It was June 19, 1776, and the British had come. McCurtin, a private in the Continental army, later wrote that the “whole Bay was full of shipping as it ever could be” and the masts of the ships moored by Staten Island “resembled a forest of pine trees with their branches trimmed.” Gen. Sir William Howe, commanding His Majesty’s forces in North America, had passed the Narrows with 48 men-of-war and transports. Neither McCurtin nor the hundreds of New Yorkers who soon lined the Battery and the waterfront piers had seen anything like it.
They had seen nothing yet. During the next day, Sir William’s seafaring brother, Admiral Richard, Lord Howe (dark, like most of that family, and popular with his command, as his brother was with his, Lord Howe’s sailors called him “Black Dick”), joined him with 82 more ships. By July 12, more than 150 ships stood off Staten Island; by mid-August, more than 400. King George III and his ministers had assembled the greatest seagoing invasion since the Spanish Armada nearly two centuries before.
On July 12, 1776, the British did three things.
First, they landed on Staten Island. The county militia, mustered for home defense, surrendered as one man.
Then, two frigates, H.M.S. Phoenix and H.M.S. Rose, testing the harbor defenses, swept up the Bay under full sail. The Rose‘s commander opened a particularly fine claret as the American artillery fired on him from Red Hook, Governor’s Island, Paulus Hook in New Jersey and Forts Washington and Lee. They missed. They all missed. They never came close. The two men-of-war cruised some 30 miles north to Tappan Bay and returned a few days later, utterly undamaged.
Finally, the Howe brothers tried to open negotiations. Sir William Howe (“Sir Billy” behind his back) was a civilized man, preferring peace to war. Perhaps it was his sensuality. Howe’s paunch spoke of his weakness for the pleasures of the bottle and the table, even as the presence in his suite of Mrs. Joshua Loring, a charming Bostonian, evidenced a fondness for those of the bed (Sir William had appointed the complaisant Mr. Loring to the lucrative post of His Majesty’s Commissary of Prisoners).
But love of pleasure was not professional incapacity. William Howe, tall, pleasant and taciturn, was in his late 40s. He had held the King’s commission for more than 30 years. A careful, intelligent commander who generally eschewed wasteful frontal
assaults against entrenched positions, Howe’s massive popularity with his troops stemmed from their confidence that he would not waste their lives in the pursuit of glory.
Yet Howe could be magnificently, even wildly brave. In September 1759, Howe had scaled the Cliffs of Abraham, leading 4000 troops in the surprise attack on the French at Quebec, still considered among the most audacious feats in military history. On June 17, 1775, at Bunker Hill, he personally led his grenadiers’ second assault against “an incessant stream of fire…more than flesh could endure” from Israel Putnam’s militiamen, and when his men broke and ran, William Howe momentarily remained, defiant and nearly alone on the hillside in his cocked hat and bright scarlet coat, before turning and walking away.
The Howe brothers, knowing war from experience, preferred peace. But how to address the letter to the rebel commander? “General” might seem to recognize the legitimacy of Congress, which had commissioned him. “Colonel,” his highest rank as a militia officer in the King’s service, might be insulting. Ah! the best address for a Virginian gentleman: George Washington, Esq.
In They Fought for New York, John Brick describes the arrival of Lieut. Brown, R.N. of H.M.S. Eagle, with the letter under flag of truce. He saluted a blue coated colonel at the Battery stairs.
“Sir,” Brown said, “I have a letter from Lord Howe to Mr. Washington.”
“Sir,” replied Col. Joseph Reed, Philadelphia lawyer turned adjutant general of the United States Army, “we have no person here in our army with that address.”
Opening negotiations is difficult when your foes won’t even accept your mail on a lawyer’s advice.
Sir William then addressed another letter to “George Washington, Esq., etc., etc.” This, too, was refused. The bearer, Lieut. Col. James Patterson, Howe’s adjutant general, then asked whether General Washington would care to meet with him.
Washington received Patterson at his headquarters at 1 Broadway. Patterson explained the “etc., etc.” as terms used in diplomacy when a man’s precise rank was in doubt. Washington replied there was no doubt about his precise rank and that “etc., etc.” could mean “anything—or nothing.” Patterson then suggested negotiations between Lord Howe and Washington. The Commander-in-Chief refused. He was merely a soldier, powerless to negotiate political issues: That was Congress’ domain.
By Aug. 19, 1776, Sir William had 32,000 professional soldiers on Staten Island, including two regiments of Guards, the Black Watch, and 8000 mercenaries, rented for the occasion from the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel. Three days later, he invaded Brooklyn at Gravesend Bay. By noon, he had 15,000 men ashore with scarcely a shot fired.
Although Washington had fortified Brooklyn Heights, building Fort Greene, Fort Putnam and Fort Box, the American forces largely stood forward on the Heights of Guan (now Crown Heights, Stuyvesant Heights, Ocean Hill and Ridgewood). Apparently none of the American commanders knew of the Jamaica Pass, “a deep winding cut” at what is now Broadway Junction, near East New York. This led to the Jamaica Rd., roughly parallel to what are now Fulton St. and Atlantic Ave., which curved between the Americans on the Heights of Guan and their fortifications near Brooklyn Heights. During the early morning of Aug. 27, Howe sent 4000 light infantrymen unopposed through the Pass. By dawn, they held the Jamaica Rd.
The Battle of Long Island opened with desultory skirmishing. Several hours after sunrise, two cannons boomed in the American rear. As the British and Hessians in their front suddenly stopped fooling around and began formal attacks, the Americans found Howe’s light infantrymen charging from behind.
The rebel left and center collapsed. Many soldiers simply surrendered. Others fled into the woods. Through the ranks of British grenadiers sprinted Hessian jagers, vanishing into the trees after the rebels. They were green-coated professional huntsmen and gamekeepers, superbly fit, disciplined to an edge of ruthlessness, and armed with short-barreled rifles. They were trained to fight in forests, for at home they tracked poachers and thieves, and tended to take no prisoners. Decades later, the skulls of men run down and bayoneted by the jagers were still turning up on building sites, roadsides and tilled fields.
The American right comprised 1500 troops under Gen. William Alexander, a stocky, jovial Scots eccentric, who, though fighting for a republican cause, claimed the title of Lord Stirling. He had been more than holding his own: Two of his regiments had driven British regulars from a flanking crest and seized the high ground. Stirling had not held the hill for 15 minutes when thousands of British and German troops unexpectedly smashed into his front. His scouts then told him his left flank was in the air, the American left and center were gone and British regulars were cutting him off.
Stirling, unlike the other American commanders, had apparently studied his ground and even considered possible routes of retreat. He had one left: through marshes to Gowanus Creek, 80 yards wide at the mouth. Even then, his men would be slaughtered in the mud unless the British advance was stopped, if only for an hour.
Stirling, “with grim-faced Scottish fortitude,” detached 250 Marylanders. They were militiamen. This was their first battle. He ordered his officers to move the rest of his command across the Gowanus. Then he rode to the Marylanders and put himself at their head.
They faced 10,000 British and German regulars, advancing in broad ranks two or three lines deep, now confident of victory, the field music’s drummers beating a quick step, the King’s and the regimental colors unfurled. The company-grade officers marched beside their men, swords at the carry, and the field-grade officers rode behind the lines, not out of cowardice but to maintain communications and control. As the enemy’s shooting became effective, the ranks would close up, again and again, while marching forward. At 100 yards or so, they would halt. The soldiers would fire a volley and then charge at a full run, bayonets fixed, probably yelling at the top of their lungs. The effect was intentional: to seem terrifying, invincible and nearly inhuman.
Anyone watching the Guards’ trooping the color on the Queen’s birthday is observing 18th-century tactics. American propaganda trains us to ridicule this kind of magnificent formal spectacle. But the British and Germans fought thus because it usually worked. It certainly did on Aug. 26, 1776. British soldiers generally were, as the Duke of Wellington later called them, “the scum of the earth”: semi-literate at best, thuggish, crude and boisterous. They were controlled through harsh discipline, with floggings ordered on the slightest pretext. Their lives were a constant round of drill and maintenance (blacking boots, polishing buckles, pipe-claying breeches to keep them white and sponge-cleaning the red coats, drycleaning being unknown), occasionally interrupted by whoring and drinking. The constant drill strengthened the habit of obedience, enabling officers and
non-coms to control and maneuver their men with great flexibility amidst the horror of battle.
But Stirling had seen it before. He told his men that he knew James Grant, the British general commanding the troops on his front, and had been in the House of Commons when Grant had boasted he could march from one end of America to the other with 5000 men. He urged them to prove Grant wrong.
Then his sword flashed from its scabbard, and with a broad sweep, Stirling pointed at the advancing enemy, roared, “Charge!” and spurred his horse forward. The 250 went with him. They charged, broke, withdrew, regrouped and charged again—five times. Because they “fought like wolves,” they bought the time their comrades needed to cross the marshes. Of the 250, 10 men and one officer stumbled by nightfall into the American entrenchments at Brooklyn Heights. Stirling was not among them.
It was only noon. Howe had lost 65 killed and 255 wounded while inflicting more than 2000 casualties on the rebels. One imagines the response of Patton to a demoralized enemy hopelessly off balance with his back to a river. Howe could have ended the war that afternoon, and there would have been no United States.
Imagine Elizabeth II’s elegant profile on the shillings in our pockets.
And Sir William Howe said no. His men prepared for a careful assault on the American fortifications. In the harbor, Lord Howe’s captains expected orders to place their ships in the East River between Brooklyn and New York to bottle up Washington in Brooklyn. The orders never came. Lord Howe did not even send out cutters—small boats, manned by expert oarsmen, carrying light cannon in swiveling mounts—to patrol.
More than 220 years later, this remains inexplicable. Probably, the Howe brothers, being half a world away from London, were making policy despite their orders. Thomas Fleming, in Liberty, wrote: “To achieve the kind of [negotiated] peace Admiral Howe envisioned, Washington’s army had to survive. If it was battered into mass surrender in Brooklyn or slaughtered on the East River, hard-liners…would insist on a peace of unconditional surrender, [making] America another Ireland.”
Washington had a genius for retreat. Few things are as difficult as the organized, controlled withdrawal of a defeated army. His mind turned to the 14th Continentals, a regiment of American regulars, mostly sailors in civilian life, largely raised from Marblehead, MA (characterized by one of his officers as “a dirty erregular stincking place”). Between nightfall on Aug. 26 and Aug. 29, Washington and his staff assembled every boat “that could be kept afloat and had either sails or oars.” The 14th Continentals manned them. The army was gradually withdrawn from the lines and ferried to Manhattan under cover of darkness. At dawn on Aug. 30, the last boats left. One carried George Washington. He had not slept in 48 hours.
Washington’s withdrawal from Brooklyn, his army intact, was the first step in his retreat to victory.