August 30, 1776


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


(, 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.

August 29, 1776


WASHINGTON FOUND LITTLE REST the previous night. At four thirty in the morning, he reported to Congress, noting only that there had been  “engagement with the enemy” and that he could not “ascertain our loss.” He neglected to mention that the British were now less than 600 yards from the biggest of the fortifications, Fort Putnam. He avoided noting that the British were quickly digging trenches, taking advantage of the rain-soaked soil, and installing embankments ever closer to the other forts on the line of defense: the Oblong Redoubt, Fort Greene and Fort Box. (Fort Defiance, farther away in Red Hook and still under construction at the time, kept its cannons pointed at the ships in the harbor, and was under minimal threat. Fort Stirling, situated along and designed to “command the East River” fared similarly.)

Quietly, Washington instructed General Heath to prepare all the flat-bottomed boats he could find, “without delay.” (How all of those boats were delivered to Brooklyn from the modern-day Bronx without drawing anyone’s attention appears to be unrecorded.)



(Brooklyn Historical Society)


(Detail, Bernard Ratzer, 1767. NYPL)

to confer on further strategies. From the meeting minutes, “It was submitted to the consideration of the council whether, under all circumstances, it would not be eligible to leave Long Island and its dependencies [fortifications] and remove the army to New York.”

The argument was compelling: after suffering a crushing defeat at Gowanus, the Continental Army was crippled and morale was low. Nearly two days of rain had spoiled almost all remaining ammunition. Impossible to keep fires going for cooking or warmth, men were cold and hungry. Half the Army was still in Manhattan. Perhaps most importantly, if the winds shifted, the British fleet would control the East River, and that would mean certain defeat of the entire quest for independence. After minor debate, the decision was unanimous: it was time to go.

7:00 PM

Nearing sunset, word reached troops that a night attack was in order. Across the line of defense, men were informed: be “under arms with packs and everything.”

9:00 PM

Led to believe that reinforcements had arrived to relieve them, the sick, wounded, and the most inexperienced troops departed for Brooklyn Ferry landing.


(Detail, Bernard Ratzer, 1767. NYPL)

Neither officers nor enlisted were told that the move was, in fact, a retreat. The directional proceedings, however, were not lost on some Generals, who pieced it together that the “night attack” was merely a ruse. Alexander Graydon remarked that it “flashed upon my mind that a retreat was the object, and that the order for assailing the enemy was but a cover to the real design.”

Beyond the intentional deception, there was at least one other problem: thanks to the nor’easter that enveloped the region for the preceding days and the ebb tide that evening, it seemed that the river might be too rough to cross.

11:00 PM

Somewhat miraculously, the wind died down, the rain stopped, and John Glover’s Massachusetts sailors and fishermen manned the boats, putting years of experience in turbulent waters into every oarstroke. (They’re commemorated by the plaque below.)


(2014. photo by author)

They moved everything—from troops to cannons—



and they did it all in darkness with no running lights. If nothing else, the Continental Army had one stroke of luck: lingering cloud cover obscured the full moon that night. If skies had been clear, their escape would’ve surely been foiled.


(2012. photo by author)

As men withdrew from Brooklyn and beyond, “tedious was the operation through mud and mire,” wagon wheels were muffled, and speaking in any voice above a whisper was prohibited. Some cannons were “impossible to move” and were left behind,  and there was occasional confusion in the procession, but in the last hours of August 29, 1776, it all went surprisingly well.

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.