The painting depicts an important action during the Revolutionary War, shortly after the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Having defeated the Continental Army at the Battle of White Plains, General Howe ordered a small squadron of British war ships, under the command of Captain Hyde Parker in H.M.S. Phoenix
, to occupy the Hudson River and prevent the remaining Continental troops on Manhattan Island from receiving supplies in preparation for his assault on Fort Washington. Serres illustrates the Phoneix
, together with H.M.S. Roebuck
, under the command of Captain A.S. Hammond,
, commanded by Captain George Jackson, and three smaller vessels forcing their way through a cheval-de-frise, comprised of artificial barriers and sunken vessels defending the north part of the river. On the right lies Fort Washington, on a large outcrop at the northern end of Manhattan, with its several shore batteries engaging the enemy at close range, whilst from the left the British forces are bombarded by the guns of Fort Lee, sitting atop the New Jersey Palisades. Despite the heavy bombardment Captain Parker and his fleet passed successfully through, capturing two gunboats in the process, and he was subsequently knighted in 1779 for his heroic efforts.
Another version of this picture, painted for Captain Parker, is at Melford Hall, Suffolk, and a copy by Thomas Mitchell, dated 1780, is in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. (See A. Russett, Dominic Serres. War Artist to the Navy, Woodbridge 2001, pp. 103-112.)