by Gerald Boerner
Just four days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, one of the biggest battles of the Revolutionary War was fought on this day in 1776. The Battle of Long Island took place when the British Navy sailed south from Canada with the redcoats aboard. The Continental Army set up positions in Brooklyn Heights overlooking the Hudson River.
As part of this defense was the march of a group under the command of Henry Knox to Canada to capture cannons. There were brought back and provided artillery support for the Americans. The battle was intense, but the British finally prevailed. Before the British fleet could sail down the East River and cut off the escape route, the Americans were cross over the East River in a armada of small boats.
Well done, even though it was not a successful campaign for the Americans. You showed courage and skill in the face of a powerful enemy. GLB
[ 3959 Words ]
“The American Revolution was, in fact, a battle against the philosophy of Locke and the English utilitarians.”
— Robert Trout
“Freedom is a lonely battle, but if the United States doesn’t lead it – sometimes imperfectly, but mostly with honor – who will?”
— Cal Thomas
“Trials by the adversarial contest must in time go the way of the ancient trial by battle and blood.”
— Warren E. Burger
“We give you the facts. I told you information is power – knowledge is power. We can’t be in an ideological battle to redeem the soul of this country if we don’t have the facts.”
— Tavis Smiley
“The dynamic element in my philosophy, taken as a whole, can be seen as an obstinate and untiring battle against the spirit of abstraction.”
— Gabriel Marcel
“There is an immutable conflict at work in life and in business, a constant battle between peace and chaos. Neither can be mastered, but both can be influenced. How you go about that is the key to success.”
— Philip Knight
“I don’t want to flee, nor do I want to abandon the battle of these farmers who live without any protection in the forest. They have the sacrosanct right to aspire to a better life on land where they can live and work with dignity while respecting the environment.”
— Dorothy Stang
“After this urgent protest against entering into battle at Gettysburg according to instructions – which protest is the first and only one I ever made during my entire military career – I ordered my line to advance and make the assault.”
— John B. Hood
Continental Army: The Battle of Long Island
The Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn or the Battle of Brooklyn Heights, fought on August 27, 1776, was the first major battle in the American Revolutionary War following the United States Declaration of Independence, the largest battle of the entire conflict, and the first battle in which an army of the United States engaged, having declared itself a nation only the month before.
After defeating the British in the Siege of Boston on March 17, 1776, General George Washington, Commander-in-Chief, brought the Continental Army to defend New York City, then limited to the southern end of Manhattan Island. There he established defenses and waited for the British to attack. In July the British, under the command of General William Howe, landed a few miles across the harbor on Staten Island, where they were slowly reinforced by ships in Lower New York Bay over the next month and a half, bringing their total force to 32,000 men. With the British fleet in control of the entrance to New York Harbor, Washington knew the difficulty in holding the city. Believing Manhattan would be the first target, he moved the bulk of his forces there.
On August 22, the British landed on Long Island, across The Narrows from Staten Island, and across the East River from Manhattan. After five days of waiting, the British attacked American defenses on the Guana (Gowanus) Heights. Unknown to the Americans, however, Howe had brought his main army around their rear and attacked their flank soon after. The Americans panicked, although a stand by 250 Maryland troops prevented most of the army from being captured. The remainder of the army fled to the main defenses on Brooklyn Heights. The British dug in for a siege but, on the night of August 29–30, Washington evacuated the entire army to Manhattan without the loss of materiel or a single life. Washington and the Continental Army were driven out of New York entirely after several more defeats and forced to retreat through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.
Boston to New York
Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the British Army was trapped in Boston. On March 4, 1776, General George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, had artillery placed on Dorchester Heights. The British Commander, William Howe, knew that he could not hold the city with the artillery on the heights which would threaten the British Fleet in Boston Harbor. Two weeks later, on March 17, Howe had the army evacuate the city and they headed for Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Defenses and Discipline
Washington began moving troops to Long Island in early May. Within a short time, there were a few thousand men on Long Island. On the eastern side of the hamlet of Brooklyn, three more forts were under construction to support Fort Stirling, which was to the west of the hamlet. The three forts were named Fort Putnam (for Rufus Putnam), Fort Greene (for Nathanael Greene) and Fort Box (for Major Daniel Box). Fort Putnam was furthest to the north, with Greene slightly to the southwest and Box slightly further southwest. All of these forts were surrounded by a large ditch and they were all connected by a line of entrenchments.
The forts had 36 cannons total, mostly 18-pounders. Fort Defiance was also being built at this time, located further southwest, past Fort Box, near present day Red Hook. In addition to these new forts, a mounted battery was established on Governors Island, cannons were placed at Fort George and more cannons placed at the Whitehall Dock, which sat on the East River. Hulks were sunk at strategic locations to deter the British from entering the East River and other waterways.
Due to a shortage of artillerymen, the commander of the artillery, Henry Knox, persuaded Washington to transfer 500 or 600 men who lacked muskets to the artillery. In early June, Knox and Greene inspected the land at the north end of Manhattan and decided to establish Fort Washington there. Another fort, Fort Constitution, later named Fort Lee, was planned for the other side of the Hudson River from Fort Washington. The purpose of these forts was to stop British ships from sailing up the Hudson.
On June 28, Washington learned that the British fleet had set sail from Halifax on June 9, and were heading toward New York. On June 29, signals were sent from men stationed on Staten Island that the British fleet had appeared. Within a few hours 45 British ships dropped anchor in Lower New York Bay. Less than a week later, there were 130 ships off Staten Island under the command of Richard Howe, the brother of the General. The population of New York went into panic at the sight of the British ships, alarms went off and troops immediately rushed to their posts. On July 2, British troops began to land on Staten Island. The Continental regulars on the island took a few shots at the British before fleeing and the citizen’s militia switched over to the British side.
On July 6, news reached New York that Congress had voted for independence four days earlier. On Tuesday, July 9, at 6:00 in the evening, Washington had several brigades march onto the Commons of the City to hear the Declaration of Independence read. After the end of the reading, a mob ran down to Bowling Green, where, with ropes and bars, they tore down the gilded lead statue of King George III on his horse. In their fury the crowd cut off the statue’s head, severed the nose, and mounted what remained of the head on a spike outside a tavern, and the rest of the statue was dragged to Connecticut and melted down into musket balls.
On July 12, two British ships, the Phoenix and the Rose, sailed up the harbor toward the mouth of the Hudson. The American batteries stationed at Fort George, Red Hook and Governors Island opened fire, but the British returned fire into the city. The ships sailed along the New Jersey shore and continued up the Hudson, sailing past Fort Washington and arriving by nightfall at Tarrytown, the widest part of the Hudson. The goal of the British ships was to cut off American supplies and encourage Loyalist support. The only casualties of the day were six Americans who were killed when their own cannon blew up.
Johannes Adam Simon Oertel,
Pulling Down the Statue of King
George III, N.Y.C., ca. 1859 a
romanticized depiction of the
Sons of Liberty destroying the
statue after the Declaration was
read by George Washington to
citizens and his troops in New
York City on July 9, 1776
The next day, July 13, General Howe attempted to open negotiations with the Americans. Howe sent a letter to Washington delivered by Lieutenant Philip Brown, who arrived under the flag of truce. The letter was addressed George Washington, Esq. Brown was met by Joseph Reed, who on Washington’s orders had hurried to the waterfront accompanied by Henry Knox and Samuel Webb. Washington asked his officers whether it should be received or not, as it did not recognize his rank as General, and they unanimously said no. Brown was told by Reed that there was no one in the army with that address. On July 16 Howe tried again, this time with the address George Washington, Esq., etc., etc. but it was again declined. The next day Howe sent Captain Nisbet Balfour to ask if Washington would meet with Howe’s adjutant face to face, and a meeting was scheduled for July 20. Howe’s adjutant was Colonel James Patterson. Patterson told Washington that Howe had come with powers to grant pardons but Washington said, "Those who have committed no fault want no pardon." Patterson departed soon after. Washington’s performance during the meeting was praised throughout the United States.
Meanwhile, British ships continued to arrive. On August 1, 45 ships with Generals Henry Clinton and Charles Cornwallis arrived, along with 3,000 troops. By August 12, 3,000 more British troops and another 8,000 Hessians had arrived. At this point the British fleet numbered over 400 ships, including 73 war ships, and 32,000 troops were camped on Staten Island. Faced with this large force, Washington was unsure as to where the British would attack. Both Greene and Reed thought that the British would attack Long Island, but Washington felt that a British attack on Long Island might be a diversion for the main attack on Manhattan. Washington broke his army in half, stationing half of it on Manhattan, and the other half on Long Island; the army on Long Island was commanded by Greene. On August 20 Greene became ill and was forced to move to a house in Manhattan where he rested to recover. John Sullivan was placed in command until Greene was well enough to resume command.
This high-point overlooking The Narrows was an American artillery position and bombarded by the British before the invasion, but the actual landing took place further east at Gravesend Bay (around to the left from the perspective of this illustration) where the conditions were more favorable.
Invasion of Long Island
At 5:00 a.m., on August 22, an advance guard of 4,000 British troops, under the command of Clinton and Cornwallis, left Staten Island to land on Long Island. At 8:00 am, all 4,000 troops landed on the shore of Gravesend Bay, unopposed. Colonel Edward Hand’s Pennsylvanian riflemen had been stationed on the shore, but they did not oppose the landings and fell back, killing cattle and burning farmhouses on the way. By noon, 15,000 troops had landed on shore along with 40 pieces of artillery. As hundreds of Loyalists came to greet the British troops, Cornwallis pushed on with the advance guard, advancing six miles on to the island and establishing camp at the village of Flatbush; Cornwallis was given orders to advance no further.
Washington received word of the landings the same day they occurred, but was informed that the number was 8,000 to 9,000 troops. This convinced Washington that it was the feint he had predicted and therefore he only sent 1,500 more troops to Brooklyn, bringing the total troops on Long Island to 6,000. On August 24, Washington replaced Sullivan with Israel Putnam who commanded the troops on Long Island. Putnam arrived on Long Island the next day along with six battalions. Also that day the British troops on Long Island received 5,000 Hessian reinforcements, bringing their total to 20,000. Although there was little fighting on the days immediately after the landing, some small skirmishes did take place with American marksmen armed with rifles picking off British troops from time to time.
The American plan was that Putnam would direct the defenses from Brooklyn Heights while Sullivan and Stirling and their troops would be stationed on the Guana Heights.
On the British side, General Clinton learned of the almost undefended Jamaica Pass from local Loyalists. Clinton drew up a plan and gave it to William Erskine to propose to Howe. Clinton’s plan had the main army making a night march and going through the Jamaica Pass to turn the American flank while other troops would keep the Americans busy in front.
At 9:00 p.m. the British moved out. No one except the commanders—not even the officers—knew of the plan. Clinton led a crack brigade of light infantry with fixed bayonets in front, followed by Cornwallis who had eight battalions and 14 artillery pieces. Cornwallis was, in turn, followed by Howe and Hugh Percy with six battalions, more artillery, and baggage. The column consisted of 10,000 men who stretched out over two miles. Three Loyalist farmers led the column toward the Jamaica Pass. The British had left their campfires burning to deceive the Americans into thinking that nothing was happening. The column headed northeast until it reached the village of New Lots when it headed directly north, toward the Heights. The column had yet to run into any American troops when they reached Howard’s Tavern, just a few hundred yards from the Jamaica Pass.
The tavern keeper and his son were taken in as additional guides and they told the British that they did not believe that the pass was guarded. Five minutes after leaving the tavern, the five American militia officers stationed at the Pass were captured without a shot fired, as they thought the British were Americans. Clinton interrogated the men and they informed him that they were the only troops guarding the pass. By dawn the British were through the pass and the troops were told to lie down in tall grass and rest. At 9:00 am, they heard the blast of two heavy cannons, the signal for continuing the attack, and Howe moved the army on.
At 3:00 am, Putnam was awakened by a guard and told that the British were attacking through the Gowanus Pass. Grant had stormed the Gowanus Pass with 300 men, scattering the Militia. Putnam lit signals to Washington who was on Manhattan and then rode south to warn Stirling of the attack. Stirling led two regiments of Delaware and Maryland Continentals, a total of 1,600 troops, taking them to establish line to stop the British advance. The British and the Americans engaged each other from about 200 yards apart, both sides under cannon fire, and the British twice assaulted Stirling’s troops on the high ground, but each time they were repulsed. The Americans, however, were unaware that this was not the main British attack.
The Hessians, in the center under the command of General von Heister, began to bombard the American lines. The Hessian brigades, however, did not attack and Sullivan sent some of his regiments to assist Stirling. Howe fired his signal guns at 9:00 AM and the Hessians began to advance in front while the main army came at Sullivan from the rear. Sullivan left his advance guard to hold off the Hessians while he turned the rest of his force around to fight the British. Heavy casualties mounted up between the Americans and the British and men on both sides fled out of fear. Sullivan attempted to calm his men and tried to lead a retreat. By this point the Hessians had overrun the advance guard on the heights and the American left had completely collapsed. Hand-to-hand fighting followed with the Americans swinging their muskets and rifles like clubs to save their lives. Many of the Americans who surrendered were bayoneted by the Hessians. Sullivan, despite the chaos, managed to evacuate most of his men to Brooklyn Heights though Sullivan himself was captured.
At 9:00 am, Washington arrived from Manhattan. Washington realized that he had been wrong about a feint on Long Island and he ordered more troops to Brooklyn from Manhattan. Washington’s location on the battlefield is not known for sure, because accounts differ, but most likely he was at Brooklyn Heights where he could view the battle.
On the American right, to the west, Stirling still held the line against Grant. Stirling held on for four hours, still unaware of the British flanking maneuver, and some of his own troops thought they were winning the day because the British had been unable to take their position. However, by 11:00 am, Grant, reinforced by 2,000 marines, hit Stirling’s center and Stirling was attacked on his left by the Hessians. Stirling pulled back but British troops were, at this point, coming at him in his rear too. The only escape route left was across a marsh and a creek which was 80 yards wide, on the other side of which was Brooklyn Heights. Stirling ordered all of his troops, except 250 Maryland troops, to cross the creek. The 250 Maryland troops attacked the British, trying to buy time for the others to withdraw. Stirling led the 250 men in six consecutive attacks against the British, until the detachment was annihilated.
Washington, watching from a nearby hill, was to have said, "Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose!" Stirling ordered the rest of his men to get back to the Brooklyn lines any way they could. Some of the men who tried to cross the marsh were bogged down in the mud under musket fire and others who could not swim were captured. Stirling was surrounded and, unwilling to surrender to the British, broke through the British lines to von Heister’s Hessians and surrendered to them. Although the troops did not want to stop advancing, Howe ordered all of his troops to halt, against the wishes of many of his officers, who believed that they should push on to Brooklyn Heights. Howe disagreed. Rather than assaulting the entrenched American position, he began more methodical siege operations to penetrate it.
Howe’s failure to press the attack, and the reasons for it, have been disputed. He may have wished to avoid the casualties his army suffered when attacking the Continentals under similar circumstances at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He may also, in the European gentleman-officer tradition, have been giving Washington an opportunity to conclude his position was hopeless and surrender. Howe wrote that it would have been "inconsiderate and even criminal" to attack the surrounded Americans.
At the time, it was by far the largest battle ever fought in North America. If the Royal Navy is included, over 40,000 men took part in the battle. Howe reported his losses as 59 killed, 267 wounded and 31 missing. The Hessian casualties were 5 killed and 26 wounded. The Americans suffered much heavier losses. About 300 had been killed and over 1,000 captured.
Washington and the army were surrounded on Brooklyn Heights with the East River to their backs. If a change in wind occurred the British ships would have been able to sail up the East River and entirely surround the Americans. As the day went on, the British began to dig trenches, slowly coming closer and closer to the American defenses. By doing this, the British would not have to cross over open ground to assault the American defenses. Despite this perilous situation, Washington ordered 1,200 more men from Manhattan to Brooklyn on August 28. The men that came over were two Pennsylvania regiments and Colonel John Glover’s Massachusetts troops. In command of the Pennsylvania troops was Thomas Mifflin who, after arriving, volunteered to inspect the outer defenses and report back to Washington. In these outer defenses, small skirmishes were still taking place. On the afternoon of August 28, it began to rain and Washington had his cannon bombard the British well into the night.
As the rain continued Washington sent a letter instructing General William Heath, who was at Kings Bridge between Manhattan and what is now the Bronx, to send every flat bottomed boat or sloop without delay in case battalions of infantry from New Jersey might come to reinforce their position. At 4:00 p.m., on August 29, Washington held a meeting with his generals. Mifflin advised Washington to retreat to Manhattan while Mifflin and his Pennsylvania Regiments made up the rear guard, holding the line until the rest of the army had withdrawn. The Generals agreed unanimously with Mifflin that retreat was the best option and Washington had orders go out by the evening.
The troops were told that they were to gather up all their ammunition and baggage and prepare for a night attack. By 9:00 p.m., the sick and wounded began to move to the Brooklyn Ferry in preparation for being evacuated. At 11:00 p.m. Glover and his Massachusetts troops, who were sailors and fishermen, began to evacuate the troops.
Other Events on this Day:
The first theatrical performance in the colonies, a play called The Bare and the Cubb, is given at Accomack, Virginia.
British forces defeat the Patriots at the Battle of Long Island.
Edwin Drake drills the first successful commercial oil well at Titusville, Pennsylvania.
Lyndon B. Johnson, the thirty-sixth U.S. president, is born near Stonewall, Texas.
NASA launches Mariner 2, the first probe to fly by and gather data on another planet (Venus).
Dates and events based on:
William J. Bennett and John Cribb, (2008) The American Patriot’s Almanac Daily Readings on America. (Kindle Edition)
Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Wikipedia: Battle of Long Island…
Brainy Quote: Battle Quotes…