Continued from Part 1
The Battle of Long Island
Combat actions commenced on August 22nd, 1776, when General Howe ordered the invasion of Long Island. Some 15,000 British and Hessian troops successfully landed on the beaches of Long Island and came ashore before quickly moving to seize the village of Flatbush (Schecter, 128). General Washington assumed the landing was a diversion and only dispatched a small force to shore up his forces in Long Island.
Minor skirmishes and artillery strikes broke out, but the battle had not yet begun in earnest. Meanwhile, General Howe was searching out a means to move his forces into Brooklyn and secured a local guide against his will to lead them through the Jamaica Pass with 6,000 men (Schecter, 139). Losing ground in Long Island, General Washington wisely had his forces retreat back to New York in any and all boats which could be rounded up (Johnson, 218).
The Battle for Brooklyn
The Battle for Brooklyn was soon underway and would be the first time that large British and Patriot battle formations met on the field of battle. A few not-so-patriotic Patriots quick deserted, but by early morning, the two belligerent forces faced each other on Gowanus Road (Schecter, 143). The British preferred to encircle their enemy by chipping away at their flanks, firing several volleys, and then blitzing forward in a bayonet charge. The Patriots maneuvered accordingly as they realized they were being encircled and eventually occupied the high ground (today known as Battle Hill) and repelled three enemy offensives from this position (Schecter, 146).
Unknown to General Washington’s men, General Howe had made it through the Jamaica Pass during the night and was now in the Patriots’ rear areas and marching towards them. The Patriots’ battle lines were smashed. Large numbers of militiamen were captured and many were killed by advancing British and Hessian troops. The survivors fled in full sprint toward their fortifications deeper in Brooklyn (Schecter, 148).
By mid-morning, General Howe also attempted to send his ships-of-the-line up the East River to wage a simultaneous assault against Manhattan. This however, was where fate intervened. “A wind from the south west would have carried the British ships directly up the East River and placed them in front of Brooklyn. Chance ordered otherwise” (Adams, 658). Instead, the British were fighting both the tide and a strong northeastern wind. Only one of the smaller ships managed to fight against the wind and come within cannon range of the redoubt at Red Hook. A barrage of fire managed to damage the redoubt, but it was far from the coup-de-grace that General Howe would have hoped for.
While failing to strike a killing blow, British forces still gained impressive victories during the Battle of Brooklyn. The best estimates conclude that about 900 Patriots were captured and around 200 were killed during the battle (Schecter, 153). Had it not been for adverse conditions, the British may have been able to bifurcate Patriot forces by occupying the East River with ships-of-the-line. Also, had General Howe not still been suffering from the stigma of Bunker Hill, he may have favored bolder tactics which would have completely routed the Patriots in Brooklyn that morning.
With the Patriots huddled inside their fortifications and the British digging a trench line parallel to them, General Washington ordered preparations for a frontal assault which was really just a cover for action. The real plan was to enact a strategic retreat from Brooklyn and leave General Howe’s forces empty-handed. General Washington ordered that every boat that could possibly be used to aid in the retreat be brought to the shore alongside the fortifications. In the dead of night, the Patriots began crossing the East River. The river crossings went on throughout the night with a rear guard force left behind to keep the campfires burning in order to deceive the British troops (Schecter, 163). By dawn, the Colonial Americans had successfully crossed the East River in their entirety, aside from three who were captured and four who were wounded by the British firing from the shore (Schecter, 166).
In addition to Washington’s brilliant deception tactics, the retreat was really successful because of the northeasterly wind which kept British ships out of the East River and because they were “able to do so under the cover of fog without exciting any suspicion of their movements in the enemy’s camp” (Johnson, 223).
To be continued in Part 3
Adams, Charles Francis. “The Battle for Long Island.” Oxford University Press, 1986.
Johnson, Henry. “The Campaign of 1776 and New York and Brooklyn.” Long Island Historical Society, 1878. Print.
Schecter, Barnet. “The Battle for New York.” Walking Publishing Company, 2002. Print.