The engagement on upper Manhattan Island on September 16th, 1776, was the first successful battle for George Washington’s troops in the quest for independence from Great Britain and presaged the emergence of an effective fighting force among the citizen-soldiers who made up the Continental Army.
The cooperative effort of regiments from New England, Maryland, and Virginia — whose men lacked any sense of national identity before the American Revolution — indicated the potential for this fledgling army to cohere around a common national purpose and affiliation and become the primary instrument for securing America’s right to self-rule.
The action began when a contingent of rangers led by Col. Thomas Knowlton of Connecticut encountered British light infantry while conducting a reconnaissance mission on Washington’s orders. What began as a skirmish transformed into a full-fledged battle as both sides reinforced, and a heavy engagement continued for several hours until, with ammunition running low, the British withdrew. Washington decided not to pursue and risk confrontation with a larger force, thereby keeping his army intact.
In The Battle of Harlem Heights, 1776, David Price conveys the significance of the Continental Army’s first victory and highlights the role of one of its key participants, the largely forgotten Knowlton — the “father of American military intelligence”—who gave his life during the action while urging his rangers forward. No matter how many times U.S. Army troops have recorded a battlefield success over the past two and a half centuries — whether on American soil, in a European wood, across a Middle Eastern desert, or on a Pacific island — one thing about that history remains indisputable. They did it first at Harlem Heights.