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Battle Of Long Island

Aug. 27, 1776

British Victory but Washington escapes

Battle ofLong Island- revolutionary War

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 Congress,

"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 complete. "

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 same."

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,  [1776]  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.  --- David Ramsay’s The History of the American Revolution



The Pennsylvania Gazette
Text Courtesy of Accessible Archives

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 their wounds.

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 General.

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