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Live to Fight Another Day: George Washington and the Continental Army Escape From Long Island


After months of preparation to defend New York City from an imminent British invasion, General George Washington and the fledgling soldiers of his Continental Army faced their first great test under fire of the American Revolution on August 27, 1776. On that Tuesday of picture perfect weather, British General William Howe unleashed his military might and Crown forces overwhelmed and routed the American troops stationed on the western end of Long Island, in present-day Brooklyn. Washington had been outmaneuvered and outgeneraled by the enemy, leaving his army in grave peril. Now, Washington had to rise to the occasion and save his soldiers from destruction. If he failed, the fight for Independence would be finished.

Howe’s overpowering victory on the 27th had left the Americans stranded within their last line of fortifications on Brooklyn Heights with the East River at their backs, “which could serve as an escape route only as long as the wind cooperated,” as noted by historian David McCullough in 1776. Determined to resist the enemy’s coming siege of his position, Washington ordered reinforcements over from the city, but the situation remained dire. On the evening of Wednesday, August 28, the Redcoats “broke ground for the erection of a battery within six hundred yards of [Washington’s] position and drew out their army in a semicircular line,” as historian Benson Bobrick writes in Angel in the Whirlwind. If the wind blew the wrong way, British warships would be able to sail up the East River, trapping Washington and his army.

As McCullough writes, the Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn, was "by far the largest battle ever fought in North America until then. Counting both armies and the Royal Navy, more than 40,000 men had taken part." Print by Mark Maritato. (Photo Credit: Mark Maritato)

The sky might have been bright and clear on the 27th, “one of the loveliest [days] we had ever seen,” according to one eyewitness, but the weather dramatically changed on the afternoon of August 28. Mother Nature reminded the feuding mortals of her own unshakable power, sending down dark clouds, from which lightning flashed, thunder roared, and rain poured. This strong northeastern storm continued into Thursday, August 29. Dispirited from their defeat, hungry and exhausted, soaked to the skin, and with the Redcoats closing in on them, the misery faced by American soldiers was immeasurable. General Washington might have been defeated on the battlefield, but in the face of this extreme adversity, he demonstrated the leadership his men sorely needed. As detailed by McCullough, “With the situation as grim as it could be, no one was more conspicuous in his calm presence of mind than Washington, making his rounds on horseback in the rain.” Out of this suffering came a stroke of good fortune that was about to help the Commander-in-Chief get his faithful fighters out of this mess.

While the storm certainly added to the misery of the Americans, it also became a providential ally. Powerful winds prevented British ships from sailing up the East River and cutting off Washington’s escape route. Those favorable winds, however, could not last forever. With the rain still coming down hard, Washington met with his generals at around four in the afternoon on August 29 and it was unanimously decided that the army must evacuate Long Island and cross the river over to New York. Earlier, the Commander-in-Chief had already sent out word to round up every boat or watercraft available. It was time to escape.

To make a successful escape, covertness was essential. The troops were told to be prepared to make a night attack against the enemy and were ordered to be “under arms with packs and everything.” Initially puzzled by this decision given the weather and the condition of the army, a young captain from Pennsylvania, Alexander Graydon, soon realized “that a retreat was the object, and that the order for assailing the enemy was but a cover to the real design.” It was indeed. As the soldiers on the front lines manned their positions, McCullough reports that “the troops with the least experience, along with the sick and wounded, were ordered to start for the Brooklyn ferry landing, on the pretext that they were being relieved by reinforcements.” Few of the men in the ranks or their officers “knew that the whole army was to cross back again to New York,” according to Lieutenant Tench Tilghman. It all played out under the greatest of secrecy.

American soldiers preparing for evacuation, moving equipment and supplies to the ferry landing. In addition to forbidding talking, McCullough notes that "anything that might make noise," like wagon wheels, "were muffled with rags" to ensure complete secrecy. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The rain eventually stopped, but because of unfavorable wind and the river initially being too rough to cross, the American commander in charge of the embarkation sent Washington a message warning that there could be no retreat that night if the conditions did not improve. Luckily for the Continental Army, the course of the wind did shift to their advantage at around 11 p.m., opening the way for a small armada of boats to start crossing over from New York.

Manning this small armada was Colonel John Glover’s Massachusetts sailors and fishermen. Carrying the fate of the American cause on their oars, they worked tirelessly that night to ferry the army across the river. McCullough takes note of their dedication and skill, writing, “In a feat of extraordinary seamanship, at the helm and manning oars hour after hour, they negotiated the river’s swift, contrary currents in boats so loaded with troops and supplies, horses and cannon, that the water was often but inches below the gunnels-and all in pitch dark, with no running lights.” Back and forth the boats went. On and on troops were pulled from the lines and ordered to march to the ferry landing. “We were strictly enjoined not to speak, or even cough,” wrote Private Joseph Martin, a fifteen-year-old soldier from Connecticut. In an undertaking of this magnitude, every small detail mattered and could mean the difference between success and failure.

American boatmen working feverishly under the cover of darkness to ferry the army across the East River to New York. (Photo Credit: New York Historical Society)

Another soldier from Connecticut remembered making eleven river crossings that night, but no matter how hard Washington’s men pushed, extreme danger loomed as morning approached and a large part of the army still awaited evacuation. Without the cover of darkness to hide their retreat, it seemed like all would be lost. Providence, however, seemed to have other plans for the Americans.

Throughout his life, Washington made many references to the “interposition of Providence” in the affairs of his army and country. The morning of Friday, August 30, 1776 was one of those moments when Providence smiled down on the Commander-in-Chief and his soldiers. As McCullough describes the scene, “Just at daybreak a heavy fog settled in over the whole of Brooklyn, concealing everything no less than had the night.” One soldier remembered the fog being so thick that one “could scarcely discern a man at six yards distance.” Shrouded by this seemingly divine fog, the remainder of the army made it safely across the river to New York. According to eyewitnesses, Washington was the last man to leave.

General Washington directing his men during the evacuation from Long Island. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

When the British climbed into the abandoned American redoubts later that morning, to their utter astonishment and dismay, “they could not find so much as a biscuit or a glass of rum wherewith to console themselves.” Just when it had seemed like the rebels had been at the end of their rope, now, they would live to fight another day. General George Washington had saved his army from destruction.

With Providence shining a light down on them, Washington and his dedicated Patriots had orchestrated one of the most miraculous escapes in military history. As McCullough records, “In a single night, 9,000 troops had escaped across the river. Not a life was lost.” Only three Americans were captured, all of who had stayed behind to plunder. The course ahead would not get any easier for the Continentals, but no matter what the ordeal, Washington always found a way to keep his army together. By living to fight another day, never giving in to despair, and following their Commander-in-Chief to hell and back, in time, the soldiers of the Continental Army would go on to stun the mightiest empire of their day.

Header Photo Credit: The Granger Collection, New York/Historynet.com

Sources

1776 by David McCullough.

Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution by Benson Bobrick.

George Washington's Mount Vernon: Battle of Long Island.

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