General George Washington's assumption, on the evening of the 29th or June, 1776, that the entire British fleet carrying General Sir William Howe's army must have arrived from Halifax, proved to be true. Before the 30th had passed, one hundred and twenty-seven ships of the Royal Navy were floating in New York Harbor. Within a few weeks, the British armada in the harbor would grow to include roughly three hundred vessels, ten of which were ships of the line and twenty were frigates.
The British troops remained on board the ships until the 3rd of July. At that time, 9,300 redcoats were disembarked on Staten Island. On the 12th of July, Admiral Richard Howe (Sir William's brother) arrived with 11,000 additional troops. On August 1, Commodore Parker arrived with nine warships carrying 2,500 troops under the command of Generals Clinton and Cornwallis. By the end of August, Howe's army would number approximately 32,000. That number included 8,000 Hessian (i.e. German) mercenaries.
On the American side, the number of troops was significantly less than the British. Only some 10,500 Patriot troops from the army raised in the siege of Boston made up Washington's army. And not all of those troops were fit for service. On 8 August, the General reported to Congress:
"For the テveral poフs on New York, Long and Governor's Iネands and Paulus Hook we have fit for duty 10,514. Sick preテnt 3039. ナck abテnt 629...
"Our poフs too are much divided, having Waters between many of them, and バme diフant from others many miles. Theテ circumフances ブfficiently diフreピing of themテlves, are much aggravated by the ナckneピ that prevails thro the Army; every day more or leピ are taken down, バ that the proportion of Men that may come in, cannot be conナdered as a real and テrviceable Augmentation in the whole. Theテ things are melancholy, but they are nevertheleピ true."
It might be noted, at this time, that while the American army was encamped at the environs of New York Island, a number of Stockbridge and Mohickan Indians requested to be permitted to join the Patriots. Their requests had been submitted to the Continental Congress. At first, the Continental Congress refused the requests. On Monday, 24 June, the Congress resolved "That a letter be written to the General, deナring him to put a フop to the raiナng of companies of Mohickan and Stockbridge Indians..." On the 2nd of August (during the session in which the delegates to the Continental Congress actually placed their signatures on the "engrossed and compared" copy of the Declaration of Independence), the Congress resolved "That General Waドington be inフructed to employ in the テrvice of the フates, as many of the Stockbridge Indians as he ドall judge proper."
The General therefore instructed Timothy Edwards to "engage in the Service, as great a Number of them as you poピibly can."
General Washington was convinced that the British would make an attack before too much time had passed. From his headquarters on the island of New York, Washington wrote to Brigadier General Hugh Mercer on the 8th of August:
"The Account given you by a deテrter, as brought me by Mr. Tilghman is confirmed by two Sailors who came off the Night before laフ from the Enemy; That Genl. Clinton is arrived with his Army from South Carolina, and that Preparations are makeing for an early and Vigorous Attack. They further add, that laフ Sunday 1000 Heピians landed, part of 12,000, the Remainder being left off the Banks of Newfound Land, that may be expected every Hour. Under theテ Circumフances, and conナdering how much deficient this Army is, from the not filling up the new Levies, and Sickneピ, I muフ deナre you to テnd over one of the Rifle Regiments, as we have not one Corps of that kind on this Iネand. I leave it to you, to fix upon that which you think will come with the moフ Chearfulneピ, and are beフ appointed, but would not have any time loフ. The Quarter Maフer may テt out immediately to prepare for them; from all accounts the grand Attack will be made here, and at Long Iネand."
Despite General Washington's concerns at the beginning of August, the "grand Attack" would not occur before nearly two weeks had passed. On 15 August he wrote to the Congress with information that a great number of boats had been passing and repassing the Narrows, and that it appeared that British General Howe intended to land a part of his forces on Long Island, but that it had not happened thus far. The General, no doubt, was growing more anxious by the minute as the two armies waited and watched each other. In a letter dated 17 August, he wrote to the Congress:
"The circumフances of the two Armies having undergone no material Alteration ナnce I had the honor of writing you laフ, I have nothing particular or Important to communicate reパecting them."
The General did provide for the delegates assembled in Congress an account of an attempt by the Americans to set fire to the British ships in the harbor.
"two of our Fire Veピels attempted laフ night to burn the Enemy's Ships and Tenders up the River...they burnt one Tender, and one of them boarded the Phoenix and was grapled with her for near ten Minutes, but ドe cleared herテlf."
Washington divided his forces into five divisions. Three of the divisions were positioned on Manhattan Island around the city of New York, one was positioned on Long Island at Brooklyn Heights, and the fifth was garrisoned Fort Washington at the northern end of Manhattan Island. The British remained at their encampment on Staten Island.
Finally, on 22 August, the British made their move. Howe began to move his troops from Staten Island across to Gravesend. Four thousand of Howe's troops were ferried across the Narrows that separated Staten Island from the southern tip of Long Island. On Long Island, the British troops met with only a slight bit of opposition. Colonel Edward Hand and two hundred riflemen from Pennsylvania were positioned near Gravesend, but they withdrew as the British advanced. Although they fired only a few shots at the British, Hand's men burned supplies and crops as they retreated.
According to a letter sent by General Washington to the Continental Congress:
"Yeフerday Morning and in the courテ of the preceeding night, a conナderable body of the Enemy, amounting by report to eight or nine thouヂnd, and theテ all Britiド, Landed from the Tranパort Ships mentioned in my laフ, at Graveテnd Bay on Long Iネand, and have approached within three miles of our Lines, having marched acroピ the Low, cleared Grounds, near the Woods at Flat Buド where they halted, from my laフ Intelligence.
"I have detached from hence, Six Battalions, as a reinforcement to our Troops there, which are all I can パare at this Time, not knowing but the fleet may move up with the remainder of their Army and make an Attack here on the next flood Tide. If they do not, I ドall テnd a further reinforcement ドould it be neceピary, and have ordered five Battalions more to be in readineピ for that purpoテ. I have no doubt but a little Time will produce バme Important events.
A long ridge running east to west, the Heights of Guan, divided Long Island. Four gaps in that ridge provided passage from the southern end, where Howe痴 troops had landed. To throw off the Americans, Howe initially led his troops toward the Flatbush and Bedford Passes, but his plan was to divide his troops and take the majority through Jamaica Pass. The British established a camp near the village of Flatbush, about four miles from the point of landing. According to a Hessian officer, they slept quietly all night despite the fact that they believed the Americans "might have made it very naフy for us."
In order for the main body of the British troops to safely cover the distance to gain access to the Brooklyn Heights through the Jamaica Pass, Howe's plan called for engaging the Patriots at the Flatbush and Bedford Passes with a steady but restrained fire. It was hoped by Howe that the Americans would misinterpret his restraint, and become overly confident. John Sullivan, in command of the troops stationed at the Brooklyn Heights, believed Howe痴 ruse. As a result, Sullivan directed most of the Patriots into position to the north of the Flatbush and Bedford Passes. Through the morning of the 23rd, the Patriots engaged the redcoats in a series of minor, but sharp skirmishing.
The Hessian officer would write of the skirmishing:
"The rebels approached twice, fired howitzers and uテd grape and ball... The rebels have バme very good markノen, but バme of them have wretched guns, and moフ of them ドoot crooked. But they are clever at hunters' wiles. They climb trees, they crawl forward on their bellies for one hundred and fifty paces, ドoot, and go quickly back again. They make themテlves ドelters of boughs, &c. But today they are much put out by our green-coats, for we don't let our fellows fire unleピ they can get good aim at a man, バ that they dare not undertake anything more againフ us."
For a time it appeared that the Americans might thwart Howe's plans. Hand's Pennsylvanian riflemen forced the Hessians, under Colonel Carl von Donop, to retreat from their outpost near the Bedford Pass. But the Hessians rallied and the Americans retreated in turn.
Washington traveled over to Long Island on the 23rd to observe the situation. He disagreed with the way that Sullivan was handling the Patriot forces; and although he had no proof, he had the feeling that the British were planning a two-pronged attack. The General expected one attack against Brooklyn Heights and the other attack to be aimed directly at Manhattan Island. For that reason, he did not want to send too many of the Patriot troops across to Long Island. On the 24th, Major General Israel Putnam was sent over to replace Sullivan as general commander of the forces on Long Island. Sullivan was to serve as his second in command. Also sent to reinforce the American lines on Long Island were the troops under Major General William Alexander, the self-proclaimed "Lord" Stirling. The Patriot force on Long Island now numbered roughly 5,800.
As reports of the British numbers made their way to Washington's headquarters, and as the movements of the British indicated that they intended to make the defences around Brooklyn their primary target, it became clear to him that he would need to increase his reinforcements on Long Island. On the 26th of August he directed more of the troops, then on Manhattan Island, across the river. The additional men brought the Patriot force defending the Brooklyn Heights to 9,000 men. General Putnam established two lines of defence. 5,000 men were positioned along a line of breastworks that stretched from Wallabout Bay to the Gawanus Bay for the purpose of shielding the village of Brooklyn from the east. Putnam, himself, commanded that force. A second, outer line was established along the northwest edge of the Heights of Guan at the various mountain passes. About 1,600 men under the command of "Lord" Stirling were positioned at the gap through which the Gowanus Road traveled north toward Brooklyn. About a thousand Patriots were positioned on the northwest of the Flatbush Pass, covering the Flatbush and Bedford Roads, and were commanded by Sullivan. The American left was primarily made up of Colonel Samuel Miles' Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment.
General Washington may have felt a little better with the increase of troops on Long Island, but he had another thing to worry about. Over the 24th and 25th it rained. The General issued a General Order on the 26th:
"The General is very anxious for the フate of the arms and ammunition, the frequent Rains giving to much reaバn to fear they may ブffer; He therefore earneフly enjoins officers and men to be particularly attentive to it and have them in the beフ order."
British General James Grant, early on the 26th, edged a force of some 5,000 redcoats toward the Patriots led by Stirling. During that afternoon, two brigades of Hessians and the 42nd Highlanders, under the command of General Philip von Heister moved into position at the Flatbush Pass. Those actions were intended to keep the Patriots busy while the main body of the British army moved through the one mountain pass unguarded by the Americans.
The Jamaica Pass, the easternmost of the mountain passes, was left unguarded, save for five men; and it was through that gap in the mountain that General Howe led the main body of the British army during the night of 26 August.
At about 1:00 am on 27 August, 1776 a volley of gunfire broke the night stillness as the British troops under Grant fired on sentries stationed near the Red Lion Inn along the Gowanus Road. The main body of Stirling's men were sleeping when the firing began. They were roused from their slumbers and hurriedly formed into ranks. One of those men wrote of the experience:
"About ブnriテ... we came up with a very large body of them. The Delaware and Maryland battalions made one party. Colonel Atlee with his battalion a little before us had taken poフ in an orchard and behind a barn; and on the approach of the enemy he gave them a very テvere fire, which he bravely kept up for a conナderable time, until they were near ブrrounding him, when he retreated to the woods.
"The enemy then advanced to us, upon which Lord Stirling drew us up in a line and offered them battle in the true Engliド taフe. The Britiド army then advanced within about three hundred yards of us and began a very heavy fire from their cannon and mortars, for both the balls and ドells flew very faフ, now and then taking off a head. Our men フood it amazingly well ... Our orders were not to fire until the enemy came within fifty yards of us; but when they perceived we フood their fire バ cooly and reバlutely they declined coming any nearer, although treble our number."
Colonel Samuel J. Atlee, mentioned in the above, gave his own account of the battle. Atlee was the commander of the Pennsylvania Musketry Battalion, a part of Colonel Samuel Mile's Rifle Regiment. He submitted this account of the portion of the battle in which he took part to the Pennsylvania Executive Council on 16 November, 1779.
"This morning before day, the Camp was alarmed by an attack upon the Pickett, フationed upon the lower Road leading to the Narrows, commanded by Major Burd of the Pennペlv'a flying Camp. About day light a part of Lord Sterling's Brigade, to wit: Col. Smallwood's, Col. Haネett's, part of Lutz's & Kirhline's Flying Camp, and part of mine, in the whole about 2,300 men, under the Command of Maj. Gen. Sullivan and the Brigadiers, Lord Sterling and Parバns, march'd to ブpport the Pickett attacked by the enemy. About 1/2 after テven the enemy were diツovered advancing, about 2-1/2 miles from the lines at Brookline, in order - their field Artillery in front. This proved the left wing of the Britiド Army, the 4th & 6th Brigades, compoテd of the following Regiments: the 17th, 23d, 40th, 42d, 44th, 46th, 55th, 57th and 64th under the Command of Major General Grant.
"I then rec'd orders from L'd Sterling, with that part of my Battalion in the Field, to advance and oppoテ the Enemy's paピing a moraピ at the Foot, a fine riナng Ground upon which they were drawing up, and give him time to form the Brigades upon the Heights. This order I immediately obeyed, expoテd without any kind of Cover to the Enemy's Fire of Artillery charged with Grape. We ブフained their Fire untill the Brigade was form'd. I then filed off to the Left and took poフ on a fine woody eminence on the left of the Brigade.
"My troops juフ poフed, when I received a Reinforcement of 2 Companies from the Delawares, with orders to file off further to the Left, and prevent, if poピible, a large detachment of the enemy from turning the Left of the Brigade. Upon filing off to the Left, according to the orders rec'd, I eパied, at the Diフance of about 300 yards, a Hill of Clear Ground, a proper ナtuation to oppoテ the Regiments endeavoring to flank us; which hill, I determined, if poピible, to gain before them, judging they were likewiテ making for it. On marching up the Hill, and within about 50 yards of the ブmmit, we unexpectedly rec'd a heavy Fire from the Enemy taken poフ there before me, notwithフanding the forced march I made. Upon receiving the heavy Fire, my detachment, under a continued and exceeding warm Fire of the Enemy, formed in order.
"The 2 companies of the Delaware Reg't, excepting the Lieuts. Stewart & Harney, with about 16 privates, broke, and had nearly drawn after them the whole of my detachment. This cauテd a moment's Halt, but the Officers & men recovering from the ブrprize at receiving バ rough & unexpected a ヂlutation, upon receiving my orders to advance, immediately obeyed, with ブch Reバlution that the Enemy, after a テvere Conflict of a few minutes, left me maフer of the Hill, leaving behind them a Lieut. and ナx privates wounded, and fourteen privates killed. My troops, fluド'd with this advantage, were for puドing after the flying Enemy, but perceiving at about 60 yards from the Hill we had juフ gain'd, acroピ a Hollow way, a Stone Fence lined with wood, from behind which we might be greatly annoyed, I ordered not to advance but maintain the poピeピion of the Hill, (which anヘered at thie Time every neceピary purpoテ.) The order was immediately obeyed, when we found by a heavy Fire from the Fence that it was lined as I expected. The Fire was as briヌly returned by my brave Soldiers. The Enemy finding it too hott and our fire too well directed, retreated to and joined the Right of this wing of their army. In this テvere conflict I loフ my worthy Friend and Lt. Col. Parry, whom, in the midフ of the action and immediately after he fell, I ordered to be bourn by four Soldiers off the Field into the Lines at Brook Line. The Enemies ナtuation here was バ advantageous that had they been markノen, and directed their Fire with judgement, they might have cut off the greateフ part of my detachment, I having left, for the テcurity of my Right Flank and to protect my Rear in caテ of Retreat, a Company in a Wood upon my Right. After this firフ Attack which continued in the whole for about 15 minutes, we brought from the field ブch of their wounded whom I judged might be aピiフed, and about 25 フand of Arms. The wounded I placed in my Rear under the Shade of バme Buドes, it being intencely hott; the arms I diフributed to ブch of my バldiers as were the moフ indifferently arm'd, and the wounded Lieut. taken at our firフ gaining of the Hill I テnt to L'd Sterling by a Drum & Fife. He died on the way. After placing the proper Guards, I ordered my fatigued バldiers to reフ themテlves. We continued in this ナtuation about 20 minutes, when the Enemy was diツover'd marching down to make a テcond attempt for the Hill. Both officers and バldiers immediately flew to arms, and with remarkable coolneピ and reバlution ブフained and returned their Fire for about 10 minutes, when the Enemy were obliged once more to a precipitate flight, leaving behing them, Killed, Lt. Col. Grant, a number of Privates, and great many wounded. These wounded not mortally, I likewiテ removed into my rear; one I テnt to L'd Sterling that had rec'd a wound in the leg. I テnt my Adjutant to his Lordドip, with an acc't of my ブcceピive advantages, to know his lordドip's further orders and to requeフ a Re-inforcement. My Adjutant returned with 2 Companies of Riflemen of the flying Camp, who remain'd with me a few minutes, being バon order'd to rejoin their Corps. Very luckily, after this テcond engagement, an ammunition Cart belonging to Col. Huntington's Reg't arrived at my poフ, of which we フood in great need, having entirely exhauフed our ammunition and fired many rounds from that taken from the Enemy every time we had the good fortune to beat them off the Field. The officers were extremely alert, and from the ammunition バ opportunely arrived, バon ブpplied their men with ブfficient Stock to ブフain another attack, ドould the Enemy think proper to make it. They did not ブffer us to wait long. In about half an Hour we were alarm'd of their appearance the third Time.
"The eagerneピ of the Officers and Soldiers to receive them deテrves me warmeフ acknowledgements and thoテ of their Country. They were received as uブal, and as uブal Fled after a warm conflict of about 10 or 12 minutes. I now determined to purブe by obテrved a Reg't which proved to be the 22d or Royal Highlanders coming down to ブフain the Royal Runners who were the 23d and 44th. I halted, prepared to receive them likewiテ, but the drubbing their Friends had バ repeatedly received, I believe, prevented them, and they テemed ヂtiデyed with protecting the refugees and conducting ブch as were able to the army.
"Major Burd, who was taken at the attack of the Pickett on the Right, and was at Gen'l Grant's Quarters during the above テveral attacks, informed me after each great number of Officers and Soldiers came in wounded.
"I fully expected, as did my Officers, that the フrength of the British Army was advancing in this Quarter with intention to have taken this Rout to our Lines, but how greatly were we deceived when intellingence was received that the Center, composテd of the Heピians and the Right wing, were rapidly advancing to our Rear, and that we were nearly ブrrounded.
"This we were バon convinced of by an exceeding heavy Fire about a mile in our Rear, no Troops being in that Quarter to oppoテ the march of this Grand Body of the Britiド Army but Col. Miles, 2 Battalions of Rifle men, Col. Willis's Reg't of Connecticut, and a part of Lutz's Battalion of Penn'a Flying Camp.
"I once more テnt my Adjutant to Lord Sterling to acquaint him with my laフ ブcceピ and for further orders, but receiving no anヘer and after waiting for the Enemy more than half an hour, they not approaching in Front, thoテ in the Rear drawing very near, I judged it moフ prudent to join the Brigade, where I migth be of more テrvice than in my preテnt ナtuation. I therefore ordered a march, leaving the Field, Killed, Lt. Col. Grant and upward of ナxty men and great number wounded, beナde thoテ taken at Sundry times into my Rear. The World may judge my ブrpriテ when coming to the Ground where our Brigade had been drawn up, to find they had gone off without my receiving the leaフ intelligence of the Retreat or orders what to do.
"I cou'd, I doubt not, with conナderable loピ, have made my retreat, but perceiving at a diフance , near the water, the Rear of our Troops and at the ヂme time a Body of the Enemy advancing toward them, who proved to be the Britiド Grenadiers, commanded by Col. Monckton, theテ were attacked by a few brave fellows. Not able to prevent them I ordered my Fatigued party once more to advance and take poピeピion of a poフ and Rail Fence, at the Foot of a riナng Ground over which the Grenadiers were moving with great rapidity. The Timely aピitance brought theテ few brave fellows by a party this day, often try'd and as often victorious, encouraged thoテ already engaged and obliged the Grenadiers to quit the ground they had gain'd and retire to a fence lined with wood. Here we kept up a Cloテ and conフant Fire for upwards of a Quarter of an Hour, untill the Brigade had retreated our of our Sight. Our ammunition now again entirely パent and our Retreat after the Brigade effectually cut off, I was then obliged to file off to the Right with what men I cou'd collect and endeavor to find a way out in that Quarter.
"After various Struggles, running thro' the Fire of many of the Enemy's detachments, and nearly fatigued to death, not having eat or drank ナnce the day before about 4 O'Clock in the afternoon, no alternative preテnting, I was oblliged to ブrrender to the 71st Highlanders, having with me about 40, officers included. About 5 O'Clock arrived at Gen'l Howe's Quarters, receiving as we paピed thro' the right wing of the Britiド Army. The moフ opprobrious and ツurrulous Language."
While the Right Wing was engaged with Grant's attacks, retreats and counterattacks, the Center was under a constant, but largely ineffectual bombardment by the Hessian artillery. And also, in the meantime, as described by Colonel Atlee, the main body of the British Army had made their way through the Jamaica Pass and were closing in on the Patriots from their rear.