Battle of Brooklyn

U.S. #1003 pictures Washington evacuating his troops.

The Continental and British Armies engaged in their first fight of the Revolutionary War on August 27, 1776. The Battle of Brooklyn (also known as the Battle of Long Island or the Battle of Brooklyn Heights) was the largest battle of the war.

In early 1776, the British evacuated Boston, heading to Nova Scotia to wait for reinforcements. In the meantime, General George Washington began sending troops to New York City, which he believed would be the next major battle ground for its strategic importance.

U.S. #1003 FDC – Battle of Brooklyn First Day Cover.

In February Washington sent his second in command, Charles Lee, to prepare the city’s defenses. Washington himself arrived in New York on April 13 and established his headquarters on Broadway. By May, Washington had a number of forts under construction and directed the creation of a mounted battery on Governors Island. He had around 19,000 troops total (only about 10,000 in Brooklyn), even though Congress authorized him to form an army up to 28,501 strong. His men were largely untrained (unlike the British) and came from different colonies, with different authorities, regulations, and equipment.

On June 28, Washington received word that the British had left Nova Scotia weeks earlier, bound for New York. The following day, some 45 British ships arrived in Lower New York Bay. Eighty-five more ships arriving within the next week. Watching the arrival of the British ships, New Yorkers began to panic while troops rushed to their posts. Some fired a few shots at the British while others lost their courage and flocked to the British side.

U.S. #657 commemorates Sullivan’s Expedition against the Iroquois during the war.

On July 9, the Declaration of Independence was read aloud for the city’s troops and residents. They then rushed to the equestrian statue of George III, cut off its head and put on a spike and send the rest of the statue to be melted down for musket balls.

In the meantime, a few British ships sailed up the Hudson to Tarrytown to cut off American supply lines and gain loyalist support. British General Howe tried several times to meet with Washington to open negotiations. At one point he offered pardons, to which Washington replied, “Those who have committed no fault want no pardon,” earning him praise throughout the colonies.

As more and more British continued to arrive, Washington was unsure where the battle would take place. Nathanael Green and Joseph Reed believed they would attack Long Island, while Washington believed that Long Island might be a diversion for the main attack on Manhattan. Unsure, Washington split his army in half, sending some to Long Island under Greene’s command and some to Manhattan. (When Greene fell ill, John Sullivan took his place but was then sent to Guan Heights, leaving Israel Putnam in command.)

U.S. #1003 FDC – Battle of Brooklyn First Day Cover.

In the early hours of August 22, some 4,000 British troops landed on Long Island, sending the defending Pennsylvania riflemen into a retreat. Another 11,000 British landed by noon and then pushed six miles inland to Flatbush where they set up camp. Washington received word of the landings, but only that there were 8,000 or 9,000 troops, leading him to believe his theory of the attack was correct. The British then received 5,000 Hessian reinforcements, giving them a total force of 20,000, double the 10,000 Washington had.

The British learned from loyalists that the Americans hadn’t set up significant defenses at Jamaica Pass. So they decided to launch a small attack on the American front as a diversion, while a larger force attacked from the rear. The British set out on the night of August 26, leaving their campfires burning to keep the Americans thinking they were still in camp. By dawn, the British made their way through Jamaica Pass, capturing the five American militia officers stationed there.

U.S. #39 was the highest-denominated stamp at the time.

At 9:00 a.m. on August 27, the British in the rear fired two cannons to let the Hessians know to begin their front assault. At the same time, this rear force began attacking the American flank. Fighting immediately broke out all over, with particularly brutal fighting at Battle Hill. It was here that American troops inflicted the greatest number of British casualties. At Battle Pass, John Sullivan’s troops were attacked from the front and the back, at this point still unclear where the main threat was coming from. As the casualties rose on both sides, men began to flee, but Sullivan led his men in hand-to-hand combat before retreating to Brooklyn Heights, though he was captured. (Sullivan was later allowed to go free on the condition that he propose a peace conference to the Continental Congress. However, the conference didn’t accomplish anything.)

In one notable instance, a Maryland regiment of about 260 men fiercely attacked a well-defended British outpost. All but nine died. Watching from nearby, Washington said, “Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose.” However, their valiant efforts bought Washington the time to gather his remaining troops for a retreat across the East River.

By the time all the surviving American troops were safely behind the fortified position at Brooklyn Heights, the British commander made the controversial move of halting the attack. He decided to set up a siege and encircle the American position. Washington and his advisors soon realized that evacuation was their only option and began sending troops quietly to Manhattan. In fact, they managed to evacuate all 9,000 troops without a single life lost.

U.S. #785 pictures Washington, Nathanael Greene, and Mount Vernon.

The British forces were stunned to find the Americans had evacuated without them knowing, but quickly took over their fortifications. In England, people celebrated the victory. The American loss revealed a lot of weaknesses in Washington’s strategy and the young American military. But his stealthy nighttime retreat is often seen as one of his greatest military accomplishments.

The Americans remained in New York for a few more months, but following losses at White Plains and Fort Washington, they retreated across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. British soldiers occupied Brooklyn until 1783.

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15 responses to "Battle of Brooklyn"

15 thoughts on “Battle of Brooklyn”

  1. There was a whole lot more to the war than we were lead to believe in public schools of the 1950-60’s. It would be interesting to know how this part of our nation’s history has changed, if it’s taught at all, in today’s schools.
    It’s nice to know some of the back and side stories.

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  2. Few today have ever heard of this battle, let alone understand how we could have lost the American Revolution so soon after declaring for independence had Howe been more aggressive after it and attacked Washington’s encampment in Brooklyn. Washington learned a bitter lesson from this experience, that his troops were not up to par with British and Hessian regulars. In addition, his tactical failure to properly defend Jamaica Pass set the whole thing up.

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  3. Excellent article, though your recounting did not mention that at the time of Washington’s safe escape, God provided a heavy, heavy fog that so artfully made the evacuation the total surprise to the British. One of many times, the Lord provided for the eventual victory for the USA, founded on Christ-taught equality among all people.

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  4. According to Wikipedia, “The Heights of Guan, a variant of “Gowanus”, was the New York colonial era name given to a series of hills which extend in a ridge along the western portion of Long Island. The ridge extends in an east northeast direction starting from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn with hills of varying heights of 100 to 150 feet (30-45m), with the southern slope of the ridge having a relatively steep drop and the rear, a more gradual slope. The ridge marks the terminal moraine of the Wisconsin Glacier that formed the North Shore of Long Island, south of the ridge is the outwash plain bordered by the Atlantic Ocean.

    During the American Revolution the hills played a strategic role during the Battle of Brooklyn. The ridge formed a natural defensive line against an attacking force from the south due to the steepness of the southern slope and the heavily wooded terrain covered in dense brush. There were only four passes through the Heights of Guan.”

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  5. Now, Gowanus is a neighborhood in western Brooklyn. There’s a canal there, and a freeway and bridge, all with that name. Guan is a new one to me, but the derivation is obvious.

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  6. Following the defeat of France, when Admiral Wolf defeated the Earl of Montcalm on the Plains of Abrahams (Quebec 1759), after several unsuccessful previous campaigns (eg. Admiral Phipps), thus ceding Canada’s eastern seabord (Kebek, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island) to British control; England again turned its attention to the lands they controlled south of the border, and business at hand (fur trade, tax, immigration). Under George III, influx of people from the UK (and elsewhere) primarily settled around the regions associated with loyalty to the mother land, cultural continuity, and dreadfully the new ‘business model’ to fast wealth, political power, and promised land based on slavery.

    Your article often refers to Loyalists, a group of Americans who did not believe in the separation from mother land; and actively took arms under the British flag against their kin folks who did so (Patriots). It has been pointed out (Eric Nelson) that in fact, the Loyalists were not so much defending the Crown (Royalists), as supporting the Parliamentarians – those elected to the Commons reformed a century earlier under the governance of Oliver Cromwell, and Francis Pimm, who were deemed by the Patriots to have usurped the Prerogativa Regis (King’s prerogative).

    With defeat of the British, southern colonists moved back to Britain, Florida, or the Caribeans; while those in northern colonies migrated to Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, many of them of African origins who eventually resettled in Sierra Leone after facing hostile reception. Most were compensated in cash through the Exchequer, or with free Canadian land, as took place in Nova Scotia for instance, formerly known as Acadia, when thousands were previously uprooted from their ancestral land and scattered throughout the Dominion; including the US Louisiana basin, where they are known today as Cajuns (Arcadians – Cadians – Cajuns).

    Back in 1790s, Ontario was part of west Quebec, and sparsely populated; although nearly overnight it saw its population boosted by some 10000 Loyalists families (eg., Carolinas Scots), and referred to as Upper Canada, while the rest of Quebec got to be known as Lower Canada.

    In the months leading to the outbreak of outright military confrontation, there were frequent attempts by representatives (e.g., Benjamin Franklin) of the American Revolution supporting secession to recruit volunteers from the sizable population of Quebec, albeit with little success as locals remained neutral, resisting service under the British or American flag.

    Most Canadian settlers in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick had arrived following the British conquest of Quebec 1759, and disinclined to support separation from the British Crown. However, it is also known that many raiding expeditions set out from Quebec, but this primarily came from expatriated Loyalists and Natives, against frontier communities.

    Loyalists migrating to Nova Scotia experienced considerable rejection from Yankee migrants (New Englanders) who’d settled there before the Revolution, and had no particular affinity for the British. Consequently, nearly half were resettled in the western half of Nova Scotia, and renamed New Brunswick in 1784.

    In recognition of their allegiance to the Crown, new colonists were officially recognised in Quebec as United Empire Loyalists (UEL)which they could append after their name, and their input in the development of Canada cannot be ignored as a crucial factor in keeping Canada independent and distinct in North America. With them, Canada has inherited a much conservative disposition in matters of government, and like in the US, tendencies towards a pluralistic and multi-ethnic society.

    The great majority of Loyalists never left the United States, and stayed as fully integrated citizens of the new country. Throughout history, the role of Loyalists in the affairs of the United States remained significant. For instance, one prominent Patriot and founding father, Alexander Hamilton, managed to enlist the help of ex-Loyalists (1782–1785) in New York to forge an alliance with moderate Whigs to wrest the state from the power of the George Clinton faction (Governor of New York, US Vice President). GdR

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  7. I wonder if Washington and his troops would gasp at the populace along with the concrete jungle of the 5 boroughs today? Definitely not the same strategy for today’s defense of these hallowed grounds.

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  8. To Judy and many others who have commented from time to time that they were never taught this in school, that drives me crazy. I taught high school and college history for 38 years and obviously it would be impossible to cover every battle ever fought by Americans, let alone every other aspect in our history. Probably the teachers spend a little more time covering the causes of the Revolution, the battles of Lexington and Concord, Trenton, and Yorktown, and the results of independence. To Lynne, God didn’t provide the fog. It was probably due to the cold water in the East River in the warm summertime.

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    • TO CONRAD, JUDy and others who….In the 60’s and 70’s schooling I was fortunate to have to use the Library and Encyclopedia of that day, which would avail a broad range of topics that would attract us to alternate Histories of the previous battles, both social and militaria. I would soak up all of it, from cover to cover, as curiosity and thirst of knowledge was to me, amazingly fascinating. Today the specifics are passed over for a broader wikipedia via Google, where the topics are condensed into digital cliff notes. Teachers and the Associations prefer to take the “less is more” homework approach thus freeing up family time for interaction, or Playstation, whichever first, for better or worse….we’ll see.

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    • It was God who provided the water in the river and it was God who made the water cold. And it was God who provided the summertime and it was God who made it warm. So it was God who provided this fog and every other natural fog before and since.

      As always, great history lesson. Thank you Mystic.

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  9. I agree with Greg. The way history is taught, at least in California public schools, is that as it used to be said about the Platte River, “A mile wide and an inch deep.” Teachers are expect expose the students to a broad range of history without ever having the time to slow down and study any topic in real depth. Come on George, this is a history topic, not religion. No supernatural being, god or otherwise, created the water, the river, the summertime, or the fog. These are natural processes that have been evolving over millions and indeed, billions of years.

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