Long Island, New York, Evacuation of
Long Island, New York, Evacuation of
LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK, EVACUATION OF. American evacuation 29-30 August 1776. After the battle of Long Island, on 27 August, the British started formal siege operations against Brooklyn Heights. The north wind that had kept their ships out of the East River on the day of the battle continued to blow, and General George Washington brought reinforcements over from New York City. On the afternoon of 28 August a cold rain began to fall on ground that was already water-soaked, and the demoralized, ill-equipped American troops suffered severely.
The appearance of a redoubt within 600 yards of the American left confirmed Washington's earlier suspicion that the British general, William Howe, was taking his time and did not intend to make an immediate assault on the Brooklyn defenses. Nonetheless, Washington had to cope with the enemy's capability of attacking New York City with fresh troops from Staten Island, as well as the possibility that Howe might trap the Americans by having his ships in Long Island Sound land troops in lower Westchester County to seize the Kings Bridge. After a council of war on the afternoon of 29 August, with unanimous support from his generals, Washington decided to abandon Long Island and regroup his forces on Manhattan Island.
That morning he had ordered General William Heath and his assistant quartermaster general, Hugh Hughes, to assemble all available boats and move them to the East River by dark. The boats reached Brooklyn Ferry at dusk to supplement the much larger number of boats that the Americans had been using for weeks to move men and supplies across the river. Some accounts imply that only the "miraculous" assembly of boats by Heath and Hughes made the evacuation possible. One historian, Charles Francis Adams, pointed out that Washington was not such an "utter military simpleton" as to "put himself and his army into a most dangerous position depending wholly, or in chief, on some suddenly improvised means of extrication … The mass of what [transportation] was required had already long before been provided" (Adams, p. 42).
To withdraw secretly from Brooklyn Heights and move almost 10,000 inexperienced and demoralized troops across the East River was a military operation to try the skill and courage of veterans. Dusk fell at 7:30, General Alexander McDougall began the embarkation at 8 p.m., and the transfer of troops went well for the first hour. Then the tide reversed direction, flowing south, and the steady wind from the northeast suddenly picked up speed. The American sailboats were nearly swept down to the harbor and the waiting British fleet. The grueling retreat continued with only rowboats until 11 p.m., when the wind began to blow from the southwest. For the next several hours, the water was calm and, as Adams reports, "the boats passed to and fro, favored by a light west breeze, and loaded to the gunwale" (Adams, p. 47).
The only hitch that reportedly took place on Brooklyn Heights occurred when some troops reached the waterfront before their turn to embark and had to be marched back to their posts. This has been dismissed by Douglas Southall Freeman, author of the seven-volume study George Washington. However, there was something more to this episode, which might have been fatal. At about 2 a.m. Major Alexander Scammell, then acting as Washington's aide-de-camp, reported with orders to General Thomas Mifflin, who was commanding the covering force on Brooklyn Heights. (This force was comprised of John Haslet's Delawares, the remnants of William Smallwood's Marylanders, John Shee's and Robert Magaw's Pennsylvanians, and John Chester's Connecticut Battalion.) Scammell told Mifflin that his boats were waiting and that Washington wanted him to move immediately to the ferry. Thinking this order premature, Mifflin told Scammell he must be mistaken. Scammell maintained that he was repeating his instructions and that, furthermore, he had already passed them on to other elements of the covering force, which were then executing them. Mifflin therefore called in the outposts and started moving his troops toward the ferry. When they were well on their way to the landing they met Washington, who accused them of deserting their posts.
"Good God! General Mifflin," Washington is reported to have said, "I am afraid you have ruined us by so unseasonably withdrawing."
"I did it by your order," Mifflin replied.
When it became apparent that Scammell had made a serious mistake, the covering force moved back to their positions, which had been abandoned for nearly an hour. The British were peacefully ignorant of these nocturnal activities. At about 4 a.m. a small British patrol peered into the abandoned forward positions, and half an hour later these were occupied by Howe's troops. The American rear guard was still at Brooklyn Ferry when the day began to dawn at 4:30 a.m., but a dense fog settled to cover their withdrawal. Among the last to leave was Washington. The evacuation was achieved with the loss of only three stragglers (who had stayed behind to plunder) and five heavy cannon (which could not be manhandled through the hub-deep mud). All other men, artillery, supplies, and horses were safe in New York City by 7 a.m., having been evacuated in eleven hours.
John Glover and Israel Hutchinson's regiments of Massachusetts fishermen and sailors distinguished themselves in handling the boats that shuttled across the river. There is no report of even a single collision, swamping, or upset, and not one life was lost.
According to Christopher Ward, writing of this event, "Both Howe's attack [of 27 August] and Washington's retreat were masterpieces of planning and execution, and each was successful because of the mistakes of the other principal" (Ward, p. 236).
Adams, Charles Francis. Studies Military and Diplomatic, 1775–1865. New York: Macmillan, 1911.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington. 7 vols. New York: Scribner's, 1948–1957.
McCullough, David. 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Ward, Christopher. The War of the Revolution. 2 vols. New York, Macmillan, 1952.
revised by Barnet Schecter