In the history of the American Revolution, the Battle of Long Island (sometimes called the Battle of Brooklyn) in August 1776 is largely glossed over. It was, unfortunately, the first in a series of military defeats for George Washington and the Continental Army, and the eventual outcome of the war predisposes many to focus on the victories, Bunker Hill, Trenton, and Yorktown, which provide a better frame of the narrative. Even the hardships at Valley Forge serve as an indicator of the indomitable American spirit, as opposed to the disorganized chaos of American troops fleeing in the face of the British advance. However, the Battle of Long Island was not only the largest battle of the entire war but served as a crucible of Washington’s leadership, in that he oversaw a massive evacuation that saved his army from destruction, setting the stage for the inevitable victory that would occur five years later.
Prelude to Invasion
Americans were flush with patriotic spirit in the summer of 1776. Having driven the British out of Boston, the seedbed of the rebellion, Americans were drafting their independence and feeling confident. McCullough (2005) quotes Connecticut farm boy Joseph Plumb Martin, a raw recruit, as recalling: “The Americans were invincible in my opinion” (p. 117). However, the reality of logistics for the Continental Army showed otherwise. Its ranks stood at perhaps 11,000 men, only 3,000 of whom “had any training whatsoever,” lacking “arms, ammunition, tents, blankets, and uniforms” (Reno, 2008, p. 3). Additionally, at least, 1000 of Washington’s men were incapacitated by illness (Flexner, 1968, p. 95).
While much of the new nation celebrated the Declaration of Independence on July 4, including cel...
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...ing defeat, it allowed Washington to observe that his army could move quickly, a fact he would exploit that Christmas when he crossed the Delaware and surprised the Hessians at Trenton. Long Island may not have been the Continental Army’s finest moment, but given its inadequate supplies, inadequate training, and smaller size in the face of one of the largest forces ever assembled by the British Empire, it is commendable that the American Revolution was not strangled in its cradle that afternoon. Further, Washington may have vacillated in terms of dividing his forces, and failing to send all of them to Long Island, but it must be questioned whether such concentration would have merely hastened the destruction of his entire army. At the Battle of Long Island, Washington saw that his men needed proper training, but were gallant patriots who lived to fight another day.
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