The Battle of Harlem Heights
Written by Bwog Staff
If you’re far away or staying on campus you can still get schooled by this next piece from the new issue of The Blue & White Magazine as Will Holt explains some local history.
Heading up Broadway from Columbia’s main gates, the neighborhood gets quieter. The bustling foot traffic around 116th Street dies down, and the chatter of conversation is largely replaced by the sounds of passing cars. With Hamilton Heights sloping up in the distance, one can almost imagine what this part of the city looked like before buildings were constructed, before the network of streets and sidewalks spread out across the rolling hills and valleys of the Hudson shore.
Along the stretch of pavement across the street from Barnard, a bronze plaque is embedded into the southwest corner of Columbia’s Mathematics building. Measuring about six square feet, it was once the same green that colors the roofs of the Morningside Heights campus. Now, the plaque has been weathered down to a dull, metallic brown.
Carved in relief at the center of the plaque, a soldier stands in the midst of a battle scene. He brandishes his sword, leading a charge of men in motley uniform against an enemy better dressed and superiorly organized. There is nonetheless a sense of optimism about the image, with its impression of rally and imminent victory. The words engraved along the base of the plaque are barely legible from more than a few feet away: “To commemorate the Battle of Harlem Heights, won by Washington’s troops in this site, September 16, 1776. Erected by the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York.”
Installed in 1897, this plaque stands as one of this neighborhood’s few reminders that it hosted of one of the pivotal battles of the early American Revolution.
The text offers a date and a few reverential lines about the battle but little else of substance. On the surface, its depiction is correct. The Battle of Harlem Heights occurred on September 16, 1776, but it was no outright victory for the Americans. It can be better remembered as an opportunity for our fledgling nationalists to save face.
The Battle of Harlem Heights occurred just one day after the Continental Army was largely disgraced at the Battle of Kip’s Bay. That early skirmish along the East River was an embarrassment for General Washington’s forces, one that had the potential to sink American morale for good. Under heavy artillery fire coming from British warships on the river, the Americans on shore panicked and ran from their posts without firing a single shot. Washington had no choice but to make his own retreat northward. The British took southern Manhattan while the Americans fled to what was then called Harlem Heights and is now Morningside. It was here that they made one of their first substantive assaults against the Redcoats, but the reality of the battle hardly lives up to patriotic folklore.
Much of the fighting in the Battle of Harlem Heights took place around present-day 120th Street, just west of Columbia University’s upper west side campus. American forces met the British near 106th, and were pressed as far north as 125th, at which point the Americans, under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton, broke off the skirmish rather than risk a full engagement. Even so, the battle was decisive in restoring confidence among the soldiers of the Continental Army. It also marks the first real instance of cohesion for forces directly under Washington’s command; the trajectory of his career would not have been the same without it.
The American losses, however, were numerous. Knowlton, widely considered to be America’s first wartime intelligence expert, fell in the conflict. It is his decorated image immortalized on the worn, bronze plaque outside Mathematics.
Henry Phelps Johnston’s 1897 study of that day, The Battle of Harlem Heights, September 16, 1776, describes the skirmish as “one of those minor successes in our Revolutionary War which counted for much in stimulating the drooping spirits of the American soldier or in effectually disturbing the plans of the enemy.” According to Johnston, the battle ranged “up and down hill and over fields and fences and through lanes and orchards”—a profoundly different Morningside Heights from that which we know today.
This work points out an important fact: a satisfying account of the Battle of Harlem Heights has long been missing. The parameters of the battle’s physical site are fixed with only the slightest degree of certainty. Some sources are quick to mention that much of the fighting took place in a buckwheat field in the area that is now occupied by Barnard. Johnston, however, describes the location as “heavily timbered” and notes that the existence of such a field is only “alleged.”
The names applied to this area in various accounts of the battle are often at odds. A report from General William Howe, commander of the British forces, describes plans a planned approach “by way of Vandewater’s Height”—by which he most likely means Vandewater’s farm, now Morningside (the Vanderwaters were the Dutch family that originally owned the area). Furthermore, any mention of “Claremont Hill” in such accounts probably refers to the current site of Grant’s Tomb. This location was later known as Mt. Alto, which happened to be the “country place” of Johnston’s uncle, Bache McEvers. Where horse and other livestock once trod, now the double-decker buses of CitySights NY lumbers—though one can safely bet that the tour guards aren’t going to mention either Knowlton or McEvers.
Descriptions of what exactly constituted the “Harlem Heights” of Revolutionary fame are nebulous at best. But then, New York has never been known for preserving its past. There is a world of difference between the City That Never Sleeps and its neighbors, Philadelphia and Boston—both renowned for their monumental homages to the Revolutionary War. This is the kind of place where an office building from the 1930s can be referred to as “old New York,” and a neighborhood like Morningside Heights can apply for historic designation largely on the basis of buildings constructed at the turn of the last century.
Perhaps this isn’t so terrible. Kenneth Jackson, Columbia’s Jacques Barzun Professor in History and the Social Sciences and author of The Encyclopedia of New York, ranks among the city’s preeminent historians. Relative to Boston and Philadelphia, he does not hesitate in offering a rather high estimation of Gotham’s value to the historian.
“New York is much more historic than either of those cities,” Jackson said. “Philadelphia may have been more significant at the time of the Revolution, but New York was what was fought over. Boston was where the thing started, where you have Bunker Hill and Lexington and Concord, but both sides really struggled for control of New York.”
“Now the important things have decamped from Boston and Philadelphia,” he went on to say. “The competition’s coming from places like London or Tokyo. Just for example, neither Boston nor Philadelphia has a major bank. The Revolution was their moment. They’re clearly very important cities, but they’re not what they expected to be.”
In downtown Boston or Philly, it’s impossible to walk for fifteen minutes without running into a Benjamin Franklin impersonator in newly-fashioned colonial garb and bifocal glasses from LensCrafters. Independence Hall and the Old State House may be two of the oldest public buildings in the United States, but they are ultimately nothing more than tourist attractions. One may wax eloquent about “living histories,” but does this not cheapen the histories of these two great American cities?
Jackson described this situation as follows: “Until the last half-century, history was for the losers. New York did not have time to worry about the past. It was always moving forward. Immigration, transportation, architecture—in any field you can think of, New York has been at the forefront.”
As an enduring testament to change before all else, New York is perhaps the more suitable city for the student of history. This reading of New York features prominently in a piece that appeared in the New York Times on November 11, 2011, in which novelist Colson Whitehead reflects upon the sheer subjectivity of the average Joe’s definition of his New York.
“No matter how long you have been here,” Whitehead writes, “you are a New Yorker the first time you say, ‘That used to be Munsey’s’ or ‘That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge.’ ”
To call this “living in the past” would be a misinterpretation of Whitehead’s meaning. Rather, it is having one’s finger on the pulse of a city that is continually reinventing itself. The definitive constant of New York is change: a perennial plowing-over of the city’s history, a blinkered charge into the future.
However, Jackson was quick to warn that the forces at play in Boston and Philadelphia have begun to make their way to New York.
“Now we’re more concerned about the city’s history,” he said. “Keeping things the way they are—which is a problem. You have excessive concern with historic preservation. Change was always the great thing about New York, but now people want to freeze it. If we can’t build something more important than what’s already here, what does that say about us?”
We should be relieved that historical reenactments of The Battle of Harlem Heights do not interrupt our daily walks to class. The plaque on Columbia’s Mathematics building, neglected as it seems, offers a more useful reminder of this city’s history: the chance to imagine that history without becoming fixated on the past, like Boston or Philadelphia. New Yorkers can still look up from the shore of the Hudson and say, “That used to be Mt. Alto; that used to be Vandewater’s farm; and this used to be Harlem Heights.”
Images by Leila Mgaloblishvili