Captain John Ashby and his fellow Virginians would face their greatest test of the war on the afternoon of September 11th, 1777 at the Battle of Brandywine. Following a wide flank march the bulk of the Crown forces emerged on Washington’s right flank, ready to trap and smash the Continental Army. Washington reorganized his line, drawing men north in a desperate attempt to meet the new threat. The Third Virginia was ordered into position far in advance of the American lines – their objective was to hold a wooded hill near the Birmingham Friends Meeting House in order to buy time for the rest of the American troops to take up position. Ashby and his fellow officers arranged their men among the buildings and woodlot of the Samuel Jones farm and awaited the attack that was certain to come.
After the Battle of Long Island, American forces evacuated to Manhattan Island. But with the British in command of the waters around New York, they easily could land their forces anywhere along Manhattan Island. On September 15th, the British crossed the East River north of New York City and landed at Kip’s Bay, easily pushing aside the American forces there. American forces in New York City were nearly cut off, but quickly retreated up Manhattan Island to Harlem Heights and began to dig in. On the morning of the next day, British troops arrived in front of the American lines at Harlem Heights. Washington expected an attack and decided to take the initiative.
Washington ordered a small party of 150 men called “The Knowlton Rangers” under the command of Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton to move out and reconnoiter the British position. Knowlton quickly recognized the British were not planning a major assault but his force had brought about the attention of the British light infantry, soon the Knowlton Rangers were outnumbered and quickly retreated back to the American lines. When Knowlton reached safety, the British light infantry paused, placing them out in front of their main lines. Washington seized the opportunity and ordered an assault on their rear by Knowlton’s men and a reinforcement of 200 Virginia riflemen from the Third Virginia under Major Leitch.
Though the American attack was supposed to be in the rear of the British light infantry, but because of confusing terrain and attacking too soon, the flanking column instead hit the British in their flank. The effect still had an adverse effect on the British light infantry as they began to fall back. The Americans fought with determination and bravery. Knowlton went down mortally wounded. Colonel Griffith wrote of Leitch “He conducted himself on this occasion in a manner that does him the greatest honor, and so did all of his party.” Washington wrote the next day that “The General most heartily thanks the troop commanded yesterday by Major Leitch, who first advanced upon the enemy, and the officer who so resolutely supported them.”
At the head of the attacking column both Knowlton and Leitch led their men forward to attach the British flank. Early in the attack both men went down wounded. Knowlton died on the battlefield, Leitch took three musket balls to the abdomen and was carried off the field. At first most reported his condition as improving and he was thought to survive his ordeal. Washington wrote “Majr Leitch of Weedons Regiment (Third Virginia) had three balls through his side, and behaved exceedingly well – he is in fair way of recovery.”
Soon the British began to retreat back to their main line. Washington then ordered an attack along his line and the British light infantry fell back to the main line in confusion. Soon the entire British line began to give way. After about a 90 minute fight, Washington learned that more British forces were arriving on the field and ordered his men back to the main line. Though not a major victory, the American army had finally stood up to the British and even for a moment, pushed them off the field in combat. The British suffered 14 killed and an estimated 154 wounded, with the Americans suffering 30 killed and 100 wounded.
Though most believed that Leitch was recovering from his wounds, by September 20th Gen. Horatio Gates wrote “Major Leitch of Maryland was wounded and despaired of.” As his condition worsened, there was little for regimental surgeon David Griffith could do but to try to ease Leitch’s pain. Griffith wrote to Leitch family friend Richard Henderson on October 3rd that “[I] disagreeable duty of informing Mrs. Leitch through you, of the death of her husband is imposed upon me. He expired yesterday morning at Hackinsack Bridge where he had been removed for his better accommodation…But on the 28th Sept he was seized by lock’d jaw – with spasms about his neck and throat so violent as to baffle every effort to minister to him by medicine.” It seems the death of Leitch was a tough and unexpected blow to his fellow officers in the Third Virginia Regiment.
Where Major Leitch’s remains are today is a mystery. Captain John Chilton wrote on
October 4, 1776 that “the brave Major Leitch who died of his wounds received the 16th was interred yesterday by the side of Major Henly.” We know the general area of the American camps in the fall of 1776, but this burial location is long lost to history. In 1897, historian Henry Johnston wrote in his account of the Battle of Harlem Heights that Knowlton and Leitch are probably buried somewhere “on St. Nicholas Avenue, between 135th St and 145th St.” in New York City. Of course the land has changed a lot since then and whatever remains were left were destroyed by modern development.
Today the area of the Harlem Heights battlefield is now under the campus of Columbia University in New York City. Today there is a simple plaque on the wall on the eastside of Broadway north of 117th Street. This plaque commemorates the Battle of Harlem Heights and depicts Major Andrew Leitch as well as Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton (who was mortally wounded in the same attack as Leitch). Near here is where Leitch was mortally wounded turning the flank of the British line.
The search for Andrew Leitch continues. His contribution to the American Revolution is well documented through the letters of George Washington and others. When he moved to Dumfries, VA and where he lived is still unknown. We do know that he was influential enough to be elected to Prince William County’s Committee of Correspondence in 1774 and involved in the efforts to raise men and funds for local companies of troops. Continued research in his widow’s pension cases as well as researching contemporary archives may turn up new information. For now, he is honored with a plaque in New York City and a small park here in Virginia. My hope is that this story will end with an appropriate understanding and remembrance of a man who gave his life for our nation’s independence.
For Further Reading:
Johnson, Henry. The Battle of Harlem Heights. New York: Macmillan Company, 1897.
Peters, Joan. The Third Virginia Regiment of Foot, 1776-1778, Volumes 1-2. Westminster (MD): Heritage Books, 2008.
After his first battlefield victory at the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16, 1776, General George Washington wrote “The General most heartily thanks the troop commanded yesterday by Major Andrew Leitch, who first advanced upon the enemy, and the others who resolutely supported them.” The battle was a small victory for the American army, but instilled some confidence in the men who had suffered many defeats since August on Long Island and lost New York City to the British. One of the main players in this action was Major Andrew Leitch. A little known Continental officer who at the time was considered a rising star, but today is mostly forgotten.
But my connection with Andrew Leitch goes beyond my love and interest of the American Revolution, it is more personal than that. In 2008 I met the woman that became my wife. At the time, she ran a park locally named Andrew Leitch Park. Having worked here locally for a few years, I was not aware of who the park was named after. I did a quick search of the name Andrew Leitch and realized we had a Revolutionary War hero. In my ignorance thinking everyone was as interested in history as I was, I assumed my future wife knew this fact. Of course…she didn’t. But now I had an “in” to keep talking to this young lady. And of course…she saw through it and had little interest in Andrew Leitch but it worked out and now we are married and have two great young kids. So, I partly owe all of this to Mr. Andrew Leitch.
Who was this little known hero and why did have a park named after him in Prince William County, VA? In 1774 Andrew Leitch moved to Virginia from Maryland and began a new life in Northumberland County. He and his wife Margaret had three children and Leitch must have had influence because he was able to secure a commission as Captain in the 3rd Virginia Regiment on February 6, 1776. In this capacity he recruited men from Prince William County and led the Prince William Battalion (which also included men from Loudoun County). The Prince William Battalion joined the rest of the 3rd Virginia in Williamsburg in late February. Soon though Leitch received a promotion on June of the same year to Major in the 1st Virginia Regiment (though there is one source that places his promotion to Major on March 18th). As Washington moved his Continental Army from Boston to New York City in March 1776, he called for reinforcements. Men of the 1st Virginia and 3rd Virginia were called to join Washington in New York. For reasons unknown, the 1st Virginia was slow to get to New York. Leitch seemed to be a man of action as he joined his former men in the 3rd Virginia on their march to New York as they were a few weeks ahead of the 1st Virginia.
The 3rd Virginia did not arrive in New York in time for the disastrous Battle of Long
Island, arriving in early September to join the American army on Harlem Heights. Washington was happy to see his fellow Virginians and he needed the reinforcements. The Americans had lost New York City and were pushed off of Long Island, all the way up to the northern tip of Manhattan Island. The Americans needed something to encourage them, a battlefield victory. Major Andrew Leitch played a crucial role in delivering that victory, though at a horrible cost.
Part 2 will cover Andrew Leitch’s role in the Battle of Harlem Heights and his once forgotten legacy.