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.