By Thomas Maddock II
Historical Interpreter, Washington Crossing Historic Park
In any long-term military conflict, there are many events that go unreported but have a very important impact on the eventual outcome. David Price’s fourth book, “The Battle of Harlem Heights, 1776,” gives us a thorough and informative account of this small but vital engagement. It took place on September 16, 1776 and was one of several encounters with the British and Hessians fought during the New York campaign.
The Continental Army and its militia support units had been thoroughly defeated earlier at the Battle of Long Island and were scrambling to survive on the island of Manhattan, hotly pursued by the British and their hired German allies. The Battle of Harlem Heights was the first time that the Continental Army was able to stand up and bloody the nose of the British.
Although it was a small battle, the American success provided a shot in the arm to Patriot morale, which was very important. The other notable outcome of this battle was the degree of cooperation between units from several states. One of the many frustrations Washington faced was trying to get units from the various states to work together. They were more devoted to their home states than to the overall mission. Getting them to work together was a major accomplishment and would increase their effectiveness on the battlefield.
Most historical reports of such events will delve into just what happened, but David takes us behind the headlines to get into the why, how, and consequences. He develops the storyline as to how it affected the soldiers by giving us insightful information about their personal lives and how this played out during not only this battle but the entire war.
We also get an in-depth look into Thomas Knowlton, the leader of Knowlton’s Rangers. He was born in Connecticut and grew to be both a civic and military leader. He was recognized by Washington for his skill and talents. Knowlton’s Rangers were known for their military expertise, their courage, and their discipline. They were a very competent military unit. It was unfortunate that two very promising officers died in the battle. Washington was devastated by their loss. One of his ongoing problems was finding and then developing competent officers to help manage the war. He lost two good ones at Harlem Heights.
Besides the development of the personal side of the soldiers, David’s explanation of the actual battle is superb. I found it very helpful that he referenced modern-day New York City. This helped me better understand the battle. I enjoyed his details about the conditions the soldiers were fighting under. Weather, clothing, food, and housing were a constant challenge for both Washington and the soldiers. It is remarkable that the rank and file believed so deeply in the “Glorious Cause” that they choose to endure these very harsh and trying conditions. I found it interesting that having been routed a few days earlier, parts of Washington’s army would attack the enemy the very next day. It speaks volumes about the makeup of both the soldiers and their leaders.
David’s writing style makes the book very enjoyable and comprehensible. It is both informative and easy to follow. I have no doubt you will agree.