The “Revolutionary Summer” of 1776

 

U.S. Declaration of Independence
U.S. Declaration of Independence

Revolutionary Summer

Today is the 237th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776.

That document, however, is only one of the important events in Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, the latest book by American historian, Joseph J. Ellis.[1] Here are comments on only a few of those other important events.[2]

In May of that year, the Continental Congress adopted a resolution that John Adams, its principal author, later saw as the real declaration of independence. This  resolution “recommended to the respective assemblies and conventions of the United Colonies, where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs have been hitherto established, to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general. “[3]

That resolution’s resolution preamble set forth an indictment of King George III. He had “excluded the inhabitants of these United Colonies from the protection of his crown; And whereas, no answer, whatever, to the humble petitions of the colonies for redress of grievances and reconciliation with Great Britain, has been or is likely to be given; but, the whole force of that kingdom, aided by foreign mercenaries, is to be exerted for the destruction of the good people of these colonies; And whereas, it appears absolutely irreconcilable to reason and good Conscience, for the people of these colonies now to take the oaths and affirmations necessary for the support of any government under the crown of Great Britain.”

Therefore, the resolution’s preamble continued, “it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted, under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as for the defence of their lives, liberties, and properties, against the hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies.”

Thereafter the legislatures of New England and Virginia voted in favor of independence while those in New York and Pennsylvania did not. But in Pennsylvania mechanics, artisans and farmers created a provisional government that supported independence. A similar movement in New York was blocked, and its legislature did not join the independence movement until after the Congress had issued its Declaration of Independence.

More generally, the Ellis book asserts that the period from May through October of 1776 was the pivotal moment in American history when “a consensus for American independence emerged and was officially declared, the outlines for an American republic were first proposed, the problems that would shape its future were faced and finessed, and the largest armada ever to cross the Atlantic arrived to kill the American rebellion in the cradle, which it then very nearly did.” The political and military events of this time influenced each other and need to be told together, says Ellis.

As the author of several posts about the American Revolutionary War through the summer of 1776,[4] I was reminded by the Ellis book that for nearly 15 months the War had been fought without a collective decision that the objective for the colonists was independence from Great Britain. It started at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts in April 1775 and continued through the American siege of Boston and the Battle of Bunker Hill. This uncertainty about the American purpose in the War officially ended with the U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, or with the May congressional resolution previously mentioned.

Until the Declaration of Independence the official policy of the Continental Congress remained loyalty to King George III, and one of the congressional leaders, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, ardently believed that seeking independence would be suicidal to be avoided at almost any cost. Dickinson and others in the Congress sought to find a compromise that would preserve colonial rights without independence and that would end the War.[5] Similar efforts in Britain were lead by Edmund Burke in the House of Commons and by William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, in the House of Lords.

These efforts, of course were unsuccessful, and the War resumed that year with British victories in the Battle of Long Island (Brooklyn), the Continental Army’s withdrawal from Manhattan (after its success in the Battle of Harlem Heights) and the Battle of White Plains.

These British military victories were made possible by the massing of a large British military force in New York that year.

As Ellis notes, in early July, Lord Germain, the British Foreign Secretary, “managed to defy the insuperable obstacles of space and distance to coordinate [a] three-pronged assault so that it converged on Staten Island … [nearly] simultaneously.”  First under the command of General William Howe were the 9,000 British troops that had evacuated Boston and retreated to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Second under the command of General Henry Clinton were 2,900 British troops from the South Carolina coast. Third under the command of Admiral Richard Howe were 150 ships, 20,000 troops and a six-month supply of food and munitions from Great Britain; it was “the largest armada to cross the Atlantic” before World War I. This accomplishment “was eloquent testimony to the matchless prowess of the Royal Navy.”

Indeed, the British, and especially its military leaders (General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe) had ample reason to believe that the obvious superiority of their forces would cause the colonists to recognize the futility of their effort and to seek peace. As a result, the Howe brothers repeatedly refused to press their advantage in the field and destroy the Continental Army. In retrospect, they “lost a golden opportunity to end the American rebellion at its inception.”

The British military solution, however, had precisely the opposite effect on the American people and on the Continental Congress. It helped to build support for American independence.

As he concludes his book, Ellis says there were three major results of the Revolutionary Summer. First, “the Continental Congress was immune to any British proposal for reconciliation.” Second, there was no American consensus on how the former colonies would be united and as a result no consensus on creating a fully empowered Continental Army. Third, these prior results “virtually ensured a long conflict that the British could not win for political reasons and that the Americans could not win for military reasons.”


[1]  Ellis is History Professor at the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He previously taught at Mount Holyoke College and at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is one of the nation’s leading scholars of American history and the author of prize-winning books about the revolutionary era.

[2] Reviews of the book have appeared in the New York Times by Andrew Cayton and by Michiko Kakutani and in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

[3] In the Spring of 1776 John Adams focused his attention on devising a framework for an American government after independence, and he wrote four memoranda on the subject, the last of which was published in April as “Thoughts on Government.” Each state government, it suggested, should have an elected governor as executive, an elected bicameral legislature and a judiciary.

[4] The prior posts provide an overview of the American Revolutionary War and discussions of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the mustering of the Minute Men, the Siege of Boston, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Campaign for New York and New Jersey, the Battle of Brooklyn (Long Island), the Battle of Harlem Heights and the Battle of White Plains.

[5] In July of 1775 Dickinson was the principal author of the American Declaration on Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms that has been seen as a statement of a self-defense rationale for the American rebellion that is consistent with the doctrine of just war.

The American Revolutionary War: The Battle of Harlem Heights (New York), September 1776

On the morning of August 30, 1776, it was apparent that the British had totally routed the colonists in the Battle of Brooklyn (Long Island). But the British commander, General Howe, did not press their advantage and immediately attack the American forces on the southern end of York Island (now Manhattan).

General Washington at his New York City headquarters obviously knew that the British would be attacking the City and the Island, but did not know where or when.

The Battle of Brooklyn was mentioned in a September 3rd letter from my maternal fifth great-grandfather, Perley Brown, to his wife from New York City. He also said that British ships were now “within ear shot” of the City and that he and the others “expect the [British] Regulars will try to take the City.” Another such letter from him on September 9th said “the Enemy have got a Brestwork [sic] about seven miles above the City [in Brooklyn Heights] on long island and they fire actrost [sic] to a foart [sic] of ours [sic] and our men at them.” He added, “they have wounded two men and kild [sic] one.”[1]

On September 12th (the day after the unsuccessful Staten Island Peace Conference), Washington decided to abandon New York City and ordered the main part of the Continental Army to move north on the island as soon as possible to King’s Bridge connecting the island with what is now the Bronx.[2]

Harlem Heights map

By September 14th most of this American force had reached the Harlem Heights[3] on the west side of the island and King’s Bridge at the northern end of the island. The balance of the forces remained at the southern end of the island.

British ships at Kips Bay

On the morning of the 15th five British frigates sailed up the East River and near Kips Bay (on the east side of Manhattan and just south of the present-day U.N. Headquarters) started a cannon bombardment of the island. Thereafter 13,000 British troops left the ships and invaded the island from the east in flat-boats. Some of the British soldiers immediately marched south to occupy New York City.

Simultaneously the last of the American troops marched north from New York City on the west side of the island to reach their colleagues at Harlem Heights. Perley Brown was in this contingent, and in an October 4th letter to his wife said, “on the 15 of September we left new York and Before we could get out the [British] Regulars Landed on the island and intended to stop our retreat.” Perley continued, “they fired their cannon from there [sic] ships [on the Hudson River] which came very [near] to us.”

Harlem Heights Battle
Harlem Heights Battle

On September 16th 5,000 British troops reached the 1,800 American soldiers on Harlem Heights. The British attacked, and their bunglers sounded a fox-hunting call know as “gone away,” meaning that the fox is in full flight from the hounds. The Continentals, who had been in orderly retreat, were infuriated by this insult. They halted and counter-attacked. The British retreated and withdrew.

 

This battle was mentioned in Perley Brown’s October 4th letter to his wife from “Harlom [sic] Camp.” He reported, “on the 16 they came up to our lines at the upper end of the island at harlom [sic] where our Camp is now.” He added, “we had a sharp ingagement [sic] which lasted about two [h]ours” and had “about 20 kild [sic] and about 70 wounded.”

The British suffered 14 to 90 killed and 78 to 300 wounded. The Americans had 30 killed and 100 wounded.

Troop movements for Battle of Harlem HeightsThe map of Long Island and Manhattan Island shows the troop movements leading up to this Battle.

The map to the right of Long Island and Manhattan Island shows the movement of troops leading up to the Battle of Harlem Heights.

This victory, minor though it was, was the first victory of the War for General Washington and bolstered American morale.


[1] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 17-25 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).

[2]   In addition to the hyperlinked sources in this post, it also draws from David McCullough, 1776 at 208-219 (New York; Simon & Schuster 2005); T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frank Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 151 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Eleven (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).

[3]  This area is now known as Morningside Heights, 110th to 125th Streets from Riverside Drive on the west to Morningside Drive on the east. It is the home today of such institutions as Columbia University, Barnard College, Grant’s Tomb, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Union Theological Seminary and St. Luke’s Hospital.

Today’s Morningside Heights

The American Revolutionary War: Battle of Brooklyn (Long Island), New York, August 1776

During the summer of 1776, a British military force of 32,000 troops and 10,000 sailors on more than 400 ships assembled in Staten Island and the New York Harbor. They were obviously preparing for an attack on New York City at the southern end of York Island (now Manhattan).

General George Washington at his headquarters in the City obviously knew of the assembling adversary forces and of the approaching battle. But he did not know when or where the attack would come. Therefore, Washington split the Continental Army of 19,000 troops into fortified positions in the City and in Long Island across the East River from the City.

In further preparations for the forthcoming battles, the colonial forces that Spring and Summer constructed Fort Stirling on present-day Brooklyn Heights (Long Island) overlooking New York City and four other nearby forts.

British boats, Staten Island to Long Island

On August 22nd, the British made their offensive, tactical decision. They sent 15,000 troops on boats over three miles of water from Staten Island to Long Island. They landed unopposed on the shore of Gravesend Bay. (The red area in the photo to the right is the Narrows which the boats transversed.)

Brooklyn map, 1776

The troops then marched six miles inland to establish camp at the village of Flatbush. (Two days later these forces were augmented by the arrival of 5,000 Hessian troops from Staten Island.)[1]

Washington was aware of the initial British movement into Long Island, but was told it only involved 8,000 to 9,000 troops. Therefore, he thought this was a diversionary move and that the main attack would be on York Island (Manhattan). As a result, Washington only sent an additional 1,500 troops to Long Island to bring the total colonial force to 6,000 at that location.

Battle of Brooklyn Map

Five days later, August 27th, the British launched their attack. Its apparent major focus was the center of the American fortifications on the Guanus hills southeast of Brooklyn Heights. Despite the heavy colonial fortifications, the British met with little resistance at this site. In fact, however, the main British contingent advanced on the unguarded Jamaica Pass, which was the eastern-most passage through the Guana Heights.

Washington and his exhausted men fell back that day to their fortifications on Brooklyn Heights, waiting as night fell for a final British assault. Most of the American soldiers were in a trap, facing 20,000 British regulars at their front, and a mile-wide river at their backs. All the British navy had to do was to move a few warships up the East River to prevent Washington’s escape, and the war would be over, the revolution defeated.

But British General Howe did not press the British victory with an immediate pursuit of the retreating colonial forces. Instead, he halted the attack and started preparations for a siege of the American fortifications in Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill.

On August 29th, the temperature dropped sharply and the rain came in torrents on the unsheltered American army. This storm prevented five British warships from advancing up the East River to encircle the Americans in Brooklyn Heights. That same day Washington ordered his troops to withdraw in the dead of night across the river to Manhattan. The storm threatened this evacuation, but at about 11:00 p.m. the wind shifted and facilitated the evacuation. John Glover’s Massachusetts sailors and fishermen with every kind of small craft started over the river from New York City to rescue Washington’s army.

Early the next morning of the 30th, many of Washington’s men were still on Long Island. But a fog appeared on the Long Island side of the East River that concealed the final movement of the American troops to Manhattan. The entire maneuver was completed by 7:00 a.m. that morning, having taken 13 hours to ferry 9,000 men, their horses and their equipment across the East River.

Later that morning the British were surprised to discover the colonial forces had escaped. After that discovery, the British occupied the American fortifications on Brooklyn Heights.

When the last shot was fired, 1,200 Americans were dead and another 1,500 wounded, captured or missing. The British suffered a mere 60 dead and 300 wounded or missing. This was the first major battle of the War and what turned out to be the largest battle of the entire War, and it was a disastrous one for the Americans.

My maternal fifth great-grandfather, Perley Brown, from Leicester (Worcester County), Massachusetts was stationed in New York City at this time and thus did not fight in this battle.[2]


[1]  In addition to the hyperlinked sources in this post, it also draws from David McCullough, 1776 at 122-197 (New York; Simon & Schuster 2005); T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frank Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 151 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Eleven (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). From July 1966 through March 1970, my family and I lived in Brooklyn Heights where some of the Battle of Brooklyn (Long Island) occurred. As a result, I frequently walked around this area, but unfortunately I did not scout out these historical sites.

[2] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 17-23(Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).