We all know the first bit of this story: On July 4, 1776, the fledgling United States of America declared its independence from British colonial rule. But the American Revolution had already begun before the Declaration of Independence was signed. General George Washington had defeated British forces at the Siege of Boston in March 1776.
After the signing of the Declaration, however, there was no going back. Known variously as the Battle of Long Island and the Battle of Brooklyn, the first major battle that followed the signing of the Declaration set the tone for the rest of the war—and struck a resounding blow against the American rebel forces.
Following the Siege of Boston, General Washington had moved many of his troops to guard the port of New York, which was then located at the southern end of Manhattan Island. Knowing that access to ports like this was vital to keeping British troop power on the ground in the colonies, Washington hoped to prevent the port city from falling to British forces early on.
Washington moved some 19,000 troops onto Manhattan Island, where forts were built and artillery put in place to discourage British ships from sailing up the Hudson River. Hulks were sunk in the waters in strategic areas, and batteries were placed at Fort George and on Governors Island.
Military discipline was lax, however, and internal strife was the order of the day as Washington struggled to bring order to the ragtag army. Meanwhile, more and more British ships continued to arrive. By August of 1776, there were some 400 British ships in Lower New York Bay, and Washington found himself faced with a quandary over where the main power of the British forces would attack.
While some of his officers believed that an attack on Long Island was imminent, Washington feared that such a maneuver might be nothing more than a feint intended to disguise a larger incursion against Manhattan. Hedging his bets, Washington broke his army in half, leaving some to guard Long Island while the others stayed in Manhattan proper.
Over the next few months, British forces under the command of General William Howe landed 32,000 troops on the sparsely populated Staten Island, where the local militia turned Loyalist and supported the British. With naval ships waiting in Lower New York Bay, the Brits prepared for battle.
On August 27, 1776, British forces attacked American troops stationed at Guan Heights (the modern neighborhood of Gowanus in Brooklyn). Washington received reports of the attack, but given that it was initially a small force, he believed it to be the feint he had predicted, and sent only a few troops to support those already stationed there.
While some 4,000 British and Hessian soldiers harassed the American front along the Heights, the main body of the British army, some 10,000 or more strong, performed an all-night march through the mostly-undefended Jamaica Pass to flank the American forces.
The little-known pass was guarded by only five militia officers on horseback, who were captured without a single shot fired. From there, British troops were able to mount a flanking action against the American forces, which led to widespread panic and loss of life among the rebels, as well as numerous soldiers captured by the enemy.
In a series of skirmishes, the American forces guarding Long Island and Brooklyn lost as much as 20 percent of their total number, though losses would likely have been higher had it not been for certain noteworthy troop actions, such as a daring rear-guard maneuver by some 260 to 270 troops from Maryland under the command of Major Mordecai Gist and General William Alexander.
The group became known as the “Maryland 400”, though their numbers were not that many, and they fought against some 2,000 British troops in and around the Vechte-Cortelyou House. Known today as the Old Stone House, and located in what is now Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, the house now serves as a museum dedicated to the battle.
These two attacks helped distract British soldiers and allowed the rest of the 1,600 or so American troops to withdraw across nearby Brouwer’s mill pond.
Some 256 Maryland troops perished in the assaults, and fewer than a dozen returned to the American lines. General Washington is said to have watched the daring assaults from a nearby redoubt, exclaiming, “Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose.”
Despite such moments of heroism, however, the battle went quite badly for the Americans. Though the British dug in for a prolonged siege, by the night of August 29, just two days after the battle had begun, Washington withdrew all of his troops to Long Island. The British had claimed the vital seaport of New York—and would hold it for the rest of the war.
Such an early–and strategically important–defeat sounded a dour note for the beginning of the fledgling Revolution, and also acted as a sign that there would be no quick or painless end to the hostilities between the British and the Americans. With the British in control of the port of New York, they would be able to use their superior naval might to land troops on American shores for a protracted and bloody war.
Indeed, British forces held the port until after Charles Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown in 1781, when George Washington declared America’s victory to be “little short of a standing miracle.”
By 1782, the public’s appetite for war in Britain had dwindled, and Parliament passed a bill authorizing peace negotiations. In September of the following year, the U.S. and Britain signed the Treaty of Paris, ending hostilities between the new nation and its former colonial masters.
Yet in the whole of the long conflict–which raged for more than eight years, across the continent and on the seas, pulling in soldiers from other European powers like France and Spain–there was no single battle with a larger troop deployment in combat than the Battle of Long Island, which virtually began the war and certainly helped to shape it.
Feature photo: The National Guard / Flickr