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THE BATTLE AND EVACUATION OF LONG ISLAND,
BOUT the ist of August Washington's force was augmented by the
arrival of Smallwood's regiment, two Pennsylvania regiments and a body of New York and New England militia. This left his total numerical strength twenty-seven thousand men, of whom one-fourth were sick. The effective force was widely divided, as the nature of the ground compelled. A considerable force was stationed on Long Island, under General Sullivan; a large part of the remainder was distributed among the various stations upon York Island; a small detachment was placed on Governor's Island, and another at Paulus hook. A body of New York militia under General Clinton, lay on the sound near New Rochelle, and about East and West Chester, prepared to oppose any movement of the enemy to isolate the American army by landing above King's bridge.
Washington estimated very highly the importance of the coming battle, in its bearing upon the spirit of his men and the feeling of the American people; his words are full of encouragement to his soldiers and appeals to their patriotism and bravery. Addressing them in his order of August 2d, he says: “The time is now near at hand which must determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their houses and farms are to be pillaged and destroyed, and themselves consigned to a state of wretchedness from which no human efforts can deliver them. The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us only the choice of a brave resistance or a most abject submission. We have, therefore, to resolve to conquer or die. Our own, our country's honor, call upon us for a vigorous and manly exertiun; and, if we now shamefully fail, we shall become infamous to the whole world. Let us, then, rely on the goodness of our cause and the aid of the Supreme Being, in whose hands victory is,
to animate and encourage us to great and noble actions. The eyes of all our countrymen are now upon us, and we shall have their blessings and praises, if happily we are the instruments of saving them from the tyranny meditated against them. Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and show the whole world that a freeman, contending for liberty on his own ground, is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth.” This was Washington's appeal; for those who did their duty well and unflinchingly, he promised recognition and promotion, at the same time giving distinct orders that any soldier who skulked, attempted to conceal himself, or retreated without orders, should be instantly shot down.
One of the first steps toward the defense of the American position had been the stationing of a brigade of troops at Brooklyn, Long Island. The then village stood upon a peninsula, skirted by the East river, the bay, and Gowanus cove. General Greene had prepared for the protection of this point, by planting batteries on the water front, on Red Hook, and on Governor's Island, and others upon the East river, presenting really formidable obstacles to a naval attack. The camp faced to the landward, and before it, from the river to the Gowanus marsh, extended a line of strong and wellarmed earthworks. In front of the works and at some distance was a range of hills, nearly the length of the Island and crossed by three different roads. These hills presented a difficult, but by no means impassable barrier, save by one of the three roads. Correctly judging that the enemy would be likely to make his first movement against Long Island, Sullivan was strongly reinforced. Early on the morning of August 22d, General Clinton landed the main body of the British troops under cover of the fleet, his line extending, according to his own statement, from the ferry at the narrows, through Utrecht and Gravesend, to the village of Flatland. Putnam was assigned to the command of Long Island, and repaired to the camp with a reinforcement of six regiments, greatly rejoicing at the prospect of escape from garrison duty, and the hope of active service.
Washington directed him to guard the heights and woods between his own and the hostile camp with his best troops.
The relative positions of the two armies is thus described in Marshall's Life of Washington: "The Hessians, under General De Heister, composed the center of the British army at Flatbush; Major-general Grant commanded the left wing, which extended to the coast, and the greater part of the British forces, under General Clinton, Earl Percy, and Lord Cornwallis, turned short to the right and approached the opposite coast of Flatland. The two armies were now separated by the range of hills already mentioned. The British center at Flatbush was scarcely four miles distant from the American lines at Brooklyn; and a direct road led across the heights from one to the other. Another road, rather more circuitous than the first, led from Flatbush by way of Bedford, a small village on the Brooklyn side of
the hills. The right and left wings of the British army were nearly equidistant from the American works, and about five or six miles from them. The road leading from the Narrows along the coast, and by way of Gowanus cove, afforded the most direct route to their left; and their right might either return by way of Flatbush, unite with their center, or take a more circuitous course and enter a road leading from Jamaica to Bedford. These several roads unite between Bedford and Brooklyn, a short distance in front of the American lines."
The Americans had defended the direct road from Brooklyn to Jamaica by the construction of a fort. The remaining roads were held by detachments, placed at the summit and within view of the British camp. The main road was also patrolled by bodies of volunteers, and a regiment of Pennsylvania riflemen lay in the vicinity awaiting service. The first offensive movement of the campaign was made about 9 o'clock on the night of the 27th. General Clinton had been told, by some of his tory friends, of the existence of a pass in the hills about three miles east of Bediord, and, at the time named, silently moved the van of the British army to effect its capture. Almost simultaneously General Grant advanced the British left, supported by artillery, along the coast road. His chief object was to make a diversion, hence his movement was open, and skirmishing was constant. Putnam reinforced the troops in Grant's front, and, this reinforcement not proving sufficient, a second detachment of two regiments under Brigadier-general Lord Stirling was ordered to advance to their support. The defense of the two other roads was also strengthened. So successful was the ruse of Grant, that Clinton, two hours before daybreak, surprised and captured one of the American parties stationed on the road, learned from them that he need fear no opposition in securing the pass, and at daybreak marched his entire column through the unguarded way and descended upon the level plain before the American works.
Stirling and Grant met at the summit of the hill, and an active cannonade was opened, but as the American orders were simply to hold the road, and, as Grant only desired to cover Clinton's movement, he made no effort to force the position of Stirling. In the center General De Heister opened a brisk cannonading of the redoubt upon the direct road and the troops under the immediate command of General Sullivan, but, he also, desiring to await the success of Clinton's venture, did not leave his position at Flatbush for some time after the collision occurred. At the same time all the British fleet had made repeated efforts to come up from the bay to co-operate with the land forces, but had been baffled by adverse wind, one vessel 'only, and that of inferior armament, reaching a point which permitted its cannonading the battery at Red Hook. While these three separate cannonades were in progress, Clinton was marching unmolested to the rear of Sullivan's left, at last reaching Bedford. General De:
Heister, apprised of the successful passage of the hills and correctly judg. ing of Clinton's position, then ordered the advance of a corps to the attack of the position held by Sullivan, himself following with the main force of the center. This was about half past eight in the morning. Almost simultaneously the Americans discovered the presence of Clinton in their rear, and at once began retreat, in the hope of regaining the works at Brooklyn. As the regiments emerged from the woods they met the British right. A skir. mish ensued, the Americans were driven back. Clinton then pushed on, and, reaching the main road, intercepted the retreat of the force under the immediate command of Sullivan, which, hearing the firing at Bedford, had been ordered to fall back, after meeting the first charge of De Heister and his Hessians. De Heister being unopposed was enabled to detach a portion of his troops to the assistance of the British at Bedford, and the Americans of both bodies were then in practically the same situation. Both were driven back by Clinton's advance, only to meet the Hessian force. The second encounter compelled a recoil upon Clinton's front, and thus, hemmed in between two forces, fighting desperately yet hopelessly, first with one then with the other, the left wing and the immediate force of General Sullivan was cut to pieces. A few succeeded in regaining the lines at Brooklyn, some individuals escaped through the woods, but nearly all were killed or captured. A mingled force of British and Hessians pursued the fugitives to the very works before Brooklyn, and only the peremptory commands of their officers restrained them from an immediate assault.
Lord Stirling was still holding Grant, when the firing at Bedford apprised him of the necessity of at once securing his retreat to the works. In order to accomplish this, it became necessary to attack a corps of British under command of Lord Cornwallis, which was so stationed as to interfere with his re-crossing the creek. For this purpose four hundred of Smallwood's regiment were detached and made a desperately brave and well nigh successful effort to dislodge the enemy, but were thwarted by the arrival of British reinforcements. Under cover of this attack, a large part of Stirling's command made good its retreat; the survivors of Smallwood's regiment and Stirling himself were taken prisoners.
The number of Americans engaged upon the heights was not far from five thousand; the British force being much greater. No accurate account of the loss on the colonial side has ever been obtained. Fully one thousand regulars were killed, wounded, or captured, besides a probably equal number of militia. Three general officers—Generals Stirling, Sullivan, and Woodhull were among the prisoners. General Howe places the total American loss at three thousand three hundred-doubtless excessive-and that of the British at twenty-one officers and three hundred and forty-six privates, killed, wounded, and captured.
During the entire engagement, the city of New York was in an agony
of fear. The firing at early morning had told that the long anticipated battle was begun, but what its fortunes or what its ultimate object, no man knew. Washington was himself in the city. He did not appreciate the full strength of the British upon Long Island, as a large proportion of the force had made a secret night landing. He was in doubt whether the attack upon the American position upon Long Island was not, in fact, only preliminary to a movement against the city. This fear found some reason, in the attempt of British war vessels to beat up to the neighborhood of Red Hook, to which reference has been made. Hence, the commander in chief remained in New York, until the heavy firing of artillery and small arms, from the three separate battles beyond Brooklyn, told him that the affair was most serious; then he embarked in his barge, crossed over, and, from a commanding point within the lines was enabled, by the aid of his glass, to watch the movements of both parties, over the entire field. He at once saw the certain fate of the left-in fact, the catastrophe was even then almost complete--and his anxiety for Lord Stirling, on the right, was most intense. Stirling's circuitous retreat was soon commenced, and Washington could see, as Stirling could not, the movement of Cornwallis to the rear of the latter, and felt assured that the whole of that wing must fall without striking a blow. The heroic attempt of Smallwood and his handful of Marylanders to dislodge Cornwallis, filled him at once with admiration and sorrow, and he exclaimed, wringing his hands : “Good God! what brave fellows I must this day lose.” As the flying fragments of what had been his best troops came panting to the works, closely pursued by their victorious enemies, Washington found enough to do to prepare for holding his defenses, occupied almost exclusively by militia, against threatened assault. It is probable, indeed, that such an assault would have been made, but for a timely discharge of musketry and grape from the works. The pursuit, however, ended there ; the day's work was done, and nightfall found the British encamped about a mile before the American lines, with their sentries but one-fourth of that distance away.
Had the blow struck the continental arıny that day, been but a little stronger, and had the consummate leadership which withdrew the shattered force safely from the jaws of destruction, been lacking, the cause of liberty in America would have been almost beyond hope, and the reputation of Washington, as a commander, must have gone with it. Even as it proved, Washington has been more criticized by reason of this disaster, than for any other incident of a long and bloody war. The first basis of this criticism is his occupation of New York. Many eminent military authorities have declared the position untenable by a purely land force, acting against a co-operating army and navy. There are, however, two sides to this question. The strategic importance of the Hudson and the northern lakes, has already been discussed in these pages. Washington felt that the possession of the Hudson