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Friday, July 3, 2015

God's "Invisible Hand" at The Battle of Long Island (an excerpt from my upcoming book)

In his inaugural address to Congress President Washington said,

“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


  1. Thanks for the amazing history Trevor! (I wasn't aware of these details.)

  2. Ummm... considering how Trevor thinks the USA is going to Hell in a hand basket and has largely become a tool of the Devil, perhaps that "invisible hand" was not so divine after all. ???

  3. It would be more accurate to say that I see modern liberalism as a "tool of the Devil." And yes, liberalism has become far too prominent in today's America, however, we are certainly far from irredeemable. (See above: "Should Christians Still Celebrate July 4?")

  4. Does God prevent the Devil from posing as an angel or co-opting His gospel to fool men into serving the wrong master? I think not.

    It is traditional for conservatives to believe the USA was fostered by divine providence to become a "force for good" in the world. This underwrites the neocon policy of foreign intervention and adventurism. However, if one looks closely at the bloody history and questionable results of this policy, questions arise as to what true agenda is served.

    History shows we have sown death and destruction across the world from Latin America to Vietnam. Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria are only the latest examples. We know how Iraq and Libya turned out, and yet we double down on our bet and gamble with the lives of other men and their families in places most Americans cannot find on a map. Whose agenda does this serve? Is it liberal or conservative? Was this diplomatic and military hegemony the policy of LBJ or Reagan? Was it the policy of GW Bush or Barack Obama? The answer is yes.

    It is a policy of both republicans and democrats, -of both conservatives and apparent liberals, -but what it isn't is the policy of our founders. I'll offer these links regarding principles upon which this country was founded. Tell me if you agree with them.




  5. I'm certainly not much of a fan of "nation building." Especially in areas dominated by Islam. The idea of "restraint" and a "modest and humble foreign policy" generally sound wonderful to me, but prove far more difficult when actually forced to look at the world as it exists and consider where U.S. interests are at stake. Also, when considering the Founders on foreign policy, it would be the height of hypocrisy to not take note of the fact that, if the French of the 18th century had strictly practiced the foreign policy as described by those in your links, the U.S. as we know her would likely not exist.

  6. Remember the French were already in a belligerent confrontation with Britain, so it's not exactly the same thing. The Founders assumed that our country would be a neutral observer when their stipulations as to proper behavior of ambassadors and diplomats were formed. France was not a neutral observer in regards to Britain.

    The Bible teaches that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This is the basis of Christian relations, and if the USA is a Christian country it should be the basis of our foreign policy. Tragically, current US policy is quite the opposite. I suggest this is a development of neocon influence that has corrupted the proper relationship between the USA and the world. The preemptive theory that we are justified to attack some other group or country because they might in the future become a threat (not even a threat to citizens, but just a threat to corporate interests) is not biblical, is not morally sound, and does not produce justifiable results in practice. But that's what we do. That's what Bush did. That's what Obama does. We are not winning hearts and minds by this policy. Instead we are coercing people who will rise up and become our enemies in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Christ would not approve.

    Lastly, what are "US interests", and when did the American public vote on them and what things they are willing to wager in terms of blood and treasure in defense of those interests? i think this is a discussion Americans need to have sooner rather than later.