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Washington and His Comrades: Chapter IV

The Loss of New York

Washington’s success at Boston had one good effect. It destroyed Tory influence in that Puritan stronghold. New England was henceforth of a temper wholly revolutionary; and New England tradition holds that what its people think today other Americans think tomorrow. But, in the summer of this year 1776, though no serious foe was visible at any point in the revolted colonies, a menace haunted every one of them. The British had gone away by sea; by sea they would return. On land armies move slowly and visibly; but on the sea a great force may pass out of sight and then suddenly reappear at an unexpected point. This is the haunting terror of sea power. Already the British had destroyed Falmouth, now Portland, Maine, and Norfolk, the principal town in Virginia. Washington had no illusions of security. He was anxious above all for the safety of New York, commanding the vital artery of the Hudson, which must at all costs be defended. Accordingly, in April, he took his army to New York and established there his own headquarters.

Even before Washington moved to New York, three great British expeditions were nearing America. One of these we have already seen at Quebec. Another was bound for Charleston, to land there an army and to make the place a rallying center for the numerous but harassed Loyalists of the South. The third and largest of these expeditions was to strike at New York and, by a show of strength, bring the colonists to reason and reconciliation. If mildness failed the British intended to capture New York, sail up the Hudson and cut off New England from the other colonies.

The squadron destined for Charleston carried an army in command of a fine soldier, Lord Cornwallis, destined later to be the defeated leader in the last dramatic scene of the war. In May this fleet reached Wilmington, North Carolina, and took on board two thousand men under General Sir Henry Clinton, who had been sent by Howe from Boston in vain to win the Carolinas and who now assumed military command of the combined forces. Admiral Sir Peter Parker commanded the fleet, and on the 4th of June he was off Charleston Harbor. Parker found that in order to cross the bar he would have to lighten his larger ships. This was done by the laborious process of removing the guns, which, of course, he had to replace when the bar was crossed. On the 28th of June, Parker drew up his ships before Fort Moultrie in the harbor. He had expected simultaneous aid by land from three thousand soldiers put ashore from the fleet on a sandbar, but these troops could give him no help against the fort from which they were cut off by a channel of deep water. A battle soon proved the British ships unable to withstand the American fire from Fort Moultrie. Late in the evening Parker drew off, with two hundred and twenty-five casualties against an American loss of thirty-seven. The check was greater than that of Bunker Hill, for there the British took the ground which they attacked. The British sailors bore witness to the gallantry of the defense: “We never had such a drubbing in our lives,” one of them testified. Only one of Parker’s ten ships was seaworthy after the fight. It took him three weeks to refit, and not until the 4th of August did his defeated ships reach New York.

A mighty armada of seven hundred ships had meanwhile sailed into the Bay of New York. This fleet was commanded by Admiral Lord Howe and it carried an army of thirty thousand men led by his younger brother, Sir William Howe, who had commanded at Bunker Hill. The General was an able and well-informed soldier. He had a brilliant record of service in the Seven Years’ War, with Wolfe in Canada, then in France itself, and in the West Indies. In appearance he was tall, dark, and coarse. His face showed him to be a free user of wine. This may explain some of his faults as a general. He trusted too much to subordinates; he was leisurely and rather indolent, yet capable of brilliant and rapid action. In America his heart was never in his task. He was member of Parliament for Nottingham and had publicly condemned the quarrel with America and told his electors that in it he would take no command. He had not kept his word, but his convictions remained. It would be to accuse Howe of treason to say that he did not do his best in America. Lack of conviction, however, affects action. Howe had no belief that his country was in the right in the war and this handicapped him as against the passionate conviction of Washington that all was at stake which made life worth living.

The General’s elder brother, Lord Howe, was another Whig who had no belief that the war was just. He sat in the House of Lords while his brother sat in the House of Commons. We rather wonder that the King should have been content to leave in Whig hands his fortunes in America both by land and sea. At any rate, here were the Howes more eager to make peace than to make war and commanded to offer terms of reconciliation. Lord Howe had an unpleasant face, so dark that he was called “Black Dick”; he was a silent, awkward man, shy and harsh in manner. In reality, however, he was kind, liberal in opinion, sober, and beloved by those who knew him best. His pacific temper towards America was not due to a dislike of war. He was a fighting sailor. Nearly twenty years later, on June 1, 1794, when he was in command of a fleet in touch with the French enemy, the sailors watched him to find any indication that the expected action would take place. Then the word went round: “We shall have the fight today; Black Dick has been smiling.” They had it, and Howe won a victory which makes his name famous in the annals of the sea.

By the middle of July the two brothers were at New York. The soldier, having waited at Halifax since the evacuation of Boston, had arrived, and landed his army on Staten Island, on the day before Congress made the Declaration of Independence, which, as now we can see, ended finally any chance of reconciliation. The sailor arrived nine days later. Lord Howe was wont to regret that he had not arrived a little earlier, since the concessions which he had to offer might have averted the Declaration of Independence. In truth, however, he had little to offer. Humor and imagination are useful gifts in carrying on human affairs, but George III had neither. He saw no lack of humor in now once more offering full and free pardon to a repentant Washington and his comrades, though John Adams was excepted by name1 in repudiating the right to exist of the Congress at Philadelphia, and in refusing to recognize the military rank of the rebel general whom it had named: he was to be addressed in civilian style as “George Washington Esq.” The King and his ministers had no imagination to call up the picture of high-hearted men fighting for rights which they held dear.

Lord Howe went so far as to address a letter to “George Washington Esq. &c. &c.,” and Washington agreed to an interview with the officer who bore it. In imposing uniform and with the stateliest manner, Washington, who had an instinct for effect, received the envoy. The awed messenger explained that the symbols ” &c. &c.” meant everything, including, of course, military titles; but Washington only said smilingly that they might mean anything, including, of course, an insult, and refused to take the letter. He referred to Congress, a body which Howe could not recognize, the grave question of the address on an envelope and Congress agreed that the recognition of his rank was necessary. There was nothing to do but to go on with the fight.

Washington’s army held the city of New York, at the southerly point of Manhattan Island. The Hudson River, separating the island from the mainland of New Jersey on the west, is at its mouth two miles wide. The northern and eastern sides of the island are washed by the Harlem River, flowing out of the Hudson about a dozen miles north of the city, and broadening into the East River, about a mile wide where it separates New York from Brooklyn Heights, on Long Island. Encamped on Staten Island, on the south, General Howe could, with the aid of the fleet, land at any of half a dozen vulnerable points. Howe had the further advantage of a much larger force. Washington had in all some twenty thousand men, numbers of them serving for short terms and therefore for the most part badly drilled. Howe had twenty-five thousand well-trained soldiers, and he could, in addition, draw men from the fleet, which would give him in all double the force of Washington.

In such a situation even the best skill of Washington was likely only to qualify defeat. He was advised to destroy New York and retire to positions more tenable. But even if he had so desired, Congress, his master, would not permit him to burn the city, and he had to make plans to defend it. Brooklyn Heights so commanded New York that enemy cannon planted there would make the city untenable. Accordingly Washington placed half his force on Long Island to defend Brooklyn Heights and in doing so made the fundamental error of cutting his army in two and dividing it by an arm of the sea in presence of overwhelming hostile naval power.

On the 22d of August Howe ferried fifteen thousand men across the Narrows to Long Island, in order to attack the position on Brooklyn Heights from the rear. Before him lay wooded hills across which led three roads converging at Brooklyn Heights beyond the hills. On the east a fourth road led round the hills. In the dark of the night of the 26th of August Howe set his army in motion on all these roads, in order by daybreak to come to close quarters with the Americans and drive them back to the Heights. The movement succeeded perfectly. The British made terrible use of the bayonet. By the evening of the twenty-seventh the Americans, who fought well against overwhelming odds, had lost nearly two thousand men in casualties and prisoners, six field pieces, and twenty-six heavy guns. The two chief commanders, Sullivan and Stirling, were among the prisoners, and what was left of the army had been driven back to Brooklyn Heights. Howe’s critics said that had he pressed the attack further he could have made certain the capture of the whole American force on Long Island.

Criticism of what might have been is easy and usually futile. It might be said of Washington, too, that he should not have kept an army so far in front of his lines behind Brooklyn Heights facing a superior enemy, and with, for a part of it, retreat possible only by a single causeway across a marsh three miles long. When he realized, on the 28th of August, what Howe had achieved, he increased the defenders of Brooklyn Heights to ten thousand men, more than half his army. This was another cardinal error. British ships were near and but for unfavorable winds might have sailed up to Brooklyn. Washington hoped and prayed that Howe would try to carry Brooklyn Heights by assault. Then there would have been at least slaughter on the scale of Bunker Hill. But Howe had learned caution. He made no reckless attack, and soon Washington found that he must move away or face the danger of losing every man on Long Island.

On the night of the 29th of August there was clear moonlight, with fog towards daybreak. A British army of twenty-five thousand men was only some six hundred yards from the American lines. A few miles from the shore lay at anchor a great British fleet with, it is to be presumed, its patrols on the alert. Yet, during that night, ten thousand American troops were marched down to boats on the strand at Brooklyn and, with all their stores, were carried across a mile of water to New York. There must have been the splash of oars and the grating of keels, orders given in tones above a whisper, the complex sounds of moving bodies of men. It was all done under the eye of Washington. We can picture that tall figure moving about on the strand at Brooklyn, which he was the last to leave. Not a sound disturbed the slumbers of the British. An army in retreat does not easily defend itself. Boats from the British fleet might have brought panic to the Americans in the darkness and the British army should at least have known that they were gone. By seven in the morning the ten thousand American soldiers were for the time safe in New York, and we may suppose that the two Howes were asking eager questions and wondering how it had all happened.

Washington had shown that he knew when and how to retire. Long Island was his first battle and he had lost. Now retreat was his first great tactical achievement. He could not stay in New York and so sent at once the chief part of the army, withdrawn from Brooklyn, to the line of the Harlem River at the north end of the island. He realized that his shore batteries could not keep the British fleet from sailing up both the East and the Hudson Rivers and from landing a force on Manhattan Island almost where it liked. Then the city of New York would be surrounded by a hostile fleet and a hostile army. The Howes could have performed this maneuver as soon as they had a favorable wind. There was, we know, great confusion in New York, and Washington tells us how his heart was torn by the distress of the inhabitants. The British gave him plenty of time to make plans, and for a reason. We have seen that Lord Howe was not only an admiral to make war but also an envoy to make peace. The British victory on Long Island might, he thought, make Congress more willing to negotiate. So now he sent to Philadelphia the captured American General Sullivan, with the request that some members of Congress might confer privately on the prospects for peace.

Howe probably did not realize that the Americans had the British quality of becoming more resolute by temporary reverses. By this time, too, suspicion of every movement on the part of Great Britain had become a mania. Every one in Congress seems to have thought that Howe was planning treachery. John Adams, excepted by name from British offers of pardon, called Sullivan a “decoy duck” and, as he confessed, laughed, scolded, and grieved at any negotiation. The wish to talk privately with members of Congress was called an insulting way of avoiding recognition of that body. In spite of this, even the stalwart Adams and the suave Franklin were willing to be members of a committee which went to meet Lord Howe. With great sorrow Howe now realized that he had no power to grant what Congress insisted upon, the recognition of independence, as a preliminary to negotiation. There was nothing for it but war.

On the 15th of September the British struck the blow too long delayed had war been their only interest. New York had to sit nearly helpless while great men-of-war passed up both the Hudson and the East River with guns sweeping the shores of Manhattan Island. At the same time General Howe sent over in boats from Long Island to the landing at Kip’s Bay, near the line of the present Thirty-fourth Street, an army to cut off the city from the northern part of the island. Washington marched in person with two New England regiments to dispute the landing and give him time for evacuation. To his rage panic seized his men and they turned and fled, leaving him almost alone not a hundred yards from the enemy. A stray shot at that moment might have influenced greatly modern history, for, as events were soon to show, Washington was the mainstay of the American cause. He too had to get away and Howe’s force landed easily enough. Meanwhile, on the west shore of the island, there was an animated scene. The roads were crowded with refugees fleeing northward from New York. These civilians Howe had no reason to stop, but there marched, too, out of New York four thousand men, under Israel Putnam, who got safely away northward. Only leisurely did Howe extend his line across the island so as to cut off the city. The story, not more trustworthy than many other legends of war, is that Mrs. Murray, living in a country house near what now is Murray Hill, invited the General to luncheon, and that to enjoy this pleasure he ordered a halt for his whole force. Generals sometimes do foolish things but it is not easy to call up a picture of Howe, in the midst of a busy movement of troops, receiving the lady’s invitation, accepting it, and ordering the whole army to halt while he lingered over the luncheon table. There is no doubt that his mind was still divided between making war and making peace. Probably Putnam had already got away his men, and there was no purpose in stopping the refugees in that flight from New York which so aroused the pity of Washington. As it was Howe took sixty-seven guns. By accident, or, it is said, by design of the Americans themselves, New York soon took fire and one-third of the little city was burned.

After the fall of New York there followed a complex campaign. The resourceful Washington was now, during his first days of active warfare, pitting himself against one of the most experienced of British generals. Fleet and army were acting together. The aim of Howe was to get control of the Hudson and to meet half way the advance from Canada by way of Lake Champlain which Carleton was leading. On the 12th of October, when autumn winds were already making the nights cold, Howe moved. He did not attack Washington who lay in strength at the Harlem. That would have been to play Washington’s game. Instead he put the part of his army still on Long Island in ships which then sailed through the dangerous currents of Hell Gate and landed at Throg’s Neck, a peninsula on the sound across from Long Island. Washington parried this movement by so guarding the narrow neck of the peninsula leading to the mainland that the cautious Howe shrank from a frontal attack across a marsh. After a delay of six days, he again embarked his army, landed a few miles above Throg’s Neck in the hope of cutting off Washington from retreat northward, only to find Washington still north of him at White Plains. A sharp skirmish followed in which Howe lost over two hundred men and Washington only one hundred and forty. Washington, masterly in retreat, then withdrew still farther north among hills difficult of attack.

Howe had a plan which made a direct attack on Washington unnecessary. He turned southward and occupied the east shore of the Hudson River. On the 16th of November took place the worst disaster which had yet befallen American arms. Fort Washington, lying just south of the Harlem, was the only point still held on Manhattan Island by the Americans. In modern war it has become clear that fortresses supposedly strong may be only traps for their defenders. Fort Washington stood on the east bank of the Hudson opposite Fort Lee, on the west bank. These forts could not fulfil the purpose for which they were intended, of stopping British ships. Washington saw that the two forts should be abandoned. But the civilians in Congress, who, it must be remembered, named the generals and had final authority in directing the war, were reluctant to accept the loss involved in abandoning the forts and gave orders that every effort should be made to hold them. Greene, on the whole Washington’s best general, was in command of the two positions and was left to use his own judgment. On the 15th of November, by a sudden and rapid march across the island, Howe appeared before Fort Washington and summoned it to surrender on pain of the rigors of war, which meant putting the garrison to the sword should he have to take the place by storm. The answer was a defiance; and on the next day Howe attacked in overwhelming force. There was severe fighting. The casualties of the British were nearly five hundred, but they took the huge fort with its three thousand defenders and a great quantity of munitions of war. Howe’s threat was not carried out. There was no massacre.