Deep inside Fort Washington Park, on a rocky bank overlooking the Hudson, a genuine artifact of the American Revolution has stood for 235 years, forgotten by the city it was built to defend.
This survivor is the remnant of an earthwork, or redoubt, used by American troops during the fall of 1776 and visible today as a low mound extending to one side of a boulder monument erected in 1910. Easily mistaken for a natural element of the hilly topography, the earthwork is the last original man-made Revolutionary War fortification visible in Manhattan.
During the summer of 1776, American soldiers worked long, miserable hours constructing a pentagonal fortress at the highest spot on Manhattan, along presentday Fort Washington Avenue between 183rd and 185th streets. Once completed, however, the fort (named after their commander-in-chief and future president) proved unsuccessful in fulfilling its original purpose: the blockade of British ships from the Hudson River. As Capt. Alexander Graydon explained in his memoirs (1811), Fort Washington’s munitions were not powerful enough to reach the river; therefore, “a battery was constructed below” — the still-visible redoubt, nearly half a mile away — “in a very advantageous position.”
According to an 1898 study by preservationist Edward Hagaman Hall, the redoubt was constructed by Scottish soldiers and engineered by a volunteer from France named Antoine Felix Imbert. To strengthen the redoubt’s chances for trapping the British fleet, a partial obstructionconsisting of three weighted ships was sunk intothe Hudson at its narrowest point, between Fort Lee, N.J., and the Manhattan promontory known as Jeffrey’s Hook(occupied today by the Little Red Lighthouse), in August 1776. Before additional ships could be sunk to complete the obstruction, however, three British frigates managed to sail up the Hudson on Oct. 9, undeterred by gunfire from the redoubt. The incident presaged eventual defeat: Revolutionary troops were forced to surrender Fort Washington on Nov. 16, 1776, and New York City would remain under British control for the next seven years.
After Fort Washington Park was created by the city in 1894, historians discovered the earthwork. One walking tour, recounted in The New York Times in 1900, can be followed today almost step by step: After entering the park south of 181st Street, cross a footbridge over the deep railroad cut and take a sharp left up an overgrown path that runs parallel to the train tracks. Continue walking through a small clearing andclimb a large rock by scaling its left side. At the top, walk afew steps toward the south, and the redoubt and monument will appear. The hum of traffic from the parkway does not intrude upon the eerie quiet here, in one of the most isolated spots in the city.
The redoubt’s existence has been threatened manytimes, first by the railroad and later by the nearby George Washington Bridge. But with a resilience worthy of its creators, it has survived as a reminder of New York’s original independent spirit.