The Battle of Long Island

Morgan History – The Battle of Long Island

British Fleet Off of Staten Island
“View of the Narrows between Long Island & Staten Island with Our Fleet at Anchor & Lord Howe Coming In”, July 12, 1776, by Lieutenant Archibald Robertson (1745-1813) of the Royal Engineers. Shows Lord Howe’s HMS Eagle (top right) joining the other British ships anchored off of Staten Island.

I keep referencing being a student in 3rd or 4th grade at Jesse Selover Elementary School in Morgan, NJ and how, while learning about the Revolutionary War, it all seemed to have occurred so far away from where I was.  As I have subsequently learned, I could not have been more WRONG! Before the Allied D-Day landings in Normandy, France during World War II, the largest amphibious landing in history occurred 168 years earlier on Gravesend Bay on the other side of RaritanBay – virtually within eye shot of the heights of Morgan during the early stages of the Revolutionary War.

In March 1776, after the British defeat in Boston in the opening stages of the Revolutionary War, the British fleet sailed north to Halifax, Nova Scotia to fight another day. Both General George Washington, the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and Major General William Howe, the British Commander-in-Chief of North America, knew that after Boston, New York was the most strategically important city in the colonies.  After driving the British out of Boston, Washington set off to set up for a possible invasion of New York Island (as Manhattan was known then) and Howe set off to set up the invasion.

The first 45 British war ships arrived at Sandy Hook, located on the south-eastern part of Raritan Bay in New Jersey, on June 29, 1776, and proceeded to drop their anchors in Lower New York Bay.  A few days later, on July 2, the first of the eventual 35,000+ British and Hessian troops started to land on Staten Island in preparation for the upcoming amphibious invasion of Long Island.

BTW, wondering what is a “Hessian troop”? During the American Revolution times, Hesse-Kassel was a German principality of the Holy Roman Empire (this was well before Otto von Bismark united Germany on 18 January 1871) governed by a dude named Frederick II.  Frederick II happened to be the uncle of King George III of Great Britain.  As was the practice at the time, Frederick II rented some of his conscripted army to others as mercenaries.  In this case, he rented them out to King George.  Hesse is now a state in present day Germany located in the west-central region of the country.  Its capital is Wiesbaden.

The invasion of Long Island began during the morning of Thursday, August 22 when, depending on which source reference you believe, 15,000 British and Hessian troops and “artillery, consisting of forty cannon,” were transported by “large flat-boats” to Gravesend Bay.  The landings were under the protection of “the fire of three frigates and two bombketches”.  Note that a “bomb ketch” is a specialized type of ship which used mortars to fire projectiles instead of cannons.  Mortars differ from cannons in that mortars fire projectiles upward at high angles to allow for their projectiles to arc on their way to their targets. This comes in handy when you want to blow up something on the other side of a wall.  Cannons tend to shoot at very shallow upward angles.  They would be used to blow up the wall.  It was 38 years later, during another war with Britain, that “the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air” from five British bomb ketches attacking Fort McHenry in the harbor in Baltimore, Maryland inspired Frances Scott Key to write the poem “Defence of Fort McHenry” which eventually became the national anthem of the United States of America.

Sorry, back to Long Island on August 22, 1776.  Gravesend Bay is located on the shores of Long Island under and around the east tower of the present day Verrazano Narrows Bridge, just to the west of Coney Island (when it actually was an island).  This posting will not go into all the details of this battle but the outcome of this first battle of the newly declared United States of America did not end in its favor.  The actual battle didn’t begin until August 27 and by August 29, the British and Hessians were able to drive the “Americans” into a perilous situation due to their larger numbers as well as their usage of a relatively unguarded pass which allowed for them to surround a significant portion of Washington’s army.

Outcome – Realizing the battle was lost, during the evening of August 29 General Washington evacuated his remaining 9,000 troops. Under the cover of darkness and using “every flat-bottomed boat and other craft” which could be mustered from the near area, Washington’s troops stealthily crossed the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan Island.  By 7am the next day, all troops were safely on Manhattan Island without the British knowing.  Manhattan was not their final stop.  They retreated north through Harlem Heights then all the way across New Jersey ultimately arriving in Valley Forge, PA for the winter.  On Christmas Day in 1776, Washington and his Continental Army crossed the ice laden Delaware River and attacked the Hessian soldiers stationed in the small New Jersey town of Trenton (14 years before it became the state capital). Possibly some of these same Hessian soldiers landed on Staten Island the previous summer.  This battle, known as the Battle of Trenton, had an enormously positive effect on the American Revolution cause which, as we know, ultimately lead to the agreement to American Independence by King George III.  Had Washington not evacuated the 9000 surviving troops that evening, the war perhaps would have ended early and the revolution might have been squelched.

A person standing on the bluff overlooking RaritanBay on what is now Cliff Avenue in Morgan would have been able to look across the bay and watch the 400+ British ships sail from Sandy Hook to Staten Island as well as any other points on the bay.  Doubt there has been a time before or since when that many ships were in RaritanBay at one time.  Who knows, maybe even James Morgan, Sr. and Jr. watched these ships from the vantage point of what was to much later become my very back yard during that world changing summer of 1776.

Originally posted on September 5, 2010.

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