Thursday, August 16, 2012

Intern's Coner: August in the Revolution

The Battle of Long Island, August 27th, 1776
By Mark Relation, DLAR Intern

          The largest battle of the war, the Battle of Long Island was the first battle in U.S. History, just eight weeks after the Declaration of Independence, and very nearly the last.  Overconfident from their victories at Breed’s Hill, Boston, and Sullivan’s Island, Washington’s fledgling army of 20,000 men occupied New York, a vital tactical position on the mouth of the Hudson as well as a psychological and political symbol of the Revolution.  However, the Patriots took up an untenable position.  Washington split his troops, stationing half on Manhattan and the other half on the butt end of Long Island, which given the British naval superiority, left them completely exposed.  From their base on Staten Island, and with uncontested mastery of the seas, the British could attack the Patriots from any direction. 

          On August 21st and 22nd, 20,000 British and Hessian troops began landing on Long Island to face some 9,000 Americans under the command of General John Sullivan.  Early on, Washington suspected this move to be a feint, as the wind impeded and slowed the British movements by forcing their ships out of the East River.  Washington initially believed the real attack to come at Manhattan, and so did not substantially reinforce Sullivan until the 25th, when he himself arrived with more men.  While the British in retrospect perhaps should have moved on Manhattan as they could have seized the bridges and cut off Washington’s troops, the British did not want to repeat the evacuation of Boston, where strong American artillery positions much like those on Brooklyn Heights forced their withdrawal.  Regardless, Long Island was where both sides had committed their forces, and where the fighting would be decided. 

          Adopting a daring night march, around 4,000 British soldiers led by Generals Clinton and Cornwallis moved through the largely undefended Jamaica pass on the exposed American left on the night of the 26th, an were quickly reinforced by another 6,000 along with General Howe.  On the opposite side of the battlefield, British General Grant moved against the Americans there, drawing attention away from Clinton and Cornwallis.  While the American attention was diverted, Clinton and Howe rolled up the American left, and the American positions off of Brooklyn Heights were enveloped and destroyed.  During the battle, the Patriots suffered 200 men killed and 900 prisoners, including Generals Sullivan and Stirling. 

          However, the British decided not to press their victory.  Howe held his men back, giving up what may have been Britain’s best chance of winning the war in a single stroke.  Instead, he hunkered down for a drawn out siege of the American fortified positions, giving Washington time to execute his famous retreat to Manhattan.  Washington and the Continental army, though badly beaten and greatly demoralized, were able to escape and carry on the fight until their eventual victory eight years later.

Blanco, Richard L., and Paul J. Sanborn. The American Revolution, 1775-1783: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Pub., 1993. Print.  p. 956-959.
Selesky, Harold E. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Detroit: Scribner, Thomson Gale, 2006. Print.  p. 646-655.

The Battle of Long Island.  As taken from

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