The Contest For New York
Preparations to defend New York.—After the evacuation of Boston it was realized that New York would be a probable point of attack and great exertions were made to put it in a state of defence. Washington arrived on April 13, 1776; his troops, delayed by bad roads, came straggling in, and new levies began to arrive, the army being gradually augmented until it numbered about twenty thousand men. But the effective fighting force was several thousand less, for disease was ever present. Furthermore the raw recruits were poorly trained and equipped, and there were not enough artillerymen to man the batteries. The only cavalrymen who appeared were a small force from Connecticut and these, for reasons best known to himself, Washington did not retain in service. The defences were strengthened by works at Paulus Hook on the Jersey shore, and others on Governor's Island and at Red Hook on Long Island. Eleven redoubts were erected on Manhattan Island along the battery and up to a point opposite Hell Gate, and the hamlet of Brooklyn was fortified with seven redoubts. Obstructions were placed in the Hudson and a second line of defence was established at Forts Washington and Lee. Many historians point out that New York should have been abandoned, for Washington's army was too small to cope with the British, the Tories were certain to keep the enemy informed of the movements, the defences were not powerful enough to control the water approaches, and an active enemy could run by the defenses and land troops in the rear of the American army. To make the situation worse, the line of hills on Long Island, known as Brooklyn Heights, commanded New York. To occupy them it was necessary to divide the army, and in case of defeat, the defenders would be separated by a difficult channel from the main army on Manhattan Island. As Trevelyan observes, Washington "placed, and kept, his troops in a position where they were certain to be defeated, and where, when defeated, they would most probably be surrounded and destroyed."
The British plan.—The British government hoped to annihilate the armies and cut off New England from the other colonies. By occupying New York and sending converging armies, one from the north, the other up the Hudson, the government believed that it could accomplish its purpose. Large reinforcements were sent to Quebec, and during July and August, 1776, British forces were concentrated on Staten Island and a great fleet assembled. The first forces to arrive at New York were those under General Howe which he brought from Halifax. Large reinforcements under Admiral Lord Howe and forces under Clinton and Cornwallis augmented the army until it numbered about thirty thousand men.
An attempt at conciliation.—Lord Howe hoped that peace could be made, and soon after his arrival, he addressed a letter to "George Washington, Esquire," but the epistle, which failed to recognize the position of the commander-in-chief, was returned. A personal envoy from Lord Howe also met with a rebuff. The British admiral had prepared a circular letter to several of the royal governors setting forth his authority as commissioner and stating the conciliatory terms sanctioned by the cabinet. These contained a mere promise of pardon to those who returned to allegiance and assisted in the restoration of tranquillity. In fact John Adams was marked out for a halter, but this was not divulged. The letters fell into the hands of Congress which ordered that they be published "that the good people of these United States may be informed of what nature are the commissioners, and what the terms, with the expectation of which, the insidious court of Britain has endeavoured to amuse and disarm them...."
Battle of Long Island.—General Howe finally decided to attack the American position on Long Island. On the twenty-second and twenty-third of August twenty thousand troops and forty cannon were disembarked at Gravesend Bay, six or seven miles south of Brooklyn, but not until the evening of the twenty-sixth did the British advance. Washington had been misinformed as to the size of the landing force and had stationed only nine thousand men on Long Island. These were under General Nathanael Greene, but stricken by illness, he was forced to retire from the command on August 23, and Sullivan who succeeded him was superseded by Putnam on the twenty-fifth. Washington spent the twenty-sixth on the island and superintended the disposition of the forces.
The chief line of defence was the densely wooded Brooklyn Heights which were crossed by several roads. One ran up from Gravesend near the coast; four miles to the eastward two wagon roads from Flatbush penetrated the heights; three miles farther east a highway ran from the village of Jamaica. About five thousand men were sent to defend the Gravesend and Flatbush roads but Jamaica Pass was neglected. The British frontal attacks met with stubborn resistance from the forces of Stirling and Sullivan, but their valor was useless for a large British force pushed along the Jamaica road and got in the rear of the American positions. A portion of the army succeeded in getting back to the Brooklyn intrenchments, but Sullivan and Stirling with about eleven hundred men were captured and several hundred were killed.
The withdrawal from Brooklyn.—Howe, who remembered the disastrous frontal attack at Bunker Hill, decided not to attack the Brooklyn defences until supported by the fleet, which was held back by an adverse wind. His caution saved the American army. Washington saw that Brooklyn was untenable and he secretly planned to evacuate it. A brave show of force was made by bringing over three regiments and by keeping up a fusillade while water craft were being collected. Favored by a subsidence of the storm and by a fog, during the night of the twenty-ninth the entire army was successfully withdrawn.
Harlem.—After the battle of Long Island the British commissioners made overtures to Congress and a committee composed of Franklin, Edward Rutledge, and John Adams went to Staten Island for a conference, but it failed completely. There was nothing to do but to fight it out. That Manhattan Island should have been abandoned immediately after the defeat at Brooklyn Heights has been maintained by strategists, but Congress hesitated to evacuate New York City and Washington does not appear to have insisted upon a withdrawal. As Trevelyan observes, "It is equally difficult to explain satisfactorily why Howe was so long about landing..., and why Washington was so slow in evacuating the city." On September 10 Hancock informed Washington that Congress did not desire to have him hold the city longer than he thought proper. Washington immediately acted. The removal of stores was hastened and most of the troops were withdrawn to Harlem Heights about halfway up the island, but Putnam was left in the city with some infantry and artillery, and five brigades were posted at points along the eastern shore. Not until September 13 did the British begin the movement for the occupation of Manhattan Island. On that day and the next several war vessels moved up into the East River and at eleven o'clock on the morning of the fifteenth British forces landed at Kip's Bay. There the American troops disgraced themselves by slight resistance followed by a confused flight. Howe neglected to follow up his initial success; had he done so he could have cut off the garrison of New York, but his procrastination allowed Putnam's force to rejoin the main army. Not until four in the afternoon did the British commence "a stately progress northward" and not until the next morning did they attack the American position. This time Washington's troops behaved well and the British were checked.
White Plains.—For four weeks the British army remained in front of the American position at Harlem. Howe finally decided upon his plan of campaign; leaving a force to protect New York City, on October 12 he moved his main army to the Westchester Peninsula with the object of getting on the flank and rear of the American army, and cutting off its supplies from the east; war ships were sent up the Hudson to cut off a retreat into New Jersey. After his landing on the peninsula Howe's movements were very slow and it was not until October 25 that he took up a position a few miles south of White Plains, The dilatory movement had given Washington the opportunity of moving his army to the mainland, and when Howe finally arrived near White Plains, he found the American army blocking his advance.
The British commander had just been heavily reinforced and his overwhelming army should have made short work of Washington's Five which advanced for a frontal attack were checked and the defenders only retired when outflanked by the other three. A general engagement did not develop and on October 31 Washington retired to a line of heights somewhat back of his former position.
Northern New Jersey, New York and Its Environs during the Revolution (Based on map in G.O. Trevelyan, The American Revolution, Part II, Vol. I, at end).
The withdrawal from Quebec.—While Washington's army rested at White Plains, heartening news came from the north; and especially good news it was, for during the summer the reports from the Canadian border had been filled with stories of defeat and distress. Congress had made great efforts to reinforce the army before Quebec, but on May 1 when General Thomas arrived to take command, he had found less than two thousand men assembled and half of them were in the hospitals. Within a week the first British reinforcements arrived and Carleton took the offensive. Thomas was forced to fall back to Sorel and the Americans were driven from their camp near Montreal.
The army falls back to Crown Point.—On June 5 General John Sullivan arrived at Sorel with three thousand troops. As Thomas had died of the smallpox Sullivan took command. He determined to attack Three Rivers but the surprise failed and his troops were routed. On June 14 an English fleet carrying Carleton's army came up the river. Sullivan immediately broke up his camp and retired to Crown Point, where for the time being he was out of reach of the enemy, for Carleton's vessels were of too deep draft to navigate the Sorel River. But disease proved to be more dangerous than the British, for smallpox and dysentery carried off the men by hundreds.
Ticonderoga becomes the base.—General Philip Schuyler was in command of the northern department with headquarters at Albany and General Horatio Gates was now in charge at Crown Point. In July Gates withdrew most of the depleted force to Ticonderoga. Large numbers of troops were sent north so that by August the garrison numbered thirty-five hundred. Arnold equipped a fleet of small vessels which he hoped would delay if it would not check the British advance.
Valcour Island.—During the summer Carleton's shipyard at St. Johns was busy building the fleet which would give him control of Lake Champlain. On October 4 Carleton advanced with an army of twelve thousand men. Arnold started with his fleet manned by only five hundred men to harass the advance. He ran into the narrow channel between Valcour Island and the western shore and there on October 11 encountered the light advance craft of the British fleet. For five hours he held his own. During the night he withdrew his shattered boats to an island twelve miles to the south where he attempted to repair the damage. On October 13 when the fog lifted, it disclosed the British fleet. Arnold immediately sent off his best vessels and with his crippled ships stayed to fight. One vessel struck its colors but Arnold ran his flag ship and four gondolas into a creek and burned them. He then hastened to Ticonderoga where he displayed tremendous energy in strengthening the fortifications. The spirited fight on the lake, the strength of the American position, and the lateness of the season convinced Carleton that it was useless to continue the operations. On November 3 he evacuated Crown Point and began the withdrawal to Canada. Washington was thus relieved from the danger of an enemy from the north.
Tactical movements.—Before he was aware of Carleton's withdrawal, Howe had determined to force Washington's army into the open. He sent a force of Hessians to occupy the northern end of Manhattan Island and on November 5 moved his main army to Dobb's Ferry on the Hudson, from which vantage point he could strike at Fort Washington, advance toward Albany, or threaten Philadelphia. Washington's position was endangered and the situation was made doubly precarious by the fact that his army was being depleted by desertions and by the termination of enlistments. To counteract the British movement he sent one corps to Hackensac in New Jersey, and Heath's division was stationed at Peekskill to protect the Hudson. Charles Lee was left at White Plains with about seven thousand men subject to future orders.
Forts Washington and Lee.—The British moved next against Forts Washington and Lee, which, garrisoned by about five thousand men, were under the supervision of General Greene. They ought to have been abandoned, but Washington unfortunately left the decision to his subordinate who believed that they could be held. On November 16 overwhelming forces advanced against Fort Washington which was obliged to surrender. Cornwallis secretly sent six thousand troops across the Hudson and on November 20 advanced against Fort Lee. He all but surprised it and Greene, with the greatest difficulty, succeeded only in saving the garrison.
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