“It would be peculiarly improper to omit, in this first official act, my fervent supplication to that Almighty Being, who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States…No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand which conducts the affairs of men more than the people of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency…We ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained.”
Led by General Washington, time and again the rag-tag American forces went up against the world’s most elite army and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. From Trenton to Princeton, Saratoga, Valley Forge, and on and on until Yorktown, American forces defied the odds, and the “invisible hand” to which Washington referred was always there.
There were far too many “coincidences” that benefited the Colonial Army—at least for those who experienced or witnessed such events—for things to be written off simply as good fortune. Of course, that is exactly what many modern historians do. Thus, for example, most Americans have never heard "the rest of the story” when it comes to the largest battle of the entire Revolutionary War.
The Battle of Long Island, the first major battle after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was a victory for the British. However, the escape by the Americans was one of the most significant military achievements by the Colonial Army. It is also one of the greatest examples of divine intervention in American history.
Just prior to the American Declaration of Independence, in early June of 1776, the British began sending troop ships down from Canada with intention of taking New York. The British ships dropped anchor just off Staten Island. Over the period of the next several weeks and months the British had amassed a force of nearly 32,000 troops on Staten Island.
With a force of about 19,000, Washington was unsure whether the British would invade at Long Island or Manhattan. Thus, he chose to divide his forces.
Beginning early in the morning on August 22, 1776, thousands of British troops launched from Staten Island and in the matter of a few hours landed on Long Island. Though Colonials were stationed on the shore, the British landing went unopposed. The Colonial forces, consisting of Colonel Edward Hand’s Pennsylvanian Riflemen, retreated and by noon there were about 15,000 Red Coats on the shores of Long Island.
Three days later the Red Coats were reinforced by nearly 5,000 Hessians. Being misinformed of the British numbers, and thinking that perhaps the Long Island landing by the British was a ruse, Washington left his forces divided between Manhattan and Long Island. When the fighting on Long Island commenced on August 27, the Colonial forces numbered only about half the British and Hessian force that totaled nearly 20,000.
The fighting raged throughout the day, and soon the American forces were surrounded or overwhelmed. Two American regiments led by General William Alexander—known as Lord Stirling because of his Scottish ancestry—consisting of the 1st Delaware and the 1st Maryland Infantry, became cut off and trapped. Stirling ordered his forces to retreat behind the fortified American position on Brooklyn Heights.
A contingent of several hundred Maryland troops, known today as the Maryland 400 (which may have been only about 250), remained behind to protect the retreat. They battled British forces that were 10 times their number. Led by Stirling and a young major named Mordecai Gist, they fought ferociously and heroically. Several times (maybe as many as six), the Maryland 400 charged the British lines. They held the British off long enough for their comrades to reach safety. All but a handful would be killed or captured. Washington, observing the battle, remarked, “Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose!” If not for such bravery, Washington would have lost his army that day.
Surrounded, hopelessly outnumbered, and with the East River behind them, Washington and his army waited for what was surely to be the final British assault that would finish off the trapped Americans. All afternoon of the 27th they waited. Dusk turned to dark and inexplicably the British forces, led by General William Howe, a distinguished and capable commander, defied all military logic and held their ground.
By the morning of the 28th, overcast skies moved in. By the late afternoon, rain began to fall. The British were settling in, digging trenches, and hoping for an American surrender. In addition to severely outnumbering the Americans, a significant contingent of the Royal Navy, led by General Howe’s brother, Admiral Richard Howe, waited at the mouth of the East river ready to sail in and rain cannon fire upon the trapped colonials.
However, the winds accompanying the storm that moved in kept the British ships safely away. As the night of the 28th came, General Howe continued to wait. All the waiting gave Washington time to develop a plan. It was desperate, and it was not popular among his senior officers. Washington had decided to evacuate his entire force of nearly 9,000 using small boats that he obtained from General William Heath who was stationed between Manhattan and what is now the Bronx.
The task was enormous and fraught with peril. At their current position, the East River was a mile wide. To be successful, the Americans needed stealth, time, deception, and wind to keep the Royal Navy away. By “chance” the last troops to reinforce Washington’s position were Colonel John Glover’s “Marvelous Men from Marblehead.” This company of 1,200 men was disciplined and well trained. They were also mostly seamen and fishermen. This meant that they were expert oarsmen and well capable of quietly rowing the necessary distance across the East River.
During the night, the storm moved out and there was no rain to help drown out the noise of the withdrawal. Silence was ordered. Additionally, some forces had to remain in place to keep the British deceived. One unit of such men, led by Colonel Edward Hand, mistakenly received orders to head for the shore. This left a gap in the American line that the British could have easily exploited. However, it went unnoticed by the Red Coats and, catching the error, Washington sent Hand’s men back into place.
As dawn was breaking, the evacuation was far from over. Major Ben Tallmadge, who would later become Washington’s chief intelligence officer (and who is a significantly portrayed in AMC’s Turn, the TV series detailing what is hailed as “America’s first spy ring”), and who was part of the rear guard protecting the retreat, noted,
“As the dawn of the next day approached, those of us who remained in the trenches became very anxious for our own safety, and when the dawn appeared there were several regiments still on duty. At this time a very dense fog began to rise [out of the ground and off the river], and it seemed to settle in a peculiar manner over both encampments. I recollect this peculiar providential occurrence perfectly well, and so very dense was the atmosphere that I could scarcely discern a man at six yards distance…we tarried until the sun had risen, but the fog remained as dense as ever.”
The fog remained until the last Colonial left Long Island. It then lifted and the stunned British rushed to the river and began firing at the fleeing Americans, but it was too late. They were out of range and safely away. Virtually all Colonials who kept a diary of those events noted the fog and, like Tallmadge, gave credit where it was due. Nearly 9,000 Americans were evacuated with no loss of life or limb. According to witnesses, Washington was the last man to leave Brooklyn.
Had Washington and the large American contingent on Long Island been captured, it likely would have ended the war. However, "providential aid" prevailed.
The miraculous fog, the dawdling and seemingly blind British, the timely arrival of skilled oarsmen, and a helpful northeast wind that kept British ships out of the East River—these were too many “coincidences” to give credit to mere chance. Though technically the British were the victors in the Battle of Long Island—when the news reached London there was tremendous celebration—the Americans could not deny that the “invisible hand” of the “Almighty Being” was clearly present on Long Island and had delivered them from what looked like certain defeat.
Copyright 2015, Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason.
Trevor and his wife Michelle are the authors of: Debt Free Living in a Debt Filled World