galleries and other venues in New York City.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Schecter here presents in sometimes overwhelming detail the story of New York from the beginning of the American Revolution in the spring of 1775 to the city's evacuation by the British late in 1783. The military operations of 1776 are the central focus, as the British occupied the city in order to advance up the Hudson River and unite with another force coming down from Canada. British Gen. William Howe landed troops on Long Island and routed the colonial army on August 27. In despair but persevering, Gen. George Washington listened to subordinates and managed to evacuate his troops from Long Island that night, even as the British navy awaited nearby. And Washington kept running, evacuating New York City in mid-September (with some minor fighting at Harlem Heights, Throg's Neck and White Plains) and withdrawing into New Jersey after losing more than 2,600 captured at Fort Washington. The British navy held New York City under martial law for the rest of the war, forced to maintain its presence there after the army moved to the South. Schecter details the lives of area loyalists, more than 29,000 of whom went to Canada after the war. Although many readers will find some of the abundant operational material hard going, Schecter's research is impeccable, and his battlefield tour of today's New York brings immediacy to the story. 8 maps and 65 illus. not seen by PW. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

This well researched and clearly written examination of New York City's role in the American War for Independence helps satisfy the long need for a comprehensive reevaluation of the city's experience during the war. Most historians continue to rely on the conclusions put forward in Oscar T. Barck's New York City during the War for Independence (1931) and Bruce Bliven's Under the Guns: New York: 1775-1776 (CH, Nov'72). Independent scholar Schecter argues that military and political leaders from both Great Britain and North America believed that control of New York City and the Hudson River was key to winning the war. His argument serves as a valuable means of interpreting why, in August 1776, Great Britain sent 24,000 soldiers and over 400 ships--the largest war fleet ever assembled--to capture the city. The work provides a comprehensive interpretation of the battles that took place in the city's hinterland and reveals the tenuous nature of the British occupation of Manhattan Island. However, discussion of key battles that took place in New Jersey and Pennsylvania distracts readers and undermines the book's thesis. In general, Schecter has produced a compelling narrative that surveys an often-overlooked aspect of what was required to win American independence. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. All public and academic collections. T. D. Beal SUNY College at Oneonta

Booklist Review

In the pantheon of sacred cities of the American Revolution, New York City has always taken a back seat to Boston and Philadelphia. Yet the military significance of New York was immense, and the struggle for control of that city and its environs ultimately decided the fate of the war. New York, of course, sits astride the Hudson River; as both the British and the Americans understood, control of the city could lead to control of the entire Hudson River Valley, cutting New England off from the southern states. This gripping account of the battles, personalities, and politics that inflamed the city from 1760 to the beginning of the nineteenth century is superbly written and often exciting. Although the military campaigns are central to his story, the descriptions of daily life and the effects of war upon ordinary civilians are especially absorbing. --Jay Freeman

Library Journal Review

When we think of America and the Civil War, we usually think of the blue and the gray. But as historian Ketchum (The Winter Soldiers) points out in his newest book, America's first Civil War occurred nearly a century earlier. Ketchum uses New York City as the backdrop to describe the events that ultimately led to war, beginning with British Prime Minister Walpole's policy of "salutary neglect" (i.e., the Colonies were best served by avoiding war, encouraging trade, and keeping taxes low) to George III's efforts to tax the Colonies to pay war debts and his rejection of a final peace proposal in 1775. Ketchum uses two prominent New York families, the DeLanceys and the Livingstons, one with loyalist tendencies and the other patriotic, to illustrate the complex issues that not only divided the country but split families and set neighbor against neighbor. Ketchum's narrative style and frequent use of firsthand accounts makes for easy reading and brings the participants to life. What results is a good companion to Schecter's The Battle for New York, since Schecter essentially picks up where Ketchum leaves off, on the eve of war, and describes the struggles of the British to hold on to New York City. Ketchum's book also includes an appendix of the principal characters. Recommended for medium to large public libraries. (Index not seen.) Schecter, a professional writer and historian, makes the case for New York City's being the strategic axis around which the Revolutionary War revolved. Schecter shows again and again how Great Britain's desire to hold New York City cost it the war effort, beginning with Gen. William Howe's slow invasion, in which he missed several opportunities to trap Washington in favor of securing the city, and ending with Gen. Henry Clinton's failure to reinforce Cornwallis because of his apprehensions about a possible attack on the city. The easy narrative style is enhanced by numerous quotes, allowing the actual players to tell their part of the story. This book is of special interest to those who live in and around New York, as it includes details about the fortifications of the two armies complete with references to current locations in the city and a walking tour. Well researched and written, this book is recommended for libraries in the New York area and those with comprehensive American Revolution collections.-Robert K. Flatley, Frostburg State Univ. Libs., MD (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



"After the commencement of hostilities in 1776, New York being situated near the centre of the colonial sea-board, and readily accessible from the sea, was selected by the enemy as a principal point for their future operations." So began a front-page column in Walt Whitman's Brooklyn Daily Eagle on August 27, 1846, the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn, the first major clash in the contest for New York during the American Revolution. Whitman himself introduced the historical account with his impassioned annual plea for the nation to commemorate, with the same fanfare as the Fourth of July, the anniversary of "that sad and yet most glorious Day for America, and for human freedom."*1 *It was called the Battle of Long Island at the time, when Brooklyn was the name of a township and a tiny village in Kings County. The modern name for the battle reflects that the action took place across the entire area of today's borough of Brooklyn. See Stevenson and Wilson, The Battle of Long Island, ("The Battle of Brooklyn"), p. 3. Whitman's ancestors lived on western Long Island during the Revolution, and his grandmother told him tales of rapacious British invaders and defiant American patriots clashing on the wooded hills and lush farmland that became the city and later the borough of Brooklyn. One of Whitman's granduncles fought and died in the battle on August 27, which began a military campaign lasting almost three months. The British captured New York, but maintaining control of it for the next seven years in large part cost them the Revolution. "See-as the annual round returns the phantoms return / It is the 27th of August and the British have landed," Whitman later wrote in his famous poem "The Centenarian's Story," in which he conjured a conversation between a Revolutionary War veteran and a young Union Army volunteer in the first year of the Civil War. Soldiers drill on a bright day in Fort Greene Park, and the veteran suddenly remembers the real fighting he took part in eighty-five years earlier on the same hills: Aye, this is the ground, My blind eyes even as I speak behold it re-peopled from graves, The years recede, pavements and stately houses disappear, Rude forts appear again, the old hoop'd guns are mounted, I see the lines of rais'd earth stretching from river to bay, I mark the vista of waters, I mark the uplands and slopes; Here we lay encamp'd, it was this time in summer also. The Declaration of Independence had been issued by Congress on July 4 and read to George Washington's army in New York on July 9, 1776. Whitman's centenarian continues: " 'Twas a bold act then-the English war-ships had just arrived, / We could watch down the lower bay where they lay at anchor, / And the transports swarming with soldiers." Having succumbed to the American siege of Boston six months earlier,* and having regrouped in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the British saw New York as the key to subduing the rebellion. New York's strategic location secured one end of the Hudson River, and they expected their northern army, descending from Canada, to hold the other. Control of the Hudson, they anticipated, would sever the mid-Atlantic and southern colonies from New England. *After the clashes at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the British had been besieged in Boston until St. Patrick's Day, 1776. Adding to New York's strategic value, the size and location of the harbor had also made the city a vital center of trade in the British Empire. It kept the profitable sugar islands of the British West Indies supplied with food, allowing them to devote more land to their cash crop. Ships left New York laden with wheat, rye, and corn; bread, butter, and cheese; pork, beef, and lamb; apples, peas, onions, and pickled oysters. They returned with holds full of sugar, molasses, hides, lumber, and silver. They also brought "bills of exchange," credits that enabled New York's merchants to buy manufactured goods from Britain. New York's merchant ships also sailed to Africa, where they traded rum and British manufactures for slaves to be sold in the West Indies.3 Until 1763, Britain had looked the other way as New York's merchants grew rich on illegal trade with the Dutch and French West Indies.*4 The added wealth went back to Britain in the long run, because it enabled New York to improve its balance of trade and continue to buy manufactured goods and luxury items from Britain. (British laws prohibited the colonists from developing their own factories.) The landed and commercial aristocracy of the colony thrived within the mercantilist, imperial system. *With the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, the British began looking for ways to cope with the enormous war debt. The conflict began in North America as the French and Indian War in 1754, with the British and the American colonists pitted against the French and their Native American allies. In 1756, Britain officially declared war on France and the conflict spread to Europe, Africa, and the Philippines. In this second phase, called the Seven Years' War, the British drove the French from North America. Unlike most colonial wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which began in Europe and spread outward, this contest reversed the pattern and reflected America's growing importance on the world stage (Faragher, Encyclopedia, pp. 147-148). Until the troubles began in Boston in 1775, New York had also been the British military headquarters in America and consequently home to a large population of royal functionaries. By 1776, New York felt comfortable and familiar to them, offering the perfect mix of urban and rural pleasures: a cosmopolitan town with a full schedule of glittering social events either at the fine houses and taverns or at the exquisite country estates a short carriage ride to the north. When the ministry in London dispatched the British fleet and the army to New York during the summer of 1776, it was on the assumption that the city and its environs were full of loyalists ready and waiting to hand the city over to the king's forces. The British commanders in chief, Admiral Richard Howe and his brother General William Howe, counted Americans generally as their friends, ever since the government of Massachusetts funded a monument to their older brother, a popular officer who led both British and provincial troops in the Seven Years' War. The Howes hoped the massive show of force in New York would help them negotiate a peaceful settlement of the American rebellion. Over the summer of 1776, the British accumulated in New York's harbor the largest expeditionary force in their history prior to the great embarkations and landings of World Wars I and II.5 Four hundred and twenty-seven ships carried 34,000 professional soldiers and seamen-roughly the population of Philadelphia, then the largest city in the colonies.6 In addition to the combined total of 1,200 cannons projecting through the square gun ports of the battleships, the holds of the supply ships were packed with "an artillery more considerable than was ever brought before into the field," according to a British admiral on the scene. These transport vessels, also loaded with vast quantities of munitions, horses, and provisions, were "not to be counted," their masts "appearing as thick as trees in a forest."7 The British armada reached full strength in mid-August and landed troops on Long Island on the twenty-second. Washington's army of 23,000 poorly trained and ill-equipped troops was reduced by sickness and spread out in a precarious defensive line from New Jersey to Long Island via Manhattan. The Battle of Brooklyn, five days later, was the first battle ever fought by the United States as an independent nation.8 It was also the largest battle of the Revolutionary War when measured by the number of participants.9 Washington's baptism as the commander of an entire army was undeniably a disaster; the Americans were soundly defeated on the twenty-seventh, and the Revolution could easily have ended there had it not been for the Howes' failure to follow up their victory, and the intervention of the weather, which helped Washington carry out a miraculous escape to Manhattan. The campaign in New York continued over the next three months with battles at Harlem Heights, Pelham Bay, White Plains, and back on Manhattan at Washington Heights as the Howes repeatedly failed to encircle the Americans. Most of Washington's army ultimately escaped across the Hudson to New Jersey, and the British settled into New York City, their goal all along, though some among them realized that a crucial opportunity had been lost. The Howes controlled all of Manhattan, but their three attempts to encircle the Continental Army had consumed the whole summer and fall, and the conditions that gave the British such an enormous military advantage in New York would not come again. The Continental Congress had felt that New York, the second-largest American city, should not be given up without a fight, or the damage to American morale might prove fatal to the cause of independence. Once the city had been lost, Washington and Congress spent the rest of the war trying to get it back, while the British remained equally obsessed with protecting it as the hub of their operations. Comfortably ensconced in New York, the military regime turned the city into a vortex of corruption and brutality that depleted Britain's financial resources and its moral authority; as the war progressed, the city became a trap for the British in more ways than one. When the French joined the American cause and naval warfare became an important element of the Revolution, the British discovered that the city's enormous and spectacular harbor was the worst possible location for a naval 4.10 The treacherous sand bars at Sandy Hook bottled the fleet up at critical junctures in the war as it waited for the wind and tide to cooperate. The unique topography of the New York area also played a decisive role in shaping the strategy and tactics of both sides. Since New York City consisted of merely 4,000 wood and brick buildings covering less than a square mile at the southern tip of the island,11 Manhattan retained most of its primordial landscape. To the north, two main dirt roads, a few cross roads connecting them, and some country lanes traversed a sparse patchwork of farms and villages scattered amid wooded hills and rocky outcroppings, salt marshes and streams.12 The entire area was then, and remains, an archipelago, its islands and peninsulas, rivers, channels and straits, creeks and inlets formed by the advance and retreat of a glacier.13 The underside of the thick, heavy ice sheet raked the flat terrain some 50,000 years ago, carrying rocks and soil forward while leaving behind new troughs and valleys. Where the glacier stopped, it deposited the rocks and soil and created a terminal moraine-a line of hills that runs lengthwise across the middle of Long Island and continues on the southern part of Staten Island. The portion of this ridge at the western end of Long Island includes the hills of today's Prospect Park and was called Gowanus Heights. Continue... Excerpted from The Battle for New York by Barnet Schecter Copyright © 2002 by Barnet Schecter Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Rethinking New York City's Place in the American Revolutionp. 1
1 The Bastions of Authorityp. 11
2 The Monster Tyranny Begins to Pantp. 25
3 A General Insurrection of the Populacep. 46
4 From Bouweries to Barricadesp. 69
5 We Expect a Bloody Summer at New Yorkp. 82
6 A Mighty Fleet of Ships Our Enemies Have Gotp. 95
7 The British Juggernaut Reaches Full Strengthp. 112
8 The Invasion of Long Islandp. 126
9 The Battle of Brooklynp. 141
10 A Wise and Most Fortunate Retreatp. 155
11 The First Submarine, a Peace Conference, and a Second Retreatp. 168
12 The Invasion of Manhattanp. 179
13 The Battle of Harlem Heightsp. 194
14 The Great Fire and the Execution of Nathan Halep. 204
15 Throg's Neck and the Battle of Pelham Bayp. 219
16 The Battle of White Plainsp. 231
17 The Fall of Fort Washingtonp. 243
18 Trenton and Princeton, the End of the Campaignp. 258
19 Occupied New Yorkp. 272
20 Philadelphia, Saratoga, and the Collapse of Britain's Grand Strategyp. 286
21 The Return to New York City, the Fulcrum of the Warp. 306
22 New York's Impact on the War in the Southp. 327
23 New York's Role at Yorktownp. 346
24 The Colonies Lost, New York Regainedp. 360
Epilogue: Reconciliation, Rebirth, and Remembrancep. 381
Appendix A Walking Tour of the Battle for New Yorkp. 391
Notesp. 395
Bibliographyp. 431
Indexp. 439