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This Day in History: Battle of Long Island

On this day in 1776, the British launch a devastating attack on American troops stationed outside Brooklyn Heights.

The British had been amassing a huge fleet of warships just outside New York, where the Americans were then stationed. On August 22, they began their invasion of Long Island. They landed on a beach just south of Brooklyn. (See August 22 history post).

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

The Americans were a bit of a disordered mess. George Washington thought perhaps the landing on Long Island was a feint and the real attack would occur somewhere else. 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 the 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 Americans 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! The 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.

Stay tuned for part three (the final part) on August 29.

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