Per Scriptum E. Wesley – Mackinac Center Intern
The Declaration of Independence had just been written, and now the young American nation first began fighting for its principles on Long Island, New York on August 27, 1776 (“Battle Pass”). Incidentally, the Battle of Long Island was the largest battle of the entire war, and although the British won the battle, the Americans survived, which was more than Britain could afford (ibid). When the battle ended, the Americans were stranded on the Island with little hope for escape from the British army. It was only a matter of time. Calling his council together, General George Washington proposed the only option; a perilous escape by small boats across the East River to Manhattan Island. The crossing of this American “Red Sea” became one the most miraculous events in the entire American War for Independence (Marshall 313-314).
When the British first arrived on Long Island, Generals William Howe, Charles Cornwallis, and Henry Clinton had 15,000 men under their command with Admiral Richard Howe’s fleet in support compared to American General John Sullivan’s 3,000 strong advance army, 5 scouts to the east, and (Lord) General William Stirling’s considerable force behind fortifications (“The Battle for New York”). From the 22nd to the 26th, Clinton, Cornwallis, and Howe moved their forces northeast to make for Sullivan’s unguarded left flank, while Grant and Von Heister kept up some fighting on Sullivan’s front (ibid). Stirling rushed from the defenses to hold off Grant. In the ensuing battle on the 27th, Sullivan and Stirling were completely taken by surprise when Howe moved behind their lines from the east, and most of their men were forced to eventually withdraw behind the fortifications (ibid). However, some Americans were cut off with Howe’s British force on one side and Von Heister on the other (ibid, “Thrilling Incidents”). Many trying to surrender were ruthlessly executed by the Hessians, who deemed it too late for surrender (“Battle Pass”). The horror of this drives home the point that foreign mercenaries are not too particular about the rules of war, and that George III’s hiring of the Hessians in 1776 was perhaps the greatest mark of betrayal he ever exhibited towards the Americans. He had divorced his beloved colonies by tyranny, and consequently, the Americans filed suit with sacrifice. American casualties (dead, captured, and wounded) numbered about 2,000 men and six canon, including the loss two generals, Sullivan and Stirling, who were captured (“Thrilling Incidents”). The British/Hessians only lost about 300-400 (ibid). On the 28th, they began digging siege lines toward the entrenched Americans. Trapped between the East River and a besieging British army, the Americans desperately needed a miracle and acted on the premise that a reasonable solution was impossible. George Washington, believing in miracles, would become their Moses, to lead them across the wonders of Providence.
After watching the defeat in anguish through his telescope, Washington came up with an audacious plan (Marshal 312-314). Because the rain on the 28th had saturated the arms and ammunition, the desperate state of the Americans became miserable (Whittemore 30). While decreasing the effectiveness of a final stand against the British the rain had providentially opened up a more adventurous scheme. The wind from the northeast that blew in the rain also kept Admiral Howe’s fleet from swooping up the East River and behind the American encampment (Marshal 313). The only way of escape lay across those waters, where even the British ships could not sail. Washington told his counselors that he wanted the entire army to cross the river on whatever small boats they could find (312-313). The East River was a mile long, the current was strong, and once the wind died down, these boats would be sitting ducks for the British navy (313). What other course had they? Eventually, the General had his way. Nine thousand Americans were to begin their wily flight on the night of the 29th (“Thrilling Incidents”).
The night air swayed the trees, and on its breeze, General Mifflin could hear the British hard at work with their picks, hammering away at the defenses (ibid). Mifflin’s duty was to keep his men in front of the British so as to hide the flight of his comrades (ibid). A mere 250 yards spanned between the two adversaries (ibid). The wind and rain snapped on. Eight o’clock, nine o’clock, ten o’clock; after two hours of waiting the army finally began crossing the river despite the rain (ibid). Thank God! John Glover’s Marbleheaders, the latest reinforcements, were superb boatmen, having rowed in small boats on Massachusetts Bay since their youth (Marshall 314). Without the blessing of the Marbleheaders and the 27th Massachusetts, the operation would have been impossible. For an hour the boats fought their way through the storm with men and arms, but then, oh joy! the wind hushed, and water stilled, and an awed silence filled the air that once wafted the chaos that had for three days blocked a British naval advance (Whittemore 32). “Peace, be still!” (Matthew 4:39) Eleven o’clock August 29th, 1776; the East River held its peace, as if spellbound, bridled, and pleasantly consented to the command of its Creator (ibid). A steady breeze from the southwest breathed into the little sails of the boats, and pushed them gently onto their destination. Again, the patriots dipped their oars into the freshly polished mirror of water, if not perhaps with a new tremble in their wrists and tears in their eyes that were independent of the strain from their earlier striving with the storm. Perhaps a soldier looked up and whispered the words of the 23rd Psalm; “He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:2-3). We don’t know their mode of thanks, but the thankful feelings of those men on that night surpass description.
Suddenly, General Mifflin was greeted by Alexander Scammell with a message from Washington to pull his troops back to the boats (Whittemore 32-33). It must have been a mistake! The time was two o’clock in the morning, and the operation had only been three hours in the making (ibid). Reluctantly, he gave the order to make for the boats, and unveil the night’s journey to the eyesight of his enemies (33). After rendezvousing with the boats, Washington was just as surprised and dismayed by the order as Mifflin (ibid). Washington had feared another wind from the northeast, and had intended to signal other troops to hurry (32). The message had been misdelivered (32-33). Mifflin once again returned to his post as before (33). About a half hour had passed, in which miraculously the British had not looked across the lines to see the gap in the American lines (Marshall 315). Where was their sight on that moonlit night (ibid)?
Dawn was a peril darker than the night. The horizon moved from silver moon, to faded gray, to a fringed pink (ibid). If only Washington had three more hours! Yet, the river had one more Divine command. A think fog drifted up and over the shore, billowing into the American encampment and separating forever the Americans from their enemies. Col. Tallmadge reported,
“By ten o'clock the troops began to retire from the lines, so that no chasm was made; but as one regiment left their station or guard, the remaining troops moved to the right and left and filled up the vacancies, while Washington took his station at the ferry and superintended the embarkation. As the dawn approached, those of us who remained in the trenches became very anxious for our safety, at which time there were several regiments still on duty, and a dense fog began to rise and seemed to settle over both encampments; so dense was the atmosphere that a man could not be discerned six yards off. When the sun rose we had orders to leave the lines, but before we reached the ferry the regiment was orderd back again. Col. Chester faced about and returned to the lines, where the regiment tarried till the sun had risen, but the fog remained as dense as ever. Finally a second order came, and we joyfully bid those trenches a long adieu. When we reached Brooklyn ferry the boats had not yet returned from their last trip, but they soon appeared. I think I saw Gen. Washington on the ferry stairs when I stepped into one of the last boats. I left my horse at the ferry tied to a post. The troops having all safely reached New York, and the fog continuing thick as ever. I got leave to return with a crew of volunteers for my favorite horse. I had got off with him some distance into the river before the enemy appeared in Brooklyn. As soon as they reached the ferry we were saluted merrily from their musketry, and finally by their field pieces. When the enemy had taken possession of the heights opposite the city of New York, they commenced firing from the artillery, and the fleet pretty soon were in motion to take possession of those waters (Whittemore 34).”
Indeed, Washington was in greater danger than he could have imagined. In order to get even with the Americans for banishing her husband into New Jersey’s interior for being suspected as disloyal, a certain woman sent her slave to the British camp to sound the alert that the Americans were escaping in the night (33). However, the first regiment the slave came to was Hessian, who could not understand a word he said, believed him to be a spy, and promptly detained him until the morning; another miracle (ibid)! Finally, a British officer was given charge of the slave, and General Howe was notified (33-34). The British rushed to the shore, only to see, as Whittemore put it, “the heavily-laden rear boats of the retreating army disappear in the impenetrable fog which yet hung over the river” (34).
On the morning of the 29th, America was given proof of that phrase which Americans still use today, “May God bless America.” In his 1897 book The Heroes of the American Revolution and their Descendants: The Battle of Long Island, Henry Whittemore, quoted Lossing who claimed:
“Nobly had the fisherman-soldiers of Marblehead and Salem… labored at their muffled oars during the long hours of that perilous night; naught save a few heavy cannon was left behind ; none save a few lagging marauders were captured, and when the fog at last rolled away the American army was joyously moving towards the upper portions of Manhattan Island. That retreat, in all its circumstances, was truly wonderful. Surely, that fog was the shield of God's providence over those men engaged in a holy cause. If ' the stars in their courses fought against Sisera,' in the time of Deborah, the prophetess, these mists were the wings of the cherubim of mercy and hope over the Americans on that occasion.”
The “holy cause” of liberty for which Patrick Henry urged his colleagues on would not be assuaged. As Patrick Henry understood, liberty is more than just a social goal for Americans; it is an attribute of God, a global and universal out-flowing of the reign of Jesus Christ. The 29th of August, 1776 proved God’s blessing on a new America as “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
“And Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever” (Exodus 14:13).
“Battle Pass: Americans Held Back Hessians Until British Attacked From The Rear.” nyfreedom.com. nyfreedom.com, n.d. Web. 27 Aug. 2010. http://www.nyfreedom.com/BattlePass.htm.
Marshall, Peter, Manuel, David. The Light and the Glory. Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1977. Print.
New King James Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1994. Print.
“The Battle for New York: The Battle Animation.” historyanimated.com. historyanimated.com, n.d. Web. 27 Aug. 2010. http://www.historyanimated.com/revolutionarywaranimated/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=52&Itemid=80.
Thrilling Incidents in American history Comprising the most Striking and Remarkable Events of the Revolution; The French War; The Tripolitian War; The Indian Wars; The Second War with Great Britain, and the Mexican War.: The Battle of Long Island.” Philadelphia: John E. Potter & Company. Web Conversion by Walter Bright. generalatomic.com. generalatomic.com, 29 Oct. 2005. Web. 27 Aug. 2010. http://www.generalatomic.com/AmericanHistory/battle_of_long_island.html.
Whittemore, Henry. The Heroes of the American Revolution and their Descendants: The Battle of Long Island. The Heroes of the Revolution Publishing Co., 1897. Print. books.google.com. books.google.com, n.d. Web. 27 Aug. 2010. http://books.google.com/books?id=tGA9AAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=The+heroes+of+the+American+Revolution+and+their+descendants:+Battle+of+Long&hl=en&ei=5893TNKHGNfhnQf599GXCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false.
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