The Two Sides of General Washington
August 17, 2009
The Battle of Brooklyn on August 27, 1776, exposed General George WashingtonAca,!a,,cs inexperience as a field commander but highlighted his firm determination and resourcefulness in the face of unyielding pressure from a superior opposing force.
Less than a month after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Royal Navy warships appeared in New York harbor. This was no surprise to Washington and his staff, who correctly anticipated that New York City, with its deep water harbor and major population center, would be ideal for a British logistics base. Washington decided to create a series of fortifications at key points in the New York City area. One of the key terrain features in the area was the Brooklyn Heights, just across the East River from Manhattan. Artillery could rain shot and shell into the city from the heights, making it difficult for forces trying to occupy the area. To protect this key position, Washington established a series of forts and defensive lines to protect Brooklyn. On August 22, from his staging area on Staten Island, Howe landed his red-coated regulars and Hessian troops on the shoreline of Brooklyn. After consolidating his forces, Howe made his move on August 27.
To defend Brooklyn, Washington based his defense on the ridge line known as the Gowanus Heights. His troops guarded major avenues of approach against the center and right of the American position. The left approach was guarded by only a small picket; Washington simply did not have enough troops in Brooklyn to adequately secure all three. Unaware of HoweAca,!a,,cs true objective, he kept his force split between Manhattan and Brooklyn. HoweAca,!a,,cs intelligence gathering detected this gap. He used diversionary attacks against the center and right, with his main force attacking the left. Routing the left wing, HoweAca,!a,,cs main force approached the center and right wing of the American line. The inexperienced American troops panicked and fled toward more secure positions on the Brooklyn Heights. American General William (Aca,!A"Lord StirlingAca,!A?) Alexander led a spirited defense against the closing British pincers, allowing fleeing Continentals to make it safely to the Brooklyn fortifications.
As WashingtonAca,!a,,cs troops regrouped from near annihilation, a heavy rain began to fall for the next two days. This provided Washington an opportunity to save his army. He knew that the British would besiege his position, as opposed to making a hasty and possibly costly frontal assault. The rain delayed such siege operations. He sent orders to gather up all watercraft between Brooklyn and Manhattan, and by August 29, he was ready to execute. At nightfall, Washington moved his entire army, including the artillery, over the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan, evading the British trap. George Washington and his Continental Army would live to fight another day.
The battle and the subsequent evacuation operations showed leaders both in London and Philadelphia that George Washington might not have the battlefield experience of his adversaries, but they also made clear that he did have a determination and ingenuity that would ensure the survival of the fragile Continental Army, critical to securing AmericaAca,!a,,cs independence.
ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the: Army Heritage and Education Center, 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021.