The Battle of Brooklyn

In August of 1776, General George Washington defended the American cause against General William Howe of the British Army in the Battle of Long Island (or the Battle of Brooklyn). This was the first and largest engagement of the Continental and British armies in the Revolutionary War. Howe’s army, which was based on Staten Island, numbered 32,000, including 5,000 German mercenaries (Hessians). It was backed by his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, with 10 ships-of-the-line, 20 frigates, and 400 other supply ships and transports anchored in New York Bay. Washington had about 20,000 troops, but no ships and no soldiers as well trained. Since Washington didn't know if the British were going to attack Manhattan or Brooklyn, he left 3,600 troops on Long Island, spaced along a hilly, forested ridge that runs through Brooklyn. If the English fleet had been able to move up the East River and cut off communication between New York and Brooklyn, the Brooklyn troops would have been  killed.

But Washington had, first, The Battery, a line of artillery in lower Manhattan commanded by General Knox; and second, a bit of luck because the winds of New York Harbor prevented Howe from sailing warships up the East River. Washington quickly reinforced Brooklyn by ferrying more troops to the Brooklyn side of the River. Rather than face Knox's artillery at the Battery, on August 22, 1776, Howe sent 88 ships, across the narrows where the Verrazano Bridge now stands, to land in Gravesend Bay. The troops’ march to battle went through several modern-day Brooklyn streets, including South Shore Road, Flatbush Avenue, and Kings Highway.  In Prospect Park, is "Battle Pass" and a monument to the Americans who cut down a huge oak tree to slow down the British attackers.

A Maryland regiment of 400 men was reduced to 9 survivors while continually attacking a vastly superior British army outposted in the strategically positioned Old Stone House that some of us visited yesterday. Their valiant efforts distracted the British and bought Washington time to rally his remaining troops. The Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens is named after Charles Carroll, Maryland's signer of the Declaration of Independence, in honor of the Maryland men who gave their lives at the Battle of Brooklyn.

Four days later, Washington realized that he had positioned his troops in a trap. Aside from a flanking maneuver through what was called Jamaica Pass, the British drove northward near Brooklyn's western shoreline. Washington decided it was time to leave Brooklyn. He knew the British should not discover his retreat. The winds in Washington’s early favor then turned to rain and fog, which helped to cover his withdrawal across the East River. When the British later arrived at Brooklyn Heights, they reportedly found nothing more than some rusted buckets.

Aaron Burr, as aide-de-camp to American General Israel Putnam, realized early that American troops and defenses could not hold against the invading British. He was at Putnam’s side when Howe’s forces came ashore and forced the Americans to fall back in disarray, and he was in the thick of the action when Washington’s troops retreated to Manhattan under General McDougal's command during the rainy August night. Hamilton was not in the Long Island engagement, but was stationed during that time in the Bayard’s Hill redoubt in Manhattan, from which he and Burr were to retreat when the British came ashore in Manhattan in September.  The British loss in the Battle of Long Island was 400, and the Americans nearly 2,000. The British occupied Brooklyn and Manhattan for the next 7 years until the treaty formally ending the Revolutionary War was signed.

One interesting footnote concerns 21 year old Captain Nathan Hale. Less than a month after the Battle of Long Island, Washington needed intelligence on British movements. Hale landed on Long Island disguised as a school teacher, but was caught as a spy. General Howe had him hung near the present intersection of East Broadway and Market Streets, where he reportedly said “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”  Note script was revised on board by Old Stone House Board representative Prof. William John Parry.   Troop numbers vary.


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