The Battle of Long Island Part II

On the night of August 22, 1776, the advance guard of this force landed on the shores of Gravesend Bay, between the present village of Bath Beach and Coney Island. At nine next morning four thousand light infantry crossed in flatboats from Staten Island, convoyed by the Rainbow and other men-of-war, and landed at what is now Fort Hamilton. An hour later a second division, of British and Hessians, entered boats, and rowing in regular ranks, landed at the bend of Gravesend Bay, at or near Bath Beach. Fifteen thousand men were ashore by noon, and spreading over Gravesend and New Utrecht plains under cover of the guns of the fleet.

Let us cross the East River with this boatload of soldiers which Washington is hurrying over to re-inforce his brave fellows on the heights. The only means of propelling boats at this time, you remember, are oars and sails. Brooklyn Heights rise before us in their natural outlines, uncrowned by buildings. There is a village at the ferry, there are a few farmhouses on the slopes, and the two noble mansions of Phillip and Robert Livingston on Columbia Heights, but neither city nor town.

We will resume our stand on Reservoir Hill and view the position of the contending armies. The British hold the plain as far east as Flatbush and Flatlands. There are twenty-one thousand men there, for a third division of six thousand men has re-inforced the fifteen thousand men that first landed. The Hessians and reserves are massed yonder at Flatbush, facing the pass, the main body, under Clinton and Percy, at Flatlands, two miles south, while Grant, with two brigades at Bath and New Utrecht, holds the Coast Road. The extreme right of the Americans, covering New Utrecht and the Martense Lane, is held by General Lord Stirling with his riflemen and Parsons's Connecticut troops. General Sullivan's division holds the center and extreme right, his regiments being stretched along the brow of the range for two miles on each side of the Flatbush Pass, and holding it. Meeting them on their left, Colonel Miles's Pennsylvania riflemen and some Connecticut levies take up the line and carry it east beyond Bedford Pass, but stop short of Jamaica Pass, leaving the latter unguarded—a grave mistake, by some charged to General Sullivan and by others to General Putnam. The whole number of American troops on this their outer line does not exceed twenty-eight hundred men, and in all there are barely eight thousand men, Washington not daring to leave his defenses on the New York side unmanned.

General Israel Putnam succeeded General Sullivan as commander in chief the day before, Washington remaining in New York. Putnam was a veteran of the French and Indian wars, a good fighter and strict disciplinarian, who had done excellent service at Bunker Hill a few months before. He, with the main body, held the inner or fortified line, whence it was thought he could quickly send aid to any part of the outer line when hard pressed.

The Tories promptly conveyed to Howe news that the Jamaica Pass had been left unguarded and was patrolled only by a few vedettes, and the latter's plan of battle was quickly formed, viz., to gain this pass quietly, march through it, turn the American left and gain the rear undetected, in which event the battle would be won. Grant, accordingly, was given orders to make a feint on Stirling on the morning of the 27th, at the Red Lion Tavern, a famous hostelry of that day, standing at the point where Martense Lane left the Coast Road, but by no means to bring on a serious battle until he should hear Clinton's guns in the American rear. De Heister and Knyphausen, commanding the Hessians, were given orders to attack Flatbush Pass at the same time, while Clinton and Percy were to steal around the American left with the entire right wing, gain Jamaica Pass, and double up the outer line on itself and the main body. This plan was carried out with perfect success.

At evening gun fire on the night of the 26th the troops of Clinton, Percy, and Cornwallis left their camp at Flatlands, with the fires still burning in order to deceive the Americans, and began their march " across the country through the new lots toward Jamaica Pass," as Lord Howe wrote in his report.

At the front were three Flatbush Tories as guides; then came Clinton with the light dragoons and a brigade of light infantry; then Cornwallis and the reserves, with fourteen pieces of light artillery ; then Lords Howe and Percy. This force toiled on in the darkness along the sandy road from Flatlands as far as Shoemakers Creek, and then, the better to escape detection, crossed over through the fields to the Jamaica Road, striking it at William Howard's Halfway House, a few yards southeast of the pass.

Leaving his main army in the fields, Howe, with his aids and a small bodyguard, went forward, and the former, with a civilian's hat on and a camlet cloak drawn over his uniform, entered the tavern and ordered a drink.

" Have you joined the association? " he asked of the tavern keeper.

" Yes," replied Howard.

" That's all very well; stick to your colors; but now you are my prisoner and must lead me across these hills, out of the way of the rebels, the nearest way to Gowanus," was the reply.

Howard led them around the pass by a bridle path that traversed what is now Evergreen Cemetery, and gained the Jamaica Road in the rear of the pass. They found the pass unguarded, and at once sent word to Clinton to hurry forward with the main body, which had been left in the fields, and occupy it.

But where was the vedette that had been set to patrol the pass? On this particular night it consisted of five young American officers of undoubted bravery and patriotism, who had volunteered for the perilous work —Van Wagener (one of the heroes of Quebec), Troup, Dunscomb, Hoogland, and Gilliland. Their orders were to patrol the pass and send news of the advance of the foe. But they erred from excess of zeal: not dreaming that the enemy would advance through the fields, they went forward on the road, the quicker to discover a possible advance, and the British slipped in between and captured them.

The young men were at once hurried into the presence of Clinton, who questioned them closely as to the troops, the forts, and the positions of the Americans; but they refused to answer.

" Under other circumstances," said Dunscomb, " you would not dare insult us in this manner."

Clinton, angered, called him an " impudent rebel," and threatened to hang him.

" No, you will not," replied Dunscomb, " for Washington can hang man for man."

The army now took breakfast and then hurried on down the King's Highway to Bedford, where they arrived about half-past eight in the morning. At this point they were well in the rear of the American outer line, about half a mile distant from it, and a mile and a half from Putnam's position. They could hear the thunder of De Heister's guns, now hotly engaged with Sullivan for possession of the Flatbush Pass.

In a short time they were discovered by Miles, who now found himself attacked by them in the tear, while cannonading down near the Red Lion Tavern told that Grant had obeyed orders and was engaging Stirling in that quarter.

The patriots saw that they were caught in a trap, between two fires, and cut off from their supports. A terrible hand-to-hand conflict of two hours now ensued in the woods and thickets, between Miles's and Sullivan's men on the one side and the British and Hessians, who, as we have seen, had penned them up between them — a fight with bayonet and sword and clubbed musket and branches rent from the trees; a struggle to the death, no quarter being asked or given. No supports were sent them by Putnam, for he knew not where to send, his whole line being engaged. The unequal combat could not long continue, however, and about noon Sullivan's and Miles's men broke and fled into the woods. A few gained the fortified line, but most of them were killed or taken prisoners.

Meantime the honors of the day had been won by Stirling, Parsons, and the sturdy troops of the Connecticut, Delaware, and Maryland lines.

On the night before the attack, August 26, Grant advanced by both the Coast Road and Martense Lane as ordered, and by midnight reached the vicinity of the Red Lion Tavern, where he came upon a guard of Americans under Major Bird, who at once sent word to Putnam. The latter ordered Stirling to check them, and that general, placing himself at the head of Haslet's Delaware battalion and Smallwood's Maryland regiment, hurried to the spot, closely followed by General Parsons, with Hunt's Connecticut regiment of two hundred and fifty men. A full half mile this side of the Red Lion Tavern they met Colonel Atlee's regiment retiring before the British column, whose front could be seen in the dim light of the dawn, a little in advance of the present entrance to Greenwood. Grant now formed line of battle across the Coast Road (in the vicinity of the present Thirty-eighth and Thirty-ninth streets, between Second and Third avenues), from the marsh on the east to the crest of the hills that now form the western boundary of Greenwood.

Stirling took post on the slopes of the hills between Eighteenth and Twentieth streets, a little to the northwest of the present Battle Hill in Greenwood, a company of riflemen being posted on the edge of the woods and along a ledge at the foot of the hill. A number of the latter climbed the trees, and from that cosign of vantage picked off the British officers as they advanced. One huge Marylander was seen to kill Major Grant and another officer in this way, when he was discovered, and a whole platoon was ordered to advance and fire into the tree ; at its fire he fell to the ground, pierced by a dozen bullets.

A Maryland regiment was posted on a low, wooded hill beside the Coast Road, at about the foot of the present Twenty-third Street. Here, awaiting attack, Stirling made a stirring address to his troops, reminding them that a few months before he had heard this same Major Grant openly boast in the British Parliament that the Americans could not fight, and that with five thousand men " he could march from one end of the continent to the other."

Pointing to the head of Gravesend Bay, he continued : " Grant may have his five thousand men now; we are not so many, but I think we are enough to prevent his getting farther than that mill pond."

In reality Grant had seven thousand men, Stirling sixteen hundred.

For two hours the grim lines faced each other, Grant, as we have seen, having positive orders not to force a battle until he heard the guns of the flanking column in the American rear.

About ten he heard them, and began pushing Stirling harder. Eleven o'clock, half-past eleven, came, and still Stirling had no orders to retreat, although he judged from the firing that the enemy was rapidly gaining his rear. This was the fact. Clinton and the Hessians together, as we have seen, had beaten back Sullivan and Miles, gained the passes, and by noon had carried the pursuit up to the walls of Fort Putnam, which they could have carried by assault, no doubt, had they attempted it. The men were eager for it, but Howe would not consent.

Meantime Cornwallis, with a heavy column, had been detached, and was pushing down the Port Road toward the East River, at first on the left and then in the rear of Stirling's long, thin line.

Washington remained in New York until he saw that the city was not to be attacked, then crossed to Brooklyn, and from the heights saw that Stirling had been surrounded and was in danger of being cut to pieces. He could not send relief without weakening his main line, and with anxiety that may be imagined watched that brave leader extricate himself. The latter saw that his only hope of escape was to drive Cornwallis's advance back along the Port Road toward Flatbush, until he could get between it and Fort Box, and escape under cover of its guns across Brewer's mill- dam. Therefore, leaving his main body, under Parsons, fiercely engaged with Grant, he placed himself at the head of Smallwood's riflemen, and moved along the Gowanus Road in the face of a hail of fire from cannon, rifles, and muskets, pushing the enemy back till they rallied and stood firm under cover of the old stone Cortelyou house, the same which had sheltered the Labadist travelers over a hundred years before. This they would have carried, no doubt, had not the British wheeled two guns into position before them and mowed the attacking column down with grape and canister. Three times the brave fellows charged the house, once driving the gunners from their pieces within its shadow.

" Good God! " cried Washington, watching from his hilltop. "What brave fellows I must this day lose!"

The odds were too great, however, and at last the depleted column took refuge in a cornfield, where some surrendered, some were bayoneted, and a few made their escape by swimming Gowanus Creek. Stirling fled over the hills and yielded up his sword to De Heister, the Hessian commander, scorning to deliver it to the British. Meantime Parsons, on Battle Hill, had made a gallant stand, but his position was at last carried, and many of his men captured. Some of them escaped across the marsh. He succeeded in hiding himself in a swamp, and thence escaped to the American lines. This ended the battle of Brooklyn Heights. Of the five thousand Americans engaged, nearly half were killed, wounded, or prisoners.

Howe did not at once attack the line of forts, though they were defended now by scarcely three thousand men. His artillery was not up, he lacked axes for cutting palisades, scaling ladders and the like, so he sat down for a siege by regular approaches.

You may be sure that it was an anxious time for Washington and the other patriot leaders. More troops were ordered over from New York. Fortunately, next day it rained heavily, and the British contented themselves with a brisk cannonade and with sending out skirmishing parties. At evening they broke ground for entrenchments within five hundred yards of the American line, and that night threw up a redoubt just east of Fort Putnam, from which they opened fire on that fort.

Next day, the 29th, a dense fog hung over water and heights, veiling everything. News soon came that part of the British fleet had passed round the island and was now in Flushing Bay, on the north shore. This led Washington at five o'clock to call a council of his officers to decide whether to retreat or to fight. They decided to retreat.

The American army was in evil plight. If the enemy's fleet should sail up and hold the East River it would cut off its line of retreat. (The fleet would have done this on the battle day, we know now, but for lack of a wind.) The loss in men and officers on the 27th had disorganized the army. The men were wearied with constant watching and alarms. Their ammunition had been largely spoiled by the incessant rains of the last two days. Lastly, Howe was raising his trenches against them and would soon order an assault.

All through that eventful day Washington had been making secret preparations for a retreat. He had sent Colonel Trumbull to Assistant Quartermaster Hughes in New York, with orders to impress at once craft of every description, from Spuyten Duyvil to Hell Gate, and have them in the " east harbor " by dark. Orders were sent also to General Heath, commanding at Kingsbridge, to seize all boats in his district and man them with the Salem and Marblehead fishermen of his command. It was given out that the boats would be used to ferry over certain New Jersey troops who were to relieve those on the heights. In the general orders to the army issued at the same time a similar fiction was employed, a retreat not being mentioned. The regiments were to be relieved by fresh New Jersey militia, and were commanded to be in marching order by nightfall, knapsack on back, and muskets and camp equipage in hand.

By dark a nondescript fleet had been collected at the Fulton Ferry dock—sloops, sailboats, galleys, peri-aguas, scows, rowboats, whaleboats—everything afloat, and with the hardy fishermen of Cape Ann and Cape Cod in command of them. In this retreat Washington deceived the British as completely as the latter had deceived him on the morning of the 27th. Leaving their camp fires brightly burning, silently as ghosts the grim ranks marched to the ferry through mud and darkness, Hitchcock's Rhode Islanders first, and then regiment after regiment, until by dawn all were across the river except General Mifflin's six regiments, which had been left to hold the redoubts.

Through all the hours of that long, dark night detection would have meant ruin. But how were the gallant Mifflin and his men to be drawn off without attracting attention? The same kind Providence which, by withholding the wind, had prevented the enemy's frigates from ascending and holding the river, again interposed. Heavy masses of dense fog rolled up from the bay and covered the frowning heights with a gray curtain. Mifflin retired under its cover. As the last outpost stole away it heard the sound of pickax and shovel busily plied in the British trenches. Before 7 A. M. the entire force was on the New York shore. When Howe awoke that morning he found that an army of nine thousand men, with stores, baggage, and artillery, had been spirited away while he slept. Some one has said that " to conduct a skillful retreat is equal to winning a great victory."

Website: The History
Article Name: The Battle of Long Island Part II
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY:   A Brief History of the City of New York by Charles Burr Todd; American Book Company 1899
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