In general, our Generals were out generalled.
—JOHN ADAMS TO ABIGAIL ADAMS, October 8, 1776
Ever since Lord Richard Howe’s fleet had landed on Staten Island in early July, Washington had been expecting an attack. But over the ensuing weeks, as additional waves of troops and ships arrived, it became apparent that Lord Germain and the British ministry intended to assemble a strike force much larger than Washington expected. And the Howe brothers saw no reason to launch an invasion until all of Germain’s reinforcements, most especially the highly professional (and very expensive) Hessians, showed up in mid-August.1
The delay meant that the military campaign would begin late in the season, leaving the Howes only about three or four months to capture New York and vanquish the Continental Army before going into winter quarters. It also meant that the size of the American force opposing the invasion would grow considerably, because militia units from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland would flow into New York in early August, latecomers who had harvested their crops before shouldering their muskets.
Though mystified by the delaying tactics of the Howes, Washington welcomed the opportunity to even the odds: “They [the British troops] have been stronger than the Army under my Command, which will now, I expect, gain greater strength than theirs, as the Militia are beginning to come fast, and have already augmented our numbers … to about 23,000 men.” A week later, on the eve of the battle, they totaled about 28,000.2
The militia surge bolstered the confidence of several American officers, including even Greene, despite his skepticism about the fighting prowess of militia. Writing from the front lines on Long Island, Greene assured Washington that all was under control: “I have the Pleasure to inform you that the Troops appear to be in exceedingly good Spirits, and have no doubt that if they should make their attack here we shall be able to render a very good account of them.” Lord Stirling, who was supervising the defensive preparations on Long Island, concurred with Greene. The forts, redoubts, and trenches were so formidable that Stirling actually hoped, as he put it, “that General Howe would come here in preference to any other spot in America.” Eight months earlier Charles Lee had rendered the judgment that New York was indefensible. Now Stirling thought it impregnable.3
Stirling’s excessive enthusiasm often made it difficult to distinguish between bravado and confidence. But subsequent testimony from British and Hessian officers confirmed that the layered defensive scheme on Long Island was sufficient to repel a frontal assault by 50,000 troops. And even Germain had not seen fit to gather a British force that large.
Given the capacity for carnage building up on both sides, the final exchange of letters between William Howe and Washington seemed to suggest that Howe deeply regretted the whole bloody business. “I cannot close this letter,” he confided to Washington, “without expressing the deepest Concern that the unhappy state of the colonies, so different from what I had the Honor of experiencing in the Course of the last war, deprives me of the Pleasure I should otherwise have had in a more personal Communication.”4
Washington recognized this as a nostalgic postscript to the failed effort at reconciliation a month earlier. But he felt obliged to respond in the same aristocratic style, maintaining the etiquette of honor between two gentlemen who wished to disassociate themselves from the looming slaughter they were about to oversee. “Give me leave to assure you, sir,” Washington replied, “that I feel myself greatly obliged by the polite conclusion of your letter … and have a high sense of the honor and satisfaction I should have received from your personal acquaintance. The different state of the colonies from what it was in the last War & which has deprived me of that Happiness, cannot be regretted by any one more than Sir Your Most Obedt Servt.” The courtesies having been properly exchanged, the bloody work could now begin.5
ANTICIPATING JUST WHERE that work would occur was Washington’s primary dilemma. On August 14, two British deserters reported that the main British attack was aimed at Long Island. Another intelligence report a few days later predicted coordinated attacks on Long Island and the northern tip of Manhattan. Although one of the cardinal principles of military tactics was never to divide your army in the face of a superior force, Washington was forced to violate it because he was defending two islands against an opponent with total naval supremacy. He chose to regard any British attack against Long Island as a likely diversion; placed 6,000 troops, only a third of his men “fit for duty,” there; and kept the remainder on Manhattan, which after all was the ultimate British objective.6
Meanwhile, over on Staten Island, a lively debate was occurring between Howe and Henry Clinton, his second-in-command, over their strategic options. In truth, Howe had little respect for Clinton either as a general or as a man, so there was never a serious chance that Clinton’s preference would prevail. They had served together at Bunker Hill and in the Boston Siege, where Clinton had displayed his lifelong tendency to make enemies of all his superiors, who never seemed to appreciate his advice as much as he thought it deserved. Clinton, it seems, possessed a truly unique talent for making himself obnoxious; he was the kind of insufferable character who always knew he was right. In this instance, however, all the advantages of hindsight make it abundantly clear that, in fact, he was.7
Clinton favored a British invasion at King’s Bridge, at the northern end of Manhattan, where the Harlem River separates the island from the mainland. If successful, this option would block the escape of the Continental Army on both Manhattan and Long Island, presuming British naval control of the Hudson and East rivers. Once trapped, the Continental Army could be gradually eroded and eventually annihilated in a single campaign. Clinton’s strategy was based on the assumption that the proper target was not the city and port of New York but the Continental Army itself. If it ceased to exist, the American rebellion would follow suit.8
Howe disagreed. He believed that the Continental Army had to be decisively defeated but not destroyed. His orders from Germain were to capture New York, which would then become the base of operations for the British army and navy for the decisive campaign to close the Hudson corridor and isolate New England. If the city and port of New York were the target, then Long Island was the obvious avenue to reach it, since command of Brooklyn Heights would render southern Manhattan indefensible. If the Continental Army was sufficiently humiliated in the process to break the will of the rebellion, so much the better. But the strategic goal was the occupation of New York, not the annihilation of the Continental Army. Howe had the final say, of course, so the invasion on Long Island was scheduled for August 22, by which time the recently arrived Hessians should be ready to go.9
In hindsight, Howe’s decision to reject Clinton’s preferred strategy may have meant that Great Britain lost a golden opportunity to end the American rebellion at its very inception. We can never be sure about this might-have-been, because we cannot know whether the total destruction or capture of the Continental Army would have broken the will of the rebellion. Perhaps, as both Adams and Franklin sincerely believed, the Continental Congress would have defiantly raised another army and appointed another version of Washington to lead it. What is clear is that both armies would have been better served if their respective commanders had exchanged places. For Howe, in targeting the territory rather than the Continental Army, pursued the cautious strategy when he should have been bold. And Washington, in his very decision to defend New York, pursued the bold strategy when he should have been cautious.
AN IMPROBABLE PIECE of bad luck then struck at the worst possible time, when Greene informed Washington that he was “confined to my Bed with a raging fever” on August 15. Washington’s ablest and most trusted officer, just appointed a major general, Greene had also designed and built the defensive network on Long Island and made himself thoroughly familiar with the terrain. Now he had to be evacuated to Manhattan. To replace Greene, Washington chose John Sullivan, not because he knew and trusted him but because he was the only senior officer without a command, having just come down from Albany after threatening to resign rather than serve under Horatio Gates. Sullivan was a former New Hampshire lawyer of boundless confidence, limited military experience, and total ignorance of the troops he was to command and the ground he was to defend.10
The British Army had been practicing amphibious operations on Staten Island for two weeks. On August 22, more than 300 transport vessels carried 15,000 troops into Gravesend Bay in southwestern Long Island without a hitch and without any appreciable resistance. Lord Howe’s secretary, Ambrose Serle, described the scene as breathtaking: “In a Word, the Disembarkation of about 15,000 Troops upon a fine Beach, their forming upon the adjacent Plain … exhibited one of the finest & most picturesque Scenes that the Imagination can fancy or the Eye behold.” Three days later another 5,000 Hessians were ferried across. Although Washington moved another 2,000 men over the East River to reinforce the Long Island garrison, the Americans were outnumbered more than two to one. Washington was still hedging his bets that the invasion of Long Island was a feint and the main British attack would come on Manhattan.11
In his General Orders the next day, Washington announced that the long-awaited testing time for the Continental Army had finally arrived: “The Enemy has now landed on Long Island, and the hour is fast approaching, on which the Honor and Success of this army, and the safety of our bleeding Country depend. Remember officers and Soldiers, that you are Freemen, fighting for the blessings of Liberty—that slavery will be your portion, and that of your posterity, if you do not acquit yourselves like men.” In case these inspiring words proved insufficient, all the troops should also know that “if any man attempt to skulk, lay down, or retreat without orders, he will instantly be shot down as an example.”12
GREENE HAD DEVISED a three-tiered defensive scheme for Long Island designed to inflict an unsustainable level of casualties on the British as they moved through each killing zone. Sharpshooters would be positioned in the thickly wooded area north of Gravesend Bay, concentrated along the three passes that afforded space for British horses and artillery to advance. The American troops would then fall back to a necklace of trenches and redoubts on Gowanus Heights, a ridgeline running east to west across Long Island. Greene’s original plan envisioned a stiff but temporary stand on Gowanus Heights, then a retreat to the main defensive perimeter, which consisted of four forts on Brooklyn Heights, where he presumed the heaviest fighting would occur. It was a collapsible network of defensive positions that took maximum advantage of the terrain and allowed the American troops to fight behind cover rather than engage the British on open ground, where the superior discipline and experience of British soldiers would be likely to prevail.13
Sullivan’s first, and last, act as a commander was to revise Greene’s plan by enlarging the garrison on Gowanus Heights to 3,000 men, nearly half his force. As events were to demonstrate, this was a costly mistake, making Gowanus Heights the focus of the battle, where the American force would be outnumbered seven to one.
Then, on August 24, Washington had second thoughts about Sullivan and appointed Israel Putnam as overall commander on Long Island, with Sullivan restricted to command of the troops on Gowanus Heights. “Old Put” had the torso of a bull, the head of a cannonball, and the mentality of a natural warrior. A veteran of Bunker Hill and a legendary Indian fighter in the French and Indian War—he had once escaped while being roasted by Indians over a fire—Putnam had requested the command once it became clearer that the main British attack would come on Long Island. “The brave old man was quite miserable at being kept here,” Joseph Reed wrote from the headquarters on Manhattan. While Washington’s change of mind conveyed a certain indecisiveness, putting his mostbattle-tested leader in charge also reflected his recognition, at last, that Long Island was the British objective. Despite that recognition, he kept over half his troops on Manhattan, thereby covering his bases, but at the cost of ensuring that the British would enjoy a vastly superior force at the point of attack.14
William Howe was reputed to be the finest student of light infantry tactics in the British Army. And his experience at Bunker Hill meant that he was perhaps the last British officer in America to mount a frontal assault against Greene’s formidable network of defenses. But the more he studied the maps, the more Greene’s defensive scheme seemed to defy evasion, making a battle with high British casualties unavoidable.
Then Henry Clinton came up with a bold, if stunningly simple, solution. He had also been studying the maps. Far to the east, about seven miles from the center of the American defenses, was a little-used road called Jamaica Pass. Local loyalists reported that the Americans regarded it as too far away to justify anything more than a token force of defenders. But it was, Clinton claimed, the key to the battle for Long Island, because it would allow Howe to outflank Greene’s layered entrenchments.
Clinton proposed a flanking maneuver up Jamaica Pass that would place British troops behind the American lines on Gowanus Heights, cutting off their retreat to the forts on Brooklyn Heights. He also proposed that British and Hessian units engage the right and center of the American defensive front in order to compel their attention until they found themselves surrounded. It was a brilliant plan, the obvious answer to Howe’s tactical dilemma, but it was burdened by the awkward liability of coming from the obnoxious Clinton.15
Clinton later acknowledged that he was his own worst enemy during tactical debates with Howe. “My zeal may perhaps on these occasions,” he recalled, “have carried me so far as to at times be thought troublesome.” In this case, however, Clinton had the good sense to delegate the presentation of his plan to a subordinate. On August 26, Howe embraced it, invoking the commander’s prerogative to claim it as his own.16
A group of loyalists then volunteered to guide British troops up Jamaica Pass in a night march. It was telling that no Long Island residents exposed the British plan to anyone in the Continental Army. This was perhaps the one place in America that was so predominantly loyalist in sentiment that the British enjoyed a significant advantage in intelligence, a rare occasion that Howe exploited fully.
AT NIGHTFALL ON August 26, Clinton led the vanguard of 10,000 British and Hessian troops on a looping seven-mile march around the left flank of the American defenses, Howe and Cornwallis trailing with the main body. How Sullivan could have neglected to defend Jamaica Pass invited criticism at the time and speculation ever since. He was aware that the pass existed, since he dispatched five horsemen to guard it, all of whom were quickly and easily captured. How a British force so large, hacking and sawing its way through underbrush, could move undetected has also seemed strange. In fact, two American officers, Samuel Miles and David Brodhead, later testified that they did spot the British column. “I was convinced … that General Howe would fall into the Jamaica road,” Miles recalled, “and I hoped there were troops there to watch them.” But there were not. Sullivan subsequently attempted to excuse his blunder by claiming, rather lamely, “I had no foot [i.e., soldiers] for the purpose.”17
Meanwhile, up on Gowanus Heights, Clinton’s plan was working perfectly. A formidable British force of 5,000 infantry and 2,000 marines commanded by General James Grant engaged Stirling’s brigade on the right flank. Sullivan apprised Putnam that the main British attack had begun, and Putnam in turn urged Washington to cross the river and join him on Brooklyn Heights to oversee the battle. In truth, Grant’s attack was only a diversion, designed to engage the American troops while the force under Clinton and Howe came around from the rear.18
Grant nevertheless used the occasion to bombard Stirling’s men from a distance for two hours. “Both the balls and shells flew very fast,” one soldier reported, “now and then taking off a head.” Stirling had ordered his men to stand in formation rather than take cover, a way of exhibiting military discipline and embracing the code of honor still alive and well in the eighteenth century. “Our men stood it amazingly well,” one soldier proudly declared, “not even one showed a disposition to shrink.” A Hessian force underGeneral Leopold von Heister, another 4,000 troops, gathered to the right of Grant’s men as together they braced themselves to become the anvil to the Clinton-Howe hammer, the Continental Army in between.19
The hammer came down at nine o’clock on the morning of August 27, when 10,000 British soldiers emerged behind the American lines, producing panic among new recruits, who were simultaneously surrounded and outnumbered. In most units, discipline dissolved immediately as soldiers attempted to flee to the forts on Brooklyn Heights. Joseph Plumb Martin, then only fifteen years old, remembered that a young American lieutenant broke down, sobbing uncontrollably, begging forgiveness from his men as they ran past him to the rear. He also remembered officers removing the cockades from their hats so they could not be recognized as officers if captured. He witnessed a massacre at Gowanus Creek as retreating American soldiers either drowned or were gunned down by British infantry from the bank, the dead bodies floating over the entire surface of the water.20
In certain pockets of action, captured American troops were summarily executed. “The Hessians and our brave Highlanders gave no quarter,” recalled one British officer. “And it was a fine sight to see with what alacrity they dispatched the rebels with their bayonets, after we had surrounded them so they could not resist.” Other witnesses described Hessians pinning American prisoners to trees with their bayonets. Such atrocities were the exception rather than the rule, but they later became standard features in American newspaper accounts of the battle that depicted the Hessians as barbaric mercenaries.21
While the dominant response of the American troops was fear and flight, in some sectors of the battlefield they fought with a ferocity that even the British acknowledged as impressive. This was especially true on the right flank, where Stirling commanded veteran regiments from Maryland and Delaware. Stirling himself was an unlikely combat leader, described by his biographer as “an overweight, rheumatic, vain, pompous, gluttonous inebriate.” But in this intense time of testing, he was magnificent, several observers agreeing that he “fought like a wolf.” In order to buy time for his other troops to escape, Stirling led his Marylanders on seven suicidal attacks against British regulars—400 against 2,000—suffering a 90 percent casualty rate in the process of inflicting heavy losses on the British. Observing the action from Brooklyn Heights through his spyglass, Washington was heard to remark, “Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose.”22
It was all over before noon. Both armies reported inflated casualty rates for the other side, Howe rather preposterously claiming more killed, wounded, or captured Americans than were engaged in the fighting on Gowanus Heights. The best estimate is that both sides suffered between 300 and 400 dead and wounded, the Americans more dead than wounded because of the Hessian massacres. But the best measure of the British victory was the number of Americans captured, nearly 1,000, most of whom were fated to die miserable deaths from disease and malnutrition on British prison ships in New York harbor supervised by Betsy Loring’s husband. Two American generals, Stirling and Sullivan, were among the prisoners.23
Ironically, because so many inexperienced American troops fled so precipitously, simply ignoring the efforts of their officers to stand and fight, about 2,000 made it back to the forts to fight another day. Veteran British troops would have obeyed their officers and ended up casualties or prisoners.
Beyond the sheer calculus of casualties and captured, however, the will of the Continental Army had been broken and any semblance of military discipline destroyed. The psychological momentum on the battlefield had swung entirely in the British direction, so much so that British and Hessian troops had to be restrained from pursuing the fleeing Continentals into the forts on Brooklyn Heights.
Several witnesses, including Howe himself, believed that the forts and the entire American army on Long Island would have been taken if the British attack had continued. “Had they been permitted to go on,” he later acknowledged, “it is my opinion that they would have carried the redoubts.” Looking down from Brooklyn Heights, Putnam observed that “General Howe is either our friend or no general.” In Putnam’s judgment, Howe “had our whole army in his power.… Had he instantly followed up his victory the consequences to the cause of liberty must have been dreadful.” And Clinton, true to form, believed that Howe had missed the chance to end the war in a single stroke. “Complete success would most likely have been the consequence of an immediate attack,” he recorded in his memoirs, “for there is no saying to what extent the effect resulting from the entire loss of the army might have been … or where it would have stopped.” Clinton held to his conviction that the destruction of the Continental Army would have generated traumatic shock waves that in turn would have destroyed the will of the American people to continue the war.24
William Howe thought differently, though his thought process at this stage had become as layered as the American defenses on Long Island, and any attempt to do it justice requires the kind of analytical skills customarily associated with psychoanalysis.
As we know, Howe had once entertained serious hopes of negotiating a peaceful end to the rebellion, which he tended to regard as an unfortunate misunderstanding that had somehow escalated to the current bloodletting because of radical leaders in Philadelphia and ill-informed officials in London and Whitehall. His fondest dream, shared by his brother, was to go home not as a conquering hero but as a statesman who had successfully brokered a peaceful reconciliation with his former American brethren.
This dream was dashed in July, when his brother’s entreaties were dismissed as wholly inadequate by both Washington and the Continental Congress. Having crossed the line toward independence just before the Howes arrived, the rebels were not disposed to retrace their steps. By August, then, Howe had become convinced that only a decisive military defeat could bring the Americans to their senses by exposing the utter futility of their fight against a vastly superior British army and navy. And he was fully prepared to deliver that defeat on Long Island, which is what by late August he was in the process of doing.25
Nevertheless, the dashed dream of a negotiated settlement never died. Howe had only put it aside to administer a proper thrashing to Washington’s amateur army, after which the rebels would be more disposed to recognize the hopelessness of their cause. And for this reason, he conducted the war on the assumption that a careful and calibrated demonstration of British military supremacy was sufficient for the task at hand. Unlike Clinton, who believed that the war must be won quickly with a massive blow that destroyed the Continental Army so that it did not evolve into a protracted conflict of dubious conclusion, Howe thought British victory was inevitable, which in turn meant that a more limited strategy was wholly adequate. Unlike the British campaigns against the Irish and the Scots, which were savage, genocidal conflicts that left residues of resentment for centuries, Howe wanted his American campaign to be a more measured affair, permitting a postwar resumption of the prewar mutual affection that he remembered so well.26
Howe’s preference for a strategy of limited war had a British component as well. He was obsessed with keeping his own casualties low, which was the consideration he subsequently cited in defense of his decision to halt the attack on Brooklyn Heights. “I would not risk the loss,” he explained, “that might have been sustained in the assault.” Bunker Hill still haunted him, to be sure, but so did a keen sense that he was managing resources that were expensive, finite, and not easily replaced.27
The American and British sides of the Howe equation, then, were perfectly balanced. On both sides, he preferred to keep damage to a minimum. In the case of those forts on Brooklyn Heights, that meant conducting a siege while the British navy bombarded them from offshore. In a matter of days, Washington would have no choice but to surrender, a delay of small consequence when compared to the losses on both sides that would be entailed with an immediate frontal attack. After all, if you were sure of the outcome, there was no need to hurry, a posture that also suited Howe’s laid-back style.
Washington was too beleaguered to affect anything like a style. For two days, he wore himself out riding up and down the line on Brooklyn Heights, exhorting the dispirited troops. Exhausted, still dazed by the ruinous defeat, the man who would one day earn a well-deserved reputation for decisiveness did not know what to do. And as he stared into the abyss, a heavy rain filled the trenches so that sentries were standing waist-deep in water, many of their muskets useless because their powder was wet. Meanwhile, Howe’s engineers were digging their own trenches, angling up toward the forts in zigzag formations that afforded cover in a classic siege tactic. It was now clear that Washington’s decision to order another 1,200 troops over from Manhattan, enlarging the garrison on Brooklyn Heights to 9,500, had been a mistake, since it only put more American troops in the British trap. Given the forces arrayed against him, Washington had only three options: surrender, face annihilation, or attempt an escape across the East River to Manhattan.28
Joseph Reed had been pressing Washington to make the only plausible choice, but for several reasons he could not bring himself to order a retreat. He had, after all, been lecturing his men to stand fast against the British attack for months. How could he reverse himself now without appearing foolish?29 More elementally, Washington was an honor-driven man in the eighteenth-century mode. He understood completely why Stirling had ordered his men to stand at attention while British artillery rounds and grapeshot (i.e., chain links and iron pellets) were lopping off heads and disemboweling his troops. Though it sounds irrational to our modern mentality, Washington believed that his personal honor, meaning the core of his character as an officer and a gentlemen, obliged him to suffer death rather than the dishonor of retreat. His apparent paralysis was the result of balancing two imperatives: his reputation against the survival of the Continental Army.30
The resolution of his dilemma came on August 29 in the form of General Thomas Mifflin, who had done a reconnaissance of the American perimeter and reported that troop morale was low, with several units actually talking about surrendering to the British. Mifflin was a wealthy Philadelphia merchant of Quaker background who had rejected his pacifist principles to become Pennsylvania’s preeminent soldier. Washington agreed to call a council of war that afternoon if Mifflin himself proposed the retreat, which preserved Washington’s honor because the request would come from someone else. Mifflin concurred, but with one provision, namely that he command the last troops to evacuate and therefore run the greatest risk of being killed or captured, a gesture that also preserved his own sense of honor.31
The council of war met at Four Chimneys, the baronial summer home of Philip Livingston, which offered a panoramic view of the escape route the Continental Army would take, near the modern-day Brooklyn Bridge. The conclusion was unanimous, thereby forcing Washington to embrace a course chosen by his generals rather than himself, allowing him to preserve the pretense that he preferred to go down fighting. All that remained was to plan and carry out the evacuation of nearly 10,000 men without alerting the British Army of their departure over a body of water that was controlled by the British navy. One young Connecticut officer, Major Benjamin Tallmadge, put the matter succinctly: “To move so large a body, across a river full a mile wide, with a rapid current, in face of a victorious well disciplined army nearly three times as numerous as his own and a fleet capable of stopping the navigation, so that not one boat could have passed over, seemed to present most formidable obstacles.”32
At least the wind was blowing the Americans’ way. A northeastern storm restricted the movement of British warships up the East River, though it also posed navigation problems for American boats trying to get across. Although he had no other choice, Washington now needed to perform one of the most brilliant tactical withdrawals in the annals of military history.
DECEPTION WAS THE essential ingredient in the evacuation plan. Washington issued a General Order to assemble all ships and flat-bottomed boats on Manhattan and Long Island, purportedly to ferry additional troops over from New Jersey. This allowed Colonel John Glover and his Massachusetts regiment of Marblehead fishermen and seamen to gather the fleet to evacuate Long Island under the pretense of reinforcing it. The very sight of Glover and his colorfully attired troops, all moving with the disciplined precision acquired from years of experience aboard ships at sea, made an immediate impression: “These were the lads,” noted one young officer from Pennsylvania, “that might do something.” What they were in fact about to do was show this army of amateur soldiers how a regiment of seasoned seamen staged a rescue operation at night.33
Only a few of the officers and none of the enlisted men knew that an evacuation was under way. In some units, when ordered to go “under arms with packs,” the troops assumed they were about to attack the British trenches and proceeded to make out their wills in anticipation of certain death. Joseph Plumb Martin remembered the sudden code of silence: “We were strictly enjoined not to speak, or even cough. All orders were given from officer to officer, and communicated to men in whispers.” Tench Tilghman, a young lieutenant soon to become one of Washington’s most trusted aides, reported that whole regiments moved to the rear without knowing their destination: “The thing was conducted with so much secrecy that neither subalterns nor privates knew that the whole army was to cross back again to New York.”34
The tactical retreat of an entire army currently engaged with a larger enemy force is so difficult to orchestrate because units have to be removed piecemeal, in staggered fashion, leaving a sufficient complement of troops to hold the perimeter. Timing, therefore, has to be precise, and the remaining troops need to spread out to replace those just evacuated. A nearly fatal blunder occurred on Brooklyn Heights midway through the evacuation, when Mifflin received an order to withdraw all his troops. The order was a mistake, since Mifflin’s men were supposed to leave last and their withdrawal would leave the American front fully exposed. Mifflin questioned the order but reluctantly obeyed it.
As he led his troops back toward the ferry, Washington rode up and demanded to know what Mifflin was doing. “Good God! General Mifflin, I am afraid you have ruined us,” he shouted. Mifflin, understandably exasperated and confused, explained the communication error, then led his troops back to the trenches. Though the American position had been undefended for over an hour, the British never noticed.35
This piece of good fortune was more than matched when the northeastern storm subsided and the winds shifted to the southeast, which greatly facilitated the movement of Glover’s boats across the East River. The weather change should have prompted the appearance of British warships on the water, which would have transformed the American evacuation into a full-scale massacre, since the overloaded rowboats were defenseless. But Lord Howe, uncharacteristically, never noticed the wind shift and never brought the British fleet into play.
He was preoccupied with dinner conversation aboard the Eagle, his flagship, where the two captured American generals, Stirling and Sullivan, were his guests, and Lord Richard was fixated on discovering whether the recent humiliation of the Continental Army might have changed their minds about his proposals for a peaceful end to the rebellion. Like his brother, if not more so, Richard Howe’s fondest hope was for diplomatic reconciliation rather than military victory, and at this fateful moment that was where his fullest attentions were focused.
The gods smiled on the American escape one final time on the morning of August 30. The last troops to evacuate were most at risk, in part because no one remained in the rear to cover their retreat, in part because they would have to sneak out in broad daylight. Major Tallmadge remembered it well many years later:
As the dawn of the next day approached, those of us who remained in the trenches became very anxious for our own safety.… At this time a very dense fog began to rise, and it seemed to settle in a peculiar manner over both encampments. I recollect this peculiar providential occurrence perfectly well; and so very dense was the atmosphere that I could scarcely discern a man at six yards’ distance.… In the history of warfare I do not recollect a more fortunate retreat.36
As Tallmadge was being rowed across, he looked back to see Washington stepping into the last boat to leave Long Island. It was the stuff of legend. In all nearly 10,000 men were safely ferried to Manhattan with only three stragglers lost. The planning had to be precise, the officers and men needed to behave with uncommon courage, the winds and river currents had to be properly aligned, the Royal Navy had to be negligent, and, finally, a dense fog had to make a providential appearance at the end. And all these ingredients had to come together in the proper sequence. Although successful retreats seldom win wars, in this instance the evacuation of Long Island meant that the Continental Army would live to fight another day. One could be forgiven for believing that “TheCause” could never die.
The initial response on the British side was utter disbelief that Washington had somehow managed to extract his entire army without being noticed. The Americans, so it seemed to several British officers, had shown themselves to be wholly inadequate on the field of battle, but brilliant in their talent at running away.
The prevailing British impression, beyond astonishment, was that the spirit of the Continental Army had been broken on Long Island, the utter futility of confronting the British army and navy had been convincingly demonstrated, and it had been achieved with relatively few British casualties. In short, all of General Howe’s campaign goals had been met. As one British general, Lord Hugh Percy, put it: “I may venture to assert that they will never again stand before us in the field. Everything seems to be over with them, and I flatter myself that this campaign will put a total end to the war.”37
There were, however, dissenting voices. Captain George Collier, commander of the warship Rainbow, thought that each of the Howe brothers had missed an opportunity to destroy or capture the entire American army on Long Island. General Howe’s decision to halt the British assault on the forts at Brooklyn Heights looked less convincing now that Washington had escaped the trap. And Admiral Howe’s failure to throw the British fleet into the East River, which Collier claimed “we have been in constant expectation of being ordered to do,” struck Collier as inexplicable, since only a few British frigates would have meant that “not a man would have escaped from Long Island.” Whether such opportunities would come again no one could say. “Now, I foresee,” Collier lamented, “they [the Americans] will give us trouble enough, and protract the war, Heaven knows how long.”38
NEWS OF THE American defeat slowly dribbled into the Continental Congress, in part because Washington was too exhausted to file a report. “For Forty Eight Hours,” he explained to Hancock, “I had hardly been off my Horse and never closed my Eyes, so that I was quite unfit to write or dictate.” His eventual report emphasized the successful evacuation from Long Island, played down the debacle on Gowanus Heights, and provided an inflated estimate of British casualties, thereby conveniently obscuring the full scope of themilitary disaster and the dispirited condition of the Continental Army. Gossip mills at Washington’s headquarters on Manhattan began to circulate the opinion that Greene’s unfortunate absence was the primary cause of the defeat: that if Greene had been commanding on Long Island, the whole battle would have gone differently.39
The General Orders for August 31 sustained the same patriotic rhetoric as before the battle, suggesting that nothing had really changed: “From the justice of our cause, America can only expect success,” it read. “Now is the time for every man to exert himself, and make our Country glorious, or it will become contemptible.” In order to set an example, Washington deliberately chose to expose himself to British artillery fire from the Long Island shore. After two rounds missed overhead, and having made his point, Washington allowed his staff to lead him away.40
By any detached measure, the Continental Army had suffered a humiliating defeat. And according to General Howe’s strategic calibrations, the political and psychological consequences of that crushing experience should have shocked the leadership of the American rebellion into the realization that their glorious cause was, in truth, a hopeless waste of blood and treasure. Washington’s initial management of the after-action reports undercut Howe’s strategy by concealing the depth of the disaster, a justifiable distortion from his perspective in order to reduce the sudden impact that the military debacle might have on popular opinion. If he had failed to control the movement of his troops on the battlefield, he would attempt to control the perception of the battle’s consequences in that larger battle for popular opinion.
Down in Philadelphia, Adams was having similar thoughts. He had originally intended to return to Braintree and his family. But a premonition that the news from New York might be bad convinced him to remain at his station: “Indeed, if the Decision should be unfortunate…, perhaps I may be as well calculated to Sustain such a Shock, as Some others.” He worried most about the psychological effect of Howe’s victory on the faint of heart in the congress and on the so-called half-Tories out there in the countryside. “The Panic may seize whom it will,” he confided to Abigail, “it shall not sieze me. I will stay here until the public Countenance is better, or much worse. It must and will be better.”41
Adams’s first instinct was to minimize the damage by claiming that matters could have been much worse. If the Howe brothers had failed in New York, he argued somewhat dubiously, they would have attacked Boston, and its loss would have been more devastating. Then he argued that the very enormity of the British victory would prove to be a military liability. “If they get Possession of New York, Long Island, and Staten Island,” he observed, “these are more Territory than their whole Army can defend.” According to this line of thought, which was at best counterintuitive, every British military victory only increased the burden of occupation, implying that the best way to win the war was to lose every battle. Arguments like this suggest that Adams could not acknowledge any possibility of an American military defeat leading to British victory in the war.
The truth was that the amateur status of the Continental Army had been exposed in no uncertain terms on Long Island, and all the platitudinous incantations about the moral superiority of the American cause had fallen victim to the military superiority of a professional army. These were uncomfortable facts that Adams, like Washington, needed to obscure, even to himself.42
If all Americans were like his beloved Abigail, Adams would not have faced a political problem. Like her husband, Abigail was resolute. “We seem to be kept in total Ignorance of affairs at [New] York,” she observed, insisting that “if our Army is in ever so critical a state, I wish to know it, and the worst of it.” She was prepared to know the unvarnished truth because she was beyond compromise. “But if we should be defeated” she insisted, “I think we shall not be conquered.” In response to her request for a candid assessment of the American performance on Long Island, Adams was elegantly succinct: “In general, our Generals were out generalled.”43
Adams was particularly attuned to gauging sudden shifts in the political weather. The preceding spring, he had watched with a combination of admiration and amazement as popular opinion shifted quite dramatically toward independence in response to George III’s decision to impose a military solution on the American rebellion. Now he sensed a shift in the other direction in response to the disaster on Long Island: “The Successes of Howe have given a strange Spring of Toryism,” as another delegate put it. “Men who have hitherto lurked in silence and neutrality seem willing to take a side in opposition to the liberties of their Country.” Washington had even been heard to predict that more American volunteers in New York and New Jersey were likely to join Howe than enlist in the Continental Army.44
The correspondence of other delegates to the Continental Congress suggests that Adams was not alone in attempting to manage the political momentum. Although Benjamin Rush confessed to his wife that the setback in New York had transformed the political climate and that matters were likely to get worse rather than better, in letters to others he put the best face on the current crisis. “I can therefore from authority assure you,” he wrote a French friend, “that a fixed determination still prevails in that body [the Continental Army] to establish the liberties of America or to perish in their ruins. No difficulties discourage us, no losses depress us.”45
Franklin joined the chorus, though in his case there was no need to stretch the truth, since he remained confident that Howe’s victory was merely a minor setback, a brief chapter in the eventual and inevitable story of American triumph. He acknowledged thatBritish troops “have been rather too Strong for our people to cope with, and consequently have succeeded in their interprizes, which have not been of the importance that they will probably seem to the World.” Franklin held firm to his elemental conviction that the British military mission in America was impossible, and nothing about the recent British success had changed his mind: “For what have they done?” he asked rhetorically. “They have got possession of three small islands on the coast of America…, and yet if every Acre of American territory is contested in the same Proportion, the Conquest would ruin all Europe.”46
In the spectrum of political opinion within the Continental Congress, Adams and Franklin were among the most resolute in believing that, having crossed the line toward independence, there could be no turning back, regardless of what happened to Washington’s army in New York. Then, in the first week of September, a dramatic event galvanized opinion among the other delegates within the congress around a nonnegotiable strategy.47
The event was General John Sullivan’s arrival in Philadelphia. Recall that Sullivan, along with Stirling, had dined with Lord Howe on board the Eagle the night that Washington’s army escaped across the East River. During the dinner, Lord Richard managed to persuade the earnest Sullivan that his peace commission empowered him to offer generous terms that would allow the Americans to end this senseless and unnecessary war with their honor intact. Howe had then offered to send Sullivan on parole to apprise the congress of these terms.
In his report, Sullivan described Lord Howe’s utter sincerity. Then he argued that by sending him to Philadelphia, Howe was implicitly recognizing the authority and legitimacy of the Continental Congress. More substantially, Howe had made clear his personal opinion “that Parliament had no right to tax America or meddle with her internal Polity,” and he was confident that George III and his ministers were now open to such an arrangement once hostilities ceased.48
Sullivan’s report provoked a vigorous debate. Rush subsequently remembered that Adams leaned over during the debate “and whispered to me a wish that the first ball that had been fired on the day of the defeat of our army [on Long Island] had gone through his [Sullivan’s] head.” Adams then rose to protest the proceedings, calling Sullivan “a decoy duck whom Lord Howe has sent among us to seduce us into renunciation of our independence.”49
The following day, September 5, John Witherspoon of New Jersey delivered the major speech denouncing Lord Howe’s proposals, and no one rose to challenge his conclusions. “It is plain,” Witherspoon argued, “that absolute submission is what they require us to agree to,” so that despite the appearance of generosity, Lord Howe “has uniformly avoided any circumstance that can imply that we are anything else but subjects of the king of Great Britain, in rebellion.” Once framed in that fashion, only an outright loyalist could embrace Howe’s terms, and no such creature could be found in the Continental Congress. Those delegates who had been shaken by events in New York and were harboring doubts had nowhere else to go.50
The only controversy arose over how to reply to Lord Howe, if at all. Trusting Sullivan to deliver their answer was unacceptable, since his reputation, already tarnished by his conduct on Gowanus Heights, was now in deeper decline for his having been duped by Howe. But failure to respond might be perceived by lukewarm patriots as excessively defiant. Best not to risk losing them and to err on the side of diplomacy.
Howe had offered to receive a delegation from the congress, but only in their capacity as private citizens, since his instructions prohibited him from recognizing the legitimacy of the Continental Congress. The delegates tossed this diplomatic problem back in his face with the following resolution: “Resolved that this body cannot with propriety send any of its members to confer with His Lordship in their private characters.” On the other hand, “ever desirous of establishing peace on reasonable terms, they will send a Committee of their body, to know whether he has any Authority to meet with persons authorized by Congress for that purpose in behalf of America.” Given his instructions, Howe either could refuse to meet with the American delegation, thereby assuming responsibility for the diplomatic impasse, or he could meet with but then acknowledge that he had no authority to negotiate with representatives of an American government. In either case, the peace initiative would be exposed as a diplomatic mirage.51
THE FOLLOWING DAY, September 6, the congress chose Adams, Franklin, and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina to meet with Lord Howe on Staten Island. The selection of Adams and Franklin ensured an interesting conversation that would end in failure, since Adams was high on the list of prominent American rebels scheduled for public hanging for treason if and when Howe’s peace terms were accepted. And Franklin, Howe’s former friend, had recently advised him that his military mission was hopeless and that continued service in this ill-fated cause would destroy his reputation forever.
Even though the conclusion was foreordained, the meeting on September 11 was a dramatic occasion. Clearly, Howe held out the hope that the recent American catastrophe on Long Island might have generated second thoughts among the Americans about the prospects for an easy exit from the British Empire. Just as clearly, the American delegation came to the conference determined to dash that hope. Not quite so clearly, but most probably, a poll of the American population would have revealed a citizenry more politically divided and receptive to Howe’s terms than the Continental Congress or its diplomatic representatives. Unfortunately for Howe, polls were not possible.
Diplomatic etiquette on both sides was almost excessively correct. Howe had arranged to leave a British officer as a hostage at Perth Amboy, where the Americans disembarked, as a guarantee of their safety once in British hands. Adams insisted that no hostage was necessary, since Lord Howe’s word was a more-than-sufficient guarantee. “You make me a very high Compliment,” Howe observed, “and you may depend on it, I will consider it the most sacred of things.” An honor guard of resplendent British grenadiers ushered the Americans into the meeting place with all the ceremonial trappings. Inside, Howe had laid out a sumptuous spread of “good Claret, good Bread, Cold Ham, Tongues and Mutton.” The civilities were assiduously observed.52
Howe began by pleading his sincerity as a famous friend of America. He explained that he had delayed his voyage for several weeks in order to acquire instructions as a peace commissioner, but that very delay had meant that he arrived just after passage of the Declaration of Independence. “Is there no way of treading back this step of Independence,” he asked, “and opening the door to a full discussion?”53
Adams and Franklin led the American response, which was polite but wholly negative. If the British ministry had recognized American sovereignty over taxation and its own domestic affairs a year earlier, the conflict could almost certainly have been avoided. But that was then and this was now. Adams spelled out the British transgressions since the outbreak of hostilities at Lexington and Concord, culminating in the very invasion force that Lord Howe now co-commanded. In response to this long string of abuses, the American states had voted unanimously for independence, and the Continental Congress had ratified that vote, which could not be undone. In fact, the American delegation was just as powerless to reverse that verdict as Howe was to recognize them as American citizens rather than as British subjects. When Howe explained that he preferred to regard his guests as fellow gentlemen, Adams replied that his Lordship was free to meet with them in any capacity he wished, “except that of British subjects.”54
The unspoken item on the agenda, which Howe thought awkward to address directly, was the recent action on Long Island, which surely cast at least a shadow of doubt over American prospects for success against the vastly superior British army and navy. Howe’s more elliptical way of raising the issue was to express his deep affection for America, then add that “if America should fall, he should feel and lament it like the loss of a brother.” Years later Adams still remembered with relish Franklin’s deft response: “Dr. Franklin, with an easy air and a collected countenance, a bow, a smile and all the Naïveté which sometimes appeared in his conversation … replied ‘My Lord, we will do our utmost to save your Lordship that mortification.’ ”55
Rutledge then proposed that since American independence was a nonnegotiable fact, perhaps Howe could persuade his friends back in London to embrace it and then make an economic alliance with the United States with all its attendant commercial advantages for both parties. Howe expressed his doubts that any of his superiors in London would find that idea acceptable; nor was it what he had in mind.56
There was really nothing more to say. Despite the military setback on Long Island, not to mention the highly precarious status of the Continental Army on Manhattan, nothing had changed in the American political posture. Ambrose Serle, Howe’s snobbish secretary, was furious. His summation of the proceedings, recorded in his journal that night, was terse and vitriolic: “They met, they talked, they parted. And now nothing remains but to fight it out against a Set of the most determined Hypocrites & Demagogues compiled by the refuse of the Colonies that ever were permitted by Providence to be the Scourge of a Country.”57
Adams went back to Philadelphia equally angry. He told Sam Adams that “the whole Affair … appears to me, as it ever did, to be a bubble, an Ambuscade, a mere insidious Maneuver, calculated only to decoy and deceive.” His only explanation, which contained more than a kernel of truth, was that “they must have a wretched opinion of our Generalship to suppose that we can fall into it.”58