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Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Battle of Long Island, August 27, 1776

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Today in 1776, the Battle of Long Island began. This action, part of the American War for Independence, is also known as the Battle of Brooklyn. While not as well-known as other battles of that war, the Battle of Long Island is important for several reasons. First, it was the first time an organized Army of the United States met a force of British regulars in open conflict. Second, it was the first battle to take place after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which had been ratified seven weeks earlier. And finally, although exact figures are sketchy, the Battle of Long Island was the largest battle of the entire war.

General George Washington, with the Continental Army and militia units, had every reason to feel confident of American victory in the war. After all, his forces had just pushed the British Army out of Boston with nary a shot being fired. The Royal Navy, with His Majesty's soldiers on board, had sailed to Nova Scotia to plan the next move. The British realized that while the colonists were not as well-trained or well-armed as their world-class army, they were not a force to be taken lightly. The Continental Army was led by a number of brilliant officers, some of whom had served in the British Army during and after the French and Indian War. Plus, they had the advantage of fighting on home ground; men like George Washington were widely traveled in the colonies and knew the land well.

Washington's instincts told him that New York would be the next target of a British offensive. The harbor there was excellent, the Loyalist population of the city was large and Long Island, situated just across the East River from Manhattan, would make the perfect staging ground for an invasion of New England. Upon arriving in the area, Washington split his force into two main groups. The first group would defend Manhattan while the second group would defend Long Island. It was agreed that one of these two places would be the scene of the British attack.

The British massed their army on Staten Island, just across the Narrows from Long Island. On August 22, General Washington received the news that the redcoats were preparing to cross. Their initial landing force was 4,000 men strong; eventually, nearly 30,000 British troops would land on the island. They used the lightly-held Jamaica Pass to attack the American left flank, forcing an immediate retreat. A 2,000-man strong counter-attack was made the next morning with deadly results--the Americans lost 9 out of every 10 men.

Outnumbered approximately 2-to-1 (including the militia units defending Manhattan), Washington called for a retreat from Long Island. By this time, the Americans on the island had retreated to the fortifications on Brooklyn Heights. While the Heights were a defensible position, a long battle would allow the British to completely cut off the colonists' only path of escape across the East River to Manhattan. If this occurred, American forces on the island would either be forced to surrender or face destruction. A loss of this magnitude could be fatal for the cause of independence.

On the night of August 30, 1776, the entire American force was evacuated back to Manhattan. This was an astonishing undertaking, for it required the men at Manhattan to round up boats of various shapes and sizes without alerting the many Loyalist citizens of the city. Furthermore, while the evacuation took place, the positions on Brooklyn Heights had to still look as if they were being defended. This was done by leaving a token force of men in place until the last minute. Legend has it that General Washington, in direct command of the operation, was the last man to leave after making sure his soldiers were all safely away. This masterful evacuation was even lauded by the British, who took Brooklyn Heights the next day only to discover, to their surprise, that the positions had been abandoned.

The Continental Army retreated from Manhattan in early September. The city of New York is surrounded by water on three sides and the Royal Navy, with nearly 100 ships in the area, could easy bottle up the entire army there and pound them into submission. The two opposing armies met again that month at Harlem and White Plains. While the Americans experienced some success in those fights, Washington knew that his position in New York was tenuous at best and so he ordered a retreat to New Jersey. New York remained in British hands until the end of the war in 1783.

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