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:
“By agreeing to Clinton's plan — by committing a force of such numbers to a night march through unknown country, led like the blind by three local farmers who might or might not be all they professed — William Howe was putting his army at extreme risk. In the event of discovery or sudden, surprise attack by the enemy, his stretched-out column could be chopped to pieces.”
After a nine-mile march in the dead of night, the British unleashed their attack upon the American positions. Washington, who had returned to the city, still contemplating a second British invasion there, awoke in the early morning hours to the sound of artillery on Long Island. He soon made his way across the East River once again and ordered more troops to follow. Some accounts state that Washington rode up and down the American lines, exhorting his troops to courageous acts. Others suggest that he remained at his headquarters on the Brooklyn Heights, which would have allowed him to survey the entire battlefield.
It was a noble effort, but the British formations proved too powerful for the American soldiers, many of whom broke into a rout and made their way back toward the fortifications of Brooklyn Heights. Howe had bested the American army with a classic flanking maneuver. Here, with the Continental Army badly mauled and demoralized, Howe did something seemingly inexplicable. In a move that resembles Adolf Hitler's “Halt” order to his panzer forces in France in June 1940, Howe ordered his troops not to advance on the fortifications.
The men's dander was up, and they wanted to press the attack. Howe later wrote, “It required repeated orders to prevail on them to desist.” (A few years later, many in Britain would accuse Howe of impropriety, some even suggesting that he held rebel sympathies and had allowed Washington's army to escape on purpose. A court of inquiry cleared him of these charges in 1779, though the rumors persisted.)
McCullough wrote: “It had been the first great battle of the Revolution, and by far the largest battle ever fought in North America until then. Counting both armies and the Royal Navy, more than 40,000 men had taken part. The field of battle ranged over six miles, and the fighting lasted just over six hours. And for the Continental Army, now the army of the United States of America, in this first great test under fire, it had been a crushing defeat.”
The British and Hessians lost under 500 men, killed and wounded. By contrast, Washington’s force lost between 700 and 1,000 men. Worse, Washington's army was now trapped. The British closed in from three sides, while the East River, dominated by the Royal Navy, blocked its retreat. Another great push by the Redcoats, Washington knew, and the patriot army would be crushed. The entire cause was in jeopardy.
In the book “Washington: A Life,” biographer Ron Chernow wrote: “If George Washington stared into the abyss at any single moment of the war, it must have been as he contemplated the vast British force arrayed below him, poised to shatter his army forever.”
Late afternoon on Aug. 29 saw Washington call his generals together for a council of war. All agreed that the army must find a way to retreat to Manhattan. There were now roughly 9,500 men under his command on Long Island, perhaps a quarter of them sick and wounded. Nevertheless, Washington understood that if the operation was to be a success, his entire force would have to move off the island that night and utmost secrecy must be upheld until the moment of action. The operation began in the dead of night.
Chernow wrote: “As the sun rose on the morning of Aug. 30, some American troops still lingered on the Brooklyn shore, including Washington, who swore he would cross on the last boat. Then with uncanny good fortune, a heavy fog rolled across the Brooklyn shore, screening the evacuees from the stirring British. True to his word, Washington boarded the last boat in the nick of time: He could hear the British firing as he pushed into the water.”
Washington's entire force had escaped the British, much to Howe's horror, and without the loss of a single life. As Winston Churchill noted over 160 years later, “Wars are not won by evacuations.” Like the British army escaping from Hitler's panzers at Dunkirk in 1940, the Continental Army could have lost everything at Brooklyn Heights, but an evacuation that owed much to courage, superb logistical improvisation and a heavy dose of luck succeeded in ensuring that the forces of liberty survived to fight another day.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org