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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 had been expecting an attack for weeks. The British had been amassing a massive fleet of warships just outside of New York. David McCullough describes the scene facing the Americans by August 12:

“The total British armada now at anchor in a ‘long, thick cluster’ off Staten Island numbered nearly four hundred ships large and small, seventy-three warships, including eight ships of the line, each mounting 50 guns or more….[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 at Gravesend Bay, 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.


Washington announced the landing at Long Island in his general orders to the Americans the next day. He wrote:


“The Enemy have now landed on Long Island, and the hour is fast approaching, on which the Honor and Success of this army, and the safety of our bleeding Country depend. Remember officers and Soldiers, that you are Freemen, fighting for the blessings of Liberty—that slavery will be your portion, and that of your posterity, if you do not acquit yourselves like men . . . every one for himself resolving to conquer, or die, and trusting to the smiles of heaven upon so just a cause, will behave with Bravery and Resolution . . . .”


The British crossing from Staten Island to Long Island was just the beginning of the British effort against the Americans. As you can see, Washington knew a direct attack would come, and it did. On August 27, the British launched an attack on the Americans who had been stationed in Brooklyn Heights.


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