Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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As General Washington prepared his troops to defend New York City, he learned that the British might also attack Brooklyn on nearby Long Island.  Although this seemed like a ploy to draw his soldiers away from their posts in lower Manhattan, Washington sent General Israel Putnam and a division of 10,000 troops across the East River to Brooklyn Heights where Putnam spent the next several weeks building up American defenses.

However, in late August, Putnam’s troops were amazed when they looked out over the East River and exclaimed, “It looks like all of London is afloat!”  There were now 400 ships flying the British flag filling the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn, including 73 warships.

By August 27, 1776, the Battle of Brooklyn was in full force.  Generals Charles Cornwallis and William Howe had disembarked 20,000 troops onto Brooklyn’s shores and headed them straight for the American encampment. 

Recognizing that soon the Americans would be dangerously outnumbered, the American General William Alexander, also known as Lord Stirling, tried to divert this onslaught by leading his regiment of approximately 300 New England soldiers against Cornwallis’ division of 2,000 troops on the grounds of the Old Stone House.  The Continental soldiers fell, regrouped, and continued to fight until they ran out of ammunition.  Cornwallis later said of General Lord Stirling that, before having to surrender, Stirling “fought like a wolf.” 

The next morning, realizing the dire position of his troops, Washington responded by ferrying the rest of his army from Manhattan to Long Island in an effort to protect the Brooklyn Heights position, only to find that the sheer size of the British army would overwhelm the rest of his forces.  Washington and his troops were able to hold the British back until evening, while he designed an escape which would allow his men to “live to fight another day.”

The British generals’ plan had been to defeat and capture George Washington the following morning.  However, they were shocked to discover that Washington had his men commandeer every small boat along the shoreline, and he and his army of 9,000 “rabble farmers” had escaped undetected, due to a rare and dense summer fog, across the East River to New Jersey.

As a consequence of the dominance of British forces, Manhattan, Long Island, and the East River were occupied by the British for the duration of the Revolutionary War.THE


Unable to come to terms with Washington, Admiral Richard Howe wrote to Benjamin Franklin, of the 2nd Continental Congress, proposing a truce and again offering pardons and amnesties for the colonists.  Franklin’s response was terse and direct: “…It is impossible we should think of Submission to a Government, that has the most wonton Barbarity and Cruelty, burnt our defenseless towns…and massacred our Farmers.  These atrocious Injuries have extinguished every remaining Spark of Affection for that Parent Country [England] we once held so dear…”

Following the brutal Battle of Brooklyn on August 27th, the Staten Island Peace Conference was scheduled for September 11th.  The American delegates, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edmund Rutledge were escorted past Hessian guards onto British controlled Staten Island to begin negotiations with their British counterparts.

Admiral Richard Howe insisted that the Declaration of Independence be immediately retracted.  The Americans were equally adamant that America was now a sovereign nation.  Howe said that he would feel America’s loss “…like the loss of a brother.”  Franklin replied, “We will do our utmost endeavors to save your lordship that mortification.”  When Howe unhappily stated that he could not view the American delegates as anything but British subjects, John Adams replied, “Your lordship may consider me in what light you please, except that of a British subject.”

After the failed negotiations, the Americans spent the night at an inn on Staten Island.  Franklin and Adams had to share a tiny bedroom, barely large enough for one bed and one window.  Fortunately, we have Adams’ diary accounts of the discussions between these two historic figures about health and the benefits or ills of fresh air.

Adams wrote that he closed the small window and got into bed.  “Oh, don’t shut the window,” retorted Franklin.  “We shall be suffocated.”  To this Adams said that he was infirm and would catch a cold from the night air.  At this, Franklin said, “I believe you are not acquainted with my theory of colds.”  Adams’ diary continues that he opened the window again and leapt into bed, while his venerable roommate continued expounding on his theory writing that, “The Doctor then began to harangue upon Air and cold and Respiration and Perspiration…” as he, Adams, began drifting off to sleep.