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)
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.
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.