Aug 10, 2018, 05:56AM

The Guns of August

The soldiers would fire a volley and charge at a full run, bayonets fixed, yelling at the tops of their lungs.

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On August 23, 1775, H.M.S. Asia (a 64 gun ship-of-the-line) entered Upper New York Harbor and moored off Fort George, near today’s Battery in Manhattan. According to Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, “The New York Provincial Congress worried that the two dozen cannon posted at Fort George at the tip of the Battery might be seized by the British.” Captain Hamilton, a New York militia artilleryman then attending Kings College (now Columbia University) and 15 classmates volunteered to seize the cannon. They dragged over 10 guns up to the Common (now part of City Hall Park) under the Liberty Pole. When they returned for the other cannon, a barge from Asia began firing on them. Hamilton and his volunteers returned fire and the barge returned to the mother ship. The ship-of-the-line then fired a full broadside of 32 guns at the Battery and into the city, blowing a large hole in the roof of Fraunces Tavern and sending thousands of residents running into the street.

Chernow says the splendidly named tailor Hercules Mulligan [1] wrote, “… I recollect well that Mr. Hamilton was there, for I was engaged in hauling off the cannon when Mr. H. came up and gave me his musket to hold and he took hold of the rope.” After Hamilton had left the cannon on the Common, he ran into Mulligan against and asked for his musket back. Mulligan had left it down at the Battery. “I told him where I had left it,” Mulligan wrote, “and he went for it notwithstanding that the firing continued, with as much unconcern as if the vessel had not been there.”

Ten months later, at first light on June 19, 1776, Private Daniel McCurtin awoke. He checked the weather and then glanced down the Upper Bay toward the open sea. He paused. The British had come. He later wrote that the "whole Bay was full of shipping as it ever could be..." and the masts of the ships moored by Staten Island "resembled a wood of pine trees."

General Sir William Howe, commanding His Majesty's forces in North America, had passed the Narrows with 48 men of war and transports. Neither McCurtin nor the hundreds of New Yorkers who soon lined the Battery and the waterfront piers, including Captain Hamilton and his men, had seen anything like it.

They’d seen nothing yet. During the next day, Sir William's seafaring brother, Admiral Richard, Lord Howe, joined him with 82 more ships. By July 12, over 150 ships stood off Staten Island; by mid-August, over 400. King George III and his ministers had assembled the largest seagoing invasion since the Spanish Armada nearly two centuries before: 32,000 troops, 1200 cannon, and 13,000 sailors.

On July 12, 1776, the British did three things.

First, they landed on Staten Island. The county militia, mustered for home defense, surrendered as one man.

Then, two frigates, H.M.S. Phoenix (44 guns) and H.M.S. Rose (20 guns), testing the harbor defenses, swept up the Bay under full sail, firing broadsides into the City. American artillery fired on then from Red Hook, Governor's Island, the Battery, Paulus Hook in New Jersey, and Forts Washington and Lee. They all missed. They never came close. The Rose's commander opened a particularly fine claret as the two men of war cruised some thirty miles north to Tappan Bay and returned a few days later, utterly undamaged.

Finally, the Howes tried to open negotiations. Sir William, tall, pleasant, taciturn, was in his late-40s. He had held the King's commission for over 30 years. Careful and intelligent, he eschewed wasteful frontal assaults against entrenched positions and his massive popularity with his troops stemmed from confidence that he wouldn’t waste their lives in the pursuit of his glory.

Yet Howe was magnificently brave. In September, 1759, Howe had scaled the Cliffs of Abraham, leading 4000 troops in the surprise attack on the French at Quebec, still considered among the most audacious feats in military history. On June 17, 1775 at Bunker Hill, he personally led his grenadiers' second assault against "an incessant stream of fire... more than flesh could endure" from Israel Putnam's militiamen, and when his men broke and ran, William Howe momentarily remained, defiant and nearly alone on the hillside in his cocked hat, scarlet coat, and epaulettes, before turning and walking, not running, down the hill.

The Howe brothers, knowing war from experience, preferred peace. The initial difficulty lay in how to address the letter to the rebel commander. "General" might seem to recognize the legitimacy of Congress, which had commissioned him. "Colonel," his highest rank as a militia officer in the King's service, might be insulting. Ah! Perhaps the best address for a Virginian gentleman: George Washington, Esq. A Lieutenant Brown, R.N. of H.M.S. Eagle arrived at the Battery with the letter under flag of truce. He saluted a blue-coated colonel at the Battery stairs.

"Sir," Brown said, "I have a letter from Lord Howe to Mr. Washington."

"Sir," replied Colonel Joseph Reed, Philadelphia lawyer turned adjutant-general of the United States Army, "we have no person here in our army with that address."

Opening negotiations is difficult when your foes won't even accept your mail on a lawyer's advice.

Sir William then addressed another letter to "George Washington, Esq., etc., etc." This too was refused. The bearer, Lieutenant-Colonel James Patterson, Howe's adjutant general, then asked whether General Washington would care to meet with him.

Washington received Patterson at his headquarters at 1 Broadway. Patterson explained the "etc., etc." as terms used in diplomacy when a man's precise rank was in doubt. Washington replied there was no doubt about his precise rank and that "etc., etc." could mean "anything—or nothing." Patterson then suggested negotiations between Lord Howe and Washington. The Commander-in-Chief refused. He was merely a soldier, powerless to negotiate political issues: that was Congress' domain.

By August 19, 1776, Sir William had landed his forces on Staten Island, including two regiments of Guards, the Black Watch, and 8000 mercenaries, rented for the occasion from the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel. Three days later, he invaded Brooklyn at Gravesend Bay. By noon, he had 15,000 men ashore with scarcely a shot fired; by August 24, he had 21,000 men in Brooklyn.

Washington had fortified Brooklyn Heights, building Forts Greene, Putnam, and Box. His troops largely stood forward on the Heights of Guan (now Crown Heights, Stuyvesant Heights, Ocean Hill, and Ridgewood). He was apparently unaware of the Jamaica Pass, "a deep winding cut" at what is now Broadway Junction, near East New York. This led to the Jamaica Road, roughly parallel to what are now Fulton Street and Atlantic Avenue, which curved between the Americans on the Heights of Guan and their fortifications near Brooklyn Heights. During the early morning of August 27, Howe sent 4000 light infantrymen unopposed through the Pass. By dawn, they held the Jamaica Road.

The Battle of Long Island opened with desultory skirmishing. Several hours after sunrise, two cannons boomed in the American rear. As the British and Hessians in their front suddenly stopped fooling around and began formal attacks, the Americans found Howe's light infantrymen charging from behind.

The rebel left and center collapsed. Many soldiers simply surrendered. Others fled into the woods. Through the ranks of British grenadiers sprinted Hessian jagers, vanishing into the trees after the rebels. They were green-coated professional huntsmen and gamekeepers, superbly fit, disciplined to an edge of ruthlessness, and armed with short-barreled rifles. They were trained to fight in forests, for at home they tracked poachers and thieves, and tended to take no prisoners. Decades later, the skulls of men run down and bayoneted by the jagers were still turning up on building sites, road sides, and tilled fields.

The American right comprised 2000 troops under General William Alexander, a stocky, jovial eccentric, who, though fighting for a republican cause, claimed the Scots title of Earl of Stirling. He had been more than holding his own: two of his regiments had driven British regulars from a flanking crest and seized the high ground. Lord Stirling had not held the hill for 15 minutes when thousands of British and German troops unexpectedly smashed into his front. His scouts then told him his left flank was in the air, the American left and center were gone, and British regulars were cutting him off.

Lord Stirling, unlike the other American commanders, had studied his ground and considered possible routes of retreat. He had one left: through marshes to Gowanus Creek, 80 yards wide at the mouth. Even then, his men would be slaughtered in the mud unless the British advance was stopped, if only for an hour.

Lord Stirling, "with grim-faced Scottish fortitude," detached 400 Marylanders. They were militiamen. This was their first battle. He ordered his officers to move the rest of his command across the Gowanus. Then he rode to the Marylanders and put himself at their head.

They faced 10,000 British and German regulars and Royal Marines, advancing in broad ranks two or three lines deep, now confident of victory, the field music's drummers beating a quick step, the King's and the regimental colors unfurled. The company grade officers marched beside their men, swords at the carry, and the field grade officers rode behind the lines, not out of cowardice but to maintain communications and control. As the enemy's shooting became effective, the ranks would close up, again and again, while marching forward. At 100 yards or so, they would halt. The soldiers would fire a volley and then charge at a full run, bayonets fixed, yelling at the top of their lungs. The effect was intentional: to seem terrifying, invincible, and nearly inhuman.

Anyone watching the Guards' Trooping the Colour on the Queen's birthday is observing 18th century tactics. American propaganda trains us to ridicule this kind of magnificent formal spectacle. But the British and Germans fought thus because it usually worked. It certainly did on August 26, 1776. British soldiers generally were, as the Duke of Wellington later called them, "the scum of the earth:" semi-literate at best, thuggish, crude, and boisterous. They were controlled through harsh discipline, with floggings ordered on the slightest pretext. Their lives were a constant round of drill and maintenance (blacking boots, polishing buckles, pipe-claying breeches to keep them white, and sponge-cleaning the red coats, dry cleaning being unknown), which strengthened the habit of obedience, enabling officers and non-coms to control and maneuver their men with great flexibility amidst the horror of battle.

Stirling had seen it before. He told his men that he knew James Grant, the British general commanding the troops on his front, and had been in the House of Commons when Grant had boasted he could march from one end of America to the other with 5000 men. He urged them to prove Grant wrong.

Then he drew his sword and with a broad sweep, Stirling pointed at the advancing enemy, roared, "Charge!" and spurred his horse forward. The Marylanders went with him. They charged, broke, withdrew, regrouped, and charged again—five times. Because they "fought like wolves," they bought the time their comrades needed to cross the marshes. Of the 250, 10 men and one officer stumbled by nightfall into the American entrenchments at Brooklyn Heights. Stirling was not among them, having been taken prisoner after savage fighting at what is now called the Old Stone House, at Fifth Avenue and Third Street. He would later be exchanged in a swap for a former Royal governor.

It was only noon. Howe had lost 65 killed and 255 wounded while inflicting over 2000 casualties on the rebels. One imagines the response of a Patton to a demoralized enemy hopelessly off balance with his back to a river. Howe could have ended the war that afternoon, and there would have been no United States.

Imagine Elizabeth II's elegant profile on the shillings in our pockets.

Instead, Sir William Howe prepared for a careful assault on the American fortifications. In the harbor, Lord Howe's captains expected orders to place their ships in the East River between Brooklyn and New York to bottle up Washington in Brooklyn. The orders never came. Lord Howe did not even send out cutters—small boats, manned by expert oarsmen, carrying light cannon in swiveling mounts—to patrol.

Over 220 years later, this remains inexplicable. Probably, the Howe brothers, being half a world away from London, were making policy despite their orders. Thomas Fleming, in Liberty, wrote: "To achieve the kind of (negotiated) peace Admiral Howe envisioned, Washington's army had to survive. If it was battered into mass surrender in Brooklyn or slaughtered on the East River, hard-liners... would insist on a peace of unconditional surrender, (making) America another Ireland."

Few things are as difficult as the controlled withdrawal of a defeated army. Washington had a genius for retreat. His mind turned to the 14th Continentals, a regiment of American regulars, mostly sailors in civilian life, largely raised from Marblehead, Massachusetts (characterized by one of his officers as "a dirty erregular stincking place"). From August 26 to 29, Washington and his staff assembled every boat "that could be kept afloat and had either sails or oars." The 14th Continentals manned them. The army was gradually withdrawn from the lines and ferried to Manhattan under cover of darkness. At dawn on August 30, the last boats left. The last one carried George Washington. He had not slept in 48 hours. Howe did not realize that the Americans had evacuated until 8:30 a.m.

Washington's withdrawal from Brooklyn, his army intact, was the first step in his retreat to glory.

[1] Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, Hamilton: The Revolution (Grand Central Publishing, New York, 2016) suggest that Hercules Mulligan “…is just the best rapper moniker I heard in my life.”


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