British forces capture New York; Washington lucky to escape with Continental Army intact

British forces capture New York; Washington lucky to escape with Continental Army intact
The British used flat-bottomed boats in the invasion of New York. Gen George Washington and the Continental Army were able to escape the island intact. (Painting by Robert Cleverley)

NEW YORK (AUGUST 31, 1776) — The first major battle since America officially declared its independence from Great Britain did not go well for the Continental Army, as American troops were driven from New York in headlong flight.

Worse, Gen. George Washington’s conduct in the war has some questioning his strategic ability, as many military experts say that only a series of extremely lucky missteps by the British Army allowed Washington — and the Continental Army with him — to escape the island intact.

The British invasion of New York has long been expected, ever since Gen. William Howe quit the city of Boston following a months-long siege by American forces. Since Howe’s flight, American military leadership has anticipated that Great Britain would order him to capture New York, as Britain has made no secret of its plans to win the war by choking off access to the vitally important Hudson River, which is often referred to as the “backbone” of the Mid-Atlantic colonies.

Gen. Washington prepared for the hammer’s blow by directing Gen. Charles Lee to prepare the city for battle. Lee devised a plan and erected a series of intricate defenses in the city, envisioning a guerrilla fight in which the British would be forced to take New York “street by street,” hopefully suffering tremendous casualties during the course of the battle.

However, when New York’s civilian authority learned of this plan, they balked in horror at the possible devastation that might be done to the city by the British war machine if Lee’s plan were carried out. Due to confusion about the extent of Washington’s authority, Washington felt forced to abandon Lee’s plan in favor of a more traditional defense.

According to sources within the Continental Army, some of Washington’s officers felt hamstrung by Washington’s decision to allow Lee’s defenses to be dismantled. According to one Army officer, who asked to remain anonymous, “We never really stood a chance of holding New York, but with those defenses, we at least had a chance to give the British a bloody nose. Without those defenses? We were sitting ducks out there.”

Indeed, the chances of a traditional defense were doomed when the British  ships, Phoenix and Roseeasily overcame the Continental’s river defenses and took control of the harbor virtually unopposed. This allowed the British fleet, numbering some 130 ships, to land aground a force that was many times over the size of Washington’s.

In retrospect, Washington was doomed to lose the battle of New York before the first shot was fired; however, some claim that mistakes made by Washington put the Continental Army in position to suffer much heavier losses than they otherwise would have done, and almost caused them to be obliterated entirely.

First, some sources within the military criticized Washington’s decision to send home some 900 cavalrymen from Connecticut who arrived to participate in the defense, telling them that they would not be needed. According to one Continental Army officer, who asked not to be identified, Washington’s failure to understand the scouting value of this cavalry force allowed the British to achieve complete surprise and completely flank Gen. Israel Putnam, whom some in Congress have blamed for the Army’s failure in New York.

Some officers, however, have noted that Putnam was flanked because he was totally unaware that the British had landed some 10,000 soldiers on Long Island, who marched unnoticed for miles up roads unoccupied by Americans. According to this officer, “those troops had to have been kicking up an awful lot of dust and making a ton of noise, and some troops on horseback would have really allowed us to at least know they were coming.”

As it was, the main force of the British invading army was able to get completely to the rear of Putnam’s forces before Americans were aware, and the result was predictable: Total carnage, combined with chaos and headlong flight. In the first day of fighting, the Continental Army lost around 1,300 men; almost 15 percent of the entire force on Long Island.

Others criticized Washington’s decision to split his forces in the face of a numerically superior foe, attempting to defend both Manhattan and Long Island, albeit inadequately.

Although many would have taken advantage of Gen. Howe’s curiously slow pace after his initial rout of Putnam’s forces on Long Island to quit the defense of the island entirely, Gen. Washington ignored the advice of many on his staff and actually committed reinforcements to Brooklyn, determined to make a show of defending a by-now indefensible position.

Eventually, however, Washington was faced with the reality that his men on Long Island were completely encircled by the Royal Navy and vastly outnumbered, and after a council with his top generals, ordered an attempt to evacuate the remaining troops from Long Island.

The army ultimately may have been saved by a blustering storm that immobilized the Royal Navy and allowed Washington to assemble a rag-tag team of small craft to evacuate his troops to Manhattan under cover of the storm and an extremely dense fog that limited visibility to mere feet.

Although Washington publicly acknowledged the urgent need to leave New York lest the Continental Army be “cut to pieces,” sources within the Army said that Washington was obsessed with scoring a “Bunker Hill” style victory of his own, and thus prepared to attempt an ill-advised defense of Harlem Heights. According to sources in the army, Washington only abandoned this surely suicidal plan when Gen. Charles Lee arrived in New York and delivered a dire warning concerning the probable fruits of Washington’s proposed plan.

At the very last minute, the Continental Army fled Manhattan, saved by the incredible bravery of Col. John Glover and his Massachusetts soldiers, who fought a desperate action around Pelham Bay to delay the British attack so that the Continentals could achieve a semi-orderly retreat and preserve precious artillery and weaponry, which are already in short supply for the Americans.

Washington was also accused of defying Congress’ orders during his retreat from the city. According to congressional sources, Washington sought permission to destroy the city of New York upon his exit, so as to deny its comforts to British soldiers, but Congress refused to acquiesce. However, according to witnesses, fires that destroyed substantial portions of the city were set by men who were known members of the Continental Army.

For his part, Washington has refused to join in the public condemnation of Putnam, and promises that he will avoid risking the fate of the entire Continental Army in a single skirmish with the British in the future.

Americans hope that the lessons Washington has learned in this battle will serve him well as America settles in for what it looks like might be a long war for independence.

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