The battle of New York began in August of 1776 and it was a match of maneuvers and counter-maneuvers between British and Patriot forces under the commands of Gens. George Washington and William Howe. Including the Battle of Brooklyn and the Battle of Long Island, the conflict was actually spread across a large area that is contemporary New York City. Considering the overwhelming odds in favor of the British, who greatly outnumbered the Patriots, the outcome of the battle should have been straightforward. However, geography, weather, and fate conspired against General Howe at various times. While his ultimate victory in New York was never in serious question, the terms of that victory seemed doubtful at several points.
British strategists saw that the key to suppressing the American revolt was to bifurcate American ground forces, isolating the colonies from each other, and also to use British naval power to form a blockade at key maritime trade routes which would choke out trade and cut Patriot forces off from their source of funding (Johnson, 32). New York City was one such nexus for maritime trade, so General Howe was dispatched with approximately 20,000 men to occupy the city. British intent was not to simply destroy Patriot forces in combat, but rather to deprive them of resources until they were forced to the negotiation table.
Meanwhile, the Patriots were examining their options for defending the city of New York. In an intelligence estimate prepared for General Washington, it was reported, “…whoever commands the sea must command the town” (Adams, 651). Unfortunately for the Patriots, they had little to no naval power. The British, on the other hand, had dominance over the seas. With Manhattan being an island, and Brooklyn and Long Island having large coastal areas, it would be easy to land troops in New York City as well as deliver cannon fire upon coastal targets. Although some military planners saw the defense of New York as impractical, it was still felt that they could not allow the British to gain a foothold in the area, and to that end, they built three batteries to defend the East River. These were Waterbury’s Battery, Badlam’s Redoubt, and Coenties’ Battery (Johnson, 55). While white and black inhabitants of the city worked on the batteries, irregular forces began to mass in New York with General Washington, departing from Boston on April 4th, 1776 (Johnson, 63).
While General Howe arrived in Staten Island in July after refitting in Halifax, General Washington found himself in command of about 9,000 militiamen, two-thousand of them “being completely destitute of arms” (Adams, 651). In addition to the challenge posed by New York’s hydrography, the geography also posed an issue, particularly Brooklyn Heights, which, if captured by the British, would put Patriot forces in Manhattan within artillery range (Adams, 652). In order to shore up both Manhattan and Brooklyn, General Washington made the bold decision to divide his forces in half.
Considering his tactical and strategic position, General Washington perhaps over-committed to the defense of an undefendable city from the beginning:
[Washington] actually thought he could defend a land and water front of nearly thirty miles, vulnerable in front and flank and rear, besides being cut in two by a navigable channel both broad and deep; while the enemy, greatly superior in mere numbers as well as in discipline and equipment, was, through an undisputed command of the water, free to concentrate himself or a decisive blow at any point (Adams, 653).
Both sides continued to amass their forces in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. The British even imported nearly 8,000 Hessian mercenaries for the coming battle (Field, 131).
To be continued in Part 2
Adams, Charles Francis. “The Battle for Long Island.” Oxford University Press, 1986.
Field, Thomas. “The Battle of Long Island.” Long Island Historical Society, 1800.
Johnson, Henry. “The Campaign of 1776 and New York and Brooklyn.” Long Island Historical Society, 1878. Print.