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].

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.