The Battle of Brooklyn

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:24

    It was June19, 1776, and the British had come. McCurtin, a private in the Continental army,later wrote that the "whole Bay was full of shipping as it ever could be"and the masts of the ships moored by Staten Island "resembled a forestof pine trees with their branches trimmed." Gen. Sir William Howe, commandingHis Majesty's forces in North America, had passed the Narrows with 48 men-of-warand transports. Neither McCurtin nor the hundreds of New Yorkers who soon linedthe Battery and the waterfront piers had seen anything like it. They hadseen nothing yet. During the next day, Sir William's seafaring brother, AdmiralRichard, Lord Howe (dark, like most of that family, and popular with his command,as his brother was with his, Lord Howe's sailors called him "Black Dick"),joined him with 82 more ships. By July 12, more than 150 ships stood off StatenIsland; by mid-August, more than 400. King George III and his ministers hadassembled the greatest seagoing invasion since the Spanish Armada nearly twocenturies before. On July12, 1776, the British did three things.

    First, theylanded on Staten Island. The county militia, mustered for home defense, surrenderedas one man.

    Then, twofrigates, H.M.S. Phoenix and H.M.S. Rose, testing the harbor defenses,swept up the Bay under full sail. The Rose's commander opened a particularlyfine claret as the American artillery fired on him from Red Hook, Governor'sIsland, Paulus Hook in New Jersey and Forts Washington and Lee. They missed.They all missed. They never came close. The two men-of-war cruised some 30 milesnorth to Tappan Bay and returned a few days later, utterly undamaged.

    Finally,the Howe brothers tried to open negotiations. Sir William Howe ("Sir Billy"behind his back) was a civilized man, preferring peace to war. Perhaps it washis sensuality. Howe's paunch spoke of his weakness for the pleasures of thebottle and the table, even as the presence in his suite of Mrs. Joshua Loring,a charming Bostonian, evidenced a fondness for those of the bed (Sir Williamhad appointed the complaisant Mr. Loring to the lucrative post of His Majesty'sCommissary of Prisoners).

    But loveof pleasure was not professional incapacity. William Howe, tall, pleasant andtaciturn, was in his late 40s. He had held the King's commission for more than30 years. A careful, intelligent commander who generally eschewed wasteful frontal assaults against entrenched positions, Howe's massive popularity with his troopsstemmed from their confidence that he would not waste their lives in the pursuitof glory.

    Yet Howecould be magnificently, even wildly brave. In September 1759, Howe had scaledthe Cliffs of Abraham, leading 4000 troops in the surprise attack on the Frenchat Quebec, still considered among the most audacious feats in military history.On June 17, 1775, at Bunker Hill, he personally led his grenadiers' second assaultagainst "an incessant stream of fire...more than flesh could endure"from Israel Putnam's militiamen, and when his men broke and ran, William Howemomentarily remained, defiant and nearly alone on the hillside in his cockedhat and bright scarlet coat, before turning and walking away.

    The Howebrothers, knowing war from experience, preferred peace. But how to address theletter to the rebel commander? "General" might seem to recognize thelegitimacy of Congress, which had commissioned him. "Colonel," hishighest rank as a militia officer in the King's service, might be insulting.Ah! the best address for a Virginian gentleman: George Washington, Esq.

    In TheyFought for New York, John Brick describes the arrival of Lieut. Brown, R.N.of H.M.S. Eagle, with the letter under flag of truce. He saluted a bluecoated colonel at the Battery stairs.

    "Sir,"Brown said, "I have a letter from Lord Howe to Mr. Washington."

    "Sir,"replied Col. Joseph Reed, Philadelphia lawyer turned adjutant general of theUnited States Army, "we have no person here in our army with that address."

    Openingnegotiations is difficult when your foes won't even accept your mail on a lawyer'sadvice.

    Sir Williamthen addressed another letter to "George Washington, Esq., etc., etc."This, too, was refused. The bearer, Lieut. Col. James Patterson, Howe's adjutantgeneral, then asked whether General Washington would care to meet withhim.

    Washingtonreceived Patterson at his headquarters at 1 Broadway. Patterson explained the"etc., etc." as terms used in diplomacy when a man's precise rankwas in doubt. Washington replied there was no doubt about his precise rank andthat "etc., etc." could mean "anything-or nothing." Pattersonthen suggested negotiations between Lord Howe and Washington. The Commander-in-Chiefrefused. He was merely a soldier, powerless to negotiate political issues: Thatwas Congress' domain.

    By Aug.19, 1776, Sir William had 32,000 professional soldiers on Staten Island, includingtwo regiments of Guards, the Black Watch, and 8000 mercenaries, rented for theoccasion from the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel. Three days later, he invaded Brooklynat Gravesend Bay. By noon, he had 15,000 men ashore with scarcely a shot fired.

    AlthoughWashington had fortified Brooklyn Heights, building Fort Greene, Fort Putnamand Fort Box, the American forces largely stood forward on the Heights of Guan(now Crown Heights, Stuyvesant Heights, Ocean Hill and Ridgewood). Apparentlynone of the American commanders knew of the Jamaica Pass, "a deep windingcut" at what is now Broadway Junction, near East New York. This led tothe Jamaica Rd., roughly parallel to what are now Fulton St. and Atlantic Ave.,which curved between the Americans on the Heights of Guan and their fortificationsnear Brooklyn Heights. During the early morning of Aug. 27, Howe sent 4000 lightinfantrymen unopposed through the Pass. By dawn, they held the Jamaica Rd.

    The Battleof Long Island opened with desultory skirmishing. Several hours after sunrise,two cannons boomed in the American rear. As the British and Hessians in theirfront suddenly stopped fooling around and began formal attacks, the Americansfound Howe's light infantrymen charging from behind.

    The rebelleft and center collapsed. Many soldiers simply surrendered. Others fled intothe woods. Through the ranks of British grenadiers sprinted Hessian jagers,vanishing into the trees after the rebels. They were green-coated professionalhuntsmen and gamekeepers, superbly fit, disciplined to an edge of ruthlessness,and armed with short-barreled rifles. They were trained to fight in forests,for at home they tracked poachers and thieves, and tended to take no prisoners.Decades later, the skulls of men run down and bayoneted by the jagers were stillturning up on building sites, roadsides and tilled fields.

    The Americanright comprised 1500 troops under Gen. William Alexander, a stocky, jovial Scotseccentric, who, though fighting for a republican cause, claimed the title ofLord Stirling. He had been more than holding his own: Two of his regiments haddriven British regulars from a flanking crest and seized the high ground. Stirlinghad not held the hill for 15 minutes when thousands of British and German troopsunexpectedly smashed into his front. His scouts then told him his left flankwas in the air, the American left and center were gone and British regularswere cutting him off.

    Stirling,unlike the other American commanders, had apparently studied his ground andeven considered possible routes of retreat. He had one left: through marshesto Gowanus Creek, 80 yards wide at the mouth. Even then, his men would be slaughteredin the mud unless the British advance was stopped, if only for an hour.

    Stirling,"with grim-faced Scottish fortitude," detached 250 Marylanders. Theywere militiamen. This was their first battle. He ordered his officers to movethe rest of his command across the Gowanus. Then he rode to the Marylandersand put himself at their head.

    They faced10,000 British and German regulars, advancing in broad ranks two or three linesdeep, now confident of victory, the field music's drummers beating a quick step,the King's and the regimental colors unfurled. The company-grade officers marchedbeside their men, swords at the carry, and the field-grade officers rode behindthe lines, not out of cowardice but to maintain communications and control.As the enemy's shooting became effective, the ranks would close up, again andagain, while marching forward. At 100 yards or so, they would halt. The soldierswould fire a volley and then charge at a full run, bayonets fixed, probablyyelling at the top of their lungs. The effect was intentional: to seem terrifying,invincible and nearly inhuman.

    Anyone watchingthe Guards' trooping the color on the Queen's birthday is observing 18th-centurytactics. American propaganda trains us to ridicule this kind of magnificentformal spectacle. But the British and Germans fought thus because it usuallyworked. It certainly did on Aug. 26, 1776. British soldiers generally were,as the Duke of Wellington later called them, "the scum of the earth":semi-literate at best, thuggish, crude and boisterous. They were controlledthrough harsh discipline, with floggings ordered on the slightest pretext. Theirlives were a constant round of drill and maintenance (blacking boots, polishingbuckles, pipe-claying breeches to keep them white and sponge-cleaning the redcoats, drycleaning being unknown), occasionally interrupted by whoring and drinking.The constant drill strengthened the habit of obedience, enabling officers and non-coms to control and maneuver their men with great flexibility amidst thehorror of battle.

    But Stirlinghad seen it before. He told his men that he knew James Grant, the British generalcommanding the troops on his front, and had been in the House of Commons whenGrant had boasted he could march from one end of America to the other with 5000men. He urged them to prove Grant wrong.

    Then hissword flashed from its scabbard, and with a broad sweep, Stirling pointed atthe advancing enemy, roared, "Charge!" and spurred his horse forward.The 250 went with him. They charged, broke, withdrew, regrouped and chargedagain-five times. Because they "fought like wolves," they bought thetime their comrades needed to cross the marshes. Of the 250, 10 men and oneofficer stumbled by nightfall into the American entrenchments at Brooklyn Heights.Stirling was not among them.

    It was onlynoon. Howe had lost 65 killed and 255 wounded while inflicting more than 2000casualties on the rebels. One imagines the response of Patton to a demoralizedenemy hopelessly off balance with his back to a river. Howe could have endedthe war that afternoon, and there would have been no United States.

    ImagineElizabeth II's elegant profile on the shillings in our pockets.

    And SirWilliam Howe said no. His men prepared for a careful assault on the Americanfortifications. In the harbor, Lord Howe's captains expected orders to placetheir ships in the East River between Brooklyn and New York to bottle up Washingtonin Brooklyn. The orders never came. Lord Howe did not even send out cutters-smallboats, manned by expert oarsmen, carrying light cannon in swiveling mounts-topatrol.

    More than220 years later, this remains inexplicable. Probably, the Howe brothers, beinghalf a world away from London, were making policy despite their orders. ThomasFleming, in Liberty, wrote: "To achieve the kind of [negotiated]peace Admiral Howe envisioned, Washington's army had to survive. If it was batteredinto mass surrender in Brooklyn or slaughtered on the East River, hard-liners...wouldinsist on a peace of unconditional surrender, [making] America another Ireland."

    Washingtonhad a genius for retreat. Few things are as difficult as the organized, controlledwithdrawal of a defeated army. His mind turned to the 14th Continentals, a regimentof American regulars, mostly sailors in civilian life, largely raised from Marblehead,MA (characterized by one of his officers as "a dirty erregular stinckingplace"). Between nightfall on Aug. 26 and Aug. 29, Washington and his staffassembled every boat "that could be kept afloat and had either sails oroars." The 14th Continentals manned them. The army was gradually withdrawnfrom the lines and ferried to Manhattan under cover of darkness. At dawn onAug. 30, the last boats left. One carried George Washington. He had not sleptin 48 hours.

    Washington'swithdrawal from Brooklyn, his army intact, was the first step in his retreatto victory.