This week in history: George Washington retreats from Long Island
On Aug. 29-30, 1776, Gen. George Washington, defeated in battle by the British army during the battle of Brooklyn Heights, successfully evacuated his force from Long Island. The engagement had been the first great pitched battle of the American Revolution and nearly resulted in the destruction of the Continental Army.
Washington had taken command of the Continental Army in July 1775 during the Siege of Boston, only days after the Battle of Bunker Hill. What the Congress in Philadelphia had dubbed the Continental Army was in fact little more than a hodgepodge of colonial militiamen, each with varying degrees of training and equipment. This newborn American military lacked regular supply, an officer class, artillery or that critical weapon of the day, the bayonet.
During the winter, Washington's friend Alexander Knox succeeded in transporting captured British guns overland from Ft. Ticonderoga and Ft. Crown Point, a feat which many believed impossible. In early March 1776, Washington's men captured Dorchester Heights. With artillery in place, Washington's field of fire threatened the British position in Boston, and the city was soon evacuated — a victory for the patriots.
The British fled to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they began to plot their next move. Geography dictated the British strategy. The Hudson River Valley offered a perfect opportunity for the British deliver a blow to the patriots. The valley, which runs from upstate New York down to New York City, presented a prime logistical prize: If the British could control the length of the valley, they could cut New England off from the rest of the colonies, defeating each in turn. The patriots had realized this early on in the war, prompting them to take Ft. Ticonderoga and Ft. Crown Point in May 1775.
The target of the summer offensive, then, was New York City. By August 1776, Washington had on paper nearly 30,000 troops. In reality, he boasted just under 20,000 effectives, and these soldiers and formations remained plagued by their lack of training, officers and weapons.
Against them stood the British army, the most efficient military organization in the world at the time. Largely because of Britain's commercial wealth, it was able to devote significant resources into training and equipping its soldiers, far more so than what most Englishmen considered the colonial backwater of America. Discipline, that key martial virtue from Marathon in 490 B.C. to Mosul in A.D. 2004, was the bread and butter of the British regular. All things being equal, man for man, an American solider did not stand a chance against his British cousin in 1776.
Under the command of Gen. William Howe, the army sailed on ships commanded by Adm. Richard Howe, the general's brother. Cautious, Gen. Howe decided that his troops would first make landfall on Long Island, while the Royal Navy controlled the approaches from the sea. From there, he could launch his full-scale invasion of New York. On Aug. 22, the British landed on Long Island.
Washington had been ordered by Congress to defend New York City. He had originally positioned around 4,500 troops on Long Island, keeping the rest in and around Manhattan. Hearing of the British landing, he initially believed that it was a feint and that the real invasion would strike near his current position near the city. He did dispatch an additional 1,500 troops to cover the force on Long Island, however. In fact, Howe had landed with 15,000 men, and more were on the way. This was no feint.
By the afternoon of Aug. 23, Washington realized his mistake and crossed the East River to Long Island, ordering more troops to follow him in subsequent days. By Aug. 25, more Hessian mercenaries had arrived to reinforce Howe's force. He now commanded 20,000 men. Washington's force on Long Island now approached 10,000, with the bulk of them in the Brooklyn Heights fortifications.
Henry Clinton, one of Howe's subordinates, created a plan to move a significant part of the British army forward, under cover of night, and hit the patriots hard before they could react. In his book “1776,” historian David McCullough wrote:
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