The Battle of Long Island, New York, 1776





GENERAL Washington and his main army were in and around the city of New York, in the summer of 1776. British General Howe arrived at Sandy Hook from Halifax at the close of June, and on the 8th of July-four days after independence was declared-he landed nine thousand men on Staten Island, that lies between New York harbor and the sea. There he awaited the arrival of his brother, Admiral Howe, with his fleet bearing British regulars and German hirelings. These, and the broken forces of Clinton and Parker from the Carolinas, soon joined General Howe; and by the middle of August, the British, land and naval, numbering almost thirty thousand men, prepared to fall upon the American forces. With this great force the British commanders, who counted largely upon the moral strength of the Tories in favor of the crown, felt confident that they would soon bring the rebellion to an end, either by negotiations or by crushing it under the heel of military power. Lord Howe had said, at Halifax, "Peace will be made within ten days after my arrival." Like the ministry who sent them, the commissioners were profoundly ignorant of the spirit of the people they were to deal with. The powers with which they were vested were very limited. They could grant pardons to individuals on their return to allegiance, and grant amnesty to insurgent communities which should lay down their arms and dissolve their governments. They might converse with individuals in America on the public grievances and report their opinions, but they might not be judges of their complaints nor promise redress; and they were not allowed to treat with any Congress, either provincial or continental, nor with any civil or military officer commissioned by such bodies.

The brothers entered upon their narrow diplomatic mission immediately after the arrival of the admiral. They sought first to open communication with Washington. For this purpose they sent a note to him by a flag, in-closing a copy of a declaration of the royal clemency, and the willingness of the king to grant a free pardon to all penitents. The superscription of the letter did not bear the official title of the commander-in-chief-only "George Washington, Esq."-and he refused to receive it. Another was sent by the hand of Major Paterson, General Howe's adjutant, less marked by omissions, but it was not received. Wishing to make some arrangement about an exchange of prisoners, Washington permitted the major to visit the American camp. When the adjutant was about to depart, the latter expressed the hope that his visit would be accepted as the first advance of the commissioners toward reconciliation. He assured the general that they had large powers. "From what appears," said Washington, "they have power only to grant pardons;-having committed no fault, we need no pardon; we are only defending what we deem to be our indisputable rights." The admiral addressed a friendly letter to Dr. Franklin in a similar manner, and received from the statesman a reply, courteous in tone, but in no wise soothing to his feelings as a soldier or a Briton. Franklin concluded his letter by saying: "This war against us is both unjust and unwise; posterity will condemn to infamy those who advised it; and even success will not save from some degree of dishonor those who voluntarily engage to conduct it." The brothers suspected Franklin uttered the sentiments of the Congress with whom they were not permitted to treat; and that the words of Washington were in accordance with the views of the same body. The generous and noble-hearted admiral was grievously disappointed by these rebuffs. He saw that he was powerless as a minister of peace; that he had been deceived, and that he was placed by a sense of duty to his king in a position most distasteful to him, and repugnant to his convictions of right. War, and not peace, now occupied the attention of the brothers for awhile.

August had now arrived. A large army and navy were threatening the city of New York and its vicinity. Already ships-of-war had run up the Hudson River past American batteries, and were menacing the country in the rear of Manhattan Island, with the intention of keeping open a free communication with Carleton then on Lake Champlain, and furnishing arms to the Tories in Westchester county. In the city of New York, a majority of the influential inhabitants were active or passive Tories. The provincial authorities were yet acting timidly. It was even proposed by Jay to lay Long Island waste, burn the city of New York, and retire to the rugged fastnesses of the Highlands. Washington's whole effective force, for manning batteries, securing passes, and occupying posts, some of them fifteen miles apart, did not then exceed eleven thousand men; the most of them were militia coming and going and poorly armed, and a regiment of artillery without skilled gunners and furnished with old iron field-pieces. Sectional jealousies were dividing the troops. Gates was already showing his jealousy of Washington, and an itching to take his place; and faction in his favor was breeding in the Congress, from which came frequent resolutions that interfered with the well-laid plans of the commander-in-chief and the efficient General Schuyler in Northern New York. Yet Washington was hopeful. An appeal to the country was nobly responded to at that hour of imminent danger. From the farms of Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, where ripening harvests needed them, came patriotic yeomanry, and swelled the American army to seventeen thousand effective men. The whole number, sick and well, was almost equal to that of the British.

Both parties made preparations for an inevitable conflict. Hulks of vessels were sunken in the channel of the Hudson River opposite the heights on which Fort Washington was built. Fort Lee was erected on the Palisades beyond. Batteries were constructed at various points on Manhattan Island, and a considerable body of troops were sent over to take post and cast up fortifications on Long Island, back of Brooklyn, under the command of General Greene. That officer was soon prostrated by bilious fever and resigned the leadership to General Sullivan, who had lately come from Lake Champlain. A small detachment was placed on Governor's Island near the city; another was sent over to Paulus's Hook, where Jersey City now stands, and a body of New York militia, under General James Clinton, took post in Westchester county to oppose the landing of the British from vessels on Long Island Sound. Parsons' brigade took post on the East River, at Kipp's Bay (now foot of Thirty-fourth street), to watch British vessels if they should enter those waters. Sullivan placed guards at several passes through a range of hills on Long Island, which extend from the Narrows to Jamaica; and late in August he had a line of defences extending from the vicinity of Greenwood Cemetery to the Navy Yard, a distance of a mile and a half. These were armed with twenty cannon, and there was a redoubt of seven guns on Brooklyn Heights.

The British army moved on the morning of the 22nd of August. About fifteen thousand troops were landed on the west end of Long Island on that day. Washington sent reinforcements to Sullivan; and the idea that the American troops were about to evacuate the city, and leave it exposed to the shells of the British shipping in the Bay, greatly terrified the inhabitants. Many Whig families fled to the country and did not return until the close of the war.

General Putnam now took the chief command on Long Island, with particular instructions from Washington to guard the passes through the wooded hills. Regiments of Germans under General De Heister followed the British troops, and on the 26th, the combined forces of the enemy composed a most perfect army in experience and discipline. Its chief leaders were Generals Clinton and Cornwallis, accompanied by General Howe, and it was supported by over four hundred ships and transports. Among the former were ten ships-of-the-line, twenty frigates, and some bomb-ketches. On the evening of the 26th, the number of effective American troops on Long Island did not exceed eight thousand men. Between this weak force of republicans and the strong army of the king now stretched the densely-wooded hills, with their steep sides and narrow passes, from the flat lands to the Brooklyn ferry. One of these was south of the present Greenwood Cemetery; another in Prospect Park (now marked by an inscription); a third near the village of Bedford, and a fourth toward Jamaica. About twenty-five hundred Americans were set to guard these passes, not so much to prevent the British pressing through them (for this Washington did not expect to do), but to harass and confuse them in their march. When Washington left the camp at Brooklyn on the evening of the 26th, it was obvious that the British intended to gain the rear of the Americans by the Bedford and Jamaica passes, and he gave strict orders for them to be closely watched and strongly guarded.

At three o'clock on the morning of the 27th of August (1776), General Putnam was told that his pickets at the lower pass (south of Greenwood) had been driven in. He ordered Brigadier-General Lord Stirling, with some Delaware and Maryland troops, to march and "repulse the enemy." Stirling instantly obeyed, and was followed by General Parsons with some Connecticut troops. They all crossed the marsh-bordered Gowanus Creek over a causeway and bridge at some tide-mills on the creek, when Stirling soon found himself confronted by an overwhelming division of the British army under General Grant, with Howe's ships-of-war in the Bay, on his right flank, for they had come up in a menacing attitude toward the city, and lay not far from Governor's Island. Stirling placed his only two cannon on the side of a wooded height (now known as Battle Hill, in Greenwood), so as to command the road. This formed the left of his line. His right was nearly on the Bay, and the troops of Colonels At Lee and Kiechlein, which had been guarding the pass, formed his centre.

The Germans under De Heister and Knyphausen were moving at the same time to force their way through the pass at Prospect Mount (now Prospect Park), while Howe, with the main body of the British army led by Sir Henry Clinton and Lord Cornwallis, was moving toward the Bedford and Jamaica passes, to gain the rear of the Americans. Putnam had utterly neglected to place a competent guard at the latter pass, as Washington had ordered him to do; and when he was told of the movement of the British in that direction, instead of informing the commander-in-chief of the imminent danger, or directing Stirling to retreat from almost certain destruction, he allowed Sullivan to go out with a few troops, and take command of New Jersey and other forces on Mount Prospect. When, at eight o'clock in the morning, the British had reached the Bedford and Jamaica passes, not more than four thousand Americans were out of the lines at Brooklyn-a handful to oppose five times that number, then stretched along a line more than five miles in extent. The Americans on the left did not perceive their danger until the British had gained their flank and began the attack. The incapacity of Putnam for such important service had allowed a surprise.

The British attack was severe and persistent. The troops composing the American extreme left fled in confusion, and with fearful loss to the lines at Brooklyn; and some Connecticut fugitives, unmindful of the safety of those behind them, burned the bridge over the Gowanus Creek, thereby cutting off the retreat of their fellow-soldiers by that way. Meanwhile the Germans had attacked Sullivan, on the site of Prospect Park, and a desperate fight ensued. While it was going on, Clinton unexpectedly appeared, endeavoring to gain Sullivan's rear. As soon as the latter saw his peril, he ordered a retreat to the Brooklyn lines. It was too late. Clinton drove him back upon the German bayonets. After a sharp hand-to-hand conflict, and seeing no chance for success, Sullivan ordered his men to shift for themselves. Some fought their way through the cordon of soldiers, some hid in the woods, and Sullivan, concealed in a field of corn, was made prisoner by some German grenadiers.

Stirling and his party were now the only Americans in the field with unbroken ranks. They fought the enemy with great spirit four hours, when, hopeless of receiving reinforcements, and seeing the main body of the British army rapidly approaching his flank and rear, Stirling ordered a retreat. The bridge was in flames, and the tide was rising. There was no alternative but to wade the morass and the creek, and that passage was about to be cut off by Cornwallis, who was rapidly descending the Port Road with grenadiers and Highlanders. What was to be done? Could any be saved? Stirling's valor quickly answered the questions. He ordered the Delaware troops and one-half of the Marylanders to cross the mud and water with some German prisoners which they had taken, while he and the rest of the Marylanders should keep Cornwallis in check. The order was obeyed. The five Maryland companies that remained fought with desperate valor while the whole of their companions-in-arms crossed the water in safety, excepting seven who were drowned. This movement was seen by Washington from the redoubt on Brooklyn Heights. He was sorely grieved by the disasters of the day. And now the final one occurred. Stirling, having saved a majority of his troops, could no longer resist the pressure of overwhelming numbers on his front, flank and rear, and he surrendered. He would not yield up his sword to a British commander, but sought De Heister, to whom he delivered it. The Germans were the principal victors on that day. They received the surrender of Sullivan, Stirling, and more than half the prisoners. The loss of the Americans did not, probably, exceed one thousand, of whom one-half were prisoners; more than half the loss fell upon Stirling's command. Many of the prisoners were afterward sufferers in the loathsome British prisons in the city of New York and the prison-ships near by.

The victors encamped before the American lines on the night succeeding the battle, and prepared to besiege the works of their foe. Washington was anxiously watching every movement, for there was no one on whose judgment and vigilance he might implicitly rely. For forty-eight hours he did not sleep. Fortunately for the republicans, Howe was very indolent and sluggish in thought and movement. A devotee of sensual pleasures and impatient when business interfered with them, he allowed opportunities for achieving grand results to slip. Had Clinton been in command at that time, he would, doubtless, have captured the whole American army and its munitions of war, on the morning of the 28th. Howe dallied in the lap of enjoyment, and allowed them to escape. During two days after the battle the rain fell almost incessantly. Mifflin had come down from the north end of Manhattan Island with a thousand troops, but with these reinforcements the republican army was too weak to cope with the strong enemy. Washington clearly perceived this, and resolved to retreat. Early on the 29th, he sent an order to General Health to forward from Kingsbridge "every flat-bottomed boat and other craft," at his post, "fit for transporting troops;" and a similar order was sent to the assistant quartermaster-general at New York. Late in the afternoon he revealed his plans to a council of war at the house of Philip Livingston, on Brooklyn Heights, and they were approved.

The embarkation in boats, managed by Glover's regiment of Essex county fishermen, took place at the Brooklyn ferry after midnight, when the storm had ceased. The full moon was obscured by clouds. Silently the troops moved from the works to the river; and before dawn a heavy fog covered them from view. Before six o'clock in the morning of the 30th of August, nine thousand American soldiers, with their baggage and munitions of war excepting some heavy artillery, had safely passed over the East River to New York. The whole movement was unsuspected by the British leaders on land and water until it was too late to pursue. A negro servant had been sent by a Tory woman near the ferry to give notice of the flight, but he fell into the hands of a German sentinel, who could not understand a word that was uttered. When the astonished Howe found that his expected prey had escaped, he "swore a big oath," and then took possession of the abandoned American works. Leaving garrisons in them, he encamped the main body of his army eastward of Brooklyn as far as Flushing, and then prepared for the capture of the city of New York, with the American troops in it. The admiral moved his vessels up within cannon-shot of the city, for the same purpose. Because of this victory, General Howe (who was uncle to the king) was created a baronet--Sir William Howe.





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