British General Howe had trapped Washington and his 8,000 troops on Brooklyn Heights on Long Island, and he intended to advance the next morning to destroy them. But Washington gathered every vessel he could find and spent all night ferrying his men across the East River, leaving fires burning at camp to satisfy the British that they were still at camp. In the morning there was still a large number of soldiers facing annihilation by Howe, but a heavy fog descended on the area enabling the rest of Washington’s troops to escape the British trap. According to eyewitnesses, Gen. Washington was the last to leave the Brooklyn Heights.
The Battle of Long Island
The British soon withdrew from Boston and sailed toward New York. Washington, anticipating this move, marched on New York. There, several events led to another miraculous rescue of the American soldiers.
Washington split his command and landed most of his troops on Long Island’s Brooklyn Heights. He had only ten thousand troops to guard a fifteen-mile front, while General Howe embarked approximately fifteen thousand British and Hessian soldiers at Gravesend Bay, Long Island. He left four thousand soldiers behind on Staten Island as reinforcements.
Washington had placed his troops in a dangerous position by dividing his command and positioning most of his soldiers on an island where they would be dependent upon the weather and obtaining enough boats to retreat. More important, any attempt by the Americans to retreat from Long Island could easily be cut off by the superior British naval forces that could sail up the East River. In fact, the British, by sailing up the East River, could land troops behind Washington and surround his army. The prospect for the Americans was serious. If Washington were to lose ten thousand men at the outset of the war, the Declaration of Independence would most likely not gain the public support to fuel the fires of freedom.
However, once again the elements intervened. On 26 August 1776, Howe’s reinforcements were delayed by a strong northeast wind and an ebbing tide that “compelled the fleet to drop down the bay and come to anchor.” At nine o’clock the next morning, the Americans could hear the British cannons in the American rear. In a brilliant night march, the British General Henry Clinton had slipped by the east side of the Americans and had captured eight hundred prisoners, including Generals John Sullivan and William Stirling.
At this point, Washington, instead of retreating across the East River, reinforced the American positions on Brooklyn Heights and waited for Howe’s assault.
Seeing the entrenched American troops, British General Howe decided to delay his attack until the fleet had entered the East River. But the British ships were held back again by another strong northeast wind. Then torrents of rain fell, further hindering the fleet in the East River and subduing the efforts of the British troops on land. Howe began to raise siege works along Washington’s lines when, according to historian Henry B. Carrington, “The rain [became] so incessant, and accompanied by a wind so violent, that the British troops kept within their tents, and their works made slow progress.”
Finally, on the night of 29 August 1776, Washington, recognizing the opportunity to make a tactical retreat, ordered his troops across the East River. The first unit embarked at ten o’clock. But at midnight, the wind changed. Just as the British advance had earlier been halted by the elements, this time the Americans’ retreat was threatened with disaster. Sloops and other sailing craft could not sail, and there were too few rowboats to complete the evacuation in one night. According to Carrington, “the wind and tide were so violent that even the seamen soldiers of Massachusetts could not spread a close reefed sail upon a single vessel; and the larger vessels, upon which so much depended, would have been swept to the ocean if once entrusted to the current.”
Washington was urged to abandon the evacuation; but then, miraculously, the wind abruptly shifted, allowing the Americans to cross the river in the predawn hours. Nine thousand men were moved in that retreat, and historian Bart McDowell records that “after dawn, as the last of the army sailed away, one young captain noted that the boats moved under ‘the friendly cover of a thick fog,’” which “increased the danger of panic, but also prevented discovery.’”
Historian Christopher Ward points out that “freakish Nature [had] again favored the Americans.” Washington “had snatched a beaten army from the very jaws of a victorious force, and practically under the nose of the greatest armada ever seen in American waters.”
The challenge still remained, however, for Washington to keep the American army out of the hands of a pursuing, disciplined force of combat-hardened troops.