August 30, 1776 – Washington escapes Long Island.
Entering the summer of 1776, American spirits vis-a-vis the conflict with England were at a high point. Earlier that year, in March, British forces had abandoned Boston in the face of a strengthening siege by colonial forces. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which urged colonists to fight for a complete break with England, had become an overnight best-seller.
Then, on July 2, the Continental Congress adopted Richard Henry Lee’s motion to formally declare the colonies’ independence (yes, July 2 is actually the true “Independence Day”); in the weeks that followed, Jefferson’s written Declaration of Independence was read with widespread approval throughout the colonies. To many Americans, it seemed as if independence was a fait accompli.
General George Washington, however, knew better. Washington had been tasked with creating a Continental Army from scratch, with limited supplies, untrained recruits, inexperienced officers, and no navy. Rather than celebrate the British retreat from Boston, he fretted with worry at their next move. He expected that they would eventually set their attention to New York, a more important colonial center, and he knew that defending the city against the might of the British army and navy would be extremely difficult. His green troops were outnumbered, outgunned, and out-experienced by the British; moreover, New York City, situated on the southern tip of Manhattan, was exposed on three sides to the British navy, a threat which Washington simply could not counter.
Still, Washington had to try. Leaving Boston behind, he arrived in April to begin planning the defense of the city. To try and forestall the British navy from advancing up the East and Hudson Rivers and landing troops above Manhattan, forts were established along both rivers with cannon batteries that hopefully could keep the British navy at bay. The main American defenses were across the east River in Brooklyn Heights, overlooking Manhattan from Long Island. For the rest of the spring and into early August, Washington’s men labored to fortify their positions to try to withstand the inevitable British attack.
British forces, under the command of General William Howe, arrived in early July, stationing themselves on nearby Staten Island. The numbers Washington faced were impressive; over 30,000 experienced British and Hessian soldiers, supported by nearly 400, ships faced Washington’s 20,000 raw recruits. Washington, in the face of these odds, was indecisive; without knowing where the British attack would land, he did not know where to concentrate his forces. In the end, he did something worse than guessing wrong; he divided his troops between Manhattan and Brooklyn, which meant that when the attack came, his men would be outnumbered by more than 3-1.
Howe began his attack on the night of August 26, 1776, in Brooklyn, rather than Manhattan, fooling Washington, who had been convinced that Manhattan would be the target. His plan was masterful; there was a diversionary attack at the front of the American defenses while his main force of 10,000 soldiers snuck around the side of the American defenses using a little known road shown to them by local loyalist farmers. In the early morning of August 27 those forces smashed into the American flank. Although most of the colonial forces fought bravely, they were overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Washington, watching the fighting from the American fortifications on Brooklyn Heights, is said to have commented, “Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose.”
The Americans who had not been killed or captured in the day’s debacle fled to Brooklyn Heights to the temporary safety of the American defenses to wait for the inevitable final attack. However, despite the urging of his junior officers to launch an immediate assault, Howe stopped for the day, deciding instead to dig in for a short siege. Howe’s reasoning was simple: Washington’s troops were trapped, and Washington, as a gentleman, would realize that his position was hopeless and surrender, whereas a full frontal attack on the American position could cost the lives of a thousand or more British soldiers. He decided to spare any more casualties, as he was certain that Washington’s surrender would be quickly forthcoming.
Washington, however, had no intention of surrendering. Instead, he made plans for a full retreat of his remaining forces in Brooklyn (about 9,000 men) back across the East River to Manhattan, in secret, under cover of night. On August 28, as rain began to pour down on the defenders and attackers alike, Washington planned his evacuation. In a move later emulated by the British at Dunkirk, he sent orders out that every boat available along the East River be sent there without delay. Then, on the night of the 29th, as the rain continued to come down, the evacuation began. Men were under strict orders to make no sound as they quietly left the barricades and slipped down to the waters’ edge to be ferried across to Manhattan. Rags were wrapped around cannon wheels so they would make no sound as they were pulled down to the shore. The last men to remain at the barricades stoked the fires and made as much noise as possible to mask the escape.
Still, the evacuation took longer than Washington had hoped, and by dawn there were still men, artillery and supplies waiting to be ferried off. If the British were be able to see what was happening by dawn’s light, the remaining Americans would be instantly overrun and captured. Luckily, a thick morning fog settled in just as day broke, engulfing Brooklyn Heights in mist and masking the final evacuation. Washington hopped on the last boat, arriving in Manhattan just as British soldiers, finally realizing that something was up, began making their way into the former American fortifications. Howe woke up to the news that Washington and his army had slipped through his hands, along with the opportunity to end the war right then and there.
The Battle of Long Island was a blistering battlefield defeat for Washington, but by saving the bulk of his troops both he and the Continental Army lived to fight another day. While the rest of the summer and fall of 1776 would lead to some of the bleakest days for the revolution – the British capture of New York City, Fort Washington, Fort Lee, and the subjugation of most of New Jersey – Washington’s ability to keep the Continental Army together would end up paying off. In defeat and retreat, Washington learned a valuable lesson when fighting a superior foreign army on one’s home turf: the insurgency that does not lose, eventually wins. It is the same lesson that North Vietnam would understand 200 years later.