George Washington Papers

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hanson Harrison to John Hancock, 27 August 1776

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hanson Harrison to John Hancock

New York Augt 27. 1776 Eight OClock. P.M.


I this minute returned from our Lines on Long Island where I left his Excellency the General. From him I have It in command to Inform Congress that Yesterday he went there & continued till Evening when from the Enemy’s having landed a considerable part of their Forces and many of their Movements, there was reason to apprehend they would make in a little time a Genl Attack. As they would have a Wood to pass through before they could approach the Lines, It was thought expedient to place a number of Men there on the different Roads leading from whence they were stationed in order to harrass and annoy them in their March—This being done, early this Morning a Smart engagement ensued between the Enemy and our Detachments,1 which being unequal to the force they had to contend with, have sustained a pretty considerable loss—At least many of our Men are missing, among those that have not returnd are Genls Sullivan & Lord Stirling—The Enemy’s loss is not known certainly, but we are told by such of our Troops that were in the Engagement and that have come in,2 that they had many killed and wounded—Our party brought off a Lieutt, Sergt, and Corporal with 20 privates prisoners.3 While These Detachments were engaged, a Column of the Enemy descended from the Woods and marched towards the Center of our Lines with a design to make an Impression, but were repulsed—This Evening they appeared very numerous about the Skirts of the Woods where they have pitched Several Tents, and his Excellency Inclines to think they mean to attack and force us from our Lines by way of regular approaches rather than in any other manner.4

Today Five Ships of the Line came up towards the Town where they seemed desirous of getting, as they turned a long time against an unfavourable Wind,5 and on my return this Evening6 I found a Deserter from the 23d Regmt, who Informed me that they design as soon as the Wind will permit ’em to come up, to give us a Severe Cannonade and to Silence our Batteries, If possible. I have the Honor to be in great Haste Sir Your Most Obedt

Rob. H. Harrison.

ALS, DNA:PCC, item 152; LB, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. The LB includes a note that reads “A Simr letter to Gl Mercer.” The LB differs in wording from the ALS at several places. For significant variations, see notes 1, 2, 4, and 6.

The account of the Battle of Long Island that Harrison gives in this letter indicates that as of early evening on this date GW was not fully informed about the disastrous events that had occurred several hours earlier on the Heights of Guana. That heavily wooded ridge, which lay from one-and-a-half to three miles outside the Brooklyn lines, was defended during the battle by about thirty-five hundred Americans. Lord Stirling commanded a force at Gowanus Pass at the western end of the ridge, and General Sullivan commanded forces at Flatbush and Bedford passes, located respectively about two and three miles east of Gowanus Pass. Jamaica Pass, about six miles east of Gowanus Pass, was guarded only by five mounted militia officers.

During the early morning hours on this date, the main body of General Howe’s army, consisting of about ten thousand men, outflanked the American positions on the Heights of Guana by crossing Jamaica Pass. Capturing the five militia officers posted there, the British force proceeded undetected along the north side of the ridge toward Brooklyn in order to cut off the Americans at the other three passes. Meanwhile, on the south side of the ridge, Gen. James Grant with about five thousand British troops made a diversionary attack on Gowanus Pass, and Gen. Philip von Heister with about four thousand Hessians threatened Flatbush and Bedford passes. Distracted by those maneuvers, Sullivan and Stirling were not aware that the main British force was behind them until about nine o’clock in the morning when Howe’s flanking column reached the village of Bedford near Bedford Pass and gave a signal for a general attack. In the ensuing fighting, which lasted until about two o’clock in the afternoon, the British and Hessians routed the Americans, killing two to three hundred of them and taking 1,097 prisoners including Stirling and Sullivan. British and Hessian losses totaled 63 men killed, 283 wounded, and 21 captured (see Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 1:1256–59). Washington observed the battle from a vantage point within the Brooklyn lines and received his first reports from officers and soldiers who straggled into those lines.

For published accounts of the Battle of Long Island, see Freeman, Washington description begins Douglas Southall Freeman. George Washington: A Biography. 7 vols. New York, 1948–57. description ends , 4:153–75; Gruber, “America’s First Battle”; Johnston, Campaign of 1776; description begins Henry P. Johnston. The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn. Including a New and Circumstantial Account of the Battle of Long Island and the Loss of New York, with a Review of Events to the Close of the Year. Brooklyn, 1878. In Memoirs of the Long Island Historical Society, vol. 3. description ends Manders, Battle of Long Island; description begins Eric I. Manders. The Battle of Long Island. Monmouth Beach, N.J., 1978. description ends and Ward, War of the Revolution description begins Christopher Ward. The War of the Revolution. Edited by John Richard Alden. 2 vols. New York, 1952. description ends , 1:211–37.

1The LB adds: “which continued with Intermissions till the Afternoon.”

2The LB reads: “that were engaged & that got off.”

3Lt. John Ragg of the 2d Regiment of Marines was captured with his detachment on Gowanus Road by the Delaware Regiment when the British mistook the blue-uniformed Delaware troops for Hessians. For the sending of these prisoners to Connecticut, see Heath to GW, 30 Aug., and note 5.

4The LB reads: “This Evening they appeared very numerous about the Skirts of the Woods next to our Lines where they pitched many Tents, and his Excellency Inclines to think they mean to attack & to make an Impression by regular Approaches rather than in any other manner.” General Howe says in his letter to Lord George Germain of 3 Sept. that “the grenadiers and 33rd regiment being in front of the column soon approached within musket shot of the enemy’s lines at Brooklyn, from whence these battalions without regarding the fire of cannon and smallarms upon them pursued numbers of the rebels that were retiring from the heights so close to their principal redoubt and with such eagerness to attack it by storm that it required repeated orders to prevail upon them to desist from the attempt. Had they been permitted to go on, it is my opinion they would have carried the redoubt, but as it was apparent the lines must have been ours at a very cheap rate by regular approaches I would not risk the loss that might have been sustained in the assault and ordered them back to a hollow way in the front of the works out of the reach of musketry” (Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 12:216–18).

5To divert American attention from Howe’s attack, Sir Peter Parker sailed from Staten Island toward New York City this morning with the warships Preston, Renown, Asia, Roebuck, and Repulse. “The Wind veering to the Northward soon after the Break of Day,” Lord Howe wrote to Philip Stephens four days later, “the Ships could not be moved up to the Distance proposed.” The Roebuck “was the only Ship that could fetch high enough to the Northward to exchange a few random Shot with the Battery on Red Hook. And the Ebb [tide] making strongly down the River soon after, I ordered the Signal to be shewn for the Squadron to anchor” (Clark and Morgan, Naval Documents description begins William Bell Clark et al., eds. Naval Documents of the American Revolution. 11 vols. to date. Washington, D.C., 1964—. description ends , 6:373–77).

6The LB reads: “& on my return to Head Quarters to Night.”

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