The Battle of Long Island

August 27th, 1776

The Largest Battle of the Revolutionary War

The Battle of Long Island, also called the Battle of Brooklyn, G1 generally receives little fanfare despite its importance. The largest and deadliest battle of the Revolutionary War was fought in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. C1

Battle of Long Island : retrea... Digital ID: 1253309. New York Public Library

An extensive British fighting force, commanded by brothers General Howe and Admiral Howe C26 convened in Brooklyn to meet George Washington and the Continental Army in the first major battle of organized forces in the Revolutionary War on August 27th, 1776. C2

The Battle of Long Island demonstrated the need for the 13 colonies to unify as a nation and band together for their freedom.

Congress made a pivotal decision to replace the band of independent colonial militias with a standing national army based on this battle. C6 C29 This was a war that would not end in a truce, despite the odds.

When France gave the United States the Statue of Liberty as a gift, they did so to commemorate "the first blow for human liberty and democracy in modern times." C4 This blow was the Battle of Long Island and, in honor, the statue faces Brooklyn Hill C4(located in present day Green-Wood Cemetery) close to where the first shots were fired. C3

The Importance of New York City

As John Adams put it,C9New York City was "a key to the whole continent". The British also recognized the city's importance.

Geographically and politically speaking, in 1776 New York City was:

  • The largest metropolitan area in America(23,000 settlers and slaves)
  • A hub of multiple inland trading routes
  • At the mouth of the North River*, the major North-South route from New England to the other colonies, Canada, and the Northwest C10 C12

*The North River, as it was known by the Dutch, was referred to as Hudson's River by the British as they believed it gave credibility to their claim to the river.F1 Henry Hudson, though he found the river in a Dutch Ship under a Dutch contract, was British.

The British Plan

The Battle of Long Island was the first part of a larger "British Plan" to isolate New England from the rest of the colonies. The British planned to take Manhattan with one army and their naval fleet and work north along the Hudson River. A second British army in Canada would march south to meet them. C11

This plan did not work in practice as the British Army could not move as freely as planned away from water and their powerful Navy. They were only able to hold port cities. C7

Passage of the troops to Long ... Digital ID: 808579. New York Public Library

Preparing for the siege, the British sailed 30 warships and 400 transports through the Narrows, the straight leading into New York's Upper Bay.

An army of over 32,000 trained soldiers, 10,000 sailors, and 2000 marines amassed on Staten Island thereafter. G2 C23 There were 32 generals each commanding an average of 1200 men on the ground. C22

This was supposed to be a decisive blow. The British were expecting an unorganized resistance that could be taken with little effort. C27

The American Defenses

George Washington had long argued for a standing regular army and the Battle of Long Island emphasized that need. C5 The Continental Congress had promised Washington many more troops than he received and they were untrained volunteers that, for the most part, brought their own weapons. C28

Washington had over 19,000 soldiers available at one point in New York; however his official rolls dwindled to 17,225 by mid-August, 1776. Of those, 3,668 were unavailable for action leaving 13,557 patriots to face the British forces in the Battle of Long Island. C30

Unsure of where the attack would commence, the patriots were stretched thin around the New York area. Several fortifications were built around the city in preparation for battle.

Fortifications were strengthened and canons placed at the old Battery at the tip of Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights (towered 100 ft. above entrance to the East River C19), Governor's Island, Paulus Hook (Jersey City today), and about five smaller forts. C31

The Battle

The British landed part of their troops unopposed in Gravesend Bay on Southwest Long Island, in the present day borough of Brooklyn, on August 22nd, 1776. G3

Washington heard this and thought it was a ploy to attract attention away from Manhattan, the primary target. G4 He split his forces sending half to Brooklyn and keeping the rest in Manhattan. C20 Bad weather kept the rest of the British troops from landing until August 26th. Small skirmishes broke out in Brooklyn during this time. C24

The natural land features of Brooklyn should have greatly aided the American defenses. The name Brooklyn was derived from the Dutch word, breukelen, which means marshland G5, and rightfully so as many boundaries were defined by marsh and dense forest C32.

In addition, a range of hills created by the ancient Wisconsin Ice Sheet, thousands of years prior, provided an additional natural fortification for the vastly outnumbered and outgunned Americans. C21

However, the British learned from a local of an unfortified pass to get behind American lines and used it to isolate the Americans. They used a decoy force to keep the Americans attention and think the attack was coming from a different direction while hiking their main forces throughout the night to circle behind the Americans.

Thick brush and marsh slowed the march to less than two-thirds of a mile per miserable hour, C33 but 10-12 hours later, the British had the American lines nearly surround.

Lord Stirling last struggle ar... Digital ID: 808604. New York Public Library

After heavy casualties, the main American line realized a retreat would be necessary.

Under the direction of Lord Stirling (William Alexander claimed the title "Earl of Stirling, Scotland"), 400 American soldiers from Maryland ("Marylanders") attacked a unit of 2000 surprised British and Hessian soldiers (hired from Germany) entrenched in an old stone house.

This enemy position was preventing an American retreat across a marsh and Gowanus Creek to the strongly fortified Brooklyn Heights. Stirling attacked and reformed six times, driving the British from the house twice and loosing most of his men. This brave act gave the rest of the Americans in the field the chance to retreat safely.

Of the 400 with Stirling, 256 were killed and 100 wounded. The quote "The Declaration of Independence signed in ink in Philadelphia was signed in blood in south Brooklyn" was recorded by an unknown source about the action. C34

The retreat from Long Island. Digital ID: 808597. New York Public Library

The British waited for days before attacking the heavily fortified Brooklyn Heights and were surprised to find nobody there when they did. C25

In the cover of thick fog, The Continental Army made as many as 11 round trips across the East River, ferrying themselves across in small boats. G7 The Americans regrouped in northern Manhattan. Washington coordinated the effort and was the last to leave. C35

The successful retreat of over 9500 men without casualty or even being noticed by the massive army close by was later marveled at by British Generals and historians. Under the conditions, how he pulled it off has been debated ever since. G6

On September 11th, 1776, the British offered terms for the American forces entrenched in Manhattan to surrender. They were rejected. G8

Who Won the Battle of Long Island?

The young American army was driven to retreat and gave up Brooklyn and later Manhattan. But the fact that they faced such a large and well-trained enemy, and survived only losing a fraction of their force was a victory in itself.

Further, the British plan of crushing the rebellion and quickly ending an "expensive war" was lost. It would be a harder fight than they realized.

The Americans lost over 1000 soldiers in the battle and were badly demoralized by the loss C36. However, they stood together as an army defending its nation, gained valuable experience, and they eventually won the war.

By the numbers, this battle was supposed to be a decisive British victory. Instead, the Battle of Long Island was the first major blow of a war that would drag on for seven more years and end in a recognized American democracy.

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