On the night of August 21, 1776, a storm breaks out in New York, killing ten soldiers. The next morning, the British invasion begins. By 8:00 AM, 4,000 British troops have come ashore at Gravesend Bay in Long Island. By noon, 15,000 have landed, and Loyalist New Yorkers are welcoming them ashore. The British are wowed by the abundance of crops—indeed, Americans in the 1770s enjoy an unusually high quality of life compared to people in most other parts of the world.
The British forces occupy Long Island, far from the Hudson River where Washington has already built many defenses. This is a smart move, since the Loyalists in Long Island give the soldiers added support. Had the British landed on the west side of Manhattan, by contrast, they would not have been able to march inland without resistance.
Later in the morning, Washington receives word of the British arrival. However, he’s told (incorrectly) that their troops number in the eight- or nine-thousands, so he assumes that the British have another attack planned. He sends a mere 6,000 men out to Long Island, expecting there to be a bigger strike along the Hudson. Washington urges his troops to fight for liberty, telling them, “you are free men, fighting for the blessings of liberty.”
Washington receives a bad piece of information and makes a huge tactical error as a result. But this passage also highlights what makes Washington such an extraordinary leader: he delivers a stirring speech in which he emphasizes the ideals for which America is fighting, and ties those ideals directly to the lives of his own men.
On August 24, the American troops march out to meet the British. British forces still haven’t invaded along the Hudson, but Washington guesses that this is only because of the storm on the night of the 21st. Washington keeps relieving his generals of command and replacing them with others. The contrast between his indecisive leadership and the perfectly executed British invasion of Long Island is striking. By the end of the day, 5,000 Hessians arrive in Long Island, bringing the total size of British forces to 20,000 men.
The British humiliate Washington and his army by invading Long Island without so much as a false step. Washington, it’s worth remembering has never fought a major battle aside from his backwoods assaults on the French. The last-minute changes he makes to the line of command seem indicative of his nervousness or fear.
When Washington arrives in Brooklyn to join his troops, he’s appalled by their disorderliness. He also receives word that British forces in Long Island outnumber him, contrary to what he’d been told. However, he continues to prepare for battle. In Brooklyn Heights, he order his soldiers to build fortifications, and places Lord Stirling in charge of troops near the Gowanus Road. Meanwhile, John Sullivan is placed in charge of troops near Flatbush Road, nearby. Washington believes that the British are going to “make a push” into Brooklyn from Long Island.
Washington receives two major blows at once: his troops are clearly not ready to fight, and they’re badly outnumbered. (Furthermore, as the passage reminds us, Washington is missing Nathanael Greene, who’s still dangerously ill.) But Washington has no choice but to fight while he can, so he makes the best of a bad situation.
It’s been five days since the British landed in Long Island, and still there has not been battle. At night, Washington writes a letter to his wife, Martha Washington. What he writes to her is anybody’s guess—Martha later destroys all but a few of her husband’s letters.
It’s curious that McCullough doesn’t even try to guess what Washington writes his wife. This gives the passage a tense, suspenseful tone, since readers can’t tell how Washington is feeling about the impending fight with the British.
General Henry Clinton of the British army hasn’t distinguished himself in the war with America, having failed in the missions General William Howe has given him, and he’s eager to prove himself. Clinton forms a plan of attack and, instead of giving it to General Howe for approval, sends it directly to the troops and their officers. Clinton’s plan is to send an advance guard into Brooklyn that night, while General Howe will follow the next morning with the remaining 10,000 troops. These troops are experienced, accustomed to adverse conditions, and extremely loyal to George III. They despise their American foes and are eager for battle.
From Washington’s perspective, the British army seems strong and perfectly organized, but the truth is that British officers are quarreling with one another. The passage suggests a hidden weakness in the structure of the British military in America. However, the British have a big size advantage that seems to make up for some disorganization at the top.
At 9PM, Clinton gives the order for the British troops to march out to Brooklyn. While neither Clinton nor General William Howe realizes it, Clinton’s plan is extremely risky. He’s leading a huge force into unknown territory at night: a surprise attack by the Americans could decimate the British forces. Early in the march, the British forces capture five American scouts; however, the scouts refuse to give up information about Washington’s troops. By dawn, the British troops have made it to Bedford Road. Amazingly, they’ve marched nine miles in darkness and avoided attack. Howe leads the remaining British troops out of Long Island.
Although Clinton succeeds in marching his troops into Brooklyn that night, it’s a sign of his inexperience as a general that he chooses to do something so risky. Clinton is no genius; he just has the benefit of commanding a large, technologically superior, well- trained group of soldiers. Washington may be the better general, but Clinton commands the better army.
In Brooklyn, the American generals realize that the British are approaching the Gowanus Road. Lord Stirling orders his forces—a mere 1,600 soldiers—to hold their fire until the British are within fifty yards. The American troops fight bravely, but they’re badly outnumbered. They’re confused that the British seem to be holding back, and wrongly assume that it’s because the British are frightened. In reality, the British are waiting for the rest of their army to arrive.
Even the best group of 1,600 soldiers can’t defeat a force many times its size. Notice that, not for the last time, the British hesitate rather than pressing their advantage—the British military is very cautious and slow-paced in its maneuvering.
By mid-morning, the British and American forces are still fighting. Suddenly, the second half of the British army arrives and surrounds Sullivan’s troops. Sullivan orders his men to retreat, but is captured in battle. The Hessians slaughter thousands of Americans, and the American defenses collapse.
The American army is dealt setback after setback. Sullivan is a mediocre commander, and his capture signals his troop’s resounding defeat.
Washington arrives in Brooklyn around 9AM, just before the second half of the British army arrives. He’s horrified by what he sees: his army has been outmanned and outmaneuvered. By 11AM, the Hessians have surrounded Lord Stirling’s troops. Stirling shouts for his men to run away. Terrified, the Americans try to retreat, but many of them die at the hands of British soldiers, while others are taken prisoner. Stirling decides to surrender to the Hessian regiment. By noon, there can be no doubt that the Americans have lost the fight—the first great battle of the Revolutionary War, and the largest battle fought on American soil to date. The Americans have lost a thousand men, while the British have lost only hundreds.
Washington’s army suffers a crushing defeat in this chapter, due to the smaller size and poor training of Washington’s army, as well as the mediocrity of certain of Washington’s generals and the unreliability of Washington’s message system.
By the morning of August 28, Washington and his troops have retreated into Brooklyn, near the East River. Washington has called additional American troops to Brooklyn from Manhattan. By the end of the day, American reinforcements have arrived in Brooklyn, but a wild storm has begun that prevents the ships from landing. The storm is still blowing the next morning, and Washington’s men are tired. However, the storm protects them from additional British ships landing in Brooklyn.
Thus far, McCullough has praised George Washington for his realism and pragmatism, even suggesting that these are his best qualities as a commander. By this standard, Washington makes an unusual strategic error when he calls for more troops from Manhattan: he fails to recognize that the possibility of attack in Manhattan still looms large.
By noon on August 29, Washington gives an order for all available boats to be rounded up, announcing that there are “many battalions from New Jersey which are coming over to relieve others here,” and that some soliders will be sent away. In the afternoon, Washington holds a meeting with his generals to decide what to do. Many of the generals recommend that Washington retreat, and in the end, there is a unanimous vote to flee. Washington is about to surprise General Howe once again.
In the end, Washington acts pragmatically and trusts his generals’ opinions. He’s ready to do the dishonorable, “cowardly” thing (running away from the British army) if it means the survival of the American military.
By 7PM, the troops have their orders to pack up and prepare for a “night attack” on the British. By 9PM, the least experienced troops head for the Brooklyn ferry, thinking that they’ll be relieved by new soldiers. Washington tells only his top officers about the real plan for the night—stealing away into New York—because he doesn’t want word to get out, for fear that the troops will give some sign that they’re about to leave, leading the British to charge again. By 11PM that night, the winds have died down, making it possible for the American troops near the East River to sail back to New York. Meanwhile, the troops nearest the British have the tough job of making it appear that the entire American army is still present.
While Washington has yet to prove himself as a great general in battle, his retreat from Brooklyn is itself an impressive tactical maneuver that many generals wouldn’t be able to pull off.
By four in the morning, Major Alexander Scammell of the American army rides to the frontlines, looking for his commander, General Thomas Mifflin. Scammell tells Mifflin that Washington is waiting for the arrival of “the last remaining troops.” Mifflin is confused, but Scammell insists that these are the words Washington told him to pass on. Mifflin decides to assemble his regiment and retreat from the British army. Scammell has made a huge mistake: he misinterpreted Washington’s order, and as a result the frontline American troops are leaving sooner than planned.
The plan of retreat is almost ruined when the soldiers on the frontlines pull back too early. For the second time in New York, Washington’s troops make a big mistake because of poor communication.
By the time the frontline troops arrive at the river, Washington is still loading troops into the boats. Washington is appalled that the frontline troops have abandoned their posts and orders them to go back at once. The troops return to the frontlines. Seemingly, the British haven’t even noticed their retreat.
Had the British been paying closer attention, or if they’d been contemplating marching further into Brooklyn, McCullough suggests, they would have chased the Americans back to the river.
By dawn, most of the American troops still haven’t left. Some of the boats become mired in mud, and some of the heavy artillery proves difficult to move. By daybreak, however, a heavy fog covers Brooklyn, concealing the Americans’ actions from the British. Thanks to the fog, the American troops in Brooklyn are able to escape across the river without being seen. By mid-morning, the British have discovered the Americans’ retreat. They’re astonished, but also pleased, since they can now claim all of Brooklyn for themselves.
Once again, the Americans benefit from the weather. Just as the wild storms made it impossible for British ships to dock in Brooklyn for a night, the fog conceals the American retreat to Manhattan.
George Washington deserves credit for engineering a brilliant escape from Brooklyn. But of course, he also bears some of the blame for the American troops’ failure in Long Island, where they were outnumbered thanks to Washington’s decision to divide the army. Historians still debate General Howe’s decision not to continue attacking the Americans in the afternoon. Had he done so, he might have defeated Washington once and for all. In any event, the news of the Americans’ defeat causes much celebration in London, when it finally reaches Britain. Meanwhile, the Continental Congress is devastated by the defeat, though it doesn’t panic.
In many ways, the battle between the Americans and British in Brooklyn is representative of both sides’ strengths and weaknesses. Washington is a savvy, quick-thinking commander, but his maneuvers sometimes fall short because of poor intelligence and communication, or because his army isn’t strong enough. Howe commands a huge, well-trained army, but he’s not a compelling leader, and he’s so slow-paced that he throws away multiple chances to win the war early.
When the American troops arrive back in New York from the East River, many of them haven’t slept for days. Washington is so tired that he can’t even muster the energy to write a letter to the Continental Congress. However, he soon begins arranging “new dispositions of our forces.”
Washington has a tough job: he has to command his men, haggle for funds with the Continental Congress, all while seeming to be a calm, stately leader.