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New York, Battle of

New York, Battle of (1776).When the British evacuated Boston in March 1776 early in the Revolutionary War, no royal government remained between New Hampshire and Georgia. New York, with its central location and superb harbor, was the logical place to reassert British authority. Congress—hoping to prevent such a reassertion and forestall the loss of overland communication between New England and the other colonies—urged Gen. George Washington to undertake the almost hopeless task of defending New York. Without a navy, Washington hoped that shore batteries would protect his army from defeat. With perhaps 19,000 men, many of them poorly trained militia, he faced the largest force Britain had yet sent overseas, over 40,000 soldiers and sailors under the command of the brothers Gen. William Howe and Adm. Richard Howe.

The British landed on undefended Staten Island on 2 July, and after seven weeks of careful preparation, launched a campaign based on turning the Americans out of their earthworks, as he had planned to do at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. This cautious plan made effective use of British resources and envisioned a negotiated settlement after the American army had been beaten but not martyred.

In retrospect, the Howes were overly cautious in not exploiting their naval strength, but their initial successes on land were spectacular. Crossing the Narrows to Long Island on 22 August, William Howe five days later implemented the plan that had gone awry at Bunker Hill: pin down the Americans' right flank and send a strong force around their left. Brilliantly executed by 10,000 men under Howe's personal command, the attack routed the Americans from advanced positions on the Heights of Guan. Although many American units fought well, the army retreated several miles to entrenchments on Brooklyn Heights. Expecting a renewed British attack in the morning, Washington on the night of 29–30 August evacuated his exhausted men to Manhattan Island.

Howe waited until 15 September before picking Kip's Bay on the east side of Manhattan as the site of his next turning movement; only Howe's failure to move west to the Hudson River allowed the Americans to escape. Howe pushed Washington north into Westchester County by late October, then retired to consolidate his gains. The last American position on Manhattan, Fort Washington, fell to assault on 16 November. Four days later, Howe began a slow pursuit of the battered remnants of the American army across northern New Jersey.

Washington made serious mistakes at New York, especially by attempting to defend everything rather than deny Howe New York for as long as possible without losing his own army. Although it lost over 5,000 men—killed, wounded, and captured, Washington's army performed creditably in its first campaign of maneuver. Outnumbered, incompletely trained, crippled by inexperienced general officers, and forced to defend an impossible position, it survived because of the determination, courage, and leadership of a core of officers and soldiers, foremost among whom was George Washington. Howe's failure to destroy Washington's army cost the British their best chance of ending the rebellion.
[See also Militia and National Guard; Revolutionary War: Military and Diplomatic Course.]

Bibliography

Henry P. Johnston , The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn, 1878.
Douglas S. Freeman , George Washington, Leader of the Revolution, Chaps. 4–14, 1951.
Ira D. Gruber , The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution, 1972.

Harold E. Selesky

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