This site description is taken word for word from The Life and Times of Aaron Burr by James Parton, 1858 pages 86 & 87:
It was on that eventful Sunday September the 15, 1776, when the British landed on Manhattan island, and the American army fled before them to Harlem, that Major Burr most distinguished himself. He was in rear of retreating troops; as was also Captain Alexander Hamilton, with his company of New York artillery. Hamilton lost all his baggage and one gun that afternoon, but conducted his men gallantly and safely away. As Major Burr with two horsemen, was riding toward Richmond Hill, on his way to Harlem, he came upon a small sod fort, called Bunkerís Hill, (or Bayardís Hill) nearly on what is now Grand Street. To his astonishment he found that a great part of an American brigade, left in city by one of the numerous mistakes inevitable on such a day, had taken refuge in this structure.
The British, it must be remembered, landed on the East River side of the island, nearly four miles above the Battery, with the intention to cut off the retreat of the Americans, and General Knox, who commanded this brigade, supposed that the enemy were already masters of the island, and that escape by flight was impossible. Major Burr rode up to fort and asked who commanded there.
General Knox presenting himself, Burr inquired what he was doing there, and why he did not retreat. The general replied that the enemy were already across the island, and that he meant to defend the fort. Burr ridiculed the idea of defending a place which was not bomb proof, and which contained neither water nor provisions. With one howitzer, he exclaimed, the enemy will knock it to pieces in four hours. He maintained that there was no chance but retreat, and urged the general to lead out his men. (pause) Knox declared it would be madness to attempt it, and refused to stir. While this debate was waxing warm, the officers of the brigade gathered round, eager to hear what was said. To them Burr addressed himself with the vehemence demanded by the occasion. He told them that if they remained where they were, they would all be prisoners before night, or hung like dogs. He said it was better for half the corps to fall fighting its way through the enemyís lines, than for all to be taken and rot in a dungeon. He added that he knew the roads of the island perfectly and would lead them safely to the main body of the army, if they would place themselves under his direction. The men agreed to follow him, and they marched out, Burr riding in advance, on the side where an attack was to be feared, and returning at intervals to reassure the terrified troops. When they had gone two miles on their way, firing was suddenly heard at the right. Shouting to his men to follow him, Burr galloped directly to the spot where the firing had issued, and soon discovered that it was a small advance-guard of the enemy, consisting of a single company, who, on seeing the Americans, fired and fled. Burr and his two horsemen rode furiously after them, and killed several of the fugitives. Galloping back, he found the troops had taken a wrong road, and were in sore trepidation. He guided them through a wood, riding from front to rear, and from rear to front, encouraging them by his words, and still more by his cool, intrepid demeanor. With the loss of a few stragglers, for the march was of the swiftest, he led the brigade to the main body. He was ever after regarded by those troops as their deliverer from British prison-ships.
This brilliant feat of the young Aid-de-camp became the talk of the army. Soon after, on the surrender of Fort Washington, another brigade was, by a similar accident, left behind; and of 2500 men that fell into the hands of the enemy, not 500 survived the treatment they received as prisoners. Applauded by his comrades, Burr was not mentioned in the dispatches of the commander-in-chief (George Washington); which, then and always, he regarded as an intentional slight.
Back to Historic Ferry Tour page