August 28, 1776



The 28th of August was a day filled with tension and decision-making. In 1776, McCullough sums it up nicely:

“Having been outsmarted and outfought, they were now hemmed in at Brooklyn in an area about three miles around, their backs to the East River, which could serve as an escape route only as long as the wind cooperated. With a change in the wind, it would take but a few British warships in the river to make escape impossible.”

After the near-massacre at the Old Stone House, Washington ordered still more soldiers over from New York, “almost as though he did not comprehend how perilous his position was.” The valiant surge by the Marylanders proved that a young, moderately disorganized army could fiercely defend its territory, but on that wet August morning the arrival of Mordecai Gist and his nine compatriots—the only survivors of that Maryland battalion—was a chilling reminder of the previous day’s slaughter.

It would rain all day, as if the skies wept in honor of the fallen and wounded. As the storm continued into the night, so did the sound of gunfire. Washington, holed up in the Heights, aware that overall morale was declining by the minute, had some serious contemplating to do.

August 27, 1776

Prologue: the View in 2014

FROM THE HEIGHTS OF GOWAN IN 2014, YOU CAN STILL SEE THE NARROWS—though on a hazy day you have to squint a little—past the trains at Broadway Junction, beyond the Kings County Hospital Center, past where the British camped at Flatlands,


View from “Beacon Hill,” 2014. (photo by author)


Enhanced zoom, view from Beacon Hill, 2014. (photo by author)

and—if you close your eyes—you might be able to imagine that view as an open plain, interrupted only by the occasional farmhouse.

On this date in 1776, as one looked southwest from the Heights of Gowan—the highest point in Brooklyn, the edge of the terminal moraine—things appeared secure: the British and Hessian camp was quiet, the white tents rustled in the breeze, and campfires smoldered. In fact, it was all show, because no one was there.

* * *

Between midnight and daybreak


Note the topography! (Samuel Lewis, 1807. NYPL)

OVERNIGHT, A COLUMN OF 10,000 SOLDIERS MARCHED IN A LINE roughly nine miles long, up the King’s Highway from Flatlands to New Lots, turning north towards the Jamaica Pass.


(Jamaica Avenue intersection, 2014. photo by author.)

They moved at a snail’s pace on that unseasonably cool night, led by three local farmers who “knew the way,” stopping roughly every twenty yards so as not to stir attention. At approximately 2:00 AM, the column stopped at Howard’s Tavern (near present-day intersection of Jamaica Avenue and Broadway):



As McCullough tells it, the armies met little resistance at the Tavern (there may have been some life/limb threatening), so the column pressed on up the hill. Captains William Glanville Evelyn and Oliver DeLancey, Jr., rode forward to the Rockaway Footpath, a “winding, rocky road through a narrow gorge overhung by trees and little wider than a bridle path,” which marked the opening of the Jamaica Pass:


(2014. photo by author)

Five Americans were stationed guard at the top of the footpath, and—by some accounts—the startled (and probably tired) sentries simply fell in with the British officers and were summarily captured. (The commemorative marker, below, is slightly inaccurate, nonetheless.)


(2014. photo by author)

It took nearly two hours for those thousands of men to march through the pass. At first light, all assembled on the Bedford Road, they were ordered to rest in the tall grass. It was approximately 6:00 AM.

* * *

9:00 AM

IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL MORNING, WHEN TWO CANNON BLASTS MADE SIGNAL to the Hessians and General Grant that it was time to commence their assaults. At 9:00 AM, Howe’s army pressed on toward the village of Bedford, but Grant had already decided to occupy the attention of the Americans [at the Gowanus Road] ahead of schedule,” a move which rousted General Putnam out of bed at the Brooklyn headquarters at three in the morning. Putnam and General Samuel Parsons rushed to the “front lines”—in this case, the fortifications—not knowing that a larger force still advanced behind them.

Near present-day Brooklyn’s intersection of Fourth Avenue and 35th Street (and the 36 Street subway station entrance),


(2014. photo by author.)

Grant and his 300 troops surprised the Americans on guard, many of whom fled immediately.



Near the Red Lion Inn (at the junction of the Martense Lane, the Narrows Road, and the Gowanus Road), Grant pushed ahead down the Gowanus Road toward Brooklyn Heights, driving the Americans back toward their fortifications for nearly six hours.

* * *

On the American side, General Stirling and his 1,600 men (including Huntington’s Connecticut regiment, Atlee’s Pennsylvania battalion, Smallwood’s Marylanders, and Haslet’s Delaware battalion) “fought valiantly,” and Parsons’ troops held the line through two assaults on the higher ground, near “Battle Pass” in today’s Green-Wood Cemetery:




(2014. photo by author.)

and fighting also commenced at “Battle Pass” (more on that duplicitous naming later) in modern-day Prospect Park, as Howe’s line of thousands progressed.

That was only the beginning, of course. While Grant, Parsons, and Stirling skirmished, andHessians bombarded Sullivan’s troops, three of General vonHeister’s brigades stood in a mile-long line, waiting to move, on Flatbush Road—a third line of attack.

WASHINGTON HAD LANDED AT BROOKLYN THAT MORNING, and proceeded directly to the fortifications near Brooklyn Heights—what were known as the “Brooklyn lines,” i.e., the border of the village—some two miles away from the two fields of battle. He had probably heard the signal cannons blare as his boat approached the Long Island shore. Glancing south when he crossed the Sound (East) River, Washington also might have observed five British warships beginning their advance upriver, heading toward Kips Bay and taking advantage of favorable winds at their backs. These were not good signals.

* * *


(William Faden, 1776. NYPL)

(William Faden, 1776. NYPL)

Central line of attack: Battle Pass (Between Brooklyn and Flatbush) (not to be confused with the fabricated path in Green-Wood Cemetery of the same name)



In the thick woods of the ridge separating the towns of Brooklyn and Flatbush, a small advance guard tried their best, on that hot day in 1776, to hold off the thousands of Hessians. But, after felling a landmark, the Dongan Oak,


img_4365_donganplaq-copy (2013. photos by author)

the Americans “had time to get off only a shot or two, or none at all.” In today’s Prospect Park, the East Drive runs along much of what was once this legendary path.


(2013. photo by author.)

Three markers are the only clue that anything happened there at all, and most parkgoers pass them by unnoticed. Even one of Prospect Park’s interns, writing for the Alliance’s blog on the Battle’s anniversary got the location wrong.


(2013. photo by author.)


(2013. photo by author.)

(As if on cue, when I photographed the Battle Pass marker, two teenage girls remarked after reading the plaque, “Yep, we never learned that in U. S. History!” Take that, Common Core?)

* * *

In 1776, vonHeister claimed that the Continental soldiers “surrendered immediately and begged on their knees for their lives,” but in 2013, the view (below) both up and down the Drive was dark, even minus the smoke of gunfire and haze of war.


(2013. photo by author.)


(2013. photo by author.)

Perhaps some men simply feared what they could not see. If they ran from the woods, those who made it out were greeted by British gunfire. These were “terrible hills,” indeed.

Southern line of attack: Vechte-Cortelyou/”Old Stone” House (Village of Gowanus)


(2014. photo by author.)

Just southwest of Battle Pass, by 11:00 that morning, Stirling’s hold proved ephemeral. Barreling down from the ridge, thousands of Hessians struck on one side, and more British pressed forward at Gowanus Road behind the Americans. Near present-day Fourth Avenue and Third Street, an old Dutch farmhouse (now reconstructed, and called the “Old Stone House,” above) became central to the field of battle.


(Brooklyn Historical Society)

Surrounded, Stirling ordered his men to retreat across Gowanus Creek, while he and a few hundred Marylanders held the line. As Stirling and company struck the enemy five times, desperate men waded across the Creek,

lord stirling_boli


some got stuck in the mud, and those who couldn’t swim either drowned or were taken prisoner.

* * *

Washington never made it to the actual battlefield. Watching the debacle from a safe distance, near the present-day intersection of Court Street and Atlantic Avenue:


(2013. photo by author.)

he declared, “Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose!” Depending on who one asks, even now, that quote was either the most heartfelt expression of admiration, or the eighteenth-century equivalent of “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job“—an oblivious compliment at a time of extreme catastrophe.

* * *


At day’s end, both the village of Gowanus and the town of Flatbush were smoldering battlefields, and hundreds of men on both sides were wounded. Estimates now provide that in those few hours—between approximately 3:00 AM and noon—300 Americans were killed and 1,000 were taken prisoner. Counting the Royal Navy, over 40,000 men participated in the “skirmishes” that day.

40,000 people is a few souls fewer than the entire population of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and seven thousand fewer than all of the participants in 2011’s New York City marathon. (For a visual, consider what it looks like when the marathoners Fourth Avenue—a modern-day road that follows the same path on which the British advanced, the Gowanus Road—in this image.)

IT WAS ALL OVER in six hours, more or less. General Grant wrote to a compatriot, “You will be glad that we have had the field day I talked of in my last letter. If a good bleeding can bring those Bible-faced Yankees to their senses, the fever of independency should soon abate.”

Even two centuries removed, debate continues as to the ferocity of the battle, its participants, and the aftermath. Local historians advocate that a vacant lot must be consecrated as hallowed ground, but McCullough implies that that argument is flawed: “there was no truth to an account in a London paper of Hessians burying five hundred American bodies in a single pit.”

In the evening hours of August 27, 1776, the true horrors had just begun for many of the battles’ survivors. For some, their future lay in confinement on “prison ships,” like the notorious HMS Jersey (below),



soon to be moored in Wallabout Bay.

The guns momentarily silenced, “pitiful cries could be heard from wounded men who lay among the unburied dead in the battlefield.” A cold wind blew in from the north that night. Things had changed, not just on Long Island, and the fate of a new nation was at stake. The Battle of Long Island was the first major battle after the Declaration of Independence, and it was also a major loss.

August 22, 1776

5:00 AM (approximately)

DAYBREAK. HMS PHOENIX, ROSE, AND GREYHOUND GUARDED THE NARROWS. Flatboats built on Staten Island pushed off near present-day Fort Wadsworth, steadily propelling across the three-mile span toward the opposing shore.

Again, McCullough speaks for me, contrasting the previous night’s weather:  “the sky was clear and cloudless, as if nothing unusual had happened. And with a fresh morning breeze and roll of drums, the long-awaited British invasion of Long Island got under way.”


The Phoenix and the Rose engaged by the Enemy’s fire ships and galleys on the 16th August, 1776. (NYPL)

Nearly six weeks had passed since Phoenix and Rose dared to sail up the Hudson, blasting cannonballs into houses and setting their anchors down by Tarrytown. Then, young soldiers, like nineteen-year-old Alexander Hamilton, hurriedly defended New York from the invading frigates. Now, despite the pleasant turn in the weather, to anyone watching the onrush of rowing red-coated solders, it should have been clear: the young and untested Continental Army would be no match for His Majesty’s men.

8:00 AM (approximately)

THE BEACH WAS EMPTY THAT MORNING AT GRAVESEND BAY. Still guarding the strike, Phoenix signaled only once to confirm the flatboats’ landfall, and all 4,000 troops marched shoreward at Denyse’s Ferry, near present-day Fort Hamilton.


Denyse’s Ferry. (NYPL)

Denyse's Ferry – Gravesend Bay Marker

Marker, 2012. (Bill Coughlin)

On the one hand, the spectacle was impressive: “more than ninety vessels filled the Narrows,” weapons gleamed, and bold red (British) and blue (Hessian) coats were everywhere. On the other hand, the view that greeted those soldiers was horrific: Colonel Edward Hand‘s Pennsylvania riflemen fled as the invasion began, and left behind them a ghastly trail of dead cattle and scorched farms. Hessian Lieutenant Johann Heinrich von Bardeleben observed what “appeared previously to have been a paradise standing in blooming abundance” that was now the “picture of destruction … on all sides.”

Loyalists, perhaps descendants of Dutch and Quaker settlers from the previous century, rushed to welcome the troops with supplies and cheers, but the advance guard pressed forward. More and more men (and women) landed on the shore, and they all marched onward, toward camp near New Utrecht.

News of this massive march would soon reach General Washington in New York.

12:00 PM

MEANWHILE, IN MANHATTAN, General Washington believed a mere 8,000 or 9,000 had come ashore this morning, exactly the kind of feint he anticipated. He practically shrugged it off, sent 1,500 troops to the town of Brooklyn, and continued to contend that New York was the Brits intended target.

He couldn’t have been more wrong. Controlling Long Island meant controlling the Harbor, and New York would fall next. Even if New York was the target, to succeed required a massive force, and that’s precisely what was coming. In fact, by noon that fateful Thursday, close to 15,000 troops marched toward their next encampment, 5,000 Hessians crossed from Staten Island, and General Howe’s forces swelled to near 20,000 (and let’s not forget the squadron in the Harbor).

As McCullough observes, “Washington sent a message [to General Heath, at King’s Bridge] saying he dared not weaken his forces in New York until he could be certain of the enemy’s real intentions.” It was almost as if the Father of Our Country needed affirmation for his choices. Washington’s closest officers supported his concerns, agreeing that the best move was vigilance over Manhattan, or essentially, to sit and wait. With yes-men confirming Washington’s suspicions, and with minds perhaps thinking only of the recent fray with Phoenix and Rose, the expectation foolishly persisted: Manhattan and the Hudson River were the real target.

Part of this misguided belief was also thanks to the disorder of the Continental Army. Again, McCullough:

In Brooklyn “soldiers were here, there, and everywhere, strolling about as if on holiday, some of them miles from the lines. ‘Carts and horses driving every way among the army,’ wrote Philip Fithian. ‘Men marching out and coming in. … All in tumult.’

The contrast between such disorder and flagrant disregard for authority and the perfectly orchestrated landing by Howe’s troops could not have been more pronounced.”

Washington would ignore this embarrassing disparity when he visited Brooklyn later this same day. Perhaps his naiveté led him to trust the leaders of these ragtag warriors, but why he believed the field reports that claimed only “minor skirmishing” was at hand on Long Island, the world may never know.

August 21, 1776


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.

* * *

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.

(Archibald Robertson. NYPL)

(Archibald Robertson. NYPL)

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.

* * *

August 21, Wednesday

Over 400 ships anchored in the harbor, menacing the Narrows and the Hudson and East Rivers.


Detail, William Faden, 1776. (NYPL)

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:

1161233_Ships in lower Bay-Emmet



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.