The Siege of Boston (1775–1776) had ended in March, as British forces abandoned the city and departed for Nova Scotia. New York—at this point, denoting only Manhattan Island—was the next target. Both British and Continental soldiers headed south to the next theater of war in April 1776.
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While Thomas Jefferson and the boys sweated out the finer points of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, George Washington surveyed the fortifications in Manhattan and on Long Island in the village of Brooklyn, and King George III’s Navy dispatched numerous ships to blockade and intimidate New York harbor. Before the Declaration was signed, British soldiers landed on Staten Island and set up camp, welcomed by Loyalists. That was July 2, 1776.
In the following weeks, word spread throughout the Long Island countryside: an ever-growing British fleet was amassing in the Harbor. To many Loyalists, this was cause for rejoicing: His Majesty’s Navy would prove it was the best in the world, silence the complaining colonists, and return things to their proper order. But rumor also had it that newly organized American regiments had been ordered to rid the land of Loyalists, so some were on high alert. Dutch residents were preparing for August 24’s Kermesse celebration. And it was almost the end of summer: fields of buckwheat were maturing, and apples and peaches were just beginning to ripen on the trees.
British General William Howe, then stationed on the Eagle in the Harbor, sent a letter to General George Washington, but it returned unopened. Howe sent another letter, and another, but the future “Father of Our Country” rejected them all, feeling deliberately slighted, since none of the letters were addressed to General George Washington.
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August 21, Wednesday
Over 400 ships anchored in the harbor, menacing the Narrows and the Hudson and East Rivers.
For a visual comparison, consider this: Operation Sail (OpSail) 2012 had a total of nine tall ships, and when OpSail paraded its largest fleet of “tall ships” in 2000, there were 120 sailing through the port of New York, a pittance compared to the British blockade in 1776! David McCullough illustrates:
“Nothing like it had ever been seen in New York. Housetops were covered with ‘gazers’; all wharves that offered a view were jammed with people. The total British armada now at anchor in a ‘long, thick cluster’ off Staten Island numbered … seventy-three warships, including eight ships of the line, each mounting 50 guns or more. As British officers happily reminded one another, it was the largest fleet ever seen in American waters. In fact, it was the largest expeditionary force of the eighteenth century, the largest, most powerful force ever sent forth from Britain or any nation.”
Harper’s magazine later dramatized the view with this illustration:
AS I SAT DOWN TO WRITE THIS, I REALIZED much has already been written about this, and most of it brilliantly recounted by Mr. McCullough. I spent days looking for weather and moonphase reports, only to find that McCullough beat me to it:
“On the night of August 21, 1776, a terrifying storm broke over New York, a storm as vicious as any in living memory, and for those who saw omens in such unleashed fury from the elements—those familiar with the writings of the Roman historian Livy, say, or the plays of Shakespeare, of whom there were many—a night so violent seemed filled with portent.
Chroniclers Philip Fithian, Ambrose Serle, and Pastor Ewald Shewkirk called it ‘a storm like a hurricane,’ ‘a most terrible storm,’ ‘the most vehement I ever saw,’ ‘an uncommon … awful scene.’ …
The storm raged for three hours, yet strangely the cloud appeared to stand still, ‘and swing round and round,’ all over the city. ‘The lightning fell in masses and sheets of fire to the earth, and seemed to strike incessantly, and on every side.'”
The residents of Long Island and Manhattan went to sleep that night, some perhaps rattled by thunderclaps and fears of otherworldly retribution. The next day, August 22, would be different, in all sorts of ways.