The Battle of Long Island in 1776, and the events and battles that took place in Brooklyn, marked the invasion and eventual occupation of New York City by the British. However, it was at this site that General George Washington pulled off one of the most successful surprise retreats in U.S. military history. After the British invasion of Long Island on August 22, 1776, General George Washington and his Continental generals found that their defenses would not hold the British attack for long. The sheer manpower and warfare technology (i.e. bayonets and a massive fleet in the harbor) of the British army overpowered the Americans, and the army was driven back into Brooklyn Heights.
On the evening of August 29, Washington knew that retreat was the only way to keep his approximately 9,000 soldiers alive and free from capture. In what has become one of military history’s most ambitious transactions, George Washington successfully evacuated all of his troops to safety via ferries from the Brooklyn Ferry Landing. A historical marker recounting this famous retreat is located on the waterfront at the Fulton Ferry Landing. It was erected in 1929 by the Brooklyn Bridge Plaza Association.
The Invasion of Long Island
Before the Declaration
of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, the British suffered a major defeat
in Boston, and on March 17 of that year, the British army withdrew from Boston
and sailed north to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
George Washington took no time for celebration, and immediately began
dispatching troops southward to New York City, as the area was considered a strategic
port for British ships and soldiers. By early July, more than 130 British ships
were moored off Staten Island, under the command of British Admiral Richard
Howe. Throughout the rest of July and early August, negotiations and very small
skirmishes were common, while the British fleet grew to over 400 ships. By
August 12, nearly 32,000 British troops, including 8,000 Hessians, were camping
on Staten Island.
The invasion of Long
Island and Brooklyn began on August 22, 1776, with 4,000 British troops led by
Generals Cornwallis and Henry Clinton landing on Long Island. By noon of that
day, another 15,000 troops joined the first regiment. Washington had not
fully prepared for such a grand invasion. In fear of a feint invasion in
Brooklyn to guise a larger one in Manhattan, Washington dispersed his men
to defend both areas. The total number of Continental troops on Long
Island was 6,000 on the day of the invasion. Some fighting did occur, though no
significant battles erupted.
A few days later, on
August 26, the British troops wreaked havoc against the Continental defenses.
The American soldiers, who fought with slow-loading muskets, were soon overrun
by the bayonet-carrying British soldiers. The surviving American troops, who
were flanked from the east and the south, were driven into the fortifications
at Brooklyn Heights, and the British prepared for a siege.
British didn’t want to make the same mistakes they had made in Boston, and
instead of attacking the American defenses at Brooklyn Heights outright,
Admiral Howe decided upon a methodical siege that involved the digging of zigzag
trenches to reach the fort walls. This tactic would eventually give Washington
the ability to safely evacuate more than 9,000 men.
The Ferry Crossing
As the British dug
trenches and slowly moved ever closer to the fortifications at Brooklyn
Heights, George Washington held an emergency meeting with his war council to
discuss the possibility of a retreat to New York. The need for a quick decision
was pressed by the fear that British ships would sail up the East River
and cut off any further possibility of retreat. Thus, on the evening of August 29,
Washington decided to retreat more than 9,000 troops with all their equipment
across the mile-wide, fast-moving East River.
Around 9:00 p.m. that
night, the sick and wounded were moved toward the Brooklyn Ferry for
evacuation, and an hour later, troops on the lines strategically retired so as not
to arouse any suspicion. Working the ferry were Colonel John Glover and his
regiment of troops from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who were mostly fishermen
and sailors renowned for their seamanship. Wagon wheels were
muffled, and the marching men were forbidden to speak. Thus, under cover of
night and silence, and with the guidance of Washington at the port, Glover and
his ferries began evacuating the soldiers.
continued in such a matter all through the night and into the following
morning, and to Washington’s relief, daybreak on August 30 was accompanied by a
heavy fog, further concealing the retreat. George Washington was the last man
to step onto a boat from Brooklyn, and by 7:00 a.m. the next morning, less than
12 hours after the orders for retreat, Washington and the last American troops
landed safely in New York. All 9,000 men successfully retreated without a
single loss of life.
Colonel Glover and the
Marblehead, Massachusetts, troops received such great praise for successfully
ferrying the army that Washington would later call them to his service again on
Christmas Day, 1776, when Washington famously crossed the Delaware to a
monumental victory in Trenton, New Jersey.1
Inscription on the Historic Marker
This tablet marks the
Brookland Ferry Landing from which point the American Army embarked during the
night of August 29th, 1776, under the direction of General George Washington
ably assisted by Colonel John Glover of Marblehead, Massachusetts.
Adjacent markers also
feature the inscriptions:
On March 17, 1776, the
British Army evacuated Boston and prepared to launch an assault on New York. By
August 22, 1776, the British had assembled 200 vessels carrying 30,000 soldiers
to attack New York.
The Battle of Long
Island began on August 27, 1776. Surrounded and outnumbered, the American Army
retreated to their fortifications protecting the Village of Brooklyn and the
“It is a matter of the
utmost importance to prevent the enemy from taking possession of the City of
New York and the North River, as they will thereby command the country.” ,~George Washington, January 8, 1776
“The fate of unborn
millions will now depend on the courage and conduct of this army. We have,
therefore, to resolve to conquer of die.” ~George Washington, July 22, 1776
and soldiers, that you are Freemen fighting for the blessings of liberty.” ~George
Washington, August 23, 17762