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The importance of the town of New York, Chap. Vh. and of Long island, to either party, has been 1776. already stated, and was, throughout the war, very clearly demonstrated. It was extremely desirable to maintain the possession of them if practicable, or if that could not be done, to consume the campaign in the struggle for them. The abandonment of Long island, besides giving the enemy secure and immediate possession of an extensive and fertile country, would certainly very much facilitate the success of their attempt upon New York. It was therefore to be avoided, if possible.
The impossibility of avoiding it was not evident, until the battle had been fought. It was true that the American force on the island could not be rendered equal, even in point of numbers, to the enemy; but with the advantage of the defensible country, through which it was necessary to pass, and of a fortified camp which could only be attacked on one side, considerable hopes might be entertained, without being over sanguine, of at least maintaining the positionfor a considerable time; and of selling it, ultimately, at a high price. That such an opinion was not ill founded seems to be evidenced by the cautious movement of general Howe, who, even after the victory of the 27th, was not disposed to attack it without the co-operation of the fleet, but chose rather to carry it by regular approaches. Nor would
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Chap.vti. the situation of the troops on Long island have 1776. been desperate, even in the event of a conjoint attack both by land and water, before their strength and spirits were broken by the action of the twenty-seventh. The East river was guarded by very strong batteries on both sides, and the entrance into it, from the bay, was defended by Governor's island which was fortified, and in which two regiments were placed. The ships could not lie in that river, without first silencing those batteries, which would have been found extremely difficult, and therefore their aid could only be given, when a storm of the works should be intended; and when that should appear practicable, the troops might be withdrawn from the island.
There was then, certainly, in the plan of maintaining Long island, considerable hazard; but not so much as to demonstrate the propriety of relinquishing a post of so much importance, without a struggle to preserve it.
With much more appearance of reason, the general has been condemned for not having guarded the road which leads over the hills from Jamaica to Bedford. An attention to this object was more particularly the duty of the officer commanding at the post, whose general written instructions, given two days previous to the action, had directed that the woods should be well guarded, and the approach of the enemy through them rendered as difficult as possible. But his numbers were not suffi- Chap.vil cient to maintain in full force, detachments 1776. which should guard all the defiles through the mountains, and if a strong corps capable of, and intended for, serious resistance, had been posted on this road, and a feint had been made on them, while a serious and successful effort had been made to pass the hills by the direct road from Flatbush, or by that along the coast, the defence of which must have been proportionably weakened; the columns marching directly from Flatbush, must on every reasonable calculation have been in possession of the plain in the rear of the detachment posted on the road from Jamaica, so as to have intercepted their retreat to the camp, before they could have made it good. So great is the advantage of those who attack, in being able to choose the point against which to direct their main efforts; while those who are to defend, if not sufficiently strong to guard all posts alike, must leave some not completely secured, that the best skilled in the art of war find much difficulty in maintaining an extensive line accessible in many points.
The most advisable plan then appears to have been, so to watch the motions of the enemy as, if possible, to be master of his designs, to oppose with a competent force every attempt to seize the heights, and to guard all the passes in such a manner as to receive notice of
Chap. vii . the approach through any one of them in suffi1776. cient time to recall the troops maintaining the others.
This plan was adopted; and the heavy disasters of the day are, principally, attributable to the failure of those charged with the execution of that very important part of it, respecting the intelligence from the Jamaica road. The letter of general Howe states that an American patroling party was taken on this road; and general Washington, in a private and confidential communication to a friend, says, "this misfortune happened, in a great measure, by two detachments of our people who were posted in twe roads leading through a wood, to intercept the enemy in their march, suffering a surprise, and making a precipitate retreat."
The events of this day, too, exhibited a practical demonstration of a radical defect in the construction of the army. There was not in it a single corps of cavalry. That false economy which miscalculates so much as to deny the means essential to the end, had not yet sufficiently relaxed to admit of so expensive an establishment. Had the general been furnished with a few troops of light-horse, to serve merely as videts to watch the motions of the enemy, and bring intelligence expeditiously, it is probable that the movement so decisive of the fate of the day, could not have been made unnoticed. The troops on the lines do not
appear to have observed the column which was Chap. Vh. withdrawn on the evening of the twenty-sixth 1776. from Flatbush to Flatland. Had this important manoeuvre been communicated, it would most probably have turned the attention of general Putnam more particularly to the Jamaica road. It is to the want of videts that a failure to obtain this important intelligence is to be ascribed. The necessity too of changing the officer originally intrusted with the command, was an unfortunate circumstance which very probably contributed to the event which happened.
Whatever causes might have led to this defeat, it gave a very gloomy aspect to the affairs of America. Heretofore, their arms had been frequently successful, and their soldiers had always manifested a great degree of intrepidity. A confidence in themselves, a persuasion of their superiority over the enemy arising from the goodness of their cause, and their early and habitual use of fire arms, had been carefully inculcated; and had been nourished by all their experience preceding this event. When they found themselves, by a course of evolutions in which they imagined they perceived a great superiority of military skill, encircled with unexpected dangers, from which no exertions could extricate them; their confidence in themselves, and in their leaders, was greatly diminished; and the approach of the