ALEXANDER GRAYDON WOULD LATER WRITE that the night’s retreat to Manhattan
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.”
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,
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.
BEFORE WASHINGTON CROSSED THE DELAWARE, he crossed the East River.
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.
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