« PreviousContinue »
to their lines, leaving on the field many hundreds killed and wounded, and above a thousand prisoners. Among these was General Sullivan, and another of their fieldofficers whom they called Lord Stirling. His name was William Alexander; he had been Surveyor-General of the Jerseys, and was a distant kinsman of the last Earls of Stirling, whose title he had claimed at the Bar of the House of Lords. The Lords, after full consideration of the evidence, decided against him. The Americans, however, with a nicer discrimination of the claims of peerage, acknowledged his pretension as well-founded, and consented to address him by the rank which he assumed. Neither Sullivan nor the titular Lord Stirling, I may remark in passing, were for any long period withdrawn from the service of their native or adopted country; for a cartel being established between the two armies, the prisoners on both sides came to be exchanged on equal terms.
Washington, who had hastened over from New York at the sound of the firing, beheld, with the keenest anguish, and without the power of giving aid, the discomfiture and slaughter of his best troops. He saw them pursued by the victorious British almost to the foot of the Brooklyn lines, and even those lines on the very point of being scaled. In the words of General Howe, who had also arrived upon the ground, "such was the eagerness (of my troops) to "attack the redoubt, 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." By such illtimed caution, arising probably from an over-estimate of the insurgents' force, the English General flung away the fairest opportunity of utterly destroying or capturing the flower of the American army. The respite thus afforded was most judiciously employed by Washington: he rallied as he best might his broken troops, and on the 28th and 29th awaited another battle at his lines So great were his exertions and anxieties, that during forty-eight hours he was hardly off his horse, and never once closed his eyes. Yet his position was in truth untenable, and on the evening of the 29th he determined, by the unanimous advice of a Council of War, to relinquish Long Island, and endeavour to transport his troops back again, across the ferry of the East River, to New York. It was a most difficult and delicate operation, in the face of a victorious enemy, to be accomplished only through the supineness of the British General, and under cover of a thick fog, which opportunely arose. Yet the Americans not merely removed their troops in safety, but carried with them their military stores and cannon, except only a few heavy pieces, which, soaked as was the ground by continued rain, could not be dragged along. With such silence and good order was everything conducted, that their last boat had pushed from the shore, and was crossing the river, before the British had discovered their retreat.
Thus had Washington, with great skill and judgment, once again secured his army in New York; but he found it wholly unnerved by its late disaster. Here follows his own account of it, as given on the 2d of September to the President of Congress: —" Our situation is truly dis"tressing. The check our detachment sustained on the "27th of last month has dispirited too great a portion of "our troops, and filled their minds with apprehension and "despair. The Militia, instead of calling forth their "utmost efforts, are dismayed, intractable, and impatient "to return. Great numbers of them have gone off; in '' some instances almost by whole regiments, by half ones, "and by companies at a time .... and with the deepest "concern, I am obliged to confess my want of confidence "in the generality of the troops. Till of late I had no "doubt in my own mind of defending this place; nor should "I have yet, if the men would do their duty; but this I "despair of. It is painful and extremely grating to me "to give such unfavourable accounts, but it would be "criminal to conceal the truth at so critical a juncture." Meanwhile, the captivity of General Sullivan had suggested to Lord Howe, as principal Commissioner, the means of another overture for peace. He hoped that such an overture might carry the greater weight, and the more clearly indicate his conciliatory spirit as coming in the train not of disaster but of success. Accordingly, taking General Sullivan's parole, he requested him to proceed to Philadelphia with a verbal message to the Congress. The message stated that at present he could not treat with Congress as such—that, nevertheless, he was very desirous of having a conference with some of the Members, whom for the present he would consider only as private gentlemen—that he would meet them himself as such at any place they might appoint—and that he wished a compact might be settled at this time, when no decisive blow was struck, and when neither party could say they were compelled to enter into terms. Upon this message, when Sullivan conveyed it, there ensued in Congress much hesitation and several keen debates. There was no longer a pretence for alleging the point of form, since Lord Howe proposed to waive it; the meeting to be on both sides as of private gentlemen only. But to allow the interview might cast a doubt on the reality of Independence; to decline it, would perhaps alienate, certainly offend, the more moderate party, especially when a word so attractive as "Compact" had been used. Upon the whole, the Congress, though with an ill grace, and after an elaborate protest, consented to the interview, the majority being swayed in no slight degree by the hope of proving to the public how limited and unsatisfactory were in truth the terms of the Howe Commission. Their adverse spirit plainly appeared in the choice of the Committee for this meeting. They elected three of the keenest and most uncompromising enemies to British connexion, namely, Dr. Franklin, John Adams of Massachusetts, and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. On the 11 th of September, by appointment with Lord Howe, the desired conference took place at a house on Staten Island, opposite the town of Amboy. "His Lordship," say the Committee in their Report, "received and entertained us with the utmost "politeness." But how changed both the scene and the temper of negotiation since Lord Howe and Dr. Franklin had first met in London, leaning in friendly converse over Mrs. Howe's chess-board! Lord Howe argued earnestly that the Americans should return to their allegiance, and that if willing to submit they might obtain the most favourable terms. On the other hand, the Committee explicitly declared that the United Colonies would not accede to any peace unless as free and independent States.
At last, the British Admiral, with sorrow, closed the conference; and the American gentlemen wended back their way to Philadelphia.
This negotiation did not arrest — it had only rendered still less active—the movements of the British troops. Nearly all had by this time passed into Long Island, where they found themselves warmly welcomed. As Washington relates it, "I am sorry to say that from the "best information we have been able to obtain, the people "on Long Island have, since our evacuation, gone gene"rally over to the enemy, and made such concessions as "have been required; some through compulsion, I suppose, "but more from inclination."* There was not wanting at that time around the American commander in chief the suggestion of the most desperate counsels. Thus, General Greene urged him to retreat at once from New York Island, but first to lay the entire city in ashes. This advice Greene gave in writing, and added this strong reason for it: "Two thirds of the property of the city "and suburbs belong to the Tories!" Still larger were the views of another patriot, John Jay. In the month ensuing he wrote as follows to a private friend: "Had I "been vested with absolute power in this State, I have "often said, and still think, that I would last spring have "desolated all Long Island, Staten Island, the city and "county of New York, and all that part of the county "of West Chester which lies below the mountains." f Happily for these States, the wish of those who called themselves their truest and most thorough-going friends was not complied with. New York, in great part at least, was spared the ruin and anguish which, not the warring strangers, but her own sons had designed; for the proposal of burning the city being referred by Washington to Congress, was not approved by that body, which, on the contrary, enjoined him, in case of his retreat, to take special care that no damage should be done.
In this resolution, as in many others of popular assem
* To Governor Trumbull, September 9. 1776.
f For Greene's letter (Sept. 5. 1776) see a note to Sparkg's Washington, vol. iv. p. 85. ; and for John Jay's (Oct. 6. 1776), the Life of President Keed, vol. i. p. 235.
VOL. VI. I
blies, there appears to be a right conclusion arrived at from wrong premises. For the reason which the Congress themselves assigned for their orders was as follows —their full confidence that, if even their troops did leave New York, they would speedily be able to recover it. But, on the contrary, as the sequel will show, New York was held by the English until the very conclusion of the war.*
The American army had been drawn by Washington in lines along the East River with the main body at Haerlem, a village about nine miles distant from New York. It was the evident design of the British, from their new position, and with the assistance of their fleet, to effect a landing on some point of New York Island. From several reports of their movements, Washington, on the night of the 14th, repaired in person to Haerlem. But next morning he was apprised that the first division of the British had crossed the stream at Kipp's Bay, between him and New York. What follows shall be told in his own words: "As soon as I heard the firing, "I rode with all possible despatch towards the place of "landing, when, to my great surprise and mortification, "I found the troops that had been posted in the lines "retreating with the utmost precipitation, and those "ordered to support them (Parsons's and Fellows's "brigades) flying in every direction and in the greatest "confusion, notwithstanding the exertions of their Ge"nerals to form them. I used every means in my power to "rally and get them into some order, but my attempts "were fruitless and ineffectual, and on the appearance of a "small part of the enemy, not more than sixty or seventy, "their disorder increased, and they ran away in the "greatest confusion without firing a single shot." General Greene, in a private note, informs us further that, "Fellows's and Parsons's brigades ran away from "about fifty men, and left his Excellency on the ground "within eighty yards of the enemy, so vexed at the "infamous conduct of the troops that he sought death "rather than life." It is said that Washington, in his grief and shame, drew his sword, and threatened to run
* Kesolves of Congress, September 3. 1776.