The British commanders felt humiliated after being driven from Boston. A ragtag militia had imprisoned them in the city and then forced them out with a canon seized from one of their own British forts. They were not about to go home. They just needed to shift their base of operation to New York. With its larger loyalist population, New York would be a friendlier host than Boston. And from New York, the British could advance up the Hudson River and seal off the rabble-rousing New Englanders from the rest of the colonies.
By August 1775, therefore, British General William Howe had landed 32,000 troops on Staten Island, including 9000 Hessian mercenaries. His brother, Admiral Richard Howe, had brought his huge fleet that now patrolled the harbor. With these overpowering numbers, the British would certainly be able to crush the fledgling rebellion.
But American General George Washington felt differently. Anticipating the British move on New York, he had marched his army south from Boston. He carefully deployed his troops on the tip of Manhattan and across the East River on Long Island’s Brooklyn Heights, and then he all but dared the British commanders to try and drive him from the gates of the Hudson River.
On 22 August, Howe rose to the challenge and began to transport men from Staten to Long Island. Washington matched this move by strengthening his first line of defense at the base of Brooklyn Heights. But for reasons still unclear, the Americans’ left flank was left woefully undermanned: the Jamaica Pass was guarded by just five soldiers. And sure enough, on the morning of the 27th, the British discovered the soft part of the American defense. They poured through the Jamaica Heights and behind the American front lines, separating them from the second line positioned on Brooklyn Heights. By noon the American position was hopeless.
Washington, however, refused or failed to recognize the futility of the situation. On the 28th he ferried three more regiments from Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights—a move that could have compounded the disaster. But that is when Washington caught a break. Howe’s memories of Bunker Hill prevented his launching an assault on the heights until his brother’s fleet could be placed into position for an artillery barrage. And miserable weather prevented Admiral Howe from doing so. The storm bought Washington a little time—just enough to finally realize that New York was lost. And so the next night, he quietly transported all 9500 men deployed on Brooklyn Heights back across the East River to Manhattan.
Another commander might have ordered an assault on the American forces in Manhattan, but Howe opted to sail his army up the East River, land it above the city where it would meet less resistance, and march south into the American camps. Once Howe’s scheme became apparent to Washington, he ordered New York City abandoned. As British troops landed on the east side of Manhattan, American soldiers followed local New Yorkers, like American Burr, up roads along the island’s western bank out of reach of the British army.
The battle of New York was a disaster for the Americans but not a complete disaster. More than 300 were killed, 800 were wounded, and another 1000 were captured. Washington bungled the defense of the city and was slow to grasp the futility of his position. But most of the army had escaped, and Washington was moving to the realization that this was the critical thing. As long as the army persisted, the Patriot cause had teeth. Moreover, Howe’s reluctance to press an advantage if it carried significant risks was also revealed. In other words, despite this loss, the American army survived. George Washington learned something about his army and an even more valuable lesson about his opponent.