The Battle of Brooklyn: Famous battle in the Revolutionary War

The 1st of July, General Howe arrived at Staten Island from Halifax. Soon after, he was joined by his brother, Admiral Howe, from England, and Clinton, from the defeat of Fort Moultrie. They had thirty thousand men, admirably disciplined and equipped; among them about eight thousand of the dreaded Hessians. The fleet, consisting of ten ships-of-the-line, twenty frigates, and four hundred ships and transports, was moored in the bay, ready to co-operate. Parliament had authorized the Howes to treat with the insurgents. By proclamation they accordingly offered pardon for all who would return to their allegiance. This document was published by direction of Congress, that the people might see what England demanded. An officer was then sent to the American camp with a letter addressed to "George Washington, Esq." Washington refused to receive it. The address was afterwards changed to "George Washington, &c. &c." The messenger endeavored to show that this bore any meaning which might be desired. But Washington utterly refused any communication which did not distinctly recognize his position as commander-in-chief of the American army. Lord Howe was evidently desirous of a restoration of peace. He solicited an interview with Franklin, an old time friend; but events had gone too far. England would not grant independence, and the colonies would accept nothing less. War must settle the question.

It was not till the last of August that Clinton crossed over the Narrows to Long Island. Brooklyn was fortified by a series of intrenchments and forts extending from Gowanus Bay to Wallabout. Here was stationed about nine thousand men, under Generals Sullivan and Stirling. About two and a half miles south was a range of wooded heights traversed by three roads along which the British could advance; one leading up directly from the Narrows and Gravesend to Gowanus Bay, a second from Flatbush, and a third, the Jamaica road, cutting through the hills by the Bedford and the Jamaica passes. General Greene, who was intimately acquainted with the ground, being unfortunately sick, General Putnam was hastily sent over to take charge of the defence. General Stirling and General Sullivan occupied the heights, but, by a fatal oversight, the Jamaica road was unguarded. The English were not slow to take advantage of the opportunity.

On the eve of the 26th, General Clinton, with Percy and Cornwallis, crossed the narrow causeway called Shoemaker's Bridge, over a marsh near New Lots,--where, it is said, a single regiment could have barred the way,--and before daylight had seized the Bedford and Jamaica passes, while the Americans were yet unconscious of his having left Flatlands. Meanwhile General Grant moved forward along the coast, on the direct road, from the Narrows up to the hills at present embraced in Greenwood Cemetery. Here there was considerable skirmishing, but Stirling held him in check. Clinton, pushing down from the hills, now fell upon the American left, at Bedford. The sound of cannon in their rear filled the Americans with dismay. At that moment De Heister, with the Hessians, who had already begun to skirmish on the Flatbush road, stormed Sullivan's position. Retreat was the patriots' only hope. It was, however, too late. Caught between the Hessians and the British, they were driven to and fro, cut down by the dragoons, or bayoneted without mercy by the Hessians and the Highlanders, who listened to no plea for quarter. Some took to the rocks and trees and sold their lives as dearly as they could; some broke through and escaped, pursued by the grenadiers to the American lines at Fort Putnam; the rest were captured.

Cornwallis hurried on with his corps to close in upon General Stirling, who was yet unaware of the disaster upon his left, at the same time firing two guns as a signal for Grant to attack the front. Stirling, with a part of Smallwood's regiment, composed of the sons of the best families of Maryland, turned upon this unexpected foe in his rear, determined by a heroic sacrifice to give the rest a chance for escape. He accomplished his design; all his companions crossed Gowanus Creek in safety; but he himself was captured, and two hundred and fifty-nine of the Marylanders lay dead on the field. Washington beheld the fight from a neighboring hill, and, wringing his hands in agony, exclaimed, "What brave fellows I must lose this day!"

It was a sad augury for the Republic which had just issued its Declaration of Independence. The British loss was but four hundred, and the American nearly two thousand. Of the latter, one thousand, who were with Generals Sullivan and Stirling, were prisoners. The higher officers were soon exchanged, but the hard lot of the privates and lower officers made the fate of those who perished in battle to be envied. Numbers were confined in the sugar-house and the old hulks at Wallabout, where afterwards so many other American prisoners suffered untold agonies. Here, festering with disease, perishing with famine, and loathsome with filth, deprived of fresh air, water, and every necessary of life, eleven thousand Americans, it is said, found an untimely grave ere the war was over.

Had Howe attacked the works at Brooklyn immediately, the Americans would probably have been utterly destroyed. Fortunately, he delayed for the fleet to cooperate; but an adverse wind prevented. For two days the patriots lay helpless, awaiting the assault. On the second night after the battle there was a dense fog on the Brooklyn side, while in New York the weather was clear. A little before midnight, the Americans moved silently down to the shore and commenced to cross the river, near what is now the Fulton Ferry. Everything was planned with Washington's peculiar precision. The guards, sentinels, and outer lines were ordered to remain quietly at their posts till the very last, that the enemy might suspect no movement. The stifled murmur of the camp, as each man took his place in silence for the march to the riverside, gradually died away in the distance. Suddenly the roar of a cannon burst upon the night-air. "The effect," says an American who was present, "was at once alarming and sublime. If the explosion was within our own lines, the gun was probably discharged in the act of spiking it, and could have been no less a matter of speculation to the enemy than to ourselves." The mystery of that midnight gun remains still unexplained. Fortunately, it failed to rouse the British camp. Started by this unexpected contre-temps, the men reached the shore. Washington, feeling the urgent necessity for despatch, sent one of his aides-de-camp to hurry up the troops in march. By mistake he gave the order to all who had been left behind. In the midst of embarrassment and confusion at the ferry, caused by the change of tide and of wind, which beat back the sail-boats, the whole rear-guard arrived. "Good God, General Mifflin!" cried Washington, "I fear you have ruined us by so unseasonably withdrawing the troops from the advance lines." Mifflin somewhat warmly explained that he had only followed orders. "It is a dreadful mistake," exclaimed Washington; "and unless you can regain the picket-lines before your absence is discovered, the most disastrous consequences may follow." Mifflin hastened back, but again the dense fog and Providence had favored them, so that, though nearly an hour had intervened, the desertion of their posts had not been noticed by the enemy. At length their own time came, and the last boat pulled from the shore. The strain of the night was over, and the army was saved. "What with the greatness of the stake, the darkness of the night, the uncertainty of the design, and the extreme hazard of the issue," says one, "it would be difficult to conceive a more deeply solemn scene than had transpired."

This timely deliverance moved every pious American heart to profoundest gratitude, for if once the English fleet had moved up the East River and cut off communication between New York and Brooklyn, nothing could have saved the army from capture. Howe, not supposing an escape possible, had taken no precautions against such an event. It is said that a tory woman sent her negro servant to inform the British of the movements of the patriot army, but he fell into the hands of the Hessians, who, not understanding a word of English, kept him until morning. After daybreak, and the fog had lifted, a British captain, with a handful of men, stealthily crept down through the fallen trees, and, crawling over the intrenchments, found them deserted. A troop of horse hurried to the river and captured the last boat, manned by three vagabonds who had stayed behind for plunder.

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