August 27, 1776
The Battle of Brooklyn Heights (also known as the Battle of Brooklyn or the Battle of Long Island)
This battle is made of several skirmishes, finally ending on the long night of August 29th. It’s early in the war and is an astounding American defeat that will lead to the British taking New York City a few weeks later. This battle is important for other reasons though. It is here, in Brooklyn, where we learn about ourselves, as citizens of the United States of America. It is here, in Brooklyn, where we learn about the mettle of a Patriot, the courage of great men, and what defines a leader.
The Battle of Brooklyn Heights is the first battle fought after the Declaration of Independence is written, so it is our first official battle as a country. Remember, this is technically not the first battle of the war, but the distinction is necessary. Before the Declaration of Independence we are a partially united bunch of disobedient colonists behaving badly, after the Declaration of Independence we are an independent nation, united against an invading enemy, fighting for our freedom. (See how important just one piece of paper can be?)
The battle itself is a nightmare, like battles are. The Continental Army (that’s us, the Patriots) gets completely outflanked eventually by the British Army (that’s them, the Redcoats). However, we don’t see it coming until it is too late. There is a lot going on, we are horribly outnumbered and our casualties are high. In all of this mess there is a group of soldiers that stand out. They are the Maryland 400, under the command of General William Alexander, Lord Stirling(don’t be confused by his title of Lord, he is a Patriot). Stirling, realizing he is outflanked, seeks the only escape route open, a harrowing run across Gowanus marsh. In order to protect the retreating Continental Army, someone must stay and fight the 2,000 British soldiers led by General Cornwallis. A small Maryland contingent of 400 men stay behind with Stirling after he orders the rest of his men to cross Gowanus and seek the safety of Brooklyn Heights, where most historians agree George Washington is. He and the Maryland 400 charge into battle twice, their defeat is inevitable, but their courage is great. Cornwallis will later say that Stirling fought like a wolf that day. When the rest of the Continental Army has safely escaped and most of the Maryland 400 dead or captured, Stirling and what is left of those brave Maryland men, surrender. This story has a twist though; it was no ordinary surrender. The British brought Hessian soldiers with them (hired mercenaries) to fight against the Patriots. Stirling broke through the British lines one last time and surrendered to the Hessians, it is said, because he refused to surrender to the British. It is probably while watching this from Brooklyn Heights that George Washington said, “Good God, what brave men must I lose this day!”*
This story is not over. There is one more significant thing that happens. General Howe (the general in charge of the British Army) decides not to follow the retreating Continental Army up through Brooklyn Heights. Historians argue still about why Howe made this decision. This is not the significant thing for us (though it is important because it is what makes our significant thing possible) so we will leave Howe’s decision for another time. George Washington, who has just lost this battle for a variety of reasons (most of them not very flattering to our new fledgling army and it’s leaders), will now pull off one of the most amazing military feats of all time. This is the significant thing. George Washington will escape Brooklyn Heights, with his army and artillery, right under the noses of the British.
As night falls Washington launches his plan. He moves the army along with their artillery from encampment to encampment to the East River. There he divides them into groups and puts them in small boats. The sailors wrap their oars in clothing to muffle their sound on the water as they make their way back and forth across the river. Little by little the army and cannons are moved across the river to Manhattan, to safety for now. Refusing to leave his men, Washington spends the night riding up and down the ranks encouraging his exhausted men to keep quietly moving. A storm moves in which aids their escape (and makes them more miserable). A thick fog follows the storm, again aiding and hindering the Continental Army’s escape. At times they are so close to the British, they can hear the sentries moving around and talking to each other. Finally all the artillery is safely across the river and all the men except those on last small boat have landed on Manhattan. It is frankly impossible to fathom that this many men (after fighting for two days) snuck past such a large invading army. It is in this moment, as the sun rises and the fog clears, standing near the East River in New York, that we learn the last lesson this battle has to teach us. There are men, who by courageous example, show us that this new nation is worth fighting for, worth believing in, and even worth dying for; however, on the banks of this river a president is born, not because he is willing to fight, but because he is willing to protect. The last boat carries this tall man, wearing a long dark cloak and a three-pointed hat, the full light of the morning sun upon him. It is in this catalyzing moment, when George Washington is the last to push away from the shore (in retreat), we discover the difference between a brave man and a true leader.
*from 1776 by David McCullough (2006), p. 177