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Letter from Colonel Reed to Mrs. Reed: Account of the engagement on the plains of Harlem



Harlem Heights, September 22, 1776.

I have just received yours of the 20th, by which I imagine one of mine, written the day after the engagement of the 17th, had not yet come to hand, wherein I gave you the particulars, which I was able to do better than almost any other person, as I happened to be in it when it began, and assisted in calling off our troops when they had pursued


the enemy as far as was thought proper. It hardly deserves the name of a battle; but as it was a scene so different from what had happened the day before, it elevated the spirits of our troops, and in that respect has been of great service. It would take up too much time and paper to go into a minute description of the whole affair. The substance of it is this: Just after I had sealed my letter to you, and sent it away, an account came that the enemy were advancing upon us in three large columns. We have so many false reports, that I desired the General to permit me to go and discover what truth there was in the account. I went down to our most advanced post, and while talking there with the officer of the guard, the enemy' s advanced guard fired upon us at about fifty yards' distance. Our men behaved well, stood, and returned the fire, till overpowered by numbers, they were obliged to retreat. The enemy advanced upon us very fast. I had not quitted the house five minutes before they were in possession of it. Finding how things were, I went over to the General to get some support for the brave fellows who had behaved so well. By the time I got there the enemy appeared in open view, and sounded their bugles in a most insulting manner, as is usual after a fox-chase. I never felt such a sensation before. It seemed to crown our disgrace. The General was prevailed upon to order out a party to attack them; and, as I had been upon the ground, which no one else had, it fell to me to conduct them. They were Virginia troops, commanded by a brave officer, Major Leitch. I accordingly went with them, but was unhappily thwarted in my scheme by some persons calling to the troops and taking them out of the way I intended. In a few minutes our brave fellows mounted up the rocks, and attacked the enemy with great spirit; at the same time some of our troops, in another quarter, moved up towards the enemy, and the action began. Major Leitch fell near me, in a few minutes, with three balls through him; but he is likely to do well. Colonel Knowlton, a brave Connecticut officer, also fell, mortally wounded. I mounted him on my horse, and brought him off. In about ten minutes, our people pressed on with great ardour, the enemy gave way, and left us the ground, which was strewed pretty thick with dead, chiefly the enemy, though it since turns out our loss is also considerable. Our greatest loss is poor Knowlton, whose name and spirit ought to be immortal. I assisted him off, and when gasping in the agonies of death, all his inquiry was if we had driven in the enemy. The pursuit of a flying enemy was so new a scene, that it was with difficulty our men could be brought to retreat, which they did in very good order. We buried the dead, and brought off the wounded on both sides, as far as our troops had pursued. We have since learned that the main body of the enemy was hastily advancing, so that, in all probability, there would have been a reverse of things if the pursuit had not been given over.

You can hardly conceive the change it has made in our army. The men have recovered their spirits, and feel a confidence which before they had quite lost. I hope the effects will be quite lasting.

You will probably hear from other quarters of the double escape I had. My own horse not being at hand when the alarm was first given, I borrowed one from a young Philadelphian. He received a shot just behind his fore shoulder, which narrowly missed my leg. I am told he is since dead. But the greatest was from one of our own rascals, who was running away. Upon my driving him back, he presented his piece and snapped it at me, at about a rod distance. I seized a musket from another soldier, and snapped at him; he had the same good luck. He has since been tried, and is now under sentence of death ; but I believe I must beg him off, as, after I found I could not get the gun off, 1 wounded him on the head, and cut off his thumb with my hanger. I suppose many persons will think it was rash and imprudent for officers of our rank to go into such an action. General Putnam, General Greene, many of the General' s family, Mr˙ Tilghman, &c˙, were in it; but it was really to animate the troops, who were quite dispirited, and would not go into danger unless their officers led the way.

Our situation is very much the same as it was. We are fortifying ground naturally strong. The enemy lie about three miles from us. They have been very busy bringing over cannon, &c˙, from Long-Island, but we cannot learn what they intend.

The night before last there was a most dreadful fire in the city, but how it happened we are quite at a loss. There was a resolve in Congress against our injuring it; so that we neither set it on fire or made any preparations for the purpose; though I make no doubt it will be charged to us.