Battle of Kip’s Bay
September 15, 1776 – New York
On August 29, 1776, Washington and the Continental forces successfully escaped General William Howe’s forces by crossing the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan during the night. Sure that Howe would be right behind him, the people of York Island (as NYC was then called) prepared for the invasion. But it would take two weeks for it to come: the Battle of Kip’s Bay.
The night of September 14, 1776 the British moved four warships, carrying about 80 cannon, into the East River and anchored them across from Kips’ Bay (32nd – 38th Streets today) about 100 yards from the shore. The main part of Washington’s army had moved to the Northern end of the Island, Harlem Heights, leaving 4,000 Continentals under the command of General Israel Putnam in the city on the lower tip of Manhattan, and 450 Connecticut militiamen under the command of Colonel William Douglas to defend Kip’s Bay. One of those men, 15 year old Joseph Plumb Martin, laying in a ditch, peered over the dirt at the warships and their cannon aimed directly at him and “began to consider which part of my carcass was to go first”.
It was an oppressively hot morning. At about 10:00 nearly 80 flatboats left the Newtown Creek on the Brooklyn/Queens shore (not far from where I live!) carrying 4,000 invading troops toward Manhattan. Then, at 11:00 the ships opened fire. An amazing roar of cannon fire rocked the island for an hour and covered the river with smoke. It was so intense that one of Admiral Richard Howe’s officers wrote “So terrible and so incessant a roar of guns few even in the army and navy had ever heard before.” Reverend Shewkirk of the Moravian Church wrote in his journal that the houses in the city shook. But my favorite observation came from a city resident who declared that the gunifire was so extreme that day that “the lobsters fled the East River, never to return!” Also fleeing that day in terror was the Connecticut militia. The British easily began their amphibious landing with no opposition from the Americans.
General Washington arrived from Harlem Heights just in time to see his men running away from the Battle Kip’s Bay. They ran past him and kept going, ignoring his orders to stand and fight. Washington refused to leave and one story has him throwing his hat on the ground while exclaiming “Are these the men with which I have to defend America?” The approaching British infantry got dangerously close, within about fifty yards of him, but his staff could not convince him to retreat. Eventually, one of the General’s men took the reins of his horse and led him away.
This is where the story gets interesting in that peculiar way New York City has of winding truth and fiction together until no one is sure anymore which is which. And it involves a wealthy socialite, or “Real Housewife of Colonial New York“.
Just West of Kip’s Bay and uphill from the shore was an estate called Inclenberg where today’s Murray Hill can be found. The Murrays were an Irish Quaker family of merchants. They owned a fleet of ships as well as a wharf at the base of Wall Street then called Murray’s Wharf. Inclenberg was their estate. The British plan was to march across Manhattan island, East to West, in an attempt to cut off the remainder of Washington’s army, then pursue him to Harlem Heights. Well, legend tells us that when they approached Inclenberg Mary Murray and two of her lovely daughters came out to greet General Howe and his commanders and offered them afternoon tea.
Howe and his officers had a lovely afternoon of hospitality while the regular soldiers sat on the roads waiting. They listened to Mrs. Murray’s daughters sing and read poetry while enjoying her Spanish Madeira wine (the finest in all of NYC, of course). Meanwhile, on the other side of the island, the West side, General Putnam’s men were lead to the safety of Harlem Heights by Major Aaron Burr who knew the way through the forest paths! When they arrived they were met with cheers of happiness from their fellow soldiers.
Did it really happen that way? Did Mary Murray really delay the British so the Americans could escape? Could she possibly know about Putnam’s advance up the West side? Probably not. And it’s likely that Howe was waiting for additional forces to arrive and just passed the time at Inclenberg. But it’s a great story, and the Continentals did escape capture by General Howe. And, even better, it drove the Loyalists at the time insane when they saw General Washington escape the British yet again!
After the Colonials left the city, the British troops poured in. Judge Thomas Jones and Reverend Shewkirk both wrote about the looting and abuse of New Yorkers, both loyalists and rebels, that took place. Meanwhile, the Continentals regrouped and prepared for the Battle of Harlem Heights.
Learn More about the Battle of Kip’s Bay
You’ll hear all about the battle and Mary Murray while standing at the site of old Murray’s Wharf on the Revolutionary Era Walking Tour.
Plus, check out these books to learn more.
The History of New York During the Revolutionary War vol 1
(free download, click on image)
Occupation of New York by the British
(free download, click on image)
You can see all of my book recommendations here.
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