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 21, 1776


The Siege of Boston (1775–1776) had ended in March, as British forces abandoned the city and departed for Nova Scotia. New York—at this point, denoting only Manhattan Island—was the next target. Both British and Continental soldiers headed south to the next theater of war in April 1776.

* * *

While Thomas Jefferson and the boys sweated out the finer points of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, George Washington surveyed the fortifications in Manhattan and on Long Island in the village of Brooklyn, and King George III’s Navy dispatched numerous ships to blockade and intimidate New York harbor. Before the Declaration was signed, British soldiers landed on Staten Island and set up camp, welcomed  by Loyalists. That was July 2, 1776.

(Archibald Robertson. NYPL)

(Archibald Robertson. NYPL)

In the following weeks, word spread throughout the Long Island countryside: an ever-growing British fleet was amassing in the Harbor. To many Loyalists, this was cause for rejoicing: His Majesty’s Navy would prove it was the best in the world, silence the complaining colonists, and return things to their proper order. But rumor also had it that newly organized American regiments had been ordered to rid the land of Loyalists, so some were on high alert. Dutch residents were preparing for August 24’s Kermesse celebration. And it was almost the end of summer: fields of buckwheat were maturing, and apples and peaches were just beginning to ripen on the trees.

British General William Howe, then stationed on the Eagle in the Harbor, sent a letter to General George Washington, but it returned unopened. Howe sent another letter, and another, but the future “Father of Our Country” rejected them all, feeling deliberately slighted, since none of the letters were addressed to General George Washington.

* * *

August 21, Wednesday

Over 400 ships anchored in the harbor, menacing the Narrows and the Hudson and East Rivers.


Detail, William Faden, 1776. (NYPL)

For a visual comparison, consider this: Operation Sail (OpSail) 2012 had a total of nine tall ships, and when OpSail paraded its largest fleet of “tall ships” in 2000, there were 120 sailing through the port of New York, a pittance compared to the British blockade in 1776! David McCullough illustrates:

“Nothing like it had ever been seen in New York. Housetops were covered with ‘gazers’; all wharves that offered a view were jammed with people. The total British armada now at anchor in a ‘long, thick cluster’ off Staten Island numbered … seventy-three warships, including eight ships of the line, each mounting 50 guns or more. As British officers happily reminded one another, it was the largest fleet ever seen in American waters. In fact, it was the largest expeditionary force of the eighteenth century, the largest, most powerful force ever sent forth from Britain or any nation.”

Harper’s magazine later dramatized the view with this illustration:

1161233_Ships in lower Bay-Emmet



AS I SAT DOWN TO WRITE THIS, I REALIZED much has already been written about this, and most of it brilliantly recounted by Mr. McCullough. I spent days looking for weather and moonphase reports, only to find that McCullough beat me to it:

“On the night of August 21, 1776, a terrifying storm broke over New York, a storm as vicious as any in living memory, and for those who saw omens in such unleashed fury from the elements—those familiar with the writings of the Roman historian Livy, say, or the plays of Shakespeare, of whom there were many—a night so violent seemed filled with portent.

Chroniclers Philip Fithian, Ambrose Serle, and Pastor Ewald Shewkirk called it ‘a storm like a hurricane,’ ‘a most terrible storm,’ ‘the most vehement I ever saw,’ ‘an uncommon … awful scene.’ …

The storm raged for three hours, yet strangely the cloud appeared to stand still, ‘and swing round and round,’ all over the city. ‘The lightning fell in masses and sheets of fire to the earth, and seemed to strike incessantly, and on every side.'”

The residents of Long Island and Manhattan went to sleep that night, some perhaps rattled by thunderclaps and fears of otherworldly retribution. The next day, August 22, would be different, in all sorts of ways.