In 1776 the
American army in and near New-York amounted to 17,225 men. These were mostly new
troops, and were divided in many small and unconnected posts, some of which were
fifteen miles removed from others. The British force before New-York was
increasing by frequent successive arrivals from Halifax, South-Carolina,
Florida, the West-Indies and Europe. But so many unforeseen delays had taken
place, that the month of August was far advanced, before they were in a
condition to open the campaign.
When all things were ready, the British commanders resolved to
make their first attempt on Long-Island. This was preferred to New-York, as it
abounded with those supplies which their forces required.
The British landed without opposition, between two small towns,
Utrecht and Gravesend. The American works protected a small peninsula having
Wallabout-Bay to the left, and stretching over to Red-Hook on the right, and the
East-River being in their rear. General Sullivan, with a strong force, was
encamped within these works at Brooklyne. From the east-side of the narrows runs
a ridge of hills covered with thick wood, about five or six miles in length,
which terminates near Jamaica. There were three passes through these hills, one
near the narrows, a second on the Flatbush road, and a third on the Bedford
road, and they are all defensible. These were the only roads which could be
passed from the southside of the hills to the American lines, except a road
which led round the easterly end of the hills to Jamaica. The Americans had 800
men on each of these roads, and colonel Miles was placed with his battalion of
riflemen, to guard the road from the south of the hills to Jamaica, and to watch
the motions of the British.
On August 226th, 1776 General de Heister, with his Hessians,
took post at Flatbush, in the evening. In the following night the greater part
of the British army, commanded by general Clinton, marched to gain the road
leading round the easterly end of the hills to Jamaica, and to turn the left of
the Americans. He arrived about two hours before day, within half a mile of this
road. One of his parties fell in with a patrol of American officers, and took
them all prisoners, which prevented the early transmission of intelligence.
Upon the first appearance of day general Clinton advanced, and took possession
of the heights over which the road passed. General Grant, with the left wing,
advanced along the coast by the west road, near the narrows; but this was
intended chiefly as a feint.
The guard which was stationed at this road, fled without making
any resistance. A few of them were afterwards rallied, and lord Stirling
advanced with 1500 men, and took possession of a hill, about two miles from the
American camp, and in front of general Grant.
On August 27th
an attack was made very early in the morning by the Hessians from Flatbush,
under general de Heister, and by general Grant on the coast, and was well
supported for a considerable time by both sides. The Americans who opposed
general de Heister were first informed of the approach of general Clinton, who
had come round on their left. They immediately began to retreat to their camp,
but were intercepted by the right wing under general Clinton, who got into the
rear of their left, and attacked them with his light infantry and dragoons,
while returning to their lines. They were driven back till they were met by the
Hessians. They were thus alternately chased and intercepted, between general de
Heister and general Clinton. Some of their regiments nevertheless found their
way to the camp. The Americans under lord Stirling, consisting of colonel Miles’
two battalions, colonel Atlee’s, colonel Smallwood’s, and colonel Hatche’s,
regiments, who were engaged with general Grant, fought with great resolution for
about six hours. They were uninformed of the movements made by general Clinton,
till some of the troops under his command, had traversed the whole extent of
country in their rear. Their retreat was thus intercepted, but several
notwithstanding, broke through and got into the woods. Many threw themselves
into the marsh, some were drowned, and others perished in the mud, but a
considerable number escaped by this way to their lines.
The king’s troops displayed great valour throughout the whole
day. The variety of the ground occasioned a succession of small engagements,
pursuits and slaughter, which lasted for many hours. British discipline in
every instance, triumphed over the native valour of raw troops, who had never
been in action, and whose officers were unacquainted with the stratagems of war.
The loss of the British and Hessians was about 450. The killed,
wounded and prisoners of the Americans, including those who were drowned or
perished in the woods or mud, considerably exceeded a thousand. Among the
prisoners of the latter were two of their general officers, Sullivan and lord
Stirling. Three Colonels, 4 lieutenant colonels, 3 majors, 18 captains, 43
lieutenants, and 11 ensigns. Smallwood’s regiment, the officers of which were
young men of the best families in the state of Maryland, sustained a loss of 259
men. The British after their victory were so impetuous, that it was with
difficulty, they could be restrained from attacking the American lines.
In the time of, and subsequent to the engagement, General
Washington drew over to Long-Island, the greatest part of his army. After he had
collected his principal force there, it was his wish and hope, that Sir William
Howe, would attempt to storm the works on the island. These though insufficient
to stand a regular siege, were strong enough to resist a coup de main. The
remembrance of Bunker’s-hill, and a desire to spare his men, restrained the
British general from making an assault. On the contrary he made demonstrations
of proceeding by siege, and broke ground within three hundred yards to the left
at Putnam’s redoubt. On August 30th though general Washington wished for an
assault, yet being certain that his works would be untenable, when the British
batteries should be fully opened, he called a council of war, to consult on the
measures proper to be taken. It was then determined that the objects in view
were in no degree proportioned to the dangers to which, by a continuation on the
island, they would be exposed. Conformably to this opinion, dispositions were
made for an immediate retreat. This commenced soon after it was dark from two
points, the upper and lower ferries, on East river. General M‘Dougal, regulated
the embarkation at one, and colonel Knox at the other. The intention of
evacuating the island, had been so prudently concealed from the Americans, that
they knew not whither they were going, but supposed to attack the enemy. The
field artillery, tents, baggage, and about 9000 men were conveyed to the city of
New-York over East River, more than a mile wide, in less than 13 hours, and
without the knowledge of the British, though not six hundred yards distant.
Providence, in a remarkable manner favored the retreating army. For some time
after the Americans began to cross the state of the tide, and a strong
north-east wind made it impossible for them to make use of their sail boats, and
their whole number of row boats was insufficient for completing the business, in
the course of the night. But about eleven o’clock, the wind died away, and soon
after sprung up at south-east, and blew fresh, which rendered the sail boats of
use, and at the same time made the passage from the island to the city, direct,
easy and expeditious. Towards morning an extreme thick fog came up, which
hovered over Long-Island, and by concealing the Americans, enabled them to
complete their retreat without interruption, though the day had begun to dawn
some time before it was finished. By a mistake in the transmission of orders,
the American lines were evacuated for about three quarters of an hour, before
the last embarkation took place, but the British though so near, that their
working parties could be distinctly heard, being enveloped in the fog knew
nothing of the matter. The lines were repossessed and held till six o’clock in
the morning, when every thing except some heavy cannon was removed. General
Mifflin, who commanded the rear guard left the lines, and under the cover of the
fog got off safe. In about half an hour the fog cleared away, and the British
entered the works which had been just relinquished. Had the wind not shifted,
the half of the American army could not have crossed, and even as it was, if the
fog had not concealed their rear, it must have been discovered, and could hardly
have escaped. General Sullivan, who was taken prisoner on Long-Island, was
immediately sent on parole, with the following verbal message from lord Howe to
"that though he could not at present treat with them in that character, yet he
was very desirous of having a conference with some of the members, whom he
would consider as private gentlemen; that he with his brother the general, had
full powers to compromise the dispute between Great-Britain and America, upon
terms advantageous to both—that he wished a compact might be settled, at a
time when no decisive blow was struck, and neither party could say it was
compelled to enter into such agreement. That were they disposed to treat, many
things which they had not yet asked, might and ought to be granted, and that
if upon conference they found any probable ground of accommodation, the
authority of Congress would be afterwards acknowledged to render the treaty
Three days after this message was received, general Sullivan was
requested to inform lord Howe,
"that Congress being the representatives of the free and independent states of
America, they cannot with propriety send any of their members to confer with
his lordship in their private characters, but that ever desirous of
establishing peace on reasonable terms, they will send a committee of their
body, to know whether he has any authority to treat with persons authorized by
Congress, for that purpose, on behalf of America, and what that authority is;
and to hear such propositions as he shall think fit to make respecting the
They elected Dr. Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge their
committee, for this purpose. In a few days they met lord Howe on Staten-Island,
and were received with great politeness. On their return they made a report of
their conference, which they summed up by saying,
"It did not appear to your committee that his lordship’s commission contained
any other authority than that expressed in the act of parliament—namely, that
of granting pardons, with such exceptions as the commissioners shall think
proper to make, and of declaring America, or any part of it, to be in the
king’s peace, on submission: For as to the power of enquiring into the state
of America, which his lordship mentioned to us, and of conferring and
consulting with any persons the commissioners might think proper,  and
representing the result of such conversation to the ministry, who, provided
the colonies would subject themselves, might after all, or might not, at their
pleasure, make any alterations in the former instructions to governors, or
propose in parliament, any amendment of the acts complained of, we apprehended
any expectation from the effect of such a power, would have been too uncertain
and precarious, to be relied on by America, had she still continued in her
state of dependence."
Lord Howe, had ended the conference on his part, by expressing
his regard for America, and the extreme pain he would suffer in being obliged to
distress those whom he so much regarded. Dr. Franklin, thanked him for his
regards, and assured him, “that the Americans would shew their gratitude, by
endeavoring to lessen as much as possible, all pain he might feel on their
account, by exerting their utmost abilities, in taking good care of themselves.”
The committee in every respect maintained the dignity of
Congress. Their conduct and sentiments were such as became their character. The
friends to independence rejoiced that nothing resulted from this interview, that
might disunite the people. Congress, trusting to the good sense of their
countrymen, ordered the whole to be printed for their information. All the
states would have then rejoiced at less beneficial terms than they obtained
about seven years later. But Great-Britain counted on the certainty of their
absolute conquest, or unconditional submission. Her offers therefore comported
so little with the feelings of America, that they neither caused demur nor
disunion, among the new formed states.
The unsuccessful termination of the action on the 27th, led to
consequences more seriously alarming to the Americans, than the loss of their
men. Their army was universally dispirited. The militia ran off by companies.
Their example infected the regular regiments. The loose footing on which the
militia came to camp, made it hazardous to exercise over them that discipline,
without which, an army is a mob. To restrain one part of an army, while another
claimed and exercised the right of doing as they pleased, was no less
impracticable than absurd.
A council of war, recommended to act on the defensive, and not to risqué the
army for the sake of New-York. September 7th decision to retreat, subjected the
commander in chief to reflections painful to bear, and yet impolitic to refute.
To stand his ground, and by suffering himself to be surrounded, to hazard the
fate of America on one decisive engagement, was contrary to every rational plan
of defending the wide extended states committed to his care. A middle line
between abandoning and defending was therefore for a short time adopted. The
public stores were moved to Dobbs’ ferry, about 26 miles from New-York. 12,000
men were ordered to the northern extremity of New-York island, and 4500 to
remain for the defense of the city, while the remainder occupied the
intermediate space, with orders, either to support the city or Kingsbridge, as
exigencies might require. Before the British landed, it was impossible to tell
what place would be first attacked. This made it necessary to erect works for
the defense of a variety of places, as well as of New-York. Though every thing
was abandoned when the crisis came that either the city must be relinquished, or
the army risqué for its defense, yet from the delays, occasioned by the redoubts
and other works, which had been erected on the idea of making the defense of the
states a war of posts, a whole campaign was lost to the British, and saved to
the Americans. The year began with hopes, that Great-Britain would recede from
her demands, and therefore every plan of defense was on a temporary system. The
declaration of independence, which the violence of Great-Britain forced the
colonies to adopt in July, though neither foreseen nor intended at the
commencement of the year, pointed out the necessity of organizing an army, on
new terms, correspondent to the enlarged objects for which they had resolved to
contend. On September 16th Congress accordingly determined to raise 88
battalions, to serve during the war. Under these circumstances to wear away the
campaign, with as little misfortune as possible, and thereby to gain time for
raising a permanent army against the next year, was to the Americans a matter of
the last importance. Though the commander in chief abandoned those works, which
had engrossed much time and attention yet the advantage resulting from the
delays they occasioned, far overbalanced the expense incurred by their erection.
The History of the American Revolution
The Pennsylvania Gazette
Text Courtesy of
Camp, Long Island, July 13, 1776.
Dear Brother, WITH the greatest difficulty I have procured this small piece of
paper to inform you of my being very well, notwithstanding the miserable
situation we are in.
We have been encamped on this island for this month past, and have lived upon
nothing else but salt pork and pease. We sleep upon the sea shore, nothing to
shelter us from the violent rains, but our coats or miserable paltry blankets.
There is nothing that grows upon this island, it being a mere sand bank, and a
few bushes which harbor millions of mosquitoes, a greater plague than there
can be in hell itself.
By this sloop of war you will have an account of an action which happened on
the 28th June, between the ships and the fort on Sullivan Island. The
cannonade continued for about nine hours, and was perhaps one of the briskest
known in the annals of war; we had two 50 gun ships, and five frigates from 24
to 30 guns, playing on the fort, I may say without success, for they did the
battery no manner of damage, and killed fifteen, and wounded betwixt forty and
fifty. Our ships are in the most mangled situation you can conceive. The
Acteon, a 30 gun frigate, run a ground during the action, and as it was
impossible to get her off, we were obliged to burn and blow her up.
Our killed and wounded amounts to betwixt 2 and 300. Numbers die daily of
The Commander is wounded in two different places. His Captain lost his left
arm and right hand, and was wounded in different parts of his body, he lived
but two days after the action. Captain Scott, of the Experiment of 50 guns,
died of his wounds, and numbers of the other officers.
If the ships could have silenced the battery, the army was to have made an
attack on the back of the island, where they had about 1000 men entrenched up
to their eyes, besides a small battery of 4 guns, one 18 pounder, and three 4
pounders, all loaded with grape shot, so that they would have killed half of
us before we could make our landing good.
We are now expecting to embark for New York, to join General Howe with the
grand army. My anxiety to inform you of bad news had well nigh made me forget
to mention our passage to Cape Fear, where we arrived safely the first of May,
after a voyage of three months. Though it was long, yet it was no disagreeable
after we got out of the Bay of Biscay, where we met with the worst weather
ever known at sea, and continued in that situation for 16 days; after that
time we had very fine weather all along; sometimes we were becalmed for four
or five days together, not going above ten knots a day. Upon our arrival in
Cape Fear we disembarked, and were encamped in the woods until the 27th of
May, when we went on board again, and sailed for this infernal place. The
oldest of the officers do not remember of ever undergoing such hardships as we
have done since our arrival here.
I hope you will be good as to watch every opportunity to let me hear from you
and Mrs. Falconer, and at the same time to inform me how I shall do in case I
shall be obliged to purchase my Lieutenancy. I beg you will make my excuse to
my dear sister for not writing to her at this time; it is not owing to want of
affection, but to the want of proper materials. I am obliged to write on the
ground. You will be so good as to let Captain Falconer know the same thing. I
shall write again from New York. I am, dear Sir,
Your most affectionate brother,
August 28, 1776
Yesterday occurrences no doubt will be described to you various ways: I
embrace this leisure moment to give as satisfactory an account as I am able. A
large body of the enemy that landed some time since on Long Island, at the end
of a beautiful plain, had extended their troops about six miles from the place
of their first landing. - There were at this time eleven regiments of our
troops posted in different parts of the woods, between our lines and the
enemy, through which they must pass if they attempted any thing against us.
Early in the morning our scouting parties discovered a large body of the
enemy, both horse and foot, advancing on the Jamaica road towards us; I was
dispatched to General Putnam, to inform him of it.
On my way back I discovered as I thought our battalion on a hill coming
in, dressed in hunting shirts, and was going on to join them, but was stopped
by a number of our soldiers, who told me they were the enemy in our dress - on
this I prevailed on a sergeant and two men to halt and fire on them, which
produced a shower of bullets, and we were obliged to retire.
In the mean time the enemy with a large body penetrated through the woods on
our right, and center or front, and about nine o'clock landed another body on
their right, the whole stretching across the fields and woods between our
works and our troops, and sending out parties, accompanies with light horse,
which harassed our surrounded and surprised new troops, who however sold their
lives dear: Our forces then made towards our lines, but the enemy had taken
possession of the ground before them by stolen marches. Our men broke through
parties after parties, but still found the enemy thousands before them. Col.
Smallwood, Atlee and Hazlet battalions, with General Stirling at their head,
had collected on an eminence and made a good stand, but the enemy fired a
field piece on them, and being greatly superior in number obliged them to
retreat into a marsh, and finding it out of their power to withstand about
6000 men, they waded through the mud and water to a mill opposite them; their
retreat was covered by the second battalion which had got into our lines. Col.
Lutzand the New England regiments after this made some resistance in the
woods, but were obliged by superior numbers to retire.
Colonel Miles and Broadhead battalions, finding themselves surrounded,
determined to fight and run; they did son, and broke through English,
Hessians, &c. and dispersed horse, and at last came in with considerable
loss. Colonel Parry was early in the day shot through the head, encouraging
his men. Eighty of our battalion came in this morning, having forced their way
through the enemy rear, and came round by way of Hellgate; and we expect more,
who are missing, will come in the same way.
Letter from New York, August 30, 1776
In council of war held yesterday, it was determined that our lines on Long
Island were not tenable, and therefore the council concluded to evacuate them.
Lord Stirling and Gen. Sullivan are prisoners. Gen. Howe allowed Gen. Sullivan
a flag, by which he informed us of this, and that he was politely treated.
PA Officer, dated New York, August 31, 1776
I am but just come to this place, after a fatiguing time. - Last Tuesday
morning, at daylight, we found the enemy beginning their march for our lines;
we with our little army went out to oppose them, on which a bloody battle
ensued; we were surrounded by them on all sides, and had several times to
fight our way through. - It was a continued battle from a town about three
miles off, called Flat Bush, until we got into our lines. - We have lost a
great many men and officers - I cannot give you the particulars, but our men
and officers fought nobly; we were overpowered by numbers. I cannot learn that
we had more than 3000 men in the field, and they had at least 20,000. Col.
Miles and Col. Atlee were made prisoners in the engagement." Extract of a
Letter from New York, dated August 31.
You are no doubt surprised to hear of our sudden retreat from Long
Island, but it was thought absolutely essential from our situation: We were
under a necessity of marching out and attacking them upon their own ground, or
suffering ourselves to have been starved into a surrender. First, because they
were entrenching within 500 yards of our lines, which were very weak and
incapable of withstanding their heavy cannon, and our men, from their
situation, began to grow very uneasy; and secondly, because their shipping
might have run up the East River, and cut off our resources of provisions and
every other necessary. The retreat was conducted with the greatest secrecy,
and by six o'clock in the morning we had every thing embarked. There never was
a man that behaved better upon the occasion than General Washington; he was on
horse back the whole night, and never left the ferry stairs till he had seen
the whole of his troops embarked.
By letters from New York we learn, that the Court Martial have sentenced
Col. Zedwitz to be broke, and rendered incapable of holding any military
office, but we do not hear that the sentence has been confirmed by the
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