Long Island, New York, Battle of
Long Island, New York, Battle of
LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK, BATTLE OF. 27 August 1776. The Battle of Long Island, known since the late twentieth century as the Battle of Brooklyn, was the largest engagement of the American Revolution, in which nearly twenty thousand British troops, including Scottish and Hessian auxiliaries, supported by an armada of thirty warships, took to the field against nine thousand Americans. Brooklyn in 1776 was the name of a township and a village in Kings County. The modern name for the battle specifies its location on western Long Island while conveying that the battle unfolded across the entire area of the modern borough of Brooklyn.
Strictly speaking, the Battle of Brooklyn was also the first battle in U.S. history, because it occurred just eight weeks after the Continental Congress had issued the Declaration of Independence, on 4 July. Despite the efforts of Walt Whitman and other Long Island natives to enshrine the battle as a sacred milestone on the road to American independence, these distinctions—first battle, largest battle—are little known to the general public. The American defeat on Long Island and the series of retreats that constituted the New York campaign have tended to be overshadowed by clear-cut victories in the canonical story of the Revolution.
The Battle of Brooklyn revealed the inexperience of George Washington and his generals, their inability to deploy troops effectively on a large scale and to anticipate, interpret, and counter the enemy's tactics. After losing the battle, they were forced to flee Brooklyn Heights, the key piece of ground overlooking and commanding New York, America's second largest city, which soon had to be abandoned to the British. Nonetheless, the battle that threatened to end the American Revolution at a stroke was neither the catastrophic American defeat nor the resounding British victory it might have been. Moreover, Major General William Howe's decision to engage the Americans on Long Island—instead of cutting them off by seizing the Kings Bridge at the northern tip of Manhattan—was "a grave mistake of strategy" (Keegan, p.164). This mistake set the pattern for the rest of the fighting in New York: the Americans escaped several British attempts to encircle them and enough of the army survived to carry on the war for seven more years.
INVASION OF LONG ISLAND
Having arrived in New York from Halifax at the end of June 1776 and established his base on Staten Island, the British commander in chief, Major General William Howe, spent much of the summer amassing an invasion force of twenty-four thousand ground troops, about one-third of them Hessian auxiliaries under Major General Leopold Philip von Heister, and building wooden landing craft with hinged, flat bows that became ramps for amphibious operations. Colonel Edward Hand's Pennsylvania riflemen, patrolling the Long Island shore, were the first to detect the preparations for the British assault. "At least fourteen sail of transports, some of them crowded with men, now under sail, and more, from the noise, are hoisting anchor," Hand reported on the afternoon of 21 August.
Between 9 a.m. and noon the following day, Vice Admiral Richard Lord Howe, the general's brother and co-commander in chief, stood on the deck of his flagship, the Eagle, supervising the invasion—the landing of fifteen thousand troops on the shore of Gravesend Bay. A corps of four thousand troops under Major Generals Henry Clinton and Charles Lord Cornwallis was the first to wade ashore, while successive waves of landing craft swept in behind them, depositing more men, baggage, supplies, wagons, horses, and forty pieces of artillery on Long Island. Admiral Howe's secretary described the operation, involving a flotilla of more than four hundred vessels on a clear, bright morning, as "one of the finest & most picturesque Scenes that the Imagination can fancy or the eye behold."
The frigates Phoenix, Rose, and Greyhound aimed their broadsides at the shore, while two bomb vessels, Carcass and Thunder, also stood by, equipped with mortars that could pitch explosive shells in a high arc over the invasion force and onto the shore. Rather than contest the landing, Hand and his three hundred riflemen fell back to the wooded ridge called Gowanus Heights, where the Americans intended to make their stand. General Howe's army encamped in an eight-mile arc, occupying southern Kings County in a line roughly parallel to the American positions on Gowanus Heights to the north.
Cornwallis was sent forward with a substantial detachment of men and six fieldpieces to seize the village of Flatbush and probe the Flatbush Pass, the center of the Americans' outer line of defense on Gowanus Heights. The inner line was two miles to the north, a chain of forts, redoubts, and connecting trenches that sealed off the Brooklyn Heights peninsula, protecting the vital ground where American artillery commanded New York City, just across the East River. To attack the American fortifications at the base of the peninsula, the British would have to go through one of the four passes where roads crossed Gowanus Heights through its natural depressions—from west to east, the Martense Lane, Flatbush, Bedford, and Jamaica passes.
Major General Charles Lee had called for the construction of forts on Brooklyn Heights, and after his departure for Charleston in March, Major General Nathanael Greene had cordoned off the peninsula to protect those forts from the rear. Major General John Sullivan, who succeeded Greene when he fell ill with camp fever on 15 August, realized that Gowanus Heights offered the Americans a tremendous advantage, an opportunity to ambush the more powerful British army. Sullivan stationed eight hundred men at each of the three westernmost passes, where they cut down trees for roadblocks, threw up breastworks, and mounted artillery. However, Sullivan neglected to fortify the more distant Jamaica Pass, a ravine four miles from the Brooklyn Heights defenses on the far end of the American left wing.
WASHINGTON SUSPECTS A FEINT
On the morning of 22 August, Washington received reports at his headquarters in Manhattan that eight thousand British troops had landed on Long Island, a figure probably based on the assumption that Cornwallis's detachment was the entire invasion force. Since reports from Staten Island the night before had predicted an attack with twenty thousand men "on Long Island and up the North River," Washington assumed the landing of the eight thousand on Long Island was a feint and that the remaining twelve thousand troops were still on transports, ready to land at the Kings Bridge and move south to take New York City. Washington assumed that Howe would try to cut him off from the mainland by seizing the Kings Bridge along with the Freebridge, Manhattan's only links to the mainland, across the Harlem River. Accordingly, Washington sent only six regiments to reinforce Sullivan on Long Island. Sullivan's troops spent a sleepless night on the 22nd, bracing for an attack that never came.
Howe's second-in-command, General Henry Clinton, had strongly urged him to land in lower Westchester County or northern Manhattan to trap the Americans, but Howe had several reasons for taking Long Island first. Most important, Howe intended to drive the Americans off Brooklyn Heights and prevent a repetition of the events in Boston, where American artillery placed on Dorchester Heights had forced the British to abandon the city. Second, while New York City would house the occupying army, Long Island's farms would feed its men and horses. Finally, Howe expected strong Loyalist support when his forces arrived in Kings and Queens Counties.
Much to Washington's consternation, on 23 August his troops provoked ongoing skirmishing on Long Island, which he considered a waste of ammunition and a distraction that might mask the beginning of the enemy's main offensive. American troops stationed in the Flatbush Pass attacked the Hessian guards posted just north of Cornwallis's camp in Flatbush village. The Americans drove the Hessian sentries back toward the village, burned several houses where they had established outposts, and dragged at least one corpse back to the hills as evidence of contact with these German auxiliaries, whose fearsome reputation preceded them. In the afternoon, the Forty-second Scottish Highlanders brought up two cannon from the village and mounted them on a breastwork across the Flatbush Road, and an exchange of artillery fire lasted for the rest of the day. All of this activity at the center of the American line on Gowanus Heights would indeed prove to be a distraction and would help conceal British intentions.
Washington began taking daily trips to Long Island in order to assess the situation. Still suspecting that the Gravesend landing was a diversion, he moved a thousand men from the Kings Bridge about halfway down the west side of Manhattan with orders to fend off a possible British landing at Bloomingdale village and remain ready to move forward to Brooklyn or back to the Kings Bridge. The arrival of new militia units from Connecticut prompted Washington to send four more regiments to Sullivan on Long Island, but with the proviso that they had to return immediately if Admiral Howe's fleet sailed up to attack the city. Admiral Howe's ships had been trying to enter the East River and bombard the Brooklyn Heights forts, but the wind was against them. The ships had succeeded only in trading cannon fire with the battery at Red Hook, which guarded the Buttermilk Channel between Governors Island and the Brooklyn shore.
On 25 August, the British landed some forty-three hundred Hessians under General von Heister on Long Island, bringing Howe's troop strength to nearly twenty-thousand. Washington no longer doubted that "they mean to land the Main Body of their Army on Long Island, and make their grand push there," and he sent over six more regiments from Manhattan, bringing the American total to almost nine thousand troops (Manders, p. 36). However, most of Washington's regiments were reduced by camp fever to about three-quarters of their full strength, and Howe's troops outnumbered the Americans by more than two to one. The three thousand American troops stationed outside the lines, on Gowanus Heights, were outnumbered by almost seven to one.
With nearly half the army concentrated on Long Island, Washington granted Major General Israel Putnam's request to assume command there. Putnam, as one of the original five major generals appointed by Congress and Washington's highest-ranking subordinate in New York, was entitled to the post. Washington took the command away from Sullivan but adopted his plan to ambush the British at Gowanus Heights as the main strategy for the coming battle. Washington ordered Putnam to deploy his best units to stop the British at the passes and keep them from ever reaching the fortifications across the neck of the peninsula.
THE AMERICANS' LEFT WING VULNERABLE
Putnam directed the entire Long Island operation from his headquarters inside the American lines on Brooklyn Heights. His orders called for about eight hundred men at each of the three western passes and three hundred more in the woods just north of Gowanus Creek, protecting the gap between Red Hook and the western end of the American lines. On 26 August, the eve of the battle, Brigadier General Samuel Holden Parsons was in overall command of the Gowanus Heights deployments. Major General William Alexander, known as Lord Stirling because of his claim to a lapsed Scottish peerage, commanded the American right wing—the Gowanus Road and Martense Lane Pass. Sullivan was in charge of the left and center, which included the Bedford and Flatbush passes.
On the American left wing, in the east, Colonel Samuel Miles patrolled the ridge between the Bedford and Jamaica passes with two battalions of Pennsylvania riflemen. According to Parsons, Miles was "to watch the motion of the enemy on that part, with orders to keep a party constantly reconnoitering to and across the Jamaica Road." Along this six-mile ridge, from one end of Gowanus Heights to the other, "sentinels were so placed as to keep a constant communication between the three guards on the three roads" (Johnston, p. 35).
Miles learned from his scouts that large numbers of British troops were concealed to the south, in particular a contingent at Flatlands (the easternmost village occupied by the British) that could easily march through the Jamaica Pass. Miles also noted that Cornwallis had moved all of his troops out of Flatbush to Flatlands and replaced them with Hessians, revealing that the principal attack would not be at the center, as expected, but farther east. According to Miles, he informed Sullivan of the situation, but nothing was done. For his part, Sullivan pleaded a lack of troops and claimed his own warnings about the Jamaica Pass were ignored by his superiors. He resorted to spending a large sum of his own money, he wrote, to have five officers on horseback patrol the pass at night. Sullivan ordered his scouts to gallop back and alert Miles if the British arrived at the Jamaica Pass. Miles and his riflemen, facing south on the ridge, were to turn east to the Jamaica Road and stall the British advance until more troops could be shifted to that sector.
The lack of cavalry stemmed in part from Washington's decision to turn away a unit from Connecticut because he did not want the burden of feeding its four hundred horses, and the men refused to serve without them. To Washington's annoyance, the cavalry from Kings County was busy helping Brigadier General Nathaniel Woodhull, the commander of the Queens and Suffolk County militias, with a last-minute effort to drive all the remaining horses, cattle, and sheep on western Long Island east to Hempstead Plains away from the British army. Washington had warned New York's revolutionary government, the Provincial Congress, to complete this task earlier in the summer.
Washington came over from Manhattan to inspect the lines on Long Island with an entourage including Putnam, Sullivan, and other officers on the evening of 26 August, but he failed to put enough men on the left flank. It remains unclear whether or not Washington fully inspected and approved the disposition of the troops on Gowanus Heights before he returned to Manhattan on the evening of the 26th. In any event, Washington and his generals' "want of experience to move upon a large Scale," which he had confessed in a letter to Congress in June, clearly affected his appraisal of the situation. The reshuffling of British troops at Flatbush was clearly visible through spyglasses and signaled a flanking maneuver to the east, but Washington merely concluded that the enemy "would in a little time make a general attack."
THE BRITISH NIGHT MARCH
The British plan to seize the Jamaica Pass was the work of General Clinton, whose views generally were not well received at headquarters. Howe, as commander in chief, would ultimately bear full responsibility for the bold, risky proposals of his second-in-command and therefore resented his zealous persistence. Howe had ignored Clinton's advice about landing at the Kings Bridge, and the two men had not been on speaking terms since their arrival on Long Island. Clinton—who knew Long Island well, since he had grown up in New York when his father was the royal governor—refreshed his memory with an extensive reconnaissance mission on the 24th. On the 25th, Clinton offered Howe, through an intermediary, a plan to encircle the Americans on Gowanus Heights by marching at night through the Jamaica Pass. British forces in front of the ridge were to distract the Americans from the flanking column and then press forward in earnest when the encirclement was complete.
Since a British column of more than ten thousand troops would have to travel six miles through enemy territory in the pitch dark, an ambush seemed likely, and Major General James Grant preferred simply to smash his way through the nearby passes. He had fought in America during the French and Indian War and had recently declared in Parliament that with a mere five thousand troops he could march the entire length of the continent and the rebels would be helpless to stop him. General Howe initially agreed with Grant. However, on the 26th, Oliver De Lancey, a New York Loyalist, convinced Howe that with the help of local guides, the mission would succeed. Howe ordered Clinton to go ahead with his plan that evening.
At 8 p.m. on the 26th, a column of about four thousand troops led by Clinton and Cornwallis left Flatlands with fourteen pieces of field artillery in tow. Clinton left campfires burning and assigned an entire regiment to make ordinary campground sounds in order to mask his intentions and the noise of the advance corps. The British remained on edge during the entire march but encountered no resistance. General Woodhull and his militia had been driving cattle only hours earlier in some fields along Clinton's route and might have spoiled his plans, but they were two miles to the east, along the county line, by the time the British passed that point.
At about 2 a.m. the column approached the Jamaica Pass, and Clinton sent forward a detachment that captured the five mounted officers posted there by Sullivan. Still wary of an ambush at the pass, Clinton seized the local tavern and forced its owner, William Howard, to guide a British patrol across the ridge by a footpath that would allow them to inspect the Jamaica Pass without going through it. At dawn, after the patrol had arrived at the Jamaica Road on the far side of the ridge, Clinton sent his whole force forward to occupy the pass itself.
Two hours later, Clinton was joined by General Howe and an additional six thousand troops. Howe had left Flatlands at midnight, leading a column that stretched for two miles, slowly hauling supplies and fourteen more cannon, but the Americans did not ambush him, either. By capturing civilians and American scouts along their path, the British had silenced them and preserved the element of surprise. The tired soldiers rested briefly, ate a cold breakfast, and set off on the final leg of the grueling march, along the Jamaica Road to the village of Bedford.
DIVERSION ON BRITISH LEFT
Clinton's plan called for General Grant, on the British left wing, and General von Heister at Flatbush in the center, to distract the Americans from the movements of the British flanking column at the Jamaica Pass. During the night, Grant had proceeded up the Gowanus Road toward the Martense Lane Pass with five thousand troops, including two companies of Long Island Tories. At 11 p.m. Edward Hand's riflemen fired on two of Grant's scouts, who had stopped to sample the watermelons growing near the Red Lion Inn at the junction of the Gowanus Road and the Martense Lane Pass. The scouts retreated, and Grant restrained his troops, preferring to hang back and monitor the American position at the inn for the next few hours. Hand's seasoned riflemen were relieved just after midnight, having been on duty for four days straight, and units of new Pennsylvania levies—untested militia—took their place. At about two 2 a.m., when Clinton's advance corps arrived near Howard's House, Grant sent three hundred troops forward to storm the Martense Lane Pass. Major Edward Burd was captured along with a few of his men, while most of the militia fled up the Gowanus Road.
Burd had managed to dispatch messengers to alert General Putnam, who soon had his troops ready for battle in the trenches and redoubts across the neck of the peninsula. Using signal lights on Brooklyn Heights, Putnam also alerted Washington to come over from Manhattan. Putnam then rode down from Brooklyn Heights to Lord Stirling's camp, next to Nicholas Vechte's farmhouse south of Gowanus Creek. Arriving at about 3 a.m., Putnam called on Stirling to assemble his best units, fend off Grant, and secure the right wing. Stirling marshaled some two thousand men, including troops from Delaware and Pennsylvania along with Colonel William Smallwood's elite Maryland regiment, which was well-trained and -equipped and highly motivated.
General Parsons reached the American right wing ahead of Stirling, however. He found that the British had already come through the woods and were descending the north side of the ridge, apparently marching straight for the neck of the peninsula. Gathering twenty of his fleeing men, Parsons posted them on a hill half a mile in front of the British. Stirling arrived with reinforcements, including a battalion of raw recruits from Pennsylvania under Colonel Samuel Atlee, which quickly occupied a forward position on the left side of a narrow stretch in the road. With the bulk of his men, Stirling formed a line on a piece of high ground behind Atlee. Atlee's unit took the brunt of Grant's fire and lost one man before retreating to a wooded hill on the left, taking up a position flanked by Parsons on one side and the Delaware Continentals, led by Colonel John Haslet, on the other. At around 7 a.m., an american artillery company arrived with two fieldpieces.
Grant drew his forces up in several lines as well, making this the first time during the revolution that the Americans faced the British in regular battle formation in the open field, with only hedges and trees to provide cover. In this sense, the Battle of Brooklyn was the first pitched battle of the war. Unlike Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, in Brooklyn the Americans did not have the benefit of fortifications or even stone walls. Grant's and Stirling's lines stretched for a quarter of a mile, and—just as Clinton intended—the Americans became convinced that the main British attack would be along the Gowanus Road.
When Grant sent troops forward to attack Stirling's right, the Americans held their ground and opened fire with the two fieldpieces, which drove the British back to their lines. Grant then launched a steady artillery barrage, but the Americans stood firm, despite gruesome casualties. Stirling reportedly told his men about the boast grant had made in parliament the previous year and exhorted them to show the Englishman he could not even get as far as the millponds behind them with his five thousand men. unaware of the British flanking column, the Americans on the right wing believed they were fending off the enemy's main thrust.
General Von Heister had agreed to dispatch some hessian troops westward from Flatbush to link up with Grant, who sent a detachment to look for them. Stirling immediately detected their attempt to join forces and turn his left flank. He ordered Parsons and Atlee to seize the high ground on his left, where they fought off three attacks while losing only a handful of men and inflicting on the British the highest losses in killed and wounded sustained by either side in any sector of the battle. Six miles to the east, however, on the British right wing, the plan to turn the left flank of the entire American army was proceeding smoothly.
HOWE SPRINGS HIS TRAP
Clinton and Howe had marched their column of ten thousand troops through the Jamaica Pass and along the turnpike, reaching the village of Bedford at 9 a.m. The exhausting night march had been well worth the trouble. The British had arrived, apparently undetected, behind the Americans' left and center and were ready to attack. Howe fired two cannon, announcing his arrival to Grant and von Heister on the south side of the ridge and signaling that their function as decoys had ended; they were now to press their attacks in earnest.
The British flanking column had not gone completely undetected. Colonel Miles, guarding the ridge just east of Bedford Pass, was alerted to the British advance along the Jamaica Road by his scouts, and at 7 a.m. he had begun marching east toward the pass with five hundred of his men. Because he was in the woods and the British were on the road, however, Miles passed the front of their column without seeing it and encountered the rear instead. By the time Miles's warning reached Putnam by messenger, Howe's column had arrived at Bedford. The British discovered Miles in the woods before he could retreat, and he was taken prisoner with half of his men while the other half fled back to the forts on the peninsula. The sight of Miles's scattered, fleeing men sowed panic in the American guards at the Bedford Road and further to the west. As the British advanced from the east, more American troops ran for the safety of the fortified lines on Brooklyn Heights. The inner line of defense rapidly became the only one.
Before the British reached the Bedford Pass, the Continentals stationed there had pulled back. Hearing von Heister's artillery in front of them and Howe's signal guns in the rear, they decided not to wait for the trap to close. At the same time, General Sullivan and his men retreated from the Flatbush Pass, and the American center disintegrated. Units from the two passes mingled as they dashed to safety, trying to outrun the British troops dispatched by Cornwallis from the crossroads at Bedford village. While most of the Americans escaped, some were captured by the British and others were bayoneted by the Hessians, who refused their surrender. The Hessians had been warned that the Americans intended to give them no quarter, according to one British officer, which prompted them to take no prisoners. However, Sullivan, who had stayed behind to ensure an orderly retreat, was captured unharmed in a cornfield by three Hessian grenadiers, suggesting that such lurid tales were exaggerated.
HOWE DECLINES PURSUIT
With hundreds of rebel troops racing through the woods and fields and across Gowanus Creek to reach the forts on the peninsula, and with Cornwallis's grenadiers chasing them right up to the walls, Howe might have won a monumental victory—and probably the war—had he given his troops free rein to storm the American lines. Instead, he repeatedly ordered them to pull back. "Had they been permitted to go on it is my opinion they would have carried the redoubt," Howe recalled in his official account of the battle:
but as it was apparent that the lines must have been ours at a very cheap rate by regular approaches, I would not risk the loss that might have been sustained in the assault and ordered them back to a hollow way in the front of the works out of the reach of the musketry.
Perhaps because he couldn't bear a repeat of Bunker Hill—where, a year earlier, Americans had held a lightly fortified position and killed or wounded more than one thousand British troops in a single day—Howe preferred to dig trenches and proceed with a formal siege. Moreover, his troops were exhausted, having marched all night and fought half the morning.
Clinton had disobeyed Howe's orders by allowing Major General John Vaughan and his grenadiers to pursue the fleeing rebels. Howe ordered them to pull back, and Vaughan "stormed with rage" at the lost opportunity. Clinton had hoped the grenadiers would march all the way down the Jamaica Road to the Brooklyn ferry, at which point, "everything on the island must have been ours." Clinton speculated further that "the entire loss of that army" would have had severe consequences for the American cause "in that early stage of the rebellion." Clinton's modern biographer, William B. Willcox, was more direct: "Howe lost as good a chance as Britain ever had of winning the war at a stroke" (Clinton, p. 44).
FINAL ACTION: RIGHT WING
With the battle in the center concluded by about 11 a.m., all that remained for the British was to defeat Stirling's forces on the American right, where they remained strongly positioned in the woods near the Gowanus Road. Their position was growing weaker every minute. While Grant pinned the Americans down with an ongoing exchange of artillery fire, von Heister closed in on their left and Cornwallis moved toward their rear. Sensing from the sounds of the battle to the east and the arrival of the Hessians that a trap was closing, Stirling managed to disengage from Grant, and the crest of the hill temporarily concealed the American retreat.
However, Cornwallis's forces had seized the Vechte farmhouse and were blocking the only escape route over dry land. With Grant closing in on what was now his rear, Stirling ordered his troops to plunge into the marsh on their left and make their way across Gowanus Creek, which was about eighty yards wide along this stretch. The incoming tide created a swift current, and more than a few of the soldiers did not know how to swim.
To shield the fleeing troops from Cornwallis's advance, Stirling took about 250 of his best-trained troops, the Marylanders, and attacked the Vechte farmhouse, where the British had installed themselves and their artillery. The Marylanders formed ranks, charged Cornwallis's position, and fell back into the surrounding woods several times. Major Mordechai Gist recalled that Stirling "encouraged and animated our young soldiers with almost invincible resolution."
Washington and his generals witnessed this sacrificial rearguard action from the Cobble Hill Fort, on a small hill inside the American fortified lines. Washington had remained in New York City until midmorning to contend with a possible attack by part of Admiral Howe's fleet, which had moved up toward the mouth of the East River. With the wind blowing from the north, Washington eventually felt certain the ships would not be able to enter the river, and he had crossed over to Long Island. Tradition holds that when Washington beheld the heroism of Stirling and the Marylanders, he exclaimed with a mixture of admiration and sorrow: "What brave fellows I must lose this day!"
Hopelessly outnumbered and facing a storm of bullets and artillery fire, Gist and Stirling ordered the Marylanders to disperse and save themselves. Gist and eight others escaped across the creek; Stirling, unable to escape, found a way to at least deny the boastful General Grant the satisfaction of capturing him—by surrendering himself to General von Heister. Most of the Marylanders were captured and many were killed in the act of saving hundreds of other Americans: the bulk of the American right wing escaped into the marsh and across Gowanus Creek. After Stirling had disengaged from Grant's forces, Parsons and Atlee found themselves isolated on their hill at the eastern end the line. Retreating from Grant, they were cut off by Cornwallis and could not get to Gowanus Creek. Their men dispersed into the woods and with Atlee, most became prisoners. Parsons hid in a swamp with seven of his men and later reached Brooklyn Heights.
On the evening of 27 August, Washington expected the British to launch a full-scale attack on the fortified lines across the neck of the peninsula. He walked among the troops, alternating between words of encouragement and warnings that any man who abandoned his post would be shot. At regular intervals along the lines, 120 American grenadiers stood ready with slow matches burning and a half-dozen grenades each in their bags. The British did not attack. Instead, as the sun set and the Americans scanned the plateau, they saw Howe's forces pitch their white tents a mile and a half away and retire for some much needed rest.
The Battle of Brooklyn was a disheartening defeat for the Americans, and the failure to secure the Jamaica Pass became the focus of acrimonious debate. "I think the hills might have been well maintained with 5000 men," Brigadier General John Morin Scott wrote to John Jay. "I fear their natural strength was our bane by lulling us into a state of security and enabling the enemy to steal a march on us." General Parsons was more specific in apportioning blame: "I still am of the opinion," Parsons wrote, "if our guards on the West road and Colonel Miles on the East End of the hills had done their duty, the enemy would not have passed those important heights, without such very great loss as would have obliged them to abandon any further enterprise on the Island." Extending this argument, had the Americans held the ridge, and with it Brooklyn Heights, the British might have been forced to leave New York, just as they had been driven out of Boston by the guns on Dorchester Heights. Even the commander in chief was denounced by the rank and file after the disastrous battle: "Would to Heaven General Lee was here, is the language of officers and men," wrote Delaware's Colonel John Haslet.
While these mutual recriminations between the general officers and their subordinates signaled the onset of a severe morale crisis in Washington's army, Howe's incomplete victory on 27 August sowed the seeds of discontent in the British ranks. Had he and his column continued along the Jamaica Road instead of stopping at Bedford and firing the signal guns, Howe probably would have surrounded the American outer lines and cut off every escape route back to Brooklyn Heights. Had he been willing to storm the Brooklyn fortifications when the Americans had initially been routed, he might well have overrun Washington's army. As it was, the bulk of the American forces remained intact inside the Brooklyn Heights defenses.
Howe's official explanation for not storming the lines—that he was protecting his troops—may have been offered to conceal another motive: his reluctance to wipe out the American army. William and Richard Howe's older brother, George, had been killed in the French and Indian War while leading Massachusetts troops, and the younger brothers remained grateful for a marble monument to him in Westminster Abbey funded by the Massachusetts government. Spurred by this bond of friendship with the Americans, Admiral Howe had convinced the British government to empower him and General Howe not only as co-commanders in chief, but as peace commissioners authorized to negotiate with the rebels. General Howe's restraint at the end of the battle and in the rest of the New York campaign soon suggested to observers at the time on both sides of the Atlantic that he hoped to cow the Americans—not crush them—into submission.
After an army major brought news of Howe's triumph on Long Island to London several weeks later, all of Britain was ecstatic, expecting a prompt end to the war. King George III conferred a knighthood, the Order of Bath, on the commander in chief, henceforth to be known as Sir William. However, the full significance of the battle did not become apparent for several months. By the time the same messenger returned to America in mid-December with reports of British euphoria, the worst repercussions of Howe's failure to win a total victory on Long Island were at hand. The remnants of the American army that slipped through Howe's fingers on Long Island struck back at Trenton and Princeton in late December, reviving the American cause and proving that textbook tactical victories and the conquest of cities were no substitute for capturing or crushing the rebel army.
NUMBERS AND LOSSES
Howe reported only 61 killed, 267 wounded, and 31 taken prisoner or missing during the Battle of Brooklyn. Even with the Hessian losses—2 killed and 26 wounded—which were routinely excluded from the British figures, all of Howe's forces, by their own accounting, suffered fewer than four hundred casualties. Given the number of Americans who eventually left Long Island after the battle, British estimates of the number of Americans killed or captured—from thirty-three hundred up to four thousand—were clearly exaggerated. Washington initially put his losses at "seven hundred to a thousand killed and taken" and later settled on the figure of eight hundred casualties, "more than three fourths of which were taken prisoners." Modern authorities agree that Washington was not far off the mark: American losses, they conclude, were close to nine hundred prisoners taken and about two hundred men killed or wounded. The Battle of Brooklyn was not the scene of large-scale slaughter, and while the Americans lost a large number of men as prisoners, the British appear to have suffered a greater loss of men killed and wounded.
Billias, George. George Washington's Generals and Opponents. New York: Da Capo, 1994.
Gallagher, John. The Battle of Brooklyn, 1776. New York: Sarpedon, 1995.
Gruber, Ira. The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution. New York: Norton, 1972.
Johnston, Henry P. The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn. 1878. Reprint, Cranbury, N.J.: Scholar's Bookshelf, 2005.
Keegan, John. Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America. New York: Vintage, 1997.
Manders, Eric. The Battle of Long Island. Monmouth, N.J.: Philip Freneau Press, 1978.
Onderdonk, Henry, Jr., ed. Revolutionary Incidents of Suffolk and Kings Counties. 1849. Reprint, Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1970.
Schecter, Barnet. The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution. New York: Penguin, 2003.
Scheer, George F., and Hugh F. Rankin. Rebels and Redcoats: The American Revolution through the Eyes of Those Who Fought and Lived It. New York: Da Capo, 1987.
Serle, Ambrose. The American Journal of Ambrose Serle. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1940.
Stevenson, Charles G., and Irene Wilson. The Battle of Long Island ("The Battle of Brooklyn"). Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brooklyn Bicentennial Commission, 1975.