Defeats and Doubts: The Continental Army in 1776

William Harrison served as the first lieutenant in the Seventh Independent Company when the company fought alongside the First Maryland Regiment at the Battle of Brooklyn. Following Captain Edward Veazey’s death at the battle, Harrison received a promotion to captain and took command of the company. Harrison remained in charge of the company as the army retreated across Manhattan and struggled for survival.

The fall of 1776 was a critical period for General George Washington and his fledgling army. The Continental Army had narrowly avoided complete destruction at the Battle of Brooklyn and the British easily drove them from Lower Manhattan. In a letter to his cousin following these losses, General Washington described his personal feelings on the state of the army “Such is my situation that if I were to wish the bitterest curse to an enemy on this side of the grave, I should put him in my stead with my feelings.”[1] These early defeats lowered morale throughout all ranks of the army, as the privates blamed regimental officers, the regimental officers blamed the senior commanders, and the senior commanders blamed the privates.[2]

Captain Harrison was among those officers that placed blame upon his superiors. In a November 1776 letter to Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, the president of the Maryland Council of Safety, Harrison specifically questioned the army’s leadership and conduct in defeats at the Battle of White Plains and Fort Washington.[3] Harrison fought at White Plains and described the result:

In this affair, as in too many more of a similar nature, our Generals show’d not equal judgment to that of the Enemy. We were badly disposed to receive the attack of the Enemy’s small arms, and unfortunately much exposed to their Artillery, which flank’d us so heavily as to render the post tenable but a short time. The matter was ended by a confused and precipitate retreat on our part with the loss of 90 men killed and wounded.


William Harrison’s letter to Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, November 28, 1776. MARYLAND STATE PAPERS (Red Books), vol. 16, p. 60. [MSA S 989-23, 01/06/04/011]. Published in Archives of Maryland vol. 11, p. 488.

Harrison’s pessimistic view of the battle was understandable given the result, but the Battle of White Plains actually demonstrated the improving performance of the Continental Army. One Hessian officer wrote that the Americans “had made their defenses better than usual, and maintained their posts with extraordinary tenacity.”[4] Furthermore, although the Americans suffered heavy losses, they also inflicted severe casualties upon the attacking British, with one British officer estimating that 349 men had been killed or wounded.[5]

The loss of Fort Washington especially troubled Harrison: “We have been unfortunate enough to loose Fort Washington, a capital stroke against us in my opinion as we shall soon find it very difficult to keep up a communication between the Northern and Southern Provinces.” Harrison specifically questioned the tactics used in defending the fort given the apparent situation:

It required little foresight to know, that as Genl Howe had his whole armament at hand, he would make a vigorous effort, if any at all; and as he was furnish’d with conveniencies for passing Harlaem Creek, was it to be thought that he would confine his attack to one place? However I am undertaking to judge perhaps without having the truth of things, this I think very certain, that it would have taken 5000 instead of 2000 men to have defended against Genl Howe’s Army.

Harrison’s criticism of the affair at Fort Washington was not without merit. The British vastly outnumbered the garrison and the defensive arrangement of the Americans made the fort nearly impossible to defend. Despite the apparent folly of the senior commanders in attempting to hold the position, General Washington originally planned to abandon the fort but only changed his mind at the urging General Nathaniel Greene.[6] While the loss of the fort and men was demoralizing, it is doubtful that the Americans could have held the position given the overwhelming number of British troops and its isolation from the rest of the army.

Although Harrison’s attitude was clearly pessimistic, his attitude about the army and its commanders at this juncture in the war was far from unusual. General Washington was an inexperienced commander leading inexperienced soldiers and it reflected in the defeats of 1776, leading many to resign or leave when their enlistment expired. Captain Harrison’s lack of confidence in the army and its commanders evidenced in his letter no doubt contributed to his decision to resign from the army in December 1776. Although Harrison was correct in his criticism, he failed to see that defeats suffered in 1776 gave the soldiers and commanders of the Continental Army invaluable experience and helped forge a professional and battle-tested army.


[1]From George Washington to Lund Washington, 20 September 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives.

[2] David Hackett Fisher, Washington’s Crossing, (Oxford University Press, 2004), 106.

[3] MARYLAND STATE PAPERS (Red Books), Letter from Harrison to Jenifer, vol. 16, p. 60. [MSA S 989-23], published in Archives of Maryland vol. 11, p. 488.

[4] Fisher, Washington’s Crossing, 111.

[5] Fisher, Washington’s Crossing,111.

[6] Fisher, Washington’s Crossing,111.

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