About Diane Dias De Fazio

MSLIS, MS HP Architecture | Art | Special Collections (mostly) Historian | Photographer | Librarian & Archivist

July 12, 1776

Detail, Phoenix and Rose near Long Island (map)

A brisk southwesterly wind came in that Friday afternoon, making conditions ideal for sailing, and perfect for demonstrating the force and speed of the British naval machine. The Americans may have symbolically toppled a statue of George III on July 9, but His Majesty’s Navy would not go down as quietly.

Around three o’clock in the afternoon, HMS Phoenix and Rose – carrying a combined total of 82 cannons – cast off from the Narrows at Staten Island and headed for Manhattan under full sail, taking advantage of the flood tide.

In a matter of minutes, alarm bells rang out in New York. The city’s nineteen-year-old artillery captain, Alexander Hamilton, ordered his men to fire as the ships cruised past Fort George. The warships returned fire, and sent cannonballs soaring down dirt roads and piercing through wood buildings near the Battery.

Within three hours, Phoenix and Rose were miles upriver, past Fort Washington [present-day Fort Tryon Park]. Staying all the while close to the New Jersey side of the North [Hudson] River, the ships evaded American cannons, and by sunset, had dropped anchor safely near Tarrytown, their crews out on a mission to “rouse local Loyalists.” The smoke lifted in lower Manhattan, people peered out of their houses and returned to the streets, and then the uneasy quietude was pierced once more.

Witnesses later wrote that, as evening fell, all eyes again turned to the water. Cannons fired: following a dramatic afternoon, there was one last surprise.

Lit by the setting sun, His Majesty’s flagship, the Eagle, sailed into New York Bay, bearing the flag of St. George. The cannon fire was the Royal Navy salute, and it meant that Admiral Lord Howe, commander of the British fleet, had finally arrived.

Image: Detail, Phoenix and Rose near Long Island. From A plan of New York Island… by William Faden (1750?-1856), engraver.

Issued Oct. 19, 1776 (fifth state, hand-colored). The Emmet Collection, Image ID: 433997. NYPL Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, call no. Map Div. 01-473 [Filed with N.Y.S. Revol. Maps, Long Island].


Below are a few plaques that commemorate the events and honor the soldiers of the Battle of Long Island.

Years later, the hill at Green-Wood Cemetery’s Battle Pass was rechristened the “Altar to Liberty” honoring “our first national heroes” :


(2014. photo by author.)

The Delaware Regiment was recognized in this plaque near Fourth Avenue:


(2014. photo by author.)

And the Brooklyn Savings Institution placed this tribute on its exterior wall:


(2014. photo by author)

August 30, 1776


ALEXANDER GRAYDON WOULD LATER WRITE that the night’s retreat to Manhattan


(nycupanddown.com, image in public domain)

would always remind him of Shakespeare’s Henry V and the scene before the Battle of Agincourt.

To him, waiting on the Brooklyn waterfront that night was no less a dramatic moment: “arrayed in appropriate gloom, [with] a similar interval of dread suspense and awful expectation.”

2:00 AM

An unexplained cannon blast pierced the nighttime pall, stirring the retreating masses and spreading anxiety.

A short time thereafter, with only a few hours remaining before daylight, misunderstanding nearly unraveled the entire operation. A young Major, Alexander Scammel, ordered General Mifflin (whose Pennsylvania regiment held the line as rear guard) to move out. It didn’t make any sense, but Mifflin and his men packed up and headed toward the ferries.

Though visibility that night was minimal at best (remember, there was no light pollution then), one of Mifflin’s generals, Edward Hand, recalled running into an irate Washington,


(National Archives and Records Administration)

patrolling the road himself, who exclaimed, “Good God!”—he seems to have been fond of that exclamation—”General Mifflin, I am afraid you have ruined us!” After a brief chiding, Mifflin muttered something about just following orders, and he and his men returned to their posts immediately.

Hand noted that his regiment “had the good fortune to recover [their] stations and keep them for some hours longer, without the enemy perceiving what was going forward.”

Back at the ferry slip, hundreds waited for their turn to make the crossing. In the years that followed, one Connecticut soldier recalled that his boat alone made eleven trips across the mile-long expanse that night.

6:00 AM



Neither the East River nor the Delaware crossing looked like Emanuel Leutze’s painting, though. (photo by author, 2014)

As time ran out in the minutes before dawn, much of the Continental Army literally stood between escape and exposure: hundreds of men were standing in plain view, waiting to depart. Obviously, scores of American soldiers, hastily shuffling onto a numerous boats would do more than raise a few eyebrows. If every last man wasn’t evacuated by sunrise, there could be certain annihilation, and the revolution would be over.

And then … it happened: miraculously, the weather changed in favor of the Americans, again. From that moment on, some would say that the hand of God himself had intervened, as an unexpected, dense fog crept in and settled over Brooklyn. It was just what they needed to complete the retreat.

Finally, Mifflin’s rear guard—summoned in earnest this time—and the troops at Fort Stirling made the last transit to Manhattan. Around eight o’clock, Graydon looked back and noted, “the fog having dispersed, the enemy was visible on the shore we had left [behind].”

The British reaction? As Major Stephen Kemble recorded in his diary:

Friday, August 30th. In the morning, to our great astonishment, found they had evacuated all their works at Brookland … with not a shot being fired at them … neither could our shipping get up for want of wind, and the whole escaped … to New York.

It took less than twelve hours, but 9,000 troops made it across the river, and no lives were lost en route. All told, 300 Continental and 64 British soldiers died in the skirmishes at Gowanus, Flatbush, and Brooklyn; estimates of the wounded, missing, and captured varied on both sides. The fight for a new nation would continue, of course, but the battles on Long Island were at an end.