The History of New York State
Book XI, Chapter II
Part V

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

The meeting of Howe and Franklin developed out of the following train of circumstances. After the battle of Long island, Lord Howe thought the time opportune to approach the Continental Congress, hoping that that body would not now be so absolutely wedded to independence as Washington had shown himself to be. General Sullivan, then a prisoner, was released on parole, to carry a verbal message from Lord Howe to the Congress. Sullivan was asked to tell the Congress that although Lord Howe "could not at present treat with them in that character, yet he (Lord Howe) was very desirous of having a conference with some of the members, whom he would consider as private gentlemen; that he, with his brother, the general, had full power to compromise the dispute between Grate Britain and America, upon terms advantageous to both; that he wish a compact might be settled, at a time when no decisive blow was struck, and neither party could say it was compelled to enter into such agreement; that they were disposed to treat, many things which they had not yet asked, might and ought to be granted; and that if upon conference they found any probable ground for accommodation, the authority of Congress would be afterwards acknowledged to render the treaty complete." #18 Sincerely believing that he was opening a way to honorable peace, General Sullivan carried this message to Congress. He was received with suspicion. Indeed, Congress heard Sullivan, and three days later requested him to return to Lord Howe and say: that "Congress, being the representative of the free and independent states of America, cannot with propriety send any of their members to confer with his lordship in their private characters; but that, ever desirous of establishing peace on reasonable terms, they will send a committee of their body, to know whether he has any authority to treat with persons authorized by Congress, for that purpose, on behalf of America, and what that authority is; and to hear such propositions as he shall think fit to make. . . . . .#19. Congress elected Dr. Franklin, John Adams and Edward Rutledge as their committee, and a few days later these three members met Lord Howe on Staten Island. They "were received with great politeness," but on their return, they summed up their report of the conference by saying: "It did not appear to your committee that his lordship commission contained any other authority than that expressed in the act of parliament; namely, that of granting pardons, with such exceptions as the commissioners shall think proper to make, and of declaring America or any part of it, to be in the King's peace, on submission." The committee was of the opinion that any treaty concluded with such commissioners "would have been too uncertain and precarious to be relied on by America." Ramsay, further reporting the interview, writes: :Lord Howe had ended the conference on his part, by expressing his regard for American, and the extreme pain he would suffer in being obliged to distress those whom he so much regarded. Dr. Franklin thanked him for his regards, and assured him, that the Americans would show their gratitude, by endeavoring to lessen as much as possible, all pains he might feel on their account by exerting their utmost abilities, in taking good care of themselves." #20 Admiral Howe had profound respect for Franklin, and he may have sincerely meant what he said. He seems to have been of humane impulse, despite a haughty awkward demeanor. Admiral Howe was known among the sailors as "Black Jack," and although rough and abrupt of speech, an underlying sympathy could often be observed. Of the two Howes, the admiral was the stronger. He lived on a high moral plane than his brother, General Howe, who seems to have had profligate habits and dissolute associates.

However, the failure of the peace negotiations set the brothers Howe pondering over military plans. The operation before them did not seem formidable; nevertheless, they made no move until after the arrival of the Hessians in August. General De Heister, who commanded the Hessians, was a veteran :scarred by fifty years of battles." He had indeed reached the time of life when inclination would draw him more to his chair than to the field. He "cared much more for his Rhine wine and his pipeful of tobacco than for any monarch's quarrel." He was nevertheless a skillful commander; and in his command were many veterans of European campaigns. The spirit of the Hessians might not have been of the noblest; yet, when excited, they could be terrible adversaries.

The great test was now near at hand. Of the attacking forced, there were about 25,00 effectives. Of the defending army, which at the best could be looked upon as "armed citizens," Washington could not count more then 19,00 effectives. It was a motley force. Washington had under his command in New York men from ten States--all the way from New Hampshire to Virginia. There was a palpable lack of uniformity in arms, dress, discipline, and indeed in manners. The Continental regiments were the only ones that might, by shutting one's eyes to irregularities, be term "regulars." They were mainly New Englanders, re-enlisted during the siege of Boston, to serve during 1776. They numbered 9,000, 25 regiments, two of which consisted of New Yorkers and two of Pennsylvania. Washington's other forty-five regiments or detachments were militia units raised by the State for short emergency service. "In this miscellaneous grouping were clergymen, lawyers, physicians, planters, merchants, farmers, mechanic, tradesmen, laborers--mainly Native Americans, but not all English." There was a sprinkling of Germans, Scots and Irishmen. They were as variously garbed as armed. Washington did recommend, indeed, that all who could should don hunting shirts, for in this way they would seem to the enemy to be better acquainted with firearms than most of them actually were The larger number of the militiamen, however, fought in their civilian clothes, the difference units being recognizable only by difference in color of sashes and cockades of the officers. When the battle of Long Island opened, the American force at Washington's disposal consisted of: 7,300 men from Massachusetts; 9,700 from Connecticut; 4,500 from New York; 1,500 from New Jersey; 3.100 from Pennsylvania; 800 from Delaware; and 900 from Maryland. From this number between 8,000 and 10,000 might be considered as non-combatants because of sickness and other causes.

On August 22d, it became evident that the English objective was Long Island. In anticipation of such a move, Washington had distributed eight-tenths of his strength on the Brooklyn side, the lines of defense on Brooklyn Heights running, approximately, from Wallabout Bay to Gowanus Creek. Felled trees formed as important a part of the defensive works as the twenty-seven old iron guns that were at least expected to make a noise. General Sullivan was in command, and General Stirling was supporting. With the coming of day on the 22d, the British ships of the line moved in towards Gravesend Bay, with ports open and guns run out. Evidently either landing or bombardment was intended. The doubt was soon cleared, for from the transports came ominous signs of martial activity. Drums began to beat, davits to creak. Soon the quiet waters were dotted with boats. Ere long, white tents began to show along the bay. Forty guns were safely landed on the sandy beach. Toward evening, a terrifying electrical storm added to the alarm of the inhabitants. Six American soldiers were struck down. Even the hand of god seemed to be against the colonists.

General Putnam, who was in command of the forces on Manhattan Island, asked to be transferred to the Brooklyn front, when it became clear that Manhattan was not the immediate objective. Washington unfortunately acceded to his request. So Putnam superseded Sullivan, who was sent by Putnam, with General Stirling and 4,000 men, to take up position about two and a half miles in front of the main defenses. They took position in what was then "a low range of wooded hills east of the Brooklyn waterfront."

On the 25th, General De Heister with 4,000 Hessian troops moved over from Staten Island. They came in ostentatious state, "standing in rank on flatboats, firelocks in their hands, bands playing." Howe now had about 20,000 men successfully landed. There seemed, indeed, little chance for the American to stop the advance, and there was more then a possibility that they would be cornered and wiped out. Long Island Tories were rallying to the British flag just as the Long Island farmers had, in 1664, to the first English governor. Loyalist companies were formed by Howe, and Tories wormed in and out among the American detachments, reporting all movements to the English commander. Howe laid his plans with all the finality of a battle already won. He would first dispose of the 4,000 Americans immediately before him, under Sullivan and Stirling. His plan was that General Grant should skirt the shore front and strike the right flank of the American forces, and De Heister, with the Hessians, was to attack the centre after he himself had gone by devious roads past the left flank and taken the Americans in the rear. Thus he would cut off the retreat of Sullivan and Stirling to Brooklyn Heights, and so end the defense of Long island with this one demonstration of his power. General Grant perhaps thought he could have handled the situation alone; he had once boasted in Parliament that with 5,000 men he could march anywhere he wished in North America. So, during the night of August 26, while Putnam sat on the heights holding the main strings of the American defense and knowing so little of the territory that he could not decide which string to pull, the British were moving quietly. Sullivan, somewhat, disgruntled with Putnam, who had superseded him, may perhaps be excused to a temporary slackening of his vigilance; he had entrusted to the watching of passes on his left to some mounted men--irresponsible farmers who were not worthy of trust. Howe had no difficulty in find Tories who would guide him through the passes. His troops marched on silently through the night and morning found them in position where he had wished them to be--in the rear of Sullivan. Swinging to the left, Howe's forces advanced along a line that parallels, approximately, what is now Atlantic Avenue. Soon, their line extended until it reached nearly to where Flatbush Avenue now lies. At this time a signal was given and the Hessians attacked the American centre, the right wing being already in trouble with Grant's soldiers, who had come unobserved through an orchard and opened fire on Stirling's command.

There was now no hope for the American of Sullivan's command. Caught between two fires, dispersal was the only practical way out. By 10 o'clock about 10,000 British and 4.000 Hessians were pursuing a few thousand American who were trying to disappear through the woods and over the hills just outside of the Brooklyn lines. Many escaped. Sullivam however, had gone forward with some troops to reconnoitre, and had tried, when surprised, to regain the Brooklyn camp. He failed, but it was not until noon that the general was captured. Thus Sullivan's army was disposed of completely. Stirling, on the right, was still struggling against Grant. His lines held well, but when Stirling realized that he was likely to be cut off, he retired along the Gowanus road. Cornwallis, however, was already in possession of this road, near the upper end of Gowanus Marsh; so the only way of retreat open to Stirling was across the march at the mouth of the creek. But this seemed suicidal, for it was high water and the ford was difficult at best; moreover, it could hardly be attempted without appalling loss, exposed as they would be to enemy fire. So Stirling resorted to heroic strategy. With a small force he attacked Cornwallis, charging them repeatedly so as to keep them occupied while the main part of his command forded the creek. Then his small detachment retreated as best they could to a nearby cornfield, where most of them were bayonetted or captured. Stirling surrendered his own sword to the Hessian commander, De Heister. His main force, however, escaped, crossing at the ford and taking with them even some prisoners.

The day was still not entirely spent, and the British were eager to storm the Heights. But Howe, remembering his Bunker Hill engagement, thought that haste in attacking the ramparts on Brooklyn Heights would be unwise. Bombardment by the shojis in the roads might accomplish his purpose; or maybe, the works would be surrendered. He would not necessarily add to British casualties--nor indeed to American. He called a halt, thought Vaughan, who as leading the British advance, "stormed with rage at being stopped, and sent word that he could force the lines with inconsiderable loss." So, at 2 o'clock in the afternoon the fighting was over. The British casualties were about 367; the American loss, in killed and wounded, was about 300, and from 700 to 1,000 were captured.

Washington had closely watched the battle. He had been stirred especially by the heroic effort of the young Marylanders, under Stirling. What his feelings were when he saw other British troops going to the assistance of Cornwallis, so hard-pressed by the Marylanders, may be judged by his words, "Great God! What brave fellows I must this day lose!" Washington stood sorely in need of men of the Marylanders' spirit. His perplexities were many, though he tried to put behind him, unsolved, the greatest -- his misgivings as to the fighting qualities of the average militiaman. Brave the undoubtedly were, but would they hold tenaciously t a movement that he might direct? Past experience had shown that they were unreliable; that they could be persuaded but not ordered. When the fighting spirit was in them they could be second to none; when they saw no useful purpose in fight, they had a habit of disappearing. However, Washington followed his first impulse--to defend the Heights. For the purpose, he brought over from Manhattan six new regiments; yet doubts came to him. He was poorer by a few thousand men already, and now he was risking the remainder. However, his preparations convinced the British commander that the Brooklyn Heights could not be taken easily. So Howe laid his plans accordingly. Siege and sap seemed the only course. So there was no more fighting that day. the sun went down, abut throughout the night the sound of pick and shovel came form the British lines. And throughout the night, Washington rode the lines, reconnoitering the enemy positions and encouraging his soldiers to stand firm. All the while he thought that disaster would follow a determined attempt to hold Long Island was taking more positive shape in the general's mind. So, while he continued to show a steady front, Washington quietly gave orders to "impress every kind of watercraft on either side of New York that can be kept afloat and have either oars or sails or can be furnished with them, and have them all on the East River by dark" on the 29th. Fortune favored the struggling Americans. The British developed no further offensives on either the 28th or 29th--precious days of respite, for which the Americans probably thanked God, as , indeed they should have, for it was chiefly to his natural elements that they owed the respite. With the lull in action still continuing, Washington was encouraged to hope that the evacuation of Long island follow such a movement attempted under fire. However, it hardly seemed possible that much more time would be allowed them, for by the morning of the 29th the British sappers had brought Fort Putnam within range of their guns. Another day of sapping would enable the enemy to bring their heavy guns into position to demolish the Brooklyn works. There was another reason for haste. The greater part of 20,000 English and German soldiers flushed by victory, but made miserable by heavy rain that never ceased, were impatient to go on with the fighting and finish the war by "driving the rebels into the bay." In the rear of the Americans was the East River, "wider than now by a thousand feet at its narrowest part." When they were driven out of their Brooklyn fortifications, it was thought, they would be driven either into the river, or forced to surrender.

Possibly the heavy rain that seemed to furnish Washington with the reason for haste has a contrary effect upon the British general. It would discourage the somewhat lackadaisical Howe from attempting manueuvres that could be deferred until the weather was more favorable. Another natural element was as good as an army for Washington. For three days a gale had been blowing from the northeast. This disturbed the calculations of the British admiral the British warships would otherwise have been able to take the Americans in the rear, and have forced the surrender of the Brooklyn heights, or at least have cut off the fortunate wind did not veer to a more favorable position for the British fleet until 11 o'clock on the night of the 29th, two hours after the tide had begun to ebb. How precious were those two hours to Washington! The British admiral must now wait at least until the turn of the tide. Again, the wind, in veering, went to the point of the compass that most favored the crossing; indeed, had the northeast wind continued, the crossing would have been impossible. Earlier that day Washington had quietly called his chief offices together, and at the staff council evacuation had been finally decided upon. So, after dark, craft of every sort had begun to crowds the waters in the vicinity of Fulton Street Ferry, some of the larger vessels being manned by Gloucester and Marblehead fishermen. Admirable secrecy had been maintained. Regimental and company officers had not the least idea that general evacuation was in progress when orders reached them one by one, and troops began to leave the lines, unit by unit, departing quietly and casually, as though merely to take rest while a fresher unit held their post. With such uncertain troops as the colonial citizen soldiery, it was most important that they be kept ignorance of the general plan, otherwise the undisciplined militia might take the withdrawal into their own hands, and so bring the whole movement to confusion and disaster. However, all went well. At the ferry battalion after battalion quietly stepped on the boats and were silently rowed or sailed across the East River. Once during the night the wind changed to the old stormy quarter, and the sailboats were compelled to lie motionless at the ferry; but soon the southeast breeze again blew and evacuation was resumed. Just before dawn a heavy fog settled upon Brooklyn and the East River. Manhattan Island was clearly visible, but the river and Brooklyn were shrouded in fog. By that time, however, Washington had to all intents retrieved the disaster of the 27th. He had accomplished "one of the most masterly withdrawals in the history of warfare." No vital detail of the movement had failed to go as planned. Washington, states an eye-witness, was the last man to step aboard the last boat, and they all reached the Manhattan shore safely. Meanwhile, Captain Montressor, Howe's chief engineer,, had made an early reconnaissance of the Brooklyn works, and had been astonished to find that the supposedly entrapped American army was no longer in danger. Cautiously climbing the ramparts in the gray of early dawn, a few British soldiers had peered over and had seen no sign of life. The imperilled rebels had escaped.

Putnam seems to be the general most blamed for the disaster of the 27th. Sullivan is the scapegoat in some minds. There were some who would place the blame wholly upon Washington. Of course, as the commander-in-chief he was, and was willing to be held responsible; so it was perhaps fortunate hat he had redeemed the day of disaster by such a masterly withdrawal. The cause of the rebelling colonies -- now indeed independent States--was not irretrievably lost. With a listless general before them--and Howe showed himself to be that, by his subsequent action, whether his listlessness arose from military inefficiency or from a desire that still prevailed with his brother to bring peace about by conciliation--the American forces might still be able to reorganize and continue the fight. Two weeks passed before the English forces made a move against Manhattan, and during that time Washington was able to bring the militia units back to stronger morale. At last, he was able to strengthen the spirit of those who had stayed with him. Not all had, it must be confessed. Washington's report shows that the militia were "dismayed, intractable, and eager to return home." He wrote: "Great numbers have gone off, in some instances almost by whole regiments, by half ones and by companies at a time." Once again Washington urged the Continental Congress to take steps to enlist a force on long term--for a period of the war, for in no other way could a dependable army be established. However, in the meantime, he reorganized what troops he had. He formed three grand divisions, under Putnam, Spender (in the absence of Greene) and Heath. Putnam, with the brigade of Parsons, Scott, Clinton, Fellows, and Sullivan, occupied the lines south of Fifteenth Street; Spencer, with the brigades of Nixon, Heard, McDougall, Wadsworth, Douglas and Chester, extended form Fifteenth Street in hell Gate and Harlem; and heath, with Clinton's and Mifflin's commands, was at King's Bridge. Meanwhile, the enemy slowly moved to the site of Astoria, to new town, and along the East River, and seemed to be likely to cross to Westchester County above. From Brooklyn Heights, or from Governor's Island, they might have bombarded the town had Howe wished.

The more one ponders over the inactivity of Howe, the more one is convinced that he desired to spare the colonies and the city as much as possible, feeling sure that peace would come ere long by negotiation. Had his followed up his victory of August 27 by a quick descent upon Manhattan, he might, perhaps, have entirely annihilated Washington's disorganized citizen army, and maybe have ended the war. But his elder brother, Admiral Howe, still pinned his faith to peace by conciliation. The admiral preferred to send another olive branch, this time in the hands of a captured American general, Sullivan. The latter had been so much impressed by the sincerity of the Howes, or so convinced that the cause of the colonies would go from bad to worse by continuance of fighting, that he most eloquently supported the Howes before Congress. John Adams was so incensed that he could not hold back his thoughts. He blurted out that it was a pity that "the first bullet from the enemy had not passed through his (Sullivan's) brain." Adams was one of those rebel leaders who might expect to pay with their heads for the insurrection if it failed; still there can be little doubt that the nation's safety was of major consideration, with the Massachusetts statesman. In fact, Adams accompanied Franklin and Rutledge, as a committee of Congress, to discuss the possibility of peace with Howe. This, however, came to naught, and Washington was instructed to defend New York. Troops came in to replace those who had departed, so Washington again found himself in command of about 20,000 men. He was opposed to the policy of defending New York, and on the 14th was sustained. General Greene had suggested putting the city to the torch, but Congress had forbidden this, arguing that they "had no doubt of being able to recover it, even though the enemy should take possession of it for a time."

Again, the British commanders were to find that their mastery adversary had forestalled them. Washington's forces had begun to remove the public property to Harlem Heights on September 13, and the removal was almost completed by the next day, when the enemy began to show ominous signs of activity. During the night of the 3d a British ship of twenty guns has led the way into the East River followed by thirty boats, and all had anchored in Wallabout Bay. During the next few days seventy-five other boats had slipped by, reaching Bushwick Creek in safety. On the evening of the 14th four British frigates, escorting six transports, came to anchor in Wallabout Bay. Early next morning the five frigates moved up to Turtle Bay, while three other warships sailed up the North river, taking position near Bloomingdale. The main body of Washington's troops was now at Harlem heights, where fortifications had been prepared. But there were still about 4,000 in the city, while other contingents guarded points along the East river, some being concentrated at Kip's (Turtle) Bay, where it appeared that the English would attempt to land inconsiderable force. The landing at this point (foot of Thirty-fourth Street) could hardly be opposed, thought it might be hindered. This, apparently, was Washington's plan. The early movements of the British land and sea forces on the morning of the 15th made it clear to Washington that they hoped to repeat the Long Island operation, but having escaped from one tight corner, Washington did not intend to be again trapped. Still, there can be no doubt that he hoped that his troops would hamper the English more than the operations of the day proved that they did.

The British had little difficulty in landing. The frigates opened fire on the three Continental militia regiments stationed at Kip's Bay, while land forces stepped into barges near Astoria, and at Randall's and Ward's islands. Under cover of the guns of the warships, the eighty-four barges, load with troops in gorgeous uniforms, swung out of the wooded banks of Newtown Creek, and headed toward Thirty-fourth Street. The sight was a memorable one. The water "sparkled with brilliant hues from arms and uniforms." One eye-witness described the scene as "like a large clover field in full bloom." The pageant neared the landing, as the warships increased their fire. the guns of the Americans relied feebly, but by comparison they must have seemed to be merely pop-guns. The militiamen could not stand the barrage, and, as the first boatload of English soldiers, with fixed bayonets, leaped ashore and ran up the bank, the militiamen turned and ran. As one English officer described the eventful hour: the scene was one that could never be forgotten by those who witnessed the operation. He wrote: "The amazing fire from the shipping, the confusion and the dismay of the rebels, the light infantry clambering up the steep and just accessible rocks, the water covered with boats pressed eagerly toward the shore was certainly one of the grandest and most sublime scene ever exhibited." It was a scene that Washington never forgot. His headquarters were in the Morris (later the Jumel ) mansion at 161st, Street, but when the bombardment began he galloped to the spot. Somewhere near where the Grand Central Station now is he met General Putnam. Going on a little way toward the landing, the commander-in-chief encountered the fleeing militiamen. What could he do? Little, indeed--scarcely more than any other one man could do in such a situation. The panic-stricken soldiery could not be rallied by any commander; nothing but an unclimbable wall could stop them. Washington fumed, stormed, cursed them; in his fury he even rode among the,. Striking right and left at them with his cane or with the flat of his sword. Had he possessed a whip, he might have been happier in using it, for it seemed a more fitting weapon to use on such terrified men. They were making for Harlem, and nothing could stop them. "Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?" thundered the furious general, enraged at such cowardice, which doomed American to defeat. He thought that the fleeing Americans might see some protection in the stone walls that bordered the fields through which they ran. "Take to the walls," he cried. "Take to the cornfields." There, they could fin shelter, and still do some damage to the enemy with their flint-locks. But panic had gripped the frightened militiamen and they kept moving faster and faster, taking comfort perhaps in the fact that they were lighter clad than the English soldiers, and that no horseman other than their own general pursued them.

Washington gave up the effort at last. But so painful, so shamed, so despondent was he, so furious that America's hopes of freedom were vanishing faster then these frightened farmers, so bewildered by the hopelessness of his military task that for a moment it seemed as if he would end it all in one desperate dash along into the inferno from which those who should have supported him were fleeing. He dashed on toward Thirty-fourth Street, on towards the enemy. They were not more than eighty yards away when one of his aides overtook him, seized the bridle reins and literally forced him to turn away. How Washington disliked doing what all his men were doing--turning it back to his foe. But his moment of despair, of courageous folly, was gone. He was again in control of himself. There was still work, dangerous work, before him, he realized.

Putnam's troops in the city were imminent danger of being isolated, just as Sullivan's had been on Long Island. Had the English advanced quickly from east to west over the island at Thirty-fourth Street, there would have been no way of escape for Putnam's 4,000 men. An advance across the island was indeed begun by Cornwallis and Vaughan with the main British column, but a halt was made at Park Avenue. The reason may have been a prosaic one; maybe, Howe wished to land the whole of his force before venturing far over the island. But a reason not so prosaic has been hinted. Certainly to tarry in the company of entertaining gentlewomen would have been more enjoyable than a sweltering march over unknown rough country. The story runs as follows: At thirty-sixth Street and Fourth Avenue the Murray house stood; and at the door was the estimable Mrs. Murray beaming upon the invaders. It was an unusually sultry day, moreover a Sunday; and at such a time and place the Sabbath-breakers may have remembered the day. Certainly, the shadow that protected the well-kept lawn was more inviting than a furious march over rough country, hacking, perhaps fighting, their way while the merciless sun poured down upon them its unbearable heat; and to gentlemen who naturally leaned to leisure, there was added enticement in the presence of the Aristocratic Quakeress and her charming daughter. So the General and his staff tarried at Murray Hill, and, having been assured by their estimable hostess that Putnam had already slipped by--which was not an untruth, for he had, though she did not deem it necessary to add that some of his troops were still down-town--they accepted her invitation to regale themselves at her house. "Mrs. Murray," says Thatcher "treated them with cake and wine, and they were induced to tarry two hours or more, Governor Tryon frequently joking her about her American friends."

 

The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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