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US History E-Text > The Revolution: War and Independence > Fort Moultrie and Long Island

The first day of the memorable year 1776 was marked by two events that are still remembered in Revolutionary annals -- the burning of Norfolk by the fleet of Governor Dunmore, who had been driven to the sea by the infuriated people of Virginia; and the unfurling of the flag over the Continental army at Cambridge.

Before the close of this same month, January, General Clinton was sent from Boston to hold the colonies of the South. In May he was joined in southern waters by Sir Peter Parker with an English fleet of ten warships, bearing a body of troops under the command of Lord Cornwallis, who was destined later to be a leading figure in the war. Meantime, in February, a fierce battle had occurred in North Carolina at the mouth of Moore's Creek between a thousand patriots, led by Colonel Richard Caswell, and sixteen hundred Tories, mostly Scots, under the leadership of Donald Macdonald, who had fought for the young Stuart Pretender at the battle of Culloden thirty years before. The patriots were completely successfu1, routing the enemy and taking nine hundred prisoners, including the commander.1

The fight at Moore's Creek worked like magic on the people of North Carolina, and in a few days ten thousand men were armed and ready to expel the invaders of their soil. Clinton now decided not to land his troops, as he had intended. After the arrival of Parker and Cornwallis they moved southward for the purpose of capturing Charleston. But in front of the city on Sullivan's Island the Americans had made a strong breastwork of palmetto logs and sandbags, and this was defended by several hundred men commanded by one of the leading heroes of the war, William Moultrie.2

The English fleet attacked the rude fort on the 28th of June; but the elastic palmetto logs proved an admirable defense, and a terrific bombardment of ten hours did little damage. On the other hand, the American fire was well aimed, and nearly every shot took effect. The flagship received more than twenty shots and was almost wrecked, while every other ship but one was seriously crippled. The heroism displayed in the defense of the fort, afterward called Fort Moultrie, was equal to that of Bunker Hill or of any other engagement in the war. It was on this day that Sergeant William Jasper, an illiterate youth who could not even read, made a name for himself in the history of his country by an act of momentary reckless heroism. The flagstaff was broken by a cannon ball, and the flag fell outside the fort. Jasper leaped down the embrasure in the face of the enemy's fire, gathered up the fallen banner, and planted it in the sand on the bastion. And the story is still related at the American fireside as an example of the heroic valor of the men of the Revolution.

After spending three weeks in repairing his ships, Clinton sailed for New York, and the South was free from invasion for nearly three years, when it became the scene of the final conflict of the war.

The success of Washington at Boston and of Moultrie at Charleston sent a wave of exultation over the land; but this was followed by a feeling of depression caused by half a year of unbroken disasters. The British had decided to sever the colonies in twain -- to cut off New England from the South -- by occupying New York City and conquering the Hudson Valley. General William Howe came down from Halifax, and was joined by his brother, Admiral Howe, with a powerful fleet from England; and these were joined in the New York harbor by Clinton and Cornwallis from the South. At the same time Sir Guy Carleton was ordered to descend with an army from Canada, to capture Ticonderoga, and to hold possession of the upper Hudson.

In August the British had thirty two thousand veterans on Staten Island. To oppose this force Washington, who, divining the intention of the enemy to strike New York, had moved his army thither in the early spring, could muster but eighteen thousand men, and many of these were new recruits and in no sense to be compared with veteran soldiers. Before opening hostilities Admiral Howe offered the olive branch, which he had fresh from Lord North, a gracious offer from the king to pardon all rebels who would lay down their arms and assist in restoring order. It was sent by special messenger to "George Washington, Esq." But as "George" Washington, the citizen and planter, had no authority to deal with national questions, and as "General" Washington had not been addressed, he declined to receive the communication.

The next act in the drama was the opening of hostilities. Washington occupied Manhattan Island, and Brooklyn Heights, which commanded the city. He had sent Greene to fortify the latter, and now he manned it with half his army under the command of Putnam. Howe determined to assault Brooklyn Heights. With twenty thousand men the English advanced on the American position by different roads, and in the early morning of August 27, they encountered the Americans whom Putnam had sent out under Sullivan, who had taken the place of Greene, owing to the illness of the latter. Sullivan was first attacked by a large body of Hessians under Von Heister, and scarcely had the fight begun when he was assailed in the rear by the main force. Between two galling fires, it was not possible for the Americans to hold their ground, and nearly the whole force, including the commander, were made prisoners of war. Another division of fifteen hundred American troops, under Lord Stirling,3 was now assaulted by General Grant and a little later by Cornwallis.

Map of Long Island

After four hours of desperate resistance, Stirling succeeded in getting his men across a marshy stream to a place of safety, while he himself was taken prisoner, and the struggle known as the battle of Long Island was over. About four hundred had been killed and wounded on each side, and the British taken some eleven hundred prisoners.

Washington had witnessed the disaster from a distance with deep emotion. "My God," he cried, "what brave fellows I must lose this day." Howe closed in around the American fortress, and Washington, expecting an immediate storming of the works, brought troops from Manhattan and raised the defense to ten thousand men. But Howe decided to settle down to a siege. The American commander seeing that he could not stand a siege, determined to elude his enemy by night, and this he did with remarkable skill. The night was favorable, as a dense fog enveloped the moving army. Every manner of craft on the East River, from the yacht to the scow and rowboat, was pressed into the service; and on the morning of the 30th, the entire army with its stores and artillery was safe in New York, and Howe had lost the rarest opportunity of his life of crushing the rebellion and ending the war. Had he been quick to surround Washington he could have captured him and his ten thousand; but the delay was fatal.4

Lord Howe again made overtures for peace. He sent the captured Sullvan to Philadelphia to make proposals to members of Congress and to request a committee of conference. Franklin, Rutledge, and John Adams were appointed; they met Howe on Staten Island, but as they refused to treat with hhn, except on the ground of independent America, the conference came to nothing.

After losing Brooklyn Heights, Washington could no longer hold New York, and his next move was to fall back with the army to the heights along the Harlem River. But before Putnam, with the rearguard of four thousand men, could leave New York, Howe had crossed the East River, and occupied the city. Putnam was in imminent danger of capture, and was saved by the clever strategy of a woman. As Howe reached Murray Hill, the fine country seat of Mrs. Murray, -- now a fashionable portion of New York City, -- that lady sent him a pressing invitation to stop for luncheon. Howe accepted the kind offer, and while he and his officers spent two hours with their hostess, whom they no doubt supposed to be a loyalist, Putnam made his escape up the Hudson to the main army; but in his haste he left behind his heavy guns and many of his army equipments.

The great object of the British was now to get in the rear of Washington and to cut off his retreat northward. But the Hudson was guarded by two strong forts -- Fort Washington on the upper end of Manhattan Island and Fort Lee across the river on the Palisades -- and for nearly a mouth the two armies lay glaring at each other. After a skirmish on Harlem Plains in September, Washington moved his main army to White Plains. Howe followed him, and, despairing of gaining his rear, made an attack in front. This skirmish, known as the battle of White Plains, took place on Chatterton's Hill near the American camp, and resulted in an American loss of nearly one hundred and fifty men, and a British loss of over two hundred. Howe refused to make a second attack, and retired down the Hudson after Washington had taken a strong position at North Castle, near the scene of the battle.


1Among the prisoners was also Allan Macdonald, kinsman of the commander and husband of the famons Flora Macdonald who had aided the Pretender's escape from Scotland. [return]

2Congress had appointed (General Charles Lee to take general command at the South, but Lee did little else than find fault. He would have stopped the proceedings of Moultrie but for the determined interference of Rutledge, the president of the provincial congress. [return]

3This American "Lord" was William Alexander of New Jersey. He had inherited a lapsed Scotch title and was always known as Lord Stirling. [return]

4The opinion is held that Howe sympathized with the Americans and did not wish to defeat them. See reference to the subject on a later page. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XII p. 254-258. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

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