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This Day in History: Washington’s miraculous escape

On this day in 1776, George Washington and his troops make a miraculous escape across the East River and into Manhattan. The British failed to notice until it was too late.

Two days earlier, Americans had suffered a crushing defeat at Brooklyn Heights. That battle had ended with Washington’s army cornered in Brooklyn. (See August 27 history post).

Artillery Retreat from Long Island, 1776

Americans faced a problem: Their only escape route was across the East River, but such an escape was complicated by the presence of hundreds of British warships in the area. If the British saw the Americans escaping, these warships would be upon them very quickly.

On August 29, Washington called a meeting with his generals. Brigadier General Thomas Mifflin, in charge of the Pennsylvania brigade, proposed a retreat across the East River during the night. He also proposed that his brigade take the most dangerous task: It would serve as rear guard. His brigade would be at the greatest risk, because it would be the last to leave.

Washington agreed. He had almost no choice. His army was weakened by the fact that it was split in half: Washington was with the soldiers in Brooklyn, but some of the army was still in Manhattan. The Brooklyn half of the army had little ammunition that had not been ruined by rain. An escape must be attempted, but the decision must be kept absolutely secret. Word simply could not leak out.

At 7 p.m., the troops were told to pack up, but they were told they were preparing for a night attack on the enemy. Many of the soldiers thought the decision was rash, perhaps suicidal. Nevertheless, the least experienced troops, along with the sick and wounded, were soon ordered to the river. It had been raining all day and the current was so swift that the boats couldn’t even attempt a crossing. The first round of troops simply stood there, in the dark, until 11 p.m., when the wind finally died down and the river became somewhat passable.

Throughout the night, the boats went back and forth in incredibly difficult conditions. Little by little, the troops on the lines were told to leave and head to the river. Throughout this time, Mifflin’s brigade, on the outermost defenses, deliberately moved about, tending to campfires and such. They wanted it to appear that the army was still present and operating as normal.

Hours later, the retreat simply was not moving quickly enough. For a little while, it must have seemed that all was lost. Some historians relate a story about a panicked stampede onto the boats toward the end of the night. Reportedly, Washington hoisted a large rock above his head and ordered the men off. He’d “sink [the boat] to hell,” he reportedly threatened, unless the soldiers got off the boat! (They did.)

Other historians doubt the story. Washington worked hard to control his legendary temper. Would he really have lost it in such a setting, with so much at stake?

Either way, no one disputes what happened next.

A heavy fog settled over Brooklyn at daybreak. It was so thick that one soldier later said you “could scarcely discern a man at six yards distance.” Interestingly, there was no fog at all on the Manhattan side of the river. The last of Washington’s men, including Mifflin and his brigade, were finally called to the river. Washington, too, had stayed to the end.

Washington’s army completed its escape to New York at about 7 a.m. The fog lifted shortly thereafter. Nine thousand men had crossed the river, all without arousing suspicion.

The army had gone from crushing defeat to miraculous escape in a matter of days.

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