|This Week in American History
August 29 September 4, 1776
Washington Saves the Continental Army from Sure Destruction on Long Island
On the night of August 29, 1776, the Continental Army executed General Washington's masterful plan to evacuate Long Island and land the Army in safety on Manhattan. The boats which crossed the East River again and again were commanded by John Glover and Israel Hutchinson, and piloted by the seafaring men of Marblehead, Salem, Lynn, and Danvers, Massachusetts. A British military critic wrote at the time that, "Those who are acquainted with the difficulty, embarrassment, noise and tumult which attend even by day, and with no enemy at hand, a movement of this nature will be the first to acknowledge that this retreat should hold a high place among military transactions."
General Washington and the Continental Army had arrived in New York in the spring of 1776, having received intelligence reports that the city would be the next target of the British Army and Navy. Washington was also under pressure from Congress to defend the port. As early as March 18, the day after the final British ships had left Boston and the Continental Army entered the besieged city in triumph, Washington began to dispatch military units southward. By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Continental Army was entrenched on Manhattan, Brooklyn, and eastward along the Long Island shore.
However, the wide expanse of New York Harbor and its environs provided numerous landing places for the British, and the Americans were stretched thin trying to cover most of them. On June 29, American lookouts spotted a British fleet of more than 100 ships entering the harbor. These troops, under the command of General Sir William Howe, had sailed from Halifax after depositing the Tories who had fled Boston. More importantly, the commander and many of the troops were still smarting from the Pyrrhic victory won by the British at Bunker Hill, where they had suffered very high casualties attacking uphill against a fortified American position.
Howe's force occupied Staten Island and scouted the New Jersey shore, and they were joined at the end of July by more transports and warships sent directly from Britain. This group was commanded by Admiral Richard (Black Dick) Howe, Sir William's brother, and contained the first contingent of German mercenary soldiers hired by King George III. In early August, a third group of ships under Generals Clinton and Cornwallis arrived from South Carolina, making the British Army and Navy contingent threatening New York the largest expeditionary force ever mounted by Britain.
On August 22, part of the British fleet sailed to Long Island, and 88 barges loaded with British and Hessian troops succeeded in landing 15,000 men to the east of the American lines. General Washington had to split his troops between Manhattan and Brooklyn, because he still had to consider the fact that the Long Island move might be a feint. But it proved to be the main attack, and on the night of August 26 the British moved out, following a northwest curve in order to flank the American lines.
By morning, the British and Hessians had smashed into the left and rear of the American defenses, and their troops, who were well-equipped with bayonets, succeeded in wreaking havoc against the Americans who had none. Many Continentals were bayoneted while they attempted to reload their muskets. One British officer wrote in his diary: "It was a fine sight to see with what alacrity they dispatched the Rebels with their bayonets after we had surrounded them so that they could not resist. We took care to tell the Hessians that the Rebels had resolved to give no quarters to them in particular, which made them fight desperately and put all to death that fell into their hands. All stratagems are lawful in war, especially against such vile enemies to their King and country."
The American troops who survived were driven into the fortifications on Brooklyn Heights. General Howe began a methodical siege, digging zig-zag trenches that would eventually reach the walls. He later said that he favored this method as resulting in fewer casualties than the uphill charge which had been unleashed with such horrific results at Bunker Hill.
Howe's tactics gave Washington time to plan his surprise retreat, and he ordered his quartermaster to obtain all the boats in the area, especially those with flat bottoms which could accommodate horses and cannon. The New England fishermen regiments were brought in from Manhattan supposedly to reinforce the troops, and Washington circulated an order that more reinforcements were coming from New Jersey. This meant that some units might have to move, and so all baggage was packed up.
What happened next, on the night of August 29, was described by Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge. Tallmadge had been a friend of Nathan Hale, and became a trusted aide of Washington and the coordinator of his spy networks in New York and Connecticut. "Our intrenchment was so weak," wrote Tallmadge about Brooklyn Heights, "that it is most wonderful the British general did not attempt to storm it soon after the battle. Gen. Washington was so fully aware of the perilous situation of this division of his army that he immediately convened a council of war, at which the propriety of retiring to New York was decided on."
"After sustaining incessant fatigue and constant watchfulness for two days and nights," continued Tallmadge, "attended by heavy rain, exposed every moment to [the danger of] an attack from a vastly superior force in front, and [expecting] to be cut off from the possibility of a retreat to New York by the fleet, which might enter the East Riveron the night of the 29th of August, Gen. Washington commenced recrossing his troops from Brooklyn to New York [in boats manned by a regiment of Massachusetts fisherman under Colonel John Glover].
"To move so large a body of troops, with all their necessary appendages, across a river full a mile wide, with a rapid current, in face of [the before-mentioned enemy threat] seemed to present most formidable obstacles. But ... the Commander-in-Chief so arranged his business that ... by 10 o'clock, the troops began to retire from the lines in such a manner that no chasm was made but as one regiment left their station, the remaining troops moved to the right and left and filled up the vacancies, while Gen. Washington took his station at the ferry and superintended the embarkation....
"As the dawn of the next day approached, those of us who remained in the trenches became very anxious for our own safety, and when the dawn appeared there were several regiments still on duty. At this time a very dense fog began to rise, and it seemed to settle in a peculiar manner over both encampments.... When the sun rose we had just received orders to leave the lines, but before we reached the ferry the Commander-in-Chief sent one of his aids to order the regiment to repair again to their former station, where we tarried until the sun had risen.... The fog remained as dense as ever.
"Finally, the second order arrived for the regiment to retire, and we very joyfully bid those trenches ... adieu. When we reached Brooklyn ferry, the boats had not returned from their last trip, but they very soon appeared.... I think I saw Gen. Washington on the ferry stairs when I stepped into one of the last boats that received the troops. I left my horse tied to a post at the ferry.
"The troops having now all safely reached New York, and the fog continuing as thick as ever, I began to think of my ... horse, and requested leave to return and bring him off. Having obtained permission, I called for a crew of volunteers to go with me, and, guiding the boat myself, I obtained my horse and got off some distance into the river before the enemy appeared in Brooklyn. As soon as they reached the ferry we were saluted merrily from their musketry, and finally by their field pieces; but we returned in safety.
"In the history of warfare I do not recollect a more fortunate retreat."
General Washington greatly valued the actions of the Massachusetts fishermen that night, and he called on them again on Christmas Day in 1776, when the Continental Army crossed the ice-choked Delaware River to victory at Trenton.