THE TWENTY-SEVENTH DAY of August, 1776, was a day of struggle from its first hour.
The narrative brought General Grant into conflict, with the pickets of the American outposts on New York Bay, just about midnight of the twenty-sixth. The picket was commanded by Major Burd, of the Pennsylvania flying camp. This camp, it will be remembered, was established by authority of Congress for the concentration of ten thousand men who were to be placed under instruction, as an ultimate reserve. The exigency hurried many of these regiments to New York before they had in fact been fully organized.
The picket at Red Lion held firmly to their post, supported by a portion of Huntington's Connecticut regiment, and aided by the early presence of General Parsons, who had just before received the appointment as brigadier-general. He was a lawyer, without military antecedents, and had been with the army but a few weeks.
Major Burd was captured during the pressure of General Grant's advance guard upon the picket line. Messengers were dispatched to head-quarters, and at three o'clock General Putnam sent General Lord Stirling to the relief of the picket, with orders "to stop the advance of the enemy." Colonel Atlee, of the Pennsylvania musketeer battalion, was pushed forward to the crest of the hill by which the British must approach, and a portion of three companies uniting with the original advance guard, maintained such vigorous skirmishing just back of Red Lion, as to check the advance of the enemy until quite late in the morning. Nearly midway between the American lines and Red Lion, a well developed ridge extended from the general line of hills across the traveled road, nearly to the shore of the New York Bay. The ground in front, to the south-west, was low and marshy at places, while an orchard occupied the slight upland immediately in front of this ridge, which General Stirling selected as his joint of resistance. In order to check the British advance, and give time for the formation of the troops then rapidly approaching from Brooklyn, Colonel Atlee promptly concentrated his regiment and the retiring picket guard upon the side of the main hills, so as to have a superior position from which to open fire upon the British columns, then preparing to descend from the summit near the pass to the low ground and orchard which they must cross in order to attack Stirling. This movement of Colonel Atlee to high ground which was well wooded and adapted to his design, was made under a fire of grape shot, with the loss, according to his report, of but one man.
It is necessary to state in this connection that the reports of Stir ling, Atlee, and other officers, written on the night of the twenty-seventh, and on the twenty-eighth, while they were prisoners, are necessarily meager in detail, and have value simply for the facts within their immediate personal knowledge. Those facts only are here embodied which are consistent with the record as gathered from additional sources. Statements and omissions are therefore alike to be regarded, in order to make the narrative as full as the facts will war rant, and military orders themselves are to be largely inferred from acts done. Each claims for himself sufficient credit for good conduct, while none assume responsibility for neglect.
Colonel Atlee had barely reached the wooded slope referred to, when General Grant moved the twenty-third, forty-fourth, and a part of the seventeenth British foot to the right, up the hill, overlapping Atlee's command, and having as their evident purpose to flank him first, then to crowd him back upon Stirling, and so flank the entire command. Stirling had already formed his line. It consisted of Smallwood's Maryland battalion, Haslet's Delaware battalion, their colonels being absent as members of court-martial in New York, and a part of Kiechline's rifle battalion, just then coming upon the ground. Captain Carpenter with two pieces of artillery was already in sight, and soon after joined the brigade. Stirling sent Captain Stedman with two Delaware companies to support Colonel Atlee, with orders to take distance still more to the left, and prevent the enemy from gaining higher ground for their flank movement. General Parsons was also placed on the left with so much of Huntington's regiment as was on the ground. Two vigorous attacks were made upon Atlee without success. Both were repulsed with considerable loss, as the character of the ground and the intervening woods gave confidence and efficiency to the American troops. After the second repulse, Colonel Atlee made a quick advance to force a good position which the British held, but was forced back by a heavy fire from a superior force. His Lieutenant-colonel, Caleb Parry, was killed, as well as Lieutenant-colonel Grant, of the fortieth British foot. The British loss in killed and wounded during these attacks was a little over sixty officers and men, including Lieutenant Colonel Monckton of the forty-first, dangerously wounded.
The British centre and left had now formed in two lines for an advance upon Stirling; their left having been relieved from pressure, moved on in a single line as originally deployed. Captain Carpenter's guns were promptly moved nearer the hill-side to command the road, and a spirited action was maintained, at arms' length, for nearly two hours, with considerable loss on both sides, and little advantage to either. The distance to the American lines was much less than three miles, the disparity in force was not sufficient to warrant the sacrifice and risk of assault, and the general plan of the combined British movement, rendered such an attempt unnecessary. It was enough for the British left wing to be able to hold Stirling fast where he was.
The sound of firing had already been heard in the direction of Flatbush. Shortly before eleven o'clock it was heard to the rear of Stirling, and the real issue of the day approached its solution. Stir ling retreated hastily, but in order ; and was soon confronted with fresh columns which were rapidly advancing toward the road which ran from the Upper Mill, to Flatbush. Orders were given for the men to seek their own safety, by crossing the marsh to the Yellow Mill, or otherwise, each for himself. The tide was already coming in, and promptness alone could save any of the command. Atlee and Par sons fell back, along the hill, skirmishing as they retired. The ammunition wagon of Huntington's regiment had joined the detachment, but the increasing volume of fire gave imperative warning no longer to delay retreat. Parsons, with a few men, attempted to cross the Flatbush road and retreat toward Hell Gate. His men scattered and he entered the works in the morning, having escaped through the thick woods. Atlee found himself in danger of capture by a Hessian detachment, and turning to the right surrendered to the forty-second Highland regiment, which was on De Heister's left, and had advanced over Prospect Hill.
General Stirling, with four hundred men of Smallwood's Maryland battalion, faced his new opponent, and made a grasp to control the road which led into South Brooklyn and thereby cover the causeway at the Upper Mill. This would at least have secured a retreat for the other troops. It was too late. Cornwallis had already occupied the Cortelyou house, and held fast to his position with constantly increasing forces. An attempt was then made to force a passage to fort Box, the redoubt at the nearest point on the American lines, but this was foiled by the skillful interposition of a force of grenadiers and two guns.
Finding this avenue of escape closed, and that the army of Grant was fast approaching, Stirling moved rapidly into the woods to the right, up the slope of the hill, only to be confronted by a Hessian column which had crossed over from Prospect Hill. He surrendered to General De Heister in person.
Thus closed the operations of the right wing. It was marked by great courage, pertinacity and presence of mind, and the disposition of Stirling's brigade was such as to meet every requirement, that could be expected of a force hardly exceeding seventeen hundred men.
A single detachment of prisoners had been taken. Lieutenant Ragg and twenty men, of the second regiment of Marines, as designated in General Howe's official report, although not named on the Roster of the army as landed, mistook the well equipped southern troops for Hessians, and fell into their hands as subjects of exchange.
The retreat was a trying one, but without considerable loss, except that of the battle-field and of prisoners. Exaggerated reports were current at that period, as to the number of men drowned, or suffocated, while crossing the head of Gowanus Bay. Many of the men abandoned their arms and equipments and swam the narrow belt of deep water, but no reasonable construction of official or personal in formation will place the number of drowned men at more than seven, and Colonel Haslet mentions only one. The Maryland and Delaware regiments fought like veteran troops, and maintained their reputation on subsequent battle-fields. A loss, in killed, wounded and missing, of two hundred and fifty-nine, tells the whole story; and in the last struggle to force the lines of Earl Cornwallis, the Maryland troops made repeated assaults under a heavy fire, with commendable spirit and coolness.
While General Grant's division was thus actively engaged, the division of General Heister was contented with an active cannonading of the American redoubt and entrenchments, where General Sullivan was really and necessarily in command, before Flatbush.
Generals Howe, Clinton, Percy and Cornwallis, after resting their troops on the Jamaica road near Bedford, still undiscovered by the Americans, began their advance again at half-past eight o'clock in the morning. The light infantry and light dragoons passed beyond Bedford and bore to the left, and south, directly across the Flatbush road. The alarm had been already given. A detachment of the Guards and one grenadier company with three pieces of artillery soon joined them and commenced a spirited attack upon the alarmed troops who were rapidly retiring from Prospect Hill. The Thirty-third foot and another detachment of grenadiers pushed across the Heights under the very fire of the American lines to cut off Stirling's retreat and unite with General Grant. The Second grenadiers, and the detachment of the Seventy-first, followed, in time to defeat Stir ling's last effort to escape. As soon as General Clinton's guns opened fire, De Heister, thus notified that the time had come for his action, ordered Colonel Donop with the Yagers to advance in open order, using only the bayonet, and put his whole command in quick motion to support this impetuous onset. Several light field pieces, charged with grape, were sent in advance to clear the way. The American army was between two fires. Single positions were held for a few moments with obstinacy and gallantry, but in a few moments more, the crushing force of two fronts, enveloped each party in turn, and the whole command broke up into small detachments, seeking personal safety in flight or hiding places.
The British loss, as officially stated, including Hessians and Marines, was five officers killed and twenty-one wounded and missing; fifty-eight non-commissioned officers and men killed, and three hundred and sixteen wounded and missing.
The British return of American prisoners made a total of one thousand and ninety-seven, including sixty-seven wounded officers and men.
Upon this list there are reported Generals Sullivan, Woodhull and Stirling. General Woodhull, with more than two hundred militia, was captured on the twenty-eighth, near Jamaica, as elsewhere stated, but appear on the return referred to.
Upon a muster of the two Pennsylvania rifle battalions, and Colonel Atlee's musketeer battalion, the day after the battle, "after wards carefully compared with the accounts which came by a flag of truce," their total of killed, wounded and missing, added up two hundred and seventy-seven.
Upon a revision of the whole returns it appeared that the casualties of Stirling's brigade were one-half, and those of the Maryland battalion were one-fourth of the aggregate losses of the entire day.
The American casualties, exclusive of the Long Island militia, were, as nearly as can be ascertained, nine hundred and seventy officers and men, and the British casualties foot up just four hundred.
The battle of Long Island had to be fought. If the protracted resistance of Breed's Hill, and the successful defense of Fort Moultrie, created an undue estimate of the capacity of militia and raw troops when covered by breast-works, and thereby engendered a false confidence that the works on Brooklyn Heights could be also held against a well equipped veteran army, it certainly demonstrated that no resistance at all could be kept up, without complete discipline. The defense was doomed to be a failure from the first, independent of the cooperation of a naval force. The sole value of the advance posts and of careful pickets, lay in the assurance of prolonged resistance, and not in a finally successful resistance. The ultimate course of General Howe, that of regular approaches, was inevitable, and the result was almost certain. Washington was wise in his purpose "to make the acquisition as costly as possible to his adversary." He needed time to increase and discipline his army. Occupation and the stimulus of action alone could do this.
The people of the country demanded that New York should be held to the last possible moment.
Jay's proposition to burn and abandon it without a show of resistance was not the way to make the army strong for future endeavor. Its immediate abandonment would have involved the demoralization of the entire army, and would have been in marked contrast with his efforts to restore Boston to herself. The resistance so widened the breach between the parties at issue and made the necessity more pressing for the development of resources equal to the increased gravity of the struggle. General Howe checked his troops, as they acted under the impulse of success, and were ready to assault the American works. In this much criticized delay he was right. A repulse would have been ruin. Washington crossed the river with three regiments after the battle began, so that he could have met an assault with nearly as many men as could have been brought to the attack and thoroughly handled : but with characteristic resting after an exertion, and habitual under-estimate of the sagacity and wakefulness of his adversary, Howe failed to improve his success. His enemy escaped ; other battle-fields were to illustrate the capacity and military genius of the opposing General in chief, and other neglects to improve success were to wrest from his, General Howe's, hands, every substantial benefit which so often fell within their grasp.
NOTE. " The reinforcements that came over during the fore noon, consisted of the Regiments of Douglas, Sage and Selden, constituting Wadsworth's brigade, Charles Webb's of McDougall's brigade, and Scott, with Malcolm and Humphrey's men, or the rest of the brigade." Vol. Ill, Mem. L. I. Hist. Soc., p. 189.
NOTE. The following order, not in Forces' Archives, but in the possession of Benjamin Douglass, Esq., Middletown, Conn., as part of Colonel Wm. Douglass' Order Books, is published in Vol. Ill, Memoirs L. I. Hist. Soc., p. 31, of Original Documents. It indicates the care of Washington to anticipate any alarm in the proposed retreat.
"HEAD QUARTERS, LONG ISLAND, Aug. 2gth, 1776.
"As the sick are an encumbrance to the Army, and Troops are expected this afternoon from the flying camp in Jersey under Genl. Mercer, who is himself arrived, and cover is wanted for the troops, the commanding officers of Regts. are immediately to have such sick removed. They are to take their Arms and Accoutrements and be conducted by an Officer to the Genl. Hospital, as a rendezvous, and there to cross together, under the directions of the Person appointed there, taking general directions from Dr. Morgan. As the above Forces, under Genl. Mercer, are expected this afternoon, the General proposes to relieve a proportionate Number of Regiments, and make a change in the situation of them.
"The commanding officers of Regiments are therefore to parade their men with their Arms, Accoutrements and Knapsacks, at 7 o'clock, at the Head of their Encampments, and there wait for orders."
Some supposed that the troops were thus put under arms, for a possible sally to interrupt work before the lines. A sally would be the natural suggestion of a Post commander, if he had confidence in successful defense. The order cited, as well as that which provided transportation for the whole army, explains Washington's purpose.