New York & New Jersey Campaign > Battle of Long Island

Battle of Long Island

Background

Following the British loss of Boston to rebel forces, the focus of fighting shifted to the area of New York. General George Washington sought to defend New York from capture by British forces but lost what became known as the Battle of Long Island (alternately known as the Battle of Brooklyn Heights). It was the first major defeat following the declaration of Independence by the Continential Congress.

Washington and his army managed to evacuate from Brooklyn to Manhattan and escape destruction by the British but the battles fought in Manhattan also ended in defeat for American forces. Washington was forced to withdraw entirely from New York City into New Jersey. New York City remained under British occupation for the remainder of the war.

Map of the upper part of the Island of Manhattan (1776)

The Battle of Long Island is also known as the Battle of Brooklyn and the Battle of Brooklyn Heights. The victory over the Americans gave the British control of strategically important New York City. It was fought on August 27, 1776, and was the first major battle of the American Revolutionary War to take place after the United States declared its independence on July 4, 1776. In troop deployment and combat, it was the largest battle of the entire war.

After defeating the British in the Siege of Boston on March 17, 1776, commander-in-chief General George Washington brought the Continental Army to defend the port city of New York, located at the southern end of Manhattan Island. Washington understood that the city's harbor would provide an excellent base for the Royal Navy, so he established defenses there and waited for the British to attack. In July, the British under the command of General William Howe landed a few miles across the harbor from Manhattan on the sparsely-populated Staten Island, where they were reinforced by ships in Lower New York Bay during the next month and a half, bringing their total force to 32,000 troops. Washington knew the difficulty in holding the city with the British fleet in control of the entrance to the harbor at the Narrows, and he moved the bulk of his forces to Manhattan, believing that it would be the first target.

On August 22, the British landed on the shores of Gravesend Bay in southwest Kings County, across the Narrows from Staten Island and more than a dozen miles south from the established East River crossings to Manhattan. After five days of waiting, the British attacked U.S. defenses on the Guan Heights. Unknown to the Americans, however, Howe had brought his main army around their rear and attacked their flank soon after. The Americans panicked, resulting in twenty percent losses through casualties and capture, although a stand by 400 Maryland troops prevented a more substantial portion of the army from being lost. The remainder of the army retreated to the main defenses on Brooklyn Heights. The British dug in for a siege but, on the night of August 29–30, Washington evacuated the entire army to Manhattan without the loss of supplies or a single life. Washington and the Continental Army were driven out of New York entirely after several more defeats and forced to retreat through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.

New York & New Jersey Campaign Battles

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