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Chap. vii. those who were retreating along the direct 1776. road from Flatbush. Thus attacked both in front and rear, and alternately driven by the British on the Hessians, and by the Hessians back again on the British, a succession of skirmishes took place in the woods, in the course of which, some parts of corps forced their way through the enemy, and regained the lines of Brooklyn, and several individuals saved themselves under cover of the woods; but a great proportion of the detachment was killed or taken. The fugitives were pursued up to the American works, and such is represented to have been the ardour of the British soldiery, that it required the authority of their cautious commander to prevent an immediate attempt to carry them by storm.
The fire towards Brooklyn gave the first intimation to the American right, that the enemy had gained their rear. Lord Sterling perceived the danger with which he was threatened, and that he could only escape it by instantly retreating across the creek in his rear, near the YelIqw Mills not far from the cove. Orders to this effect were immediately given, and, the more effectually to secure the retreat of the main body of the detachment, he ■ determined to attack, in person, a corps of the British under lord Cornwallis, stationed at a house somewhat above the place at which he proposed crossing the creek. About four hundred men of Smalhvood's regiment were drawn out for this purpose, and the attack was made with Chap, Vhgreat spirit. This small corps was brought up 1T76. several times to the charge, and lord Sterling stated that he was on the point of dislodging lord Cornwallis from his post; but the force in his front increasing, and general Grant also advancing on his rear, the brave men he commanded were no longer able to oppose the superior numbers which assailed them on every quarter, and those who survived were, with their general, made prisoners of war. This bold and well judged attempt, however, was not without its advantages. It gave an opportunity to a large part of the detachment, to save themselves by crossing the creek.
The loss sustained by the American arm)r on this occasion was very considerable, but could not be accurately ascertained by either party. Numbers were supposed to have been drowned in the creek, or suffocated in the marsh, whose bodies were never found; and exact accounts from the militia are seldom to be expected, as the list of the missing, is always swelled by those who return to their homes. General Washington did not admit it to exceed a thousand men, but in this estimate he could only have included the regular troops. In the letter written by general Howe, he states the prisoners to have amounted to one thousand and ninety-seven, among whom were major general Sullivan, and brigadiers lord Sterling,
Chap. Vii. and Woodhull, by him named Udell. He 1776. computes the loss of the Americans at three thousand three hundred men, but this computation is probably excessive. He supposes too, that the troops engaged on the heights, amounted to ten thousand; but it is impossible they could have much exceeded half that number. The loss of the enemy is stated by general Howe at twenty-one officers, and three hundred and forty-six privates killed, wounded, and taken.
As the action became warm, general Washington passed over to the camp at Brooklyn, where he saw with inexpressible anguish the destruction in which his best troops were involved, and from which it was impossible to extricate them. Should he attempt any thing in their favour 'w ith the men remaining within the lines of Brooklyn, it was probable from the superiority of the enemy, that the camp itself would be lost, and that whole division of his army destroyed. Should he bring over the remaining battalions from New York, he would still have been unequal to the enemy, and his whole army with perhaps the fate of his country might be staked on the issue of a single battle, so inauspiciously commenced. He was therefore compelled to behold the carnage of his troops, without being able to assist them, and to direct all his efforts to the preservation of those which remained.
The enemy believing the Americans to be Chap.vii . much stronger than they were in reality, and 1776. seeming unwilling to commit any thing to hazard, fortunately made no immediate attempt to force the lines. They encamped in front of them, and on the twenty-eighth at night, broke ^ ground in form, within six hundred yards of a redoubt on the left.
The situation of the army on Long island had now become extremely critical. In front, was a victorious enemy, from whom much was to be apprehended in case of assault, but whose numbers and formidable train of artillery rendered the destruction of their works, by regular approaches, inevitable. The movements of the fleet too, indicated an intention to make some attempt on New York, and, so soon as the wind should be favourable, to force a passage into the East river. Should they succeed in this attempt, and attack him by water, while the army might assault him by land, they would render his retreat extremely difficult, if not absolutely impracticable. The troops too being obliged to lie in the lines without shelter from the heavy rains which fell, were excessively fatigued and dispirited. Under these circum- * stances, it was determined to withdraw from Long island, and this difficult movement was effected on the night of the twenty-eighth, with such silence and dispatch, that all the troops and military stores, with the greater part of the
cHAr.vir. provisions, and all the artillery, except such 1776. heavy pieces as, in the deep roads made by the excessive heavy rains which had fallen, could not possibly be drawn, were carried over in j«iy safety. Early the next morning, the enemy perceived the rear guard crossing the East river, out of reach of their fire. From the commencement of the action on the morning of the twenty-seventh, until the troops had crossed the East river on the morning of the twentyninth, and were freed from the immediate perils to which their situation had exposed them; the exertions and fatigues of the commander in chief, who personally inspected almost every thing, were incessant. Throughout that time he never closed his eyes, and was almost constantly on horseback.
The attempt to defend Long island was so disastrous in its issue, and believed to have been so perilous in itself, that persons were not wanting who condemned it; and it is yet represented as a great error in the commander in' chief. But in deciding on the wisdom of measures, the event will not always lead to a correct judgment. Before a just opinion can be formed, it is necessary to consider the previous state of things; to weigh the motives which led to the decision, and to compare the value of the object and the probability of securing it, with the hazards attending the attempt.