While Washington was struggling around New York City, the failed invasion of Canada was coming to its inevitable conclusion: the invasion of the United States from the north. Since the American high water mark on New Year’s Eve, the death of BG Richard Montgomery on the walls of Quebec (Ontario and Quebec were one disciplined soldier’s action away from being the 14th and 15th States), the campaign in Canada went badly for the Americans. Parliament recognized how perilously close was Canada’s loss that they sent Maj Gen John Burgoyne and 10,000 British regulars and Hessian mercenaries to reinforce Gov Guy Carleton. Faced with this overwhelming response, the remnants of Montgomery’s army, led by newly promoted BG Benedict Arnold, quickly retreated back to Lake Champlain in the late winter of 1776, burning all the boas and ships on the lake, Fort St Jean and destroying anything that they couldn’t carry or the British could use to builds ships on the lake. Without ships, Burgoyne could not proceed south.
Carleton anticipated this situationand requested prefabricated ships from Europe which could be transported overland and assembled on Lake Champlain. While those ships were enroute, MG Horatio Gates and nascent shipbuilding team from the brand new US Navy built ships as quickly as possible on the southern end of the lake. But the efforts were inadequate. An outbreak of smallpox slowed work down considerably, and furthermore there were too few American shipbuilders and sailors that could be lured away from the lucrative Atlantic seaboard to the wilderness of upstate New York. With great difficulty, the Americans built 15 ships (including two galleys, and the sloop USS Enterprise). The British managed to assemble 25 ships, the two largest with more firepower than the entirety of the American fleet.
Through sheer force of personality Arnold, an experienced sea captain, took command of the fleet. (The fight for command was the first glimpse at the problems with joint operations. Arnold didn’t accept that CDRE Esek Hopkins had command over him, and Hopkin’s choice didn’t accept Gates’ authority. Arnold won because of his rapport with the men.) Accepting that he couldn’t stand the British firepower on the open lake, Arnold moved the fleet to the narrows between Valcour Island and the shore (Plattsburg NY today). The next morning 11 October 1776, Carleton’s Navy attacked Arnold. The battle was fought all day and Arnold was correct that most of the British ships couldn’t engage, but it didn’t matter. Even though only a third of Carleton’s ships could enter the narrows, the British thrashed the inexperienced Americans, despite Arnold’s flagship, the galley USS Congress, fighting three different and larger ships simultaneously. Almost one year to the day after its establishment, the US Navy lost its first real battle.
That night Arnold’s fleet stealthily escaped sure destruction the next morning, and Carleton chased him down the lake. At Crown Point, Arnold burned his fleet, burned the fort and made his way overland to Ticonderoga. With a battered fleet, no places to winter, restless Indian allies, a strongly defended Fort Ticonderoga, and the smell of snowfall in the air, Carleton withdrew north. Though Benedict Arnold and the US Navy lost the battle, they did enough damage to delay the British invasion of the Hudson Valley until the next year.
After the defeat at the Battle of Long Island, LTG Washington was desperate for information regarding British operations against Manhattan. On 8 September 1776, CPT Nathan Hale of the 7th Connecticut Regt, a graduate of Yale and a former schoolteacher, volunteered to infiltrate Long Island and ascertain British intentions. He posed as an unemployed schoolmaster, and made his way from Connecticut, to Long Island, and eventually Manhattan, after the British landing at Kip’s Bay.
However, Hale was probably the worst possible choice for a spy: he was tall and “impossibly good looking”. He stood out in crowds. He was earnest, forthright, outspoken, and according to his friends, “incapable of duplicitous action”. Finally, he had a distinctive powder burn on his cheek from a skirmish with the British during the Siege of Boston.
On 20 Sept, Hale collected his notes and sketches of the British Army and Navy in and around New York City, and decided make his escape back to Washington on Harlem Heights. Unfortunately that night, a fire, which started at The Fighting Cocks Tavern, destroyed one third of the mostly abandoned city. The British blamed American spies (and the Americans blamed the British who used the fire as an excuse to loot the rest of the city… but let’s be honest: it was probably the Americans), and the next morning rounded up more than 200 ”suspicious men”, including Hale.
Hale was captured by none other the Major Robert Rogers of the Queen’s Rangers who was unconvinced with the school teacher story of the tall, ruggedly handsome blonde man with a nearly fresh powder burn on his cheek (even though he was actually a schoolteacher). Rogers spun a tale that he was also an American spy and had set the fires. Unfortunately the naive Hale believed him and gave himself away.
Of the 200 men rounded up as American spies, Hale was the only one who admitted he was a Patriot when he looked Gen Howe in the eye and told him so. According to the customs of war at the time, soldiers not in uniform were illegal combatants and were summarily hanged without a trial. At dawn on 22 September, 1776, CPT Nathan Hale was led to a tree outside of Dove Tavern in New York City, surrounded by only a few British officers and soldiers. But when the hangman asked the 21 year old if he had any last words, Hale, with “great composure and resolution” paraphrased a passage from a popular play at the time and said,
“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
On 15 September 1776, General Howe landed 4000 men at Kip’s Bay in Lower Manhattan. Washington’s spies knew of the landing and he planned to meet them at the waterline, but the Americans broke at the sight of the Royal Navy, despite Washington’s exhortations to stay and fight. Private Joseph Plumb Martin said of the embarrassing episode, “The demons of fear and disorder seemed to take full possession of all and everything on that day.” Washington reorganized the Continental Army on Harlem Heights and left Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton’s Rangers to monitor and harass the British.
Knowlton’s Rangers was arguably America’s first Special Forces unit. He patterned his men on Robert Roger’s Rangers from the French and Indian War (Roberts was fighting for the British in this war.). On the morning on 16 Sep, Knowlton’s 150 men surprised the pickets of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the Light Infantry. Once the British were roused, Knowlton fell back, and the British pursued. The Light Infantry dragged the entire 42nd Highlander Regt, the Black Watch, with them: the uppity Americans had to be chastised. The Light Infantry liked to use fox hunting calls in their pursuits, and Washington took the sound as an insult.
The infuriated Washington organized an ambush for the cocky Brits, but a jittery young officer prematurely ordered his men to fire just as the Brits entered the kill zone. The British retreated to a field on Morningside Heights, but they were exposed and Washington decided to attack. All was going well for Washington, but a bungled flank attack (and death of Knowlton) failed to isolate them. The Brits retreated into the trees of Hollow Way, but Martin said of the withdrawal, they “were entering a thick wood, a circumstance as disagreeable to them as it was agreeable to us at that period of the war.”
At this point both Howe and Washington fed troops into the battle and they pounded each other for several hours, with the Americans having the upper hand in what was described as a “cursed thrashing” by one British officer. Nevertheless, Washington knew he was pressing his luck in the slug fest, as he was unwilling to commit more troops and risk the loss of the very defensible Harlem Heights behind him. When Howe arrived with the bulk of his 9000 man army, Washington prudently withdrew back up the hill.
The Battle of Harlem Heights, as it subsequently became known (it was named for the location of Washington’s headquarters, not the location of the actual battle), was Washington’s first battlefield victory. The Continental Army locked horns with best regiments in the British Army and gave better than they got. It proved a significant boost to the morale of the wavering Americans, which had only known defeat in New York.
In the afternoon of 28 August, 1776, after a council of war with Greene, Putnam, and Sullivan, George Washington decided that the storm could be used as a cover to gather boats and escape the trap. It took a full day and then some to gather all the small craft on the East and Hudson rivers in the middle of the nor’easter, but by the evening of the 29th, they were assembled below Brooklyn Village. Just after dusk, almost as if Baby Jesus turned off the faucet, the storm dissipated, and left the East River calm.
Two Massachusetts regiments would ferry the Continental Army to Manhattan in great secrecy. Pvt Joseph Plum Martin wrote that the men were “enjoined not to speak, or even cough”, and that “orders were passed from officer to officer, and then to the men in a whisper…” All night Washington’s soon-to-be indispensable regiments of fishermen, mostly from Marblehead, slowly rowed the stores, powder, tents, cannon, horses and men of the heretofore doomed army across the mile wide East River.
In the morning twilight of the 30th, the men left behind in camp to stoke the fires scampered down to the bank, and were surprised to find three regiments, and Washington’s headquarters, still awaiting transport. The operation would be exposed at dawn for all eyes to see, whether Manhattan loyalists, the elder Howe’s gunners, or the younger Howe’s pickets. Washington, personally supervising the embarkation, briefly entertained the idea of sending the men back to the entrenchments to make a fight of it. But just as the sun was about to peak over the horizon, another freak accident of nature, some would say a miracle, happened – a heavy fog descended on the river. It was so thick men “had to hold the shoulder of the man in front of him”. When the fog finally lifted two hours later, Lord Howe, looking through his spyglass in the New York Harbor, watched the final load cross the river, which contained Washington as he was one of the last to embark.
The Continental Army would live to fight another day.
Almost a hundred years later, German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck would say, “There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children, and the United States of America.”
On the evening of 27 August 1776, General Sir Henry Clinton and Lord Cornwallis were furious with their commander, General Howe: Washington’s army was just waiting on destruction and instead of attacking, Howe ordered siege works constructed. He later explained to Parliament in 1779 that his men were tired after marching all day, and he wanted to avoid another Bunker Hill. Furthermore, his brother, Admiral Lord Howe could easily trap the Americans by sailing into the East River the next morning. Nevertheless, Clinton and Cornwallis felt that when total victory was within your grasp, you seize it with both hands, lest the opportunity slip away. They were right.
On the early morning of 28 August, in the exhausted and battered American camp on Brooklyn Heights, the sentries’ eyes began adjusting to the twilight and they could just make out their British and Hessian counterparts 150 meters below them. But before their besiegers’ camp could become more than thousands of tiny fireflies in the black, darkness reemerged. In less than a minute, the clear starlit sky was a mass of dark angry clouds streaked of lightning. In its horrible fury, the thunder awoke both camps, and the horizontal rain blew over tents and extinguished fires. A Nor’easter had blown down the coast.
The storm, uncommon in the summer, howled all day, and showed no signs of abating. In New York Harbor, it was all Lord Howe could do to save his ships, much less than trying to sail up the East River.
It was the second time that year that Washington was saved by a freak phenomenon of the weather. It would not be the last.
New York was LTG George Washington’s nightmare: the city was on the southern tip of Manhattan Island and dominated by the western tip of another island, the Brooklyn Heights on Long Island, and he had no navy. In July, Washington politely rejected Lord Howe’s offer of pardons, just after Howe’s adjutant pointed out these exact inconvenient facts. He also dismissed Nathaniel Greene’s suggestion to burn the wretched hive of loyalists to the ground and fight somewhere else. Washington understood that the Continental Army had to be seen defending all Americans, not just particular groups. Despite the difficulties, a defense of New York would at least be attempted. Washington had 22,000 men but Howe had 35,000 so he split his army: half on Manhattan, 1/10 in forts blocking the Hudson (Forts Lee and Washington. We will speak of them later), and 2/5 on Long Island.
On 21 August 1776, Washington’s spy network determined that Brooklyn would be Howe’s next target. That night Washington rushed reinforcements to Long Island, where MG Sullivan discerned that the best place to meet Howe would be the Guan Heights south of Brooklyn Village. The Guan Heights were a series of hills and passes which was thought would negate Howe’s advantage of superior numbers. But the defensive preparations were muddled. It was clear that Washington and his subordinate commanders and staffs were still having difficulty with all aspects of running the army, particularly one so large as the Continental Army in the summer of 1776. The three western passes were defended, but far to the east, the Jamaica Pass, was thought too far away for use by the British. They were wrong.
On 22 August the first British and Hessian troops landed at Gravesend Bay on Long Island. By 25 August Howe had 20,000 men on the island. On the evening of 26 August, Howe led a night march of 10,000 guided by loyalist farmers around the American defenses through the Jamaica Pass. At 0300, Cornwallis and Clinton attacked the Guan Heights to fix Washington, and at dawn Howe crashed into Sullivan’s unprotected flank and rear. The entire left of the Continental Army broke. Washington ordered a retreat for the fortifications of the Brooklyn Heights but the entire army was in chaos. That so many men would escape was solely the result of the defense and counterattacks of the 1st Maryland Line, led by MAJ Mordecai Gist, known to history as “The Maryland 400”.
MG William Alexander Lord Stirling, in command of the Washington’s right on Battle Hill thought he was winning the day against the Hessians and Royal Marines to his front until British regulars appeared behind him. He ordered most of his troops back but stayed with Gist and the rearguard of Marylanders. The Maryland 400 had never been in a fight together before that morning and took on 2500 British and two cannon. They alternated between breaking up attacks and counterattacking with bayonets, which they did six times, twice to capture an old stone house, before being destroyed. 256 Marylanders were killed, the rest wounded and captured, including Gist and Stirling. Washington watching from a nearby hill, said of them “Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose.” Only twelve made it back to the Brooklyn Heights.
That afternoon, Washington and his commanders scrambled to reorganize the shattered army to defend the Brooklyn Heights for Howe’s inevitable assault that evening.
But it never came. Nonetheless, as soon as the Royal Navy entered the East River the next morning, Washington would be trapped, and there was nothing he could do about it.
On 8 July 1776, Colonel John Dixon, commander of the Philadelphia militia regiment, “The Associators”, publicly read the Declaration of Independence for the first time from the steps of the Pennsylvania State House. Written but unsigned copies of the Declaration were sent to each of the colonies (the official one in the National Archives in Thomas Jefferson’s exquisite penmanship was only finished and signed on 2 August 1776).
The next day, the Declaration arrived in New York and George Washington had it distributed to the Continental Army, then bivouacked in lower Manhattan. As Washington’s scouts watched British troops and Hessian mercenaries occupy Staten Island, the commanders of each regiment read the Declaration to the troops and the citizens of New York.
When the Declaration was read to the local 4th New York Regiment, the inspired residents of the city marched over to Bowling Green Park, and pulled down the statue of King George III at its center. They carried the King over to a local blacksmith and had him melted down for musket balls.
I’d like to think many a British soldier had the King in their hearts in the coming days.
Joseph Plumb Martin was the son of a Massachusetts reverend and was sent to live with his grandparents in Connecticut after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. In June 1776, he threatened to join the crew of a American privateer out of Hartford if his grandparents didn’t allow him to join the Continental Army which just arrived in New York to defend against the inevitable British invasion there. His grandparents relented and on 29 June 1776, the 16 year old joined the Connecticut State Troops, and almost immediately was recruited into the 8th Connecticut Continental Line. He wouldn’t see his grandparents again until 1783.
Pvt Martin fought in every major battle from Long Island to Yorktown. He crossed the Delaware and surprised the Hessians at Trenton and was promoted to corporal in early 1777. He froze his ass off at Valley Forge and after MG Sullivan’s Iroquois campaign in 1779 was promoted to sergeant. He stayed a sergeant for the rest of the war and was present when LTG Washington disbanded the Continental Army in 1783.
What set Martin apart from the thousands of other Continental Army soldiers was that he kept a diary nearly every day of the war. Many officers at the time kept journals but few soldiers could read and write. Martin’s journal provides a nearly unique view into a soldier’s life in the Continental Army and its operations. He rarely mentions any officers above his company commander and mentions George Washington only once: when Washington once returned his salute while on guard duty.
The diary is a nearly unique look into the daily life of an American soldier in the Continental Line. Martin’s diary is definitive proof that some things never change and Joe will be Joe no matter the time period.
While the British regulars were locked up in Boston throughout late 1775 and early 1776, Americans in the remaining colonies threw out most of the British and loyalist officials. When Howe evacuated Boston, two large expeditionary forces were made available to Howe: one under Gen. John Burgoyne that went to lift the siege of Quebec, and another under Gen. Henry Clinton, which sailed south.
In June 1776, Britain’s only friendly harbor north of the Caribbean was in Nova Scotia. And another was needed to effectively subdue the colonies. With only 4000 men New York and Virginia were out of the question, so Clinton headed south to the supposedly friendlier Carolinas and Georgia.
Clinton sought to link up with Scottish loyalists from the backwoods of North Carolina. However, when he arrived off of Cape Fear, he found out that the Scots were defeated at the Battle of Moore’s Bridge two weeks before so he headed further south to Charleston, South Carolina.
In colonies that were prepared to fight against the Crown, South Carolina was close to the top of the list. Charleston was the third largest city in the colonies, the center of patriot resistance in the south, and home to most of the arms manufacturers in the Southern colonies. Thousands of Scots-Irish patriot militia poured into the city from the backwoods, and fortifications defending the city were started in late March 1776. Unfortunately, they were not completed when Adm Peter Parker’s flotilla of eight warships appeared off the coast in June with Clinton’s men. The northern entrance to Charleston Harbor was guarded by a half finished fort on Sullivan’s Island commanded by COL William Moultrie with 500 men and thirty pieces of artillery. Only two walls of the “fort” we’re started. But they were thick and consisted of palmetto log retaining walls filled in with sand, and had firing platforms for the guns.
On 28 June 1776, Clinton’s men attempted to march on the rear of the fort by fording from nearby Long Island while Parker destroyed the it with cannon fire and landed marines. But the ford was chest deep, and a small blocking force prevented Clinton from ferrying across. Nonetheless, Parker was confident he could complete the task himself.
Parker opened fire and Moultrie responded in kind. To make up for a relative lack of gunpowder, Moultrie’s gunners made every shot count, greatly damaging the fleet. Parker’s fire was continuos and heavy but the spongy palmetto logs absorbed the shot. Most accounts of the battle note the logs of the fort “quivered” when hit instead of splintering. But that didn’t help the men on the platforms whom took a terrible pounding. The high watermark of the fight came just before dusk when the flag Moultrie designed was struck down fell outside the walls. SGT William Jasper yelled “We shall not fight without our flag!” and ran through the fire to grab it. He fastened it to a cannon swab so the city could see it since the flag staff was broken. The act inspired the defenders and they increased the rate of fire, so much so that when dusk fell, Parker decided that any further bombardment would just get his barely floating ships sunk.
Unable to force the narrows, Clinton’s men reboarded. Parker returned to the bigger Long Island to join with Howe’s substantially larger invasion of New York later in July.
America’s first invasion of Canada in 1775 started off well. Colonel Benedict Arnold’s surprise attack through the Maine wilderness was a disaster, with troops having to eat their belts, but it fixed Governor Guy Carleton in Quebec, and allowed Brigadier General Richard Montgomery who moved north from Fort Ticonderoga to seize Montreal and besiege Quebec. On New Year’s Eve, a surprise assault in a blinding snowstorm was discovered by an alert sentry mere seconds before the Americans were over the wall. Montgomery was killed and the new commander Brigadier General John Thomas, with the headstrong Arnold (still an ardent patriot at this point in the war) settled in for a siege.
In May 1776, the first British and Hessian troops from Europe under General John Burgoyne arrived to put down the rebellion. With just 2000 men, Thomas couldn’t continue the siege and retreated toward Montreal. But the American governor there so alienated the population of the city that they banded together with a small outlying British garrison, and the Mississauga, Seneca, and Cayuga Indians to throw out the Americans. By this point Brigadier General John Sullivan arrived with reinforcements, saw the futility of trying to hold Montreal with a superior British approaching from Quebec, took command of everyone, and headed quickly back to Ft Ticonderoga.
They would have made it intact if they hadn’t been intentionally led astray by a Canadian guide on 8 June 1776. The treacherous canuck led the American army into a swamp while “looking” for the ford at Trois-Rivieres. By the time they extricated themselves Carleton’s vanguard caught them. In the chaos that followed, 50 Americans were killed and 230 captured. The British had ten casualties.
Sullivan still managed to save the bulk of the men, which prevented Burgoyne from invading the nascent United States in 1776, but America’s first invasion of Canada had failed.