–by Joanna Hallac
On August 27, 1776, one of the first really major and significant battles of the American Revolution occurred…in Brooklyn, NY. Also known as the Battle of Brooklyn Heights and the Battle of Long Island, the Battle of Brooklyn is often ignored by the history books, not to mention that most current “Brooklynites” likely don’t realize their home borough was host to battle during the war. Given that it’s the 236th anniversary of the battle, we thought we’d take a look into this oft overlooked battle of the American Revolutionary War.
Following the outbreak of the war in April 1775 at Lexington and Concord and then a contested battle two months later at Breeds Hill (we mistakenly refer to it as Bunker Hill), the Americans were able to eventually force the British to abandon Boston and head north to Nova Scotia. The British army would replace General Gage with the Howe brothers—William Howe was made commander in chief of the British forces and his brother Richard was appointed admiral of the British naval forces in North American waters. The Howe’s decided to make New York City the base of their military operations and began the process of moving troops and supplies there by sea; however, General Washington decided to counter this move in the spring of 1776 and moved his forces to New York as well.
The British arrived with 25,000 men on Staten Island, while Washington rather unwisely split his force of approximately 20,000 between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, with his main force in Brooklyn Heights. The British had been gathering their forces and supplies all summer and finally, when the time was right on August 27th, they made their way from Staten Island and landed at Gravesend Bay, Brooklyn. When they came ashore they pushed through to today’s Flatbush section of Brooklyn and stopped. Howe’s subordinate, George Clinton, knew Brooklyn well from his youth and came up with a plan to outflank the Americans on the left, which somehow they neglected to protect against, perhaps hoping for the same success they achieved at the Battle of Bunker Hill the year before.
Needless to say, the British easily defeated the Americans in the Battle of Brooklyn; however, Washington was able to very narrowly escape and retreat with his troops out of New York Harbor, which would become very significant as the war wore on. The fact that Howe refused to finish off the Americans and do what was necessary to deliver a crushing blow that could have ended the Revolutionary War right then was something that would come back to haunt him and the entire British military as the war dragged on for five more years with an ultimate American victory. There is wide speculation about why General Howe didn’t deliver a final, crushing blow to the Americans in Brooklyn and throughout New York City when he had the chance, with some suggesting he had a mindset of many British early on in the war that they didn’t want to sour relations with the Americans too badly so they could resume normal relations with them after it was resolved. Regardless of the reasons, Washington and his troops were able to retreat and the American forces lived onto fight for many years after this, ultimately achieving both victory and independence.