This Day in History: The British attack on Long Island

On this day in 1776, the British began an effort against General George Washington’s troops, then stationed in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The effort would ultimately result in the seizure of New York by British troops.

Americans knew an attack was coming. How could they expect anything else? A massive fleet of warships had been gathering outside New York for days.

“The total British armada now at anchor in a ‘long, thick cluster’ off Staten Island,” historian David McCullough describes, “numbered nearly four hundred ships large and small, seventy-three warships….[I]t was the largest fleet ever seen in American waters. In fact, it was the largest expeditionary force of the eighteenth century, the largest, most powerful force ever sent forth from Britain or any nation.”

On the night of August 21, a violent thunderstorm struck the city, setting houses on fire and killing soldiers. When morning dawned, the British began an orderly invasion of Long Island. Thousands of troops landed on a beach south of Brooklyn. By noon, 15,000 British troops had landed.

Unfortunately, Washington received erroneous reports about the size of the invasion; he thought far fewer troops had come ashore. Thus, he thought it was a trick, and he sent only 1,500 additional reinforcements to Long Island. He was sure that another, bigger strike must be coming ashore from a different direction.

The British troops stayed where they were for days. By August 26, about 20,000 British and Hessian troops had landed. On the other side, the Americans had 3,000 soldiers stationed to hold a four-mile ridge outside Brooklyn, along with another 6,000 in Brooklyn itself.

They were a bit of a disordered mess. George Washington still thought the landing was a feint. He shuffled his troops, and he changed the commanding officer in Brooklyn. Many of the soldiers were sick. Others were not taking their duties seriously, despite the impending attack, and strayed far from their stations.

On the night of August 26, the British made their move, under cover of darkness. They left their tents standing and the campfires burning so Americans would not notice anything amiss. By morning, the British were poised to make their attack. They had marched 9 miles in pitch dark and total silence.

Meanwhile, a smaller portion of the British army had attacked the Americans in the wee hours of the morning. It was merely a distraction, but the American soldiers did not know this. For a few hours, they believed they were holding their own. Unfortunately, at 9 a.m., the full force of the British army came at them from a completely different direction. Perhaps worse, the Hessian troops began their attack from a third direction. Americans were in a very bad situation, to say the least. Many fought back gallantly, but in the end, there was nothing to do but retreat.

Washington was in Manhattan, but when he received word that his troops were under attack, he crossed over to Brooklyn. There wasn’t much he could do. By noon, the battle was over. Most Americans had retreated into Brooklyn. British General Howe had ordered his troops not to follow them.

By the end of the day, Washington and his troops were cornered in Brooklyn in an area about three miles around. To their rear was the East River. It had been a crushing defeat—but a miraculous escape was coming.

Naturally, the story continues on August 29.