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Campaigns of 1776

In January 1776, artillery taken from the British at Fort Ticonderoga (May 1775) arrived in eastern Massachusetts, thanks to the heroic efforts of Henry Knox and his men. By March, many of the pieces had been installed on Dorchester Heights south of the city. The American guns commanded Boston Harbor and much of the city’s waterfront, rendering British occupation no longer tenable. On March 17, British forces began to evacuate and head north to the safety of Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was immediately evident to George Washington and other American leaders that the British departure would provide only a temporary respite. The British would receive reinforcements and plot new strategy — one most likely to include the capture of New York City, a major commercial center, the key to the Hudson River and home to a large Loyalist population. As anticipated, British forces sailed into New York Harbor in late June and occupied Staten Island on July 2. There followed a cat-and-mouse game in which Washington attempted to keep his dwindling Continental Army together and avoid a major confrontation with the British. Notable encounters included:

  • Battle of Long Island (August 27).
  • In the opening round of the New York campaign of 1776, British forces routed the Americans, which forced them to retreat at night across the East River to the temporary safety of Manhattan.
  • Battle of Kip's Bay (September 15).
  • British forces under William Howe easily routed American defenders on Manhattan, which forced them to regroup at the island's north end.
  • Battle of Harlem Heights (September 16).
  • American forces gained a measure of confidence by pushing back the British on northern Manhattan.
  • Battle of White Plains (October 28). Washington's army suffered another in a string of defeats, but again was spared from a potentially decisive clash by Howe's inaction.
  • Battle of Fort Washington (November 16). Washington reluctantly and unwisely allowed the soldiers at Fort Washington to make a stand against a superior British army.
  • The Loss of Fort Lee (November 20). Fort Lee was untenable after the fall of Fort Washington. Lord Cornwallis pursued the dwindling American army across New Jersey before it crossed to safety in Pennsylvania.
One abortive attempt was made to end the rebellion in a peace conference on Staten Island in September, which served only to illustrate how sharply the two sides had split over the issue of independence. The Continental Army won few victories in 1776, but they averted disaster and kept their force in the field. The year ended on a high note, however, with twin victories at Trenton and Princeton, after which Washington led his soldiers to winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey.