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The Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn and the Battle of Brooklyn Heights, was fought on August 27, 1776. It resulted in British victory over the Americans, giving them control of strategically important Port of New York.

The Battle of Long Island Background

  • When the British left Boston, George Washington realized that their eventual destination would be New York City.
  • Two weeks after the British departure, he traveled to NYC to oversee the building of defenses.
  • Washington also organized the Continental Army into divisions, each of which had some Continentals and some militia units.
  • Washington’s army was suffering from disease, and many of the soldiers were leaving because their enlistments ran out.  They also suffered from a shortage of supplies. They tried to recruit new soldiers, but this went slowly.
  • All these factors, combined with the lack of experience of Washington’s officers, made it very hard to train the army.  The training that existed was inconsistent, due to different backgrounds and training techniques among the officers doing the training.
  • One of Washington’s key subordinates was Major General Charles Lee.
  • Charles Lee Mini-Bio: Lee had served in the British army for 16 years (including the Battle of the Monongahela).  He was talkative, profane, sloppy in dress, and fond of being unconventional. He had married the daughter of a Seneca chief.  He had fought in North America and Portugal. In 1765, he joined the Polish army. In 1775, he became a Major General in the Continental Army, second only in rank to Washington. Lee was quick-tempered and arrogant. Washington had originally put him in charge of NYC defenses (prior to Lee’s going to Charleston).

The Howes Move on New York. 

  • After leaving Boston, British General William Howe took his army to Nova Scotia for rest, refitting and to gather reinforcements.
  • On June 11, Howe and the army sailed for New York.  On the way, he met up with his brother Admiral Richard Howe, the commander of the British Navy in North America.
  • Howe and his leading elements sailed into the Lower Bay on June 25. One American soldier wrote “I thought all London was afloat.”
  • Four days later, the rest of the force arrived.  On July 3, the British troops landed unopposed on Staten Island.  By August, they had about 32,000 men (including 8000 Hessians) there.
  • Admiral Howe issued a proclamation stating proposed peace terms.  He also sent letters proposing peace negotiations to the governors of the states in the area and to Washington.
  • Washington agreed to meet with the Howes.  Nothing came of the meeting. Then a delegation from Congress arrived (it included Adams and Franklin), but the result was equally inconclusive.
  • Washington thought the British would try to sail up the Hudson and attack the west side of Manhattan.
  • Because of this, he ordered the hurried completion of two forts begun by Lee called Ft. Washington (on Manhattan Island on the east bank of the Hudson River) and Ft.  Lee (just across the river from Ft. Washington). He also had fortifications built at Brooklyn Heights and on the southern tip of Manhattan Island.

The Battle of Long Island (August 27, 1776)

  • On August 22, Howe deployed 15,000 soldiers and 40 cannon on the western shore of Long Island.  Washington thought this was a feint and only sent a few troops to the Continental commander there, John Sullivan.
  • Washington’s army was spread very thin. Part of it was on Manhattan Island, part was behind fortifications in Brooklyn Heights, and part was south of Brooklyn and deployed on high ground. 
  • American troops covered the passes between the various hills…except one:  Jamaica Pass (which had only 5 men guarding it).
  • On the evening of August 26, 4000 men under the command of Henry Clinton marched to Jamaica Pass (to the left of the American left), while at the same time, 7000 men under General James Grant attacked the American right and another force of 5000 under General Von Heister (a Hessian) hit the American center. 
  • Clinton captured Jamaica Pass and got in the rear of the American position.  Meanwhile, the American right collapsed into retreat. The retreat was covered by forces under General William Alexander (who called himself “Lord Stirling”). Only a handful of his troops made it to safety.  Stirling surrendered.
  • During the battle of Long Island, American army scrambled into the fortifications at Brooklyn Heights.  The East River was at their backs, and it was dominated by the British fleet.  But at 4 PM on the 27th, Howe called off the attack.
  • In the battle of Long Island , the British lost about 388 casualties (64 killed, 293 wounded, 31 missing).  American casualties were around 2100 (300 killed, 800 wounded, and 1000 captured). Many of these had surrendered.
  • That evening of the Battle of Long Island, a “noreaster” blew in, preventing Admiral Howe’s ships from sailing into the East River.  Terrible rain made it nearly impossible for the British to hear or see the Americans. The storm held for two days.  On the evening of the 29th, a fog settled in, making the Americans invisible.
  • On the morning of the 30th the fog lifted. When the British advanced on Brooklyn Heights, the Americans were gone.  All through the night, Washington had ferried them across the river to the relative safety of Manhattan.  He left on the last boat when the British were beginning to search the area. 9500 men were saved.
  • Washington’s defeat revealed his deficiencies as a strategist (because he split his forces), his inexperienced generals who misunderstood the situation, and his raw troops that fled in disorder at the first shots. However, his daring nighttime retreat has been seen by some historians as one of his greatest military feats. Other historians concentrate on the failure of British naval forces to prevent the withdrawal.
  • The Battle of Long Island was the biggest of the Revolutionary War. 10,000 Americans and 20,000 British and Hessians participated. 

New York City and Harlem Heights

  • Once they were in Manhattan, many of Washington’s troops deserted.
  • Washington wanted to abandon NYC, but Congress had ordered him to defend it.  NYC was only about 1 square mile of area on the south part of Manhattan Island.  Further north on the island, there were plenty of places for the British to land and get in Washington’s rear. 
  • On September 6, the American submersible Turtle unsuccessfully attacked the HMS Eagle, Howe’s flagship.
  • By mid-September, Congress admitted that keeping Washington’s army intact was more important than holding the city.
  • On September 14, Washington began retreating the army toward Harlem Heights, several miles to the north.  He also recruited a captain named Nathan Hale to sneak into Howe’s camp and figure out where he was planning to go next.
  • On the 15th, Howe ferried 4000 troops across the East River and landed them at Kip’s Bay, about halfway up Manhattan Island and on the east side.  The British chased away a small militia force there and secured a beachhead. “Battle of Kip’s Bay”
  • The militia ran in panic to the main Continental force, who absorbed their panic and began to run.  Washington exploded in anger, flogging many fleeing officers with his riding cane, throwing down his hat and shouting “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” An aide took the reins of his horse and let him to safety.
  • The Americans, rallied by Washington and Israel Putnam, slipped past the British toward the heights at the north end of the Island (they were guided by a young officer named Aaron Burr).  The majority of Howe’s army occupied the city. Nathan Hale was captured and hung. His final words were “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
  • Washington’s army reached Harlem Heights on the evening of the 15th.  There, aided by a scouting unit called “Knowlton’s Rangers”, Washington fought off a British attack on the 16th.  This is now known as the “Battle of Harlem Heights,” although it was little more than a skirmish.  Knowlton was killed.

White Plains, Fort Washington, and Fort Lee.

  • Howe decided to recross the East River to the New York mainland, march north, and get behind Washington.
  • Washington learned of the British plan.  He left 2000 soldiers in Fort Washington (on the west side of Manhattan Island on the east bank of the Hudson River) and marched the army north onto the mainland toward the village of White Plains, which would be in the path of the British.
  • Washington reached White Plains on October 22.  He had about 13,000 men. 
  • Howe attacked and drove the Patriots back.  
  • Again, the weather came to Washington’s aid.  During a downpour on the 29th which halted the British advance, the Americans retreated across the Hudson River into New Jersey.
  • Washington wanted to abandon Ft. Washington and have the soldiers there also retreat into New Jersey, but his subordinate Nathaniel Greene talked him out of it.  
  • Mini bio of Greene:  Greene was only 33, the youngest general in the Continental Army (at the time). He was from Rhode Island, was a foundryman by trade, and had no military experience prior to the war. What he knew about warfare came almost entirely from books.  He was a Quaker, though not practicing (he called himself a “Fighting Quaker”). He walked with a limp due to a childhood accident and suffered from asthma. Despite these disadvantages, he had a brilliant mind, was a hard worker, and was a born leader. He was totally devoted to Washington and to the Patriot cause.
  • One of the American officers in the fort deserted to the British and gave them the plans for 60 pounds.
  • On November 15, a British force attacked the fort.  Surrounded on three sides, the fort’s commander surrendered the next day.  Almost 3000 men and several dozen cannon fell to the British.
  • Four days later, Fort Lee was abandoned. The British (under Cornwallis) did not pursue.  They wanted to keep casualties to a minimum.

Washington Retreats Further

  • Washington’s army had about 10,000 when they crossed into New Jersey, but within a few weeks it was down to 7500. They reached Newark on November 22, rested for five days, and then retreated toward Princeton.
  • Washington also had to deal with Charles Lee, who had just rejoined the army after leaving Charleston.  Lee treated Washington’s orders as optional, and he also began scheming for Washington’s job.
  • On December 1, Howe resumed his march toward Washington, who was forced to retreat further into New Jersey.  
  • By the time Washington reached Princeton, his army was down to 3500 men.  Lee, with 2000 in northern New Jersey, refused to join him.
  • On December 7, Washington crossed the Delaware into PA.  
  • Meanwhile, Howe had issued an amnesty proclamation.  3000 Americans took an oath of allegiance to the King.  Washington wrote “the conduct of the Jerseys has been most infamous! Instead of turning out to defend their country and affording aid to our army, they are making their submissions as fast as they can.”
  • Congress fled Philadelphia for Baltimore.   

The American Crisis and Reinforcements

  • Thomas Paine published another article on December 19.
  • The pamphlet begins “These are the times that try men’s souls.  The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis shrink from the service of their country. But they that stand it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman….Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered. But the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
  • Paine argued that panics (like the present one) can produce good.  He also praised the Continental Army for holding together and urged Americans to give the army time to recruit.
  • The pamphlet was read throughout the states.
  • On December 13, a British force captured Charles Lee.  Charles Sullivan assumed command of Lee’s 2000 troops and marched them to join with Washington.
  • On the 22nd, 600 New Hampshire men joined him.  Washington’s force was now up to about 7500.
  • Howe decided to call off operations for the winter.  He returned the army to New York while posting several small forces in various towns in New Jersey to keep Washington in check. 
  • Washington posted his army near Trenton, NJ.

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"The Battle of Long Island: The 1776 Setback" History on the Net
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February 21, 2024 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/the-battle-of-long-island>
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