« PreviousContinue »
Hand's regiment retiring before them. General Sullivan was superseded in his command on the Island by General Putnam, and matters rapidly approached a dénouement.
The drawing opposite, is a sketch of the American lines at Brooklyn, and of the adjacent grounds on which the battle was fought. On reaching the encampment, of which he was so hastily placed in command, General Putnam found the American position secured by an inner and an outer line of entrenchments. The former was protected by a strong position upon an eminence, near the Wallabout bay, now called Fort Greene. The only approach to it was across an isthmus, formed on one side by the bay and contiguous swamp, and on the other, by a creek, running in from Gowanus Cove, with an impassable marsh on either side of it. This neck of land had been skilfully taken advantage of, by General Greene, and was perfectly defended by the entrenchments in its rear. The enemy were expected in three directions; along the coast; by the Flatbush road; and by the road which led from Flatbush to Bedford. . To face them in these quarters, an outer line of works had been organized. A chain of picquets, extending from Yellow-Hook round to Flatbush, were stationed from eminence to eminence, to give timely warning of their approach; and the avenues were guarded by temporary breast-works, defending the main passes. Thus far, General Putnam adopted the defensive measures of General Greene, and these precautions proved successfal, in the points they were designed to protect.
From an attack of the enemy's ships at the Narrows, the American rear was also guarded by efficient batteries, at Red Hook, and on Governor's Island. General Sullivan had in charge the whole line of outer works, and was joined by Colonel Hand, on his withdrawal from the coast, at the landing of the British, and by Colonels Williams and Miles, with their respective regiments.
Such was the position of the Americans; their numbers not exceeding eight thousand eight hundred men. Their adversaries, after landing on the twenty-second, parted in three divisions. The right wing, under Lord Cornwallis and Earl Percy, extended, on the twenty-sixth instant, from Flatbush toward Flatlands, about two miles in the rear.
The centre, composed of the Hessians under General de Heister, was posted at Flatbush, and the left wing, on the coast, was commanded by General Grant. The centre was about four, and the right and left wings nearly six miles distant each from the American camp. A chain of thickly-wooded hills, called the Heights of Gowanus, and extending eastward to the extremity of the Island, lay between the two armies.
The commander-in-chief passed the whole day of the twenty-sixth at Brooklyn, preparing for the expected assault. On the eve of this the first pitched battle of the war, his heart was full of anxiety. Consoled by the conviction that every thing in his power had been done to strengthen the American forces, he relied now upon Providence, upon the justice of the cause, and upon their bravery. Toward the close of the day, he returned to New-York.
On that afternoon, a spectator, to whom the interior of both camps could have been revealed, might have drawn a touching and interesting comparison. On one side, the hardened veteran; opposed to him,
the ingenuous recruit; contrasted with the martial costume of the British, the worn and homely garments of the continentals; with the park of burnished artillery, a few cannon bought with blood ; with polished arms and accoutrements, the long-rusted gun and sabre, torn down from the chimney-piece to answer a country's call. Among the British, a proud and conscious discipline; among the Americans, a tie of brotherhood, the feeling of men who would die for each other, in defence of an injured mother. Here the proud oppressor; there the patriot, resolved to do or die.
Our troops were, then, securely encamped for the night, the watchfires lighted, the sentinels posted, the hum of preparation over; a challenge was now and then received and answered, and a guard relieved. The wolf hero had been late in the trenches.
It was a still August night; a few soldiers lay within the tents; many slept in the open
their knapsacks spread,
A pillow for the resting head :' arms and ammunition had been cleaned and inspected, and the sword loosed in its scabbard. Beneath the precipitous bank, flowed the ebbing waters of the unconscious bay, and the eye that looked on the city where WASHINGTON slept, found protection in the glance. In the ears of the hopeful American still resounded those stirring words of the orderly book, and many a heart beat as the hand grasped the gun, the blade. In the direction of the enemy, all was hushed ; this silence, mayhap, was ominous. Did none within that camp gaze with mistrust upon the dark and wood-capped hills of Gowanus ?
At half past two o'clock, passing clouds obscured the harvest moon; the night waxed gloomy, and the air chill. Suddenly, a sharp report of musketry, in the direction of Yellow-Hook, alarmed the American camp. It was a startling sound, in the stillness of the morning, and the troops sprang to their arms, as the reveillé summoned each man to his duty. Many a brave lad awoke from dreams of peaceful home, of the father-house, and its loved inmates, where, in presence of the glad crops, the warlike sounds that lulled him to sleep seemed but as dream-notes, and the danger he anticipated, one that was passed. He had obeyed the watch-word of liberty, which called him to the hardships of war; but his heart told him life was sweet, and his cottage home a paradise. The drum rattled in his ear, and aroused bim to the stern reality he feared not, courted not.
Ere the alarm ceased beating, the men had seized their muskets. Word had been passed from the remote picquets on the coast, that the enemy were approaching. Lord Stirling was instantly directed by General Putnam to march with the two nearest regiments to their rencounter. These proved to be the Pennsylvania and Maryland troops, under Colonels Haslet and Smallwood; with whom, proceeding over the uneven ground in the direction of the attack, he found himself on the road to the Narrows, toward day-break, and soon met Colonel Atlee, with his Delaware regiment, retiring before the British, with the picquets to whose aid they had advanced. Stationing this officer on the left of the road by which the enemy were approaching, Lord Stirling formed his two regiments along an advantageous ridge,
seen, on the
ascending from the road to a piece of wood on the top of a hill. The British were received with two or three warm rounds by the Delawares, who, as their ground became untenable, withdrew to a wood on Lord Stirling's left, where they formed.
The assailants, now in sight, proved to be two brigades, of four regiments each, under the command of General Grant. They proceeded to occupy the elevation opposite Lord Stirling, at a distance of three hundred yards. Their light troops came one hundred and fifty yards nearer, with a view to gain possession of a superior eminence on his left. As they marched up this hill, they were met by the deadly fire of Kichline's rifle-corps, who had just reached the ground in time to protect this important point, and who, as I was recently informed by an old man, then and yet living near the spot, mowed them down as fast as they appeared. The Americans brought up two field-pieces to oppose the ten of their opponents. A sharp cannonade ensued, and was vigorously sustained on both sides, to a late hour; until when, let us shift the scene. While the Americans were occupied, as we have
previous evening there was, toward dusk, an unusual stir among the troops in the British right wing. The regiments already at Flatlands, under Earl Percy, were joined at night-fall by those under Lord Cornwallis and General Clinton, who left the Hessians masters at Flatbush. The dark forms of the tall soldiery, the play of their muskets in the moonlight, the whispered order and firm tread of discipline, all announced some sudden or adventurous movement. One by one, the companies filed off in the direction of New-Lots, and before night was far advanced, Flatlands was deserted. As they moved farther and farther away from the American lines, the furrows became relaxed on the brows of the British commanders, and toward daybreak, half a triumph already gleamed in the eye of Clinton who led the van.
Shortly after daylight, the Hessians at Flatbush opened a moderate cannonade upon General Sullivan, who, with a strong detachment, had advanced on the direct road from Brooklyn thither, and now occupied the breast-works thrown up by General Greene, for the defence of this important pass. Colonels Miles and Williams were strongly posted on the Bedford road. At half-past eight, Count Donop was detached to attack the hill, by General De Heister, who soon followed with the centre of the army.
With levelled pieces and eyes fixed on the enemy, the Americans stood firm on their vantage ground, nerved for the assault, and prepared to enact a second drama of Bunker Hill. From behind breastwork and tree, soldier and rifleman looked down
upon the ascending foe, with a feeling of conscious security; when lo! a report of artillery, in the rear of their left, flew with its own velocity along the line. A second volley revealed to them, with fearful truth, that the enemy had turned their left flank, and placed them between two fires. Horror, dismay, confusion, ensued! The advancing Hessians were no longer faced by the whole band stationed to oppose them; and vain the efforts of General Sullivan to rally the dispersing continentals, who hastened to regain the camp, while there yet was time. It was, alas, too late! As regiment after regiment emerged from the wood,
they encountered the bayonets of the British, and all retreat was cut off.Driven back into the forest, after desperate efforts to cleave their way through the close ranks of the enemy, they were met by the Hessians, a part of whom were at the same time detached toward Bedford, in which quarter the cannon of Clinton announced that he also was attacking the American rear. The British pushed their line beyond the Flatbush road, and when our brave troops found their only outlet was through the enemy, skirmish after skirmish ensued, in which they displayed signal bravery. Many forced their way through the camp, some escaped into the woods, and many were slain. Colonel Parry was shot through the head, while encouraging his men.
I leave the reader to imagine the disastrous consequences of this surprise to the Americans, when, hemmed in by the surpassing numbers, and cooperating wings of the British, they saw inevitable death or capture, on every side. Here, striking again through the wood, and lured by an enticing path, which promised safety, they rushed from its shelter upon the drawn sabres of the enemy; there, retiring to its recesses before a superior force, they fell upon the levelled muskets of the Hessians; bullets and balls sought victims in every direction ; and many a brave soldier sank to die beneath the tall forest tree, offering up with his parting breath, a prayer for his country, consecrated by his life blood.
Against the hottest of the enemy's fire, General Sullivan, on the heights above Flatbush, made a brave resistance for three hours. Here the slaughter was thickest on the side of the assailants. Fairly covered by the imperfect entrenchment, the Americans poured many a deadly volley upon the approaching foe. The old man, already mentioned, well remembers seeing a pit wherein large numbers of the Hessians, who fell here, were buried; and from another source, I learn, that, to stimulate the commander of these foreign mercenaries, he had been offered a golden substitute for every missing man.
Leaving Generals Clinton and Percy to intercept the Americans in this quarter, Lord Cornwallis proceeded toward the scene of General Grant's engagement with Lord Stirling. We left this gallant officer bravely opposing a superior force. He continued the resistance, until eleven o'clock, when, hearing a sharp firing in the direction of Brooklyn, it flashed upon him that the British were getting between him and the American lines. Discovering the position of Lord Cornwallis, he instantly saw, that unless they forded the creek near the Yellow Mills, the troops under him must all become prisoners. The reader will see that he had some distance to gain, before this could be effected. Hastening back, he found the enemy much stronger than he anticipated; and, that his main body might escape, he determined in person to attack Lord Cornwallis, who was posted at a house near the upper mill. This movement he performed with the utmost gallantry, leading half of Smallwood's regiment five or six several times to the charge, and nearly dislodging the British commander, who, but for the arrival of large rëinforcements, would have been driven from his station. This band of four hundred, composed, say the British accounts, of youths, the flower of the best families in Maryland, sustained severe loss. But the object was attained, and the regiments,
whose retreat it was designed to favor, effected their escape over marsh and creek, with the loss of a single man drowned. In his official report, Lord Howe speaks of numbers who perished in crossing the inlet. But this, I am convinced, is incorrect. The self-devoted heroes of this exploit were surrounded, and made prisoners of war.
We may readily conceive with what feelings their brethren in the camp beheld the undeserved ill fortune of the troops engaged in the action. General Putnam, a warrior of the true stamp, constrained to remain within the fortifications, and so little prepared for the events of the day, as to be only able, where the enemy appeared, to detach troops to meet them, saw with dismay the manquvre which made them masters of the field. His efforts had all along been directed to General Grant's motions. For the defence in front, he relied on General Sullivan to provide, and great was his surprise, on seeing the enemy turn that officer's flank. As the engagement between Lord Stirling and General Grant grew warmer, his attention was attracted by the broadside which the British frigate Roebuck opened upon the Red Hook battery in his rear. Too late aware of his mistake, he was compelled to await the issue.
At this juncture, General WASHINGTON reached the lines, and beheld, with infinite grief, the discomfiture of his beloved troops. Wringing his hands, he is said, when he saw no aid could reach them, to have given vent to expressions of the keenest anguish. From the height he stood upon, the movements of both parties were revealed to him. Here, was seen Lord Stirling, gallantly attacking Cornwallis; there, a troop of Americans, escaping with thinned numbers through the British ranks, were pursued to the very entrenchments. By the creek, soldiers plunging into the unknown depths of its waters, or struggling through the miry bog, were fired upon by the foe; toward Flatbush, the Hessians and British were combining to enfold, in a still narrower circle, the few and undaunted continentals.
Lest the foregoing imperfect description should have left obscure some of the details of this affair, let me briefly recapitulate its successive disasters. I have supposed the reader to be, where all would have chosen to stand on that occasion, on the American side. A glance at the motions of the British, will show how admirably their maneuvres were planned and executed. The success of the concerted movement was insured by the unforeseen malady of General Greene. All the passes to Brooklyn were defended, save one; and it was by this that the troops, which decided the fortunes of the day, and were the same we left filing off from Flatland to New-Lots, on the previous night, turned the American flank. The road from Jamaica to Bedford was left unprotected; the enemy early ascertained this fact; and, to enable them to profit by our neglect, General Grant's advance, which was a diversion, had been devised. The fleet and General de Heister cooperated with him in this manœuvre. General Putnam, taking this feint for a bona fide attack, was deceived; and the Americans were entrapped by forces superior in discipline, in tactics, in numbers, in good fortune, but not in courage ; for though eleven hundred were either killed or taken, near four thousand fought their way
back to the camp.
To the absence of General Greene, who had studied, and would doubt