Soldier In A Longboat

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Realizing his perilous predicament, Washington laid plans to evacuate his forces to Manhattan; but an amphibious retreat was no easy matter under the circumstances. As one American officer put it (overestimating the enemy’s numbers): To move so large a body of troops, with all their necessary appendages, across a river full a mile wide, with a rapid current, in face of a victorious, well disciplined army, nearly three times as numerous … and a fleet capable of stopping the navigation … seemed to present most formidable obstacles.

To overcome these obstacles, Washington called upon the seagoing skills of two regiments drawn from Essex County, Massachusetts.

Glover’s regiment had been hustled to Long Island in the early morning hours of August 28. After fighting all day and far into the night in the Brooklyn breastworks, the regiment was ordered to evacuate the shaken American army to Manhattan. Joined by Israel Hutchinson’s Twenty-seventh Massachusetts, an outfit made up largely of fishermen and sailors from Salem, Lynn, and Danvers, the Marbleheaders were to pit their nautical experience against three factors that might have made a shambles of the operation—time, tide, and wind.

Their race against time was bound to be a close one. The retreat had to be completed within the hours of darkness in a single night, for the British would discover the move at daylight and move in on the American lines immediately. Because midsummer nights are shortest, the patriots could hardly have picked a worse time of the year for their operation. Whether the two regiments could complete their task on time depended upon another variable—the elements. If wind conditions were not just right, sailing vessels could not be used; and if boats had to be rowed against the tide, trips would take longer.

Zero hour approached, and at about ten in the evening of August 29 the amphibious evacuation got under way. Glover’s men slipped stealthily out of the front lines and rendezvoused with Hutchinson’s men at the Brooklyn Ferry, where a motley fleet of small craft assembled from far and wide was awaiting them.

Navigating in inky darkness, a mile each way over an unfamiliar stretch of water, put the seamanship of the Massachusetts men to a stern test. No lights could be used, and the operation had to be carried out in the utmost quiet lest the enemy be alerted to what was going on. In spite of the silence and blackout conditions, the skilled mariners managed to nose their craft unerringly to the New York shore and to return for boatload after boatload of troops.

As long as weather conditions remained favorable the operation went smoothly; but the elements that had favored the Americans suddenly forsook them. Contrary winds sprang up shortly before midnight, and the ebb tide began to run so swiftly that even the experienced seamen could do nothing with their sailing craft. The use of sloops and similar sailing vessels had to be discontinued, which threatened the entire operation, since the number of rowboats on hand was not sufficient to carry off the rest of the men within the hours of darkness that remained. Fortunately the wind soon shifted, and the use of sailing craft was resumed.

Through the long, black hours the two regiments toiled feverishly, and the size of the force on Long Island dwindled. Keeping one eye on landmarks along the shore, with the other anxiously scanning the sky for the first signs of dawn, the seagoing soldiers managed to ferry nearly 9,000 men across the short stretch of water in a little less than nine hours.

 

Despite their best efforts, the mariners lost their race against time. When dawn came their job was unfinished, with part of the rear guard still on Long Island waiting to be evacuated. But once again, the elements granted the Americans a reprieve, just as the first enemy patrols appeared. One young captain who was among the last to be taken off described what happened: “Under the friendly cover of a thick fog, [we] reached the place of embarkation without annoyance from the enemy, who, had the morning been clear, would have seen what was going on, and been enabled to cut off the greater part of the rear. …” Fortunately, the British were caught flat-footed by Washington’s surprise move. When the first British troops poked their way into the abandoned breastworks the next morning, they were astonished to find them empty. In one of history’s most remarkable retreats, a whole American army had been whisked out of reach of the British by Massachusetts fishermen and sailors who put their civilian skills to military use.

That John Glover’s regiment could be equally effective on land was demonstrated shortly after the Long Island retreat. About noon on September 15, Howe launched a large-scale amphibious assault at Kip’s Bay—in the East River near present-day 34th Street—midway between the American forces stationed in New York City and at Harlem Heights. Securing a beachhead in this area was the first phase of Howe’s plan to push the patriots off Manhattan Island, and the picked troops that went ashore in this thrust were only part of the 32,000-man army under his command—the greatest expeditionary force ever assembled by Great Britain up to that time. When the landing parties hit the beaches, they were supported by gunfire from one of the largest war fleets ever seen in American waters.