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From the Archives - George Washington Reports on the Battle of Long Island

The largest battle of the American Revolution began on August 27, 1776. On the northwestern end of Long Island, near the village of Brooklyn, George Washington had concentrated some 10,000 indifferently equipped troops, a mixture of raw recruits, militiamen, and some Continentals. Facing them were some 20,000 well-trained and well-equipped British regulars and Hessian mercenaries. In a three day battle, the Patriots were soundly beaten, and only some desperate rear guard fighting and a fortuitous fog saved the army, as Washington evacuated his troops to Manhattan Island.

Two weeks later, after tentative peace negotiations broke down, the British launched a devastating assault on Manhattan, forcing Washington to retreat northwards. After a brief rearguard action at Harlem Heights on September 16th, Washington fell back into the Bronx. There, on September 19th, he penned a report to Jeremiah Powell and the other members of the Massachusetts state council.

 

Head-Quarters,
Colonel Roger Morris's House,
ten miles from New York,
September 19, 1776

 

Gentlemen: I was honoured the night before last with your favor of the 13th instant, and at the same time that I conceive your anxiety to have been great, by reason of the vague and uncertain accounts you received respecting the attack on Long Island, give me leave to assure you that the situation of our affairs, and the important concerns which have surrounded me, and which are daily pressing on me, have prevented me from transmitting, in many instances, the intelligence I otherwise should have conveyed.

In respect to the attack and retreat from Long Island, the publick papers will furnish you with accounts nearly true. I shall only add, that in the former we lost about eight hundred men; more than three-fourths of which were taken prisoners. This misfortune happened in great measure, by two detachments of our people who were posted in two roads leading through a wood, in order to intercept the enemy in their march, suffering a surprise, and making a precipitate retreat, which enabled the enemy to lead a great part of their force against the troops commanded by Lord Stirling, which formed a third detachment, who behaved with great bravery and resolution, charging the enemy and maintaining their posts from about seven or eight o'clock in the morning till two in the afternoon, when they were obliged to attempt a retreat, being surrounded and overpowered by numbers on all sides, and in which many of them were taken. One battalion (Smallwood's of Maryland) lost two hundred and fifty-nine men, and the general damage fell upon the regiments from Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, and Colonel Huntington's, of Connecticut.

As to the retreat from the Island, it was effected without loss of men, and with but very little baggage. A few heavy cannon were left, not being moveable on account of the ground's being soft and miry through the rains that had fallen.

The enemy's loss in killed we could never ascertain; but have many reasons to believe that it was pretty considerable, and exceeded ours a good deal. The retreat from thence was absolutely necessary, the enemy having landed the main body of their army there to attack us in front, while their ships of war were to cut off the communication with the city, from whence resources of men, provisions, &c., were to be drawn....

I have the honour to be, &c.,

Go. Washington.

To the Hon. Jeremiah Powell, Esq., President, &c.

 

Washington’s summary of the battle was fairly accurate, though he was wildly optimistic in his assumption that British loses “exceeded ours a good deal”: U.S. casualties amounted to about 2,500, including some 300 dead and many prisoners, while the British suffered only about 400 from all causes.

Nevertheless, Washington had conducted an effective retreat from an untenable position, preserving the army to fight another day.

 


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