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Washington’s First Defeat

by Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
March 7, 2017

“Inclination as well as duty would have Induced me to give Congress the earliest Information of my removal and that of the Troops from Long Island & Its dependencies to this City the night before last, But the extreme fatigue whic<h> myself and Family have undergone as much from the Weather since the Engagement on the 27th rendered me & them entirely unfit to take pen in hand—Since Monday scarce any of us have been out of the Lines till our passage across the East River was effected Yesterday morning & for Forty Eight Hours preceding that I had hardly been of[f] my Horse and never closed my Eyes so that I was quite unfit to write or dictate till this Morning.

“Our Retreat was made without any Loss of Men or Ammunition and in better order than I expected from Troops in the situation ours were—We brought off all our Cannon & Stores, except a few heavy peices, which in the condition the earth was by a long continued rain, we found upon Trial impracticable …

“I am much hurried & Engaged in Arranging and making new Dispositions of our Forces, The Movements of the Enemy requiring them to be immediately had, and therefore have only time to add that I am with my best regards to Congress Their & Your Most Obedt He Servt

Go: Washington”1

With this letter of August 31, 1776, Washington reported his first defeat to Congress. Four days previously, British forces under General William Howe had defeated the advanced elements of Washington’s Continental Army deployed along the Heights of Guana on Long Island. Now, the weakness of the fortifications on Brooklyn Heights, where Washington had approximately 9,500 troops, and the fear that British warships might enter the East River and cut his communications with the city of New York had compelled him to evacuate the island.2 (Washington’s reference to his “Family” meant his military aides-de-camp and secretaries.) But the defeat was also one of Washington’s greatest moments of the war.

Bureau of Engraving and Printing; Imaging by Gwillhickers - U.S. Post Office; Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

175th Anniversary stamp titled “Washington Saves His Army at Brooklyn,” issued in 1951 in commemoration the retreat from Long Island in 1776. Image from the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

The evacuation of 9,500 men from the fortified camp on Brooklyn Heights in a single night, when they appeared trapped between the enemy and the East River, involved monumental challenges. Should the British detect any sign of retreat, they surely would launch an attack despite the darkness. Much was at risk. The loss of Washington’s army would come as an irrevocable blow to the American cause and might bring on final defeat and surrender.

The General gave every detail of the operation his personal attention. The day before the retreat, he ordered the commanding general on Manhattan Island to gather boats. To man the boats and transport the troops across the East River to Manhattan Island, the American commander turned to the Massachusetts regiments of John Glover and Israel Hutchinson whose men were mostly sailors and fishermen.  Meanwhile, Washington had kept secret from the troops his intention to retreat, not informing them until the last possible moment. He deployed the army’s best troops on the lines of the camp to shield the withdrawal. These soldiers would be the last to embark.

The movement began shortly after darkness fell. Orderly and quiet, the regiments, one after another, moved down to the landing and boarded the boats, which moved continuously from shore to shore. Toward dawn, a dense fog settled over the area and covered the embarkation of the last battalions to leave the fortifications. Until they entered the American breastworks at dawn on the 30th, the British troops had no notion that their quarry had slipped the trap.

As Washington indicated to Hancock, he lost no men, ammunition, or supplies in the operation. His successful evacuation was a superb bit of generalship that saved his army. As much as they have criticized Washington for the defeat on the 27th, historians have praised him for his conduct of this retreat. In his history of the war, Christopher Ward wrote:

The credit for the achievement must unhesitatingly be accorded to Washington, who not only conceived and planned it but personally supervised its effective accomplishment throughout the night. Although, as he wrote to the Congress, he had hardly been off his horse and never had closed his eyes in the forty-eight hours preceding the retreat, all night long he rode his gray charger to and fro watching the movements of his men, or stood by the landing to superintend the embarkation. He seemed to be everywhere at once; and everywhere he cheered, calmed, and encouraged his troops through one of the most difficult trials a soldier has to endure. He was the last man to step into the last boat that left the island.3

This letter, with full annotation, appears in volume six of the Revolutionary War Series of The Papers of George Washington. In my next blog post I will focus on Washington’s letters to his brother John Augustine Washington of November 6-19, 1776, and to John Hancock of November 16, 1776, reporting the loss of Fort Washington and its garrison of 2,200 men—the greatest defeat suffered by Washington during the course of the war.

 

Notes

  1. “George Washington to John Hancock, 31 August 1776,”Founders Online,National Archives. Last modified February 21, 2017. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0144.
  2. See Council of War, August 29, 1776, in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 6:153-55.
  3. Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution, 2 vols. (New York, 1952), 1:236.