The Battle of Long Island Part I

New York was the theater of some important events in the War of the Revolution. On receiving news of the battle of Lexington four days after the event, Sunday, April 23, 1775, the patriot leaders warned the people, " who assembled, and not being able to secure the key of the arsenal [in the City Hall], where the colony's arms were kept, forced open the door and took six hundred muskets, with bayonets and cartridge boxes filled with ball cartridges." These arms were distributed among the more active citizens, who formed themselves into a volunteer corps and assumed the government of the city.

Bodies of men then went to the customhouse, demanded the keys, and took possession of the public stores contained therein. Next the patriots turned their attention to two vessels at the dock about to sail for Boston with supplies for General Gage's troops, Isaac Sears and John Lamb, with their Liberty Boys, boarding them, and speedily unloading the cargoes, valued at eighty thousand dollars. No resistance was offered by the garrison, which numbered but one hundred regulars, under command of Major Isaac Hamilton. Governor Tryon was in England. When Monday came and the merchants and artisans arrived at their shops and stores, they found the regular authority overturned and the city in the hands of the Sons of Liberty. All business was stopped ; bodies of armed men patrolled the streets. In Paris, anarchy would have followed; but in New York eight days after the overthrow (May l) the people quietly elected a committee of one hundred to govern them until the Continental Congress, which was soon to meet in Philadelphia, should constitute other authority.

There was a great demonstration when, on May 7, 1775, the delegates from Massachusetts and Connecticut passed through the city on their way to this Continental Congress at Philadelphia, and a second, on June 25, 1775, when Washington, the newly appointed commander in chief of the army, rode through on his way to take command of the forces investing Boston. By a strange coincidence Governor Tryon arrived the same evening from England, direct from personal interviews with the king and ministry.

Under the call of Congress for troops four regiments were raised in New York alone. A few small skirmishes occurred between them and the Asia and other British guard ships in the harbor, but New York saw no actual war until in July, 1776, Sir William Howe, with a large fleet and an army of veteran troops, arrived from Halifax to invest and capture the city. This was the same general and army, you will remember, that had been driven out of Boston by the Continentals the spring before, added to by new regiments from England. Washington and Putnam had been in New York all summer, fortifying. There was a cordon of earthworks across the lower part of the island, and there were barricades in the streets, and strong forts on Brooklyn and Columbia Heights, on the Long Island shore. The weakness of the position lay in the fact that the enemy, with his fleet, could ascend either the East River or the Hudson and cover the landing of his army with its guns. Howe, however, did not avail himself of this advantage, but landed his army at various points along the curving shores of. Gravesend Bay, between Coney Island and the present Fort Hamilton, and attacked the American army, which Washington had advanced to defend Brooklyn Heights.

As the ground fought and marched over in the battle that ensued is all within the limits of the present borough of Brooklyn, it will be interesting to consider that battle in detail. No doubt you have ridden on your wheels through the pleasant shades of Prospect Park, or skimmed over the smooth surface of Flatbush Avenue to the rural hamlet of Flatlands, or taken the Ocean Parkway path to the sea, or Eighteenth Avenue, that runs to Bath Beach, or Fort Hamilton Avenue, skirting the southern border of Greenwood Cemetery, to Fort Hamilton; again, perhaps you have ridden out by the Eastern Boulevard and the roads leading from it eastward to the old Jamaica Plank Road, or from the terraced heights of Washington Park have looked down on the mighty city below,—if you have, you are familiar with the battle ground of August 27, 1776.

Let us see first where the American army was posted. If you draw a line straight across from the present Navy Yard to Gowanus Canal the region west and southwest is a peninsula ending in a sharp point called Red Hook, Gowanus Creek and marsh inclosing it on one side, and the Bay of the Wallabout on the other. The country then was mostly forest and farm. Gowanus Canal, now the center of business and trade, was then a sluggish creek flowing through a wide marsh. Columbia and Brooklyn Heights, the highest points in this peninsula, commanded New York, and on them General Lee and Lord Stirling had erected two forts, Stirling and the Citadel. When Putnam came he decided to throw a chain of forts, redoubts, and trenches from Gowanus Creek quite across the neck to the Wallabout. First, and nearest Gowanus, was Fort Box, on or near the present line of Pacific Street, a short distance above Bond. Next, and three hundred yards west, was Fort Greene, star-shaped, mounting six guns, and lying between the present State and Schermerhorn streets. Still farther to the left was the " oblong redoubt," on the corner of the present De Kalb and Hudson avenues. Fort Putnam, star-shaped, mounting five guns, came next, its site still preserved in beautiful Washington Park. Below it, near the bay, was the " redoubt on the left," standing in the middle of the present Cumberland Street, between Willoughby Street and Myrtle Avenue.

If we take our station on the water tower near the main entrance to Prospect Park we can get a bird's-eye view of the whole battle ground. Before us, on the south, lies the "great plain," which in 1776 was covered with farm and forest, with three smiling villages on its bosom, —New Utrecht, Gravesend, and Flatbush,—whose position you can readily find on the map. The chain of hills, then called the Heights of Guana, which runs from the bay shore to East New York through Greenwood Cemetery and Prospect Park, was covered with dense forest and scrub impassable to an army. South Brooklyn was a swamp. Gowanus Creek showed great mills whose wheels were moved by the ebb and flow of the tides. Second, Third, and Fourth avenues were a morass, as was the whole region in that neighborhood, now covered with blocks of buildings.

At the north was the King's Highway, winding up the hill from Fulton Ferry, passing the Brooklyn church and hamlet, and continuing on, skirting the northern base of the hills, to Bedford and Jamaica. This road threw off branches leading to the villages in the plain—first, the " Coast Road," which skirted the shore quite to the Narrows; second, the road to Flatbush, about a mile and a half beyond the American works; and, third, three quarters of a mile farther on, the road from Bedford to Flatbush. These roads reached the plain by gaps in the Heights of Guana, and were the only means by which an enemy in the plain could reach the American line, except that at the extreme left, four miles away, where the King's Highway passed through the range, was Jamaica Pass, at the present entrance to the Cemetery of the Evergreens.

On the Coast Road, hard by the Red Lion Tavern, a narrow lane called Martense Lane branched off to the left, and skirting the southern boundary line of the present Greenwood, connected with the roads on the plain. The Heights of Guana formed the American outer line of defense or skirmish line. The only one of the gaps defended by fieldworks was the Flatbush Pass, within the present limits of Prospect Park. This pass was defended by two batteries—a crescent-shaped redoubt that extended across the main street of Flatbush just within the village, and a smaller one at Valley Grove to guard the Port Road, which ran down to the East River along the present line of First Street.

Swarming like ants upon these fortifications, marching through the roads, drilling on parade, had been all summer perhaps the oddest, most incongruous army ever recruited since Falstaff's day. There were the green hunting shirts and leggings of the Marylanders, the dark-blue coats with red facings of the Delaware militia, the tow frocks and tarnished scarlet regimentals of the Connecticut troops, There were the New Jersey riflemen, some in short red coats and striped trousers, some in blue coats, with leathern breeches ending in blue yarn stockings, and heavy shoes with brass buckles. Here was a Pennsylvania regiment in variegated costume: one company clad in brown coats faced with white and adorned with huge metal buttons ; another showing blue coats faced with red ; a third, brown coats faced with buff. Many from the backwoods wore fringed hunting shirts and leggings. Some marched and fought in their shirt sleeves.

The Virginians aroused envy by the superior quality of their uniform—white frocks adorned with ruffles at neck, wrists, and elbows, black, broad-brimmed slouch hats, black stocks, and hair in long queues. They were called the dandies of the army.

The arms of this impromptu host were quite as diverse and incongruous as its uniforms. There. were the shotgun and old " king's arm " of the Puritans, the long "goose gun" of the New York Dutchmen, the musket of the Pennsylvanians, the deer-slaying rifles of the New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia riflemen. Very few of them were furnished with bayonets or sufficient ammunition.

The total number of available men at Washington's command at this crisis was nineteen thousand, organized in five divisions, the division commanders being Putnam, Heath, Spencer, Sullivan, and Greene, with Knox commanding the artillery. Save Putnam and Spencer, these commanders had had very little military training; some of the subordinate officers were mere boys in years. Alexander Hamilton, later the greatest statesman of his time, who commanded a battery in Knox's division, was but nineteen. Aaron Burr, with whom his fate was later so interwoven, an aide on General Putnam's staff, was a youth of twenty, while Nicholas Fish, Brigadier General Scott's brigade major, was but eighteen.

A gallant and effective arm of the patriot force should be mentioned—the motley fleet of swift schooners, sloops, peri-aguas, row galleys, and whaleboats, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Tupper, which patrolled the harbor, rivers, and sound, and picked up deserters, spies, provision boats, and news of the enemy's movements with the greatest dispatch and impartiality.

When we consider the opposing army we wonder at the temerity of the patriots in attempting to oppose it. This army was composed mainly of regular soldiers— men trained to the profession of arms, veterans who had been under fire. There was Gage's Boston garrison, seasoned veterans from the West Indies, the Peninsula, Gibraltar, and other strongholds, Scotch who had won renown in a seven years' war, and Hessians whose trade it was to fight. Then the officers were men trained in the best military schools of Europe, lieutenant generals, major generals, brigadier generals—Howe and Clinton and Percy and Cornwallis, Mathews, Pigot, Grant, Robertson, Jones, Vaughan, Agnew, Leslie, Cleveland, Smith, and Erskine ; in numbers there were twenty-three thousand Englishmen and eight thousand Hessians, thirty-one thousand men against the patriots' nineteen thousand; and besides this, a fleet of four hundred war ships and transports, among the former twenty frigates and ten ships of the line.

It was on the 2oth of June that Lord Howe arrived. Nine days after, July 8, he threw nine thousand men ashore and occupied Staten Island. A few days later his brother, Admiral Howe, arrived with the rest of his forces—English regiments just sent out, and the Hessians whom King George had hired from the Landgrave of Hesse and other petty German rulers.

On the 12th of July the British frigates Rose and Phoenix ran past the batteries, and sailed up the Hudson as far as Haverstraw, to encourage the Tories of Westchester County and open communication with General Carleton, who was marching south from Canada by way of Lake Champlain to attack the Americans in the rear.

Lord Howe was a just and humane man, whose sympathies were with the Americans. He had been told by King George to offer pardon to all " rebels," as he termed them, who would submit. Howe, therefore, before offering battle, desired to meet the leaders and confer with them. Accordingly, on July 14, he sent an aide in a barge, with a letter addressed to " Mr. Washington." Tupper's alert whaleboats captured the barge in mid harbor, and held it while they sent a messenger to headquarters to know if Washington would receive it. In reply General Knox and Colonel Reed, Washington's adjutant general, came down to confer with the officer.

He received them courteously. " I have a letter," said he, "for Mr. Washington." "We have no person of that name in our army," replied Colonel Reed.

"Will you not look at the address?" persisted the officer. " No, sir," replied Reed ; " I cannot receive that letter." " I am sorry," said the envoy, and bowing, returned to the fleet.

Something more than personal vanity or military etiquette was involved here. For Howe to have addressed Washington as " General " would have been to acknowledge the authority of the Continental Congress, which had created him one. But this authority King George denied. According to his view, the Americans were simply rebellious subjects, liable by military usage and the law of nations to be summarily executed for treason if taken in arms.

For Washington, on the other hand, to have received the letter would have been to admit the king's contention.

A personal interview between Washington and Colonel Patterson, representing General Howe, was later arranged at the Kennedy mansion.

Colonel Patterson apologized for the address on the former letter, and produced another bearing the inscription, " George Washington, Esq., etc., etc., etc.," which, as it implied everything, General Howe hoped would be satisfactory. " True," replied Washington, " but it also implies anything; " and he declined to receive any letter not bearing his proper title. Colonel Patterson then said that the king desired to conciliate his American subjects and had given Lord Howe and his brother, Admiral Howe, power to offer pardon to all who would lay down their arms.

To this Washington replied that the Americans, having done no wrong, could accept no pardons. "They had but taken up arms to maintain their rights as Englishmen."

Finding his offers of peace spurned, Howe now proceeded to move against the American army by way of Long Island, although a large force was sent to attack Bergen, Elizabethport, and Perth Amboy, on the New Jersey shore. Twenty-four thousand men were detailed for the attack on Long Island.
Website: The History
Article Name: The Battle of Long Island Part I
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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