August 27, 1776, brought one of the largest battles of the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Long Island, involving more than 40,000 men. It was not a good outcome for the Patriots. Marching through the night, the British took the Americans by surprise and overwhelmed most of their lines. George Washington, watching the enemy cut down his men, cried out, “Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose!”
Only grim resistance by Maryland and Delaware troops avoided a complete rout. “If a good bleeding can bring those Bible-faced Yankees to their senses, the fever of independency should soon abate,” one British officer predicted.
The Americans retreated to Brooklyn Heights, where they sat on the verge of disaster. Washington realized that he must somehow get his men off Long Island.
British warships were prepared to sail up the East River, which lay between Long Island and Manhattan, to cut off any retreat. Fortunately for the Patriots, winds kept the ships out of the river, but Washington realized that it was only a matter of time before he was trapped.
The general ordered a search for all available boats. On the night of August 29, under cover of rain, oarsmen began ferrying the army across the East River. One Connecticut officer remembered making eleven trips across the river that night, carrying men to safety. The troops hurried in strict silence—if discovered in retreat, the Patriot force would be annihilated.
Only a portion of the army had crossed by daybreak. As historian David McCullough notes, “Incredibly, yet again, circumstances – fate, luck, Providence, the hand of God, as would be said so often – intervened.” A heavy fog settled over Brooklyn, concealing the American movement. When it lifted, the stunned British realized that more than 9,000 men had slipped out of their grasp. The bruised Patriot army would live to fight another day.