Admiral Howe sent a noisy demonstration of Royal Navy ships up the Hudson River early on the morning of September 15, but Washington and his aides determined that it was a diversion and maintained their forces at the north end of the island. Five hundred Connecticut militia under the command of Colonel William Douglas had erected a crude breastwork on the American line at Kip’s Bay, but many of these farmers and shopkeepers were inexperienced and had no muskets. They carried instead homemade pikes constructed of scythe blades attached to poles. After having been awake all night, and having had little or nothing to eat in the previous twenty-four hours, at dawn they looked over their meager redoubt to see five British warships in the East River near their position. As the militia at Kip’s Bay lay in their ditches, the British ships, anchored 200 yards (180 m) offshore, also lay quiet. The day was oppressively hot. At about 10 am, General Sir Henry Clinton, to whom Howe had given the task of making the landing, ordered the crossing to begin. A first wave of more than eighty flatboats carried 4,000 British and Hessian soldiers, standing shoulder to shoulder, left Newtown Cove and entered the waters of the East River, heading towards Kip’s Bay.
Around eleven, the five warships began a salvo of broadside fire that flattened the flimsy American breastworks and panicked the Connecticut militia. “So terrible and so incessant a roar of guns few even in the army and navy had ever heard before,” wrote Ambrose Serle, private secretary to Lord Howe. Nearly eighty guns fired at the shore for a full hour. The Americans were half buried under dirt and sand, and were unable to return fire due to the smoke and dust. After the guns ceased, the British flatboats appeared out of the smoke and headed for shore. By then the Americans were in a panicked retreat, and the British began their amphibious landing.
Although Washington and his aides arrived from the command post at Harlem Heights soon after the landing began, they were unable to rally the retreating militia. About a mile (1.6 km) inland from Kip’s Bay, Washington rode his horse among the men, trying to turn them around and impose some order on them, cursing furiously and violently. By some accounts, he lost control of his temper; he brandished a cocked pistol and drew his sword, threatening to run men through and shouted, “Take the walls! Take the cornfield!” When no one obeyed, he threw his hat to the ground, exclaiming in disgust, “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” When some fleeing men refused to turn and engage a party of advancing Hessians, Washington reportedly struck some of their officers with his riding crop.
The Hessians shot or bayoneted a number of American troops who were trying to surrender. Two thousand Continental Army troops under the command of Generals Samuel Parsons and John Fellows arrived from the north, but at the sight of the chaotic militia retreat, they also turned and fled. Washington, still in a rage, rode within a hundred yards of the enemy before his aides managed to get him off the field. More and more British soldiers came ashore, including light infantry, grenadiers, and Hessian Jägers. They spread out, advancing in several directions. By late afternoon another 9,000 British troops had landed at Kip’s Bay, and Howe had sent a brigade toward New York City, officially taking possession. While most of the Americans managed to escape to the north, not all got away. “I saw a Hessian sever a rebel’s head from his body and clap it on a pole in the entrenchments,” recorded a British officer.
The southern advance pushed for a half mile (0.8 km) to Watts farm (near present-day 23rd Street) before meeting stiff American resistance. The northern advance stopped at the Inclenberg (now Murray Hill, a rise west of Kip’s Bay), just west of the present Lexington Avenue, under orders from General Howe to wait for the rest of the invading force. This was extremely fortunate for the thousands of American troops south of the invasion point. Had Clinton continued west to the Hudson he would have cut off General Putnam’s troops, nearly one third of Washington’s forces, from the main army, trapping them in lower Manhattan.
General Putnam had come north with some of his troops when the landing began. After briefly conferring with Washington about the risk of entrapment to his forces in the city, he rode south to lead their retreat. Abandoning supplies and equipment that would slow them down, his column, under the guidance of his aide Aaron Burr, marched north along the Hudson. The forced march of Putnam’s men was so quick, and the British advance sufficiently slow, that only the last companies in Putnam’s column skirmished with the advancing British. When Putnam and his men marched into the main camp at Harlem after dark, they were greeted by cheers, having been given up for lost. Henry Knox arrived later after a narrow escape made possible by seizing a boat on the Hudson and he too received an excited and enthusiastic greeting, and was even embraced by Washington.