« ZurückWeiter »
the town was to be burned, and from his expressed desire to remove the women and children from New York. But political considerations overruled the military necessity, and he spared the town. It was bad enough to be thus hampered, but he was even more fettered in other ways, for he could not even concentrate his forces and withdraw to the Highlands without a battle, as he was obliged to fight in order to sustain public feeling, and thus he was driven on to almost sure defeat.
Everything, too, as the day of battle drew near, seemed to make against him. On August 22d the enemy began to land on Long Island, where Greene had drawn a strong line of redoubts behind the village of Brooklyn, to defend the heights which commanded New York, and had made every arrangement to protect the three roads through the wooded hills, about a mile from the intrenchments. Most unfortunately, and just at the critical moment, Greene was taken down with a raging fever, so that when Washington came over on the 24th he found much confusion in the camps, which he repressed as best he could, and then prepared for the attack. Greene's illness, however, had caused some oversights which were unknown to the commander-in-chief, and which, as it turned out, proved fatal. After indecisive skirmishing for two or three days, the British started early on the morning of the 26th. They had nine thousand men and were well informed as to the country. Advancing through woodpaths and lanes, they came round to the left flank of the Americans. One of the roads through the hills was unguarded, the others feebly protected. The result is soon told. The Americans, out-generalled and out-flanked, were taken by surprise and surrounded, Sullivan and his division were cut off, and then Lord Stirling. There was some desperate fighting, and the Americans showed plenty of courage, but only a few forced their way out. Most of them were killed or taken prisoners, the total loss out of some five thousand men reaching as high as two thousand. From the redoubts, whither he had come at the sound of the firing, Washington watched the slaughter and disaster in grim silence. He saw the British troops, flushed with victory, press on to the very edge of his works and then withdraw in obedience to command. The British generals had their prey so surely, as they believed, that they mercifully decided not to waste life unnecessarily by storming the works in the first glow of success. So they waited during that night and the two following days, while Washington strengthened his intrenchments, brought over reinforcements, and prepared for the worst. On the 29th it became apparent that there was a movement in the fleet, and that arrangements were being made to take the Americans in the rear and wholly cut them off. It was a pretty plan, but the British overlooked the fact that while they were lingering, summing up their victory, and counting the future as assured, there was a silent watchful man on the other side of the redoubts who for forty-eight hours never left the lines, and who with a great capacity for stubborn fighting could move, when the stress came, with the celerity and stealth of a panther. Washington swiftly determined to retreat. It was a desperate undertaking, and a lesser man would have hesitated and been lost. He had to transport nine thousand men across a strait of strong tides and currents, and three quarters of a mile in width. It was necessary to collect the boats from a distance, and do it all within sight and hearing of the enemy. The boats were obtained, a thick mist settled down on sea and land, the water was calm, and as the night wore away, the entire army with all its arms and baggage was carried over, Washington leaving in the last boat. At daybreak the British awoke, but it was too late. They had fought a successful battle, they had had the American army in their grasp, and now all was over. The victory had melted away, and, as a grand result, they had a few hundred prisoners, a stray boat with three camp-followers, and the deserted works in which they stood. To make such a retreat as this was a feat of arms as great as most victories, and in it we see, perhaps as plainly as anywhere, the nerve and quickness of the man who conducted it. It is true it was the only chance of salvation, but the great man is he who is entirely master of his opportunity, even if he have but one. The outlook, nevertheless, was, as Washington wrote, "truly distressing." The troops were dispirited, and the militia began to disappear, as they always did after a defeat. Congress would not permit the destruction of the city, different interests pulled in different directions, conflicting opinions distracted the councils of war, and, with utter inability to predict the enemy's movements, everything led to halfway measures and to intense anxiety, while Lord Howe tried to negotiate with Congress, and the Americans waited for events. Washington, looking beyond the confusion of the moment, saw that he had gained much by delay, and had his own plan well defined. He wrote: "We have not only delayed the operations of the campaign till it is too late to effect any capital incursion into the country, but have drawn the enemy's forces to one point. ... It would be presumption to draw out our young troops into open ground against their superiors both in number and discipline, and I have never spared the spade and pickaxe." Every one else, however, saw only past defeat and present peril. The British ships gradually made their way up the river, until it became apparent that they intended to surround and cut off the American army. Washington made preparations to withdraw, but uncertainty of information came near rendering his precautions futile. September 15th the men-of-war opened fire, and troops were landed near Kip's Bay. The militia in the breastworks at that point had been at Brooklyn and gave way at once, com* municating their panic to two Connecticut regiments. Washington, galloping down to the scene of battle, came upon the disordered and flying troops. He dashed in among them, conjuring them to stop, but even while he was trying to rally them they broke again on the appearance of some sixty or seventy of the enemy, and ran in all directions. In a tempest of anger Washington drew his pistols, struck the fugitives with his sword, and was only forced from the field by one of his officers seizing the bridle of his horse and dragging him away from the British, now within a hundred yards of the spot. Through all his trials and anxieties Washington always showed the broadest and most generous sympathy. When the militia had begun to leave him a few days before, although he despised their action and protested bitterly to Congress against their employment, yet in his letters he displayed a keen appreciation of their feelings, and saw plainly every palliation and excuse. But there was one thing which he could never appreciate nor realize. It was from first to last impossible for him to understand how any man could refuse to fight, or could think of running away. When he beheld rout and cowardly panic before his very eyes, his temper broke loose and ran uncontrolled. His one thought then was to fight to the last, and he would have thrown himself single-handed on the enemy, with all his wisdom and prudence flung to the winds. The day when the commander held his