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"Good God! General Mifflin!" cried Washington, "I am afraid you have ruined us by so unseasonably withdrawing the troops from the lines."
"I did so by your order," replied Mifflin with some warmth. "It cannot be !" exclaimed Washington. By GI did! was the blunt rejoinder. "Did Scammel act as aide-de-camp for the day, or did he not?" "He did." "Then," said Mifflin, "I had orders through him." "It is a dreadful mistake," rejoined Washington, "and unless the troops can regain the lines before their absence is discovered by the enemy, the most disastrous consequences are to be apprehended."
Mifflin led back his men to the lines, which had been completely deserted for three-quarters of an hour. Fortunately, the dense fog had prevented the enemy from discovering that they were unoccupied. The men resumed their former posts, and remained at them until called off to cross the ferry. "Whoever has seen troops in a similar situation," writes General Heath," or duly contemplates the human heart in such trials, will know how to appreciate the conduct of these brave men on this occasion."
The fog which prevailed all this time, seemed almost providential. While it hung over Long Island, and concealed the I movements of the Americans, the atmosphere was clear on the New York side of the river. The adverse wind, too, died away, the river became so smooth that the row-boats could be laden almost to the gunwale; and a favoring breeze sprang up for the sail-boats. The whole embarkation of troops, artillery, ammunition, provisions, cattle, horses and carts, was happily effected, and by daybreak the greater part had safely reached the city, thanks to the aid of Glover's Marblehead men. Scarce any thing was abandoned to the enemy, excepting a few heavy pieces of artillery. At a proper time, Mifflin with his covering party left the lines, and effected a silent retreat to the ferry. Washington, though repeatedly entreated, refused to enter a boat until all the troops were embarked; and crossed the river with the last.
A Long Island tradition tells how the British camp became aware of the march which had been stolen upon it.' Near the ferry resided a Mrs. Rapelye, whose husband, suspected of favoring the enemy, had been removed to the interior of New Jersey. On seeing the embarkation of the first detachment, she, out of loyalty or revenge, sent off a black servant to inform
1 Hist. Long Island, p. 258.
the first British officer he could find of what was going on. The negro succeeded in passing the American sentinels, but arrived at a Hessian outpost, where he could not make himself understood, and was put under guard as a suspicious person. There he was kept until daybreak, when an officer visiting the post, examined him, and was astounded by his story. An alarm was given, the troops were called to arms; Captain Montresor, aide-de-camp of General Howe, followed by a handful of men, climbed cautiously over the crest of the works and found them deserted. Advanced parties were hurried down to the ferry. The fog had cleared away sufficiently for them to see the rear boats of the retreating army half way across the river. One boat, still within musket shot, was compelled to return; it was manned by three vagabonds, who had lingered behind to plunder.
This extraordinary retreat, which, in its silence and celerity, equalled the midnight fortifying of Bunker's Hill, was one of the most signal achievements of the war, and redounded greatly to the reputation of Washington, who, we are told, for forty-eight hours preceding the safe extricating of his army from their perilous situation, scarce closed his eyes, and was the greater part of the time on horseback. Many, however, who considered the variety of risks and dangers which surrounded the camp, and the apparently fortuitous circumstances which averted them all, were disposed to attribute the safe retreat of the patriot army to a peculiar Providence.
LONG ISLAND IN POSSESSION OF THE ENEMY DISTRESSED SITUATION OF THE AMERICAN ARMY AT NEW YORK QUESTION OF ABANDONING THE CITY LETTERS FROM EITHER CAMP ENEMY'S SHIPS IN THE SOUND REMOVAL OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN FROM THE CITY - YEARNING FOR HOME AMONG THE MILITIA - TOLERANT IDEAS OF WASHINGTON AND GREENE FORT CONSTITUTION CONFERENCE OF LORD HOWE WITH A
COMMITTEE FROM CONGRESS.
THE enemy had now possession of Long Island. British and Hessian troops garrisoned the works at Brooklyn, or were distributed at Bushwick, Newtown, Hell Gate and Flushing. Admiral Howe came up with the main body of the fleet, and
anchored close to Governor's Island, within cannon shot of the city.
"Our situation is truly distressing," writes Washington to the President of Congress, on the 2d of September. "The check our detachment sustained on the 27th ultimo has dispirited too great a proportion of our troops, and filled their minds with apprehension and despair. The militia, instead of calling forth their utmost efforts to a brave and manly opposition in order to repair our losses, are dismayed, intractable, and impatient to return. Great numbers of them have gone off; in some instances almost by whole regiments, by half ones, and by companies, at a time. With the deepest concern, I am obliged to confess my want of confidence in the generality of the troops. ... Our number of men at present fit for duty is under twenty thousand. I have ordered General Mercer to send the men intended for the flying camp to this place, about a thousand in number, and to try with the militia, if practicable, to make a diversion upon Staten Island. Till of late, I had no doubt in my own mind of defending this place; nor should I have yet, if the men would do their duty, but this I despair of.
"If we should be obliged to abandon the town, ought it to stand as winter quarters for the enemy? They would derive great conveniences from it, on the one hand, and much property would be destroyed on the other. It is an important question, but will admit of but little time for deliberation. At present,
I dare say the enemy mean to preserve it if they can. If Congress, therefore, should resolve upon the destruction of it, the resolution should be a profound secret, as the knowledge will make a capital change in their plans."
Colonel Reed, writing on the same day to his wife, says, have only time to say I am alive and well; as to spirits, but middling.... My country will, I trust, yet be free, whatever may be our fate who are cooped up, or are in danger of so being, on this tongue of land, where we ought never to have been."
We turn to cite letters of the very same date from British officers on Long Island, full of rumors and surmises. "I have just heard," writes an English field-officer, "there has been a most dreadful fray in the town of New York. The New Englanders insisted on setting the town on fire and retreating. This was opposed by the New Yorkers, who were joined by the Pennsylvanians, and a battle has been the consequence,
1 Force's Am. Archives, 5th Series, ii., 123.
which many have lost their lives. By the steps our general is taking, I imagine he will effectually cut off their retreat at King's Bridge, by which the island of New York is joined to the continent.'
An English officer of the guards, writing from camp on the same day, varies the rumor. The Pennsylvanians, according to his version, joined with the New Englanders in the project to set fire to the town; both had a battle with the New Yorkers on the subject, and then withdrew themselves from the citywhich," with other favorable circumstances," gave the latter writer a lively "hope that this distressful business would soon be brought to a happy issue."
Another letter gives a different version. "In the night of the 2d instant, three persons escaped from the city in a canoe and informed our general that Mr. Washington had ordered three battalions of New York Provincials to leave New York, and that they should be replaced by an equal number of Connecticut troops, but the former, assured that the Connecticutians would burn and destroy all the houses, peremptorily refused to give up their city, declaring that no cause of exigency whatever should induce them to intrust the defence of it to any other than her own inhabitants. This spirited and stubborn resolution prevailed over the order of their commander, and the New Yorkers continue snugly in possession of the place." 1
"Matters go on swimmingly," writes another officer. “I don't doubt the next news we send you is, that New York is ours, though in ashes, for the rebel troops have vowed to put it in flames if the tory troops get over."
An American officer writes to an absent New Yorker, in a different tone. "I fear we shall evacuate your poor city. The very thought gives me the horrors!" Still he indulges a vague hope of succor from General Lee, who was returning, all glorious, from his successes at the South. "General Lee," writes he, "is hourly expected, as if from heaven, with a legion of flaming swordsmen." It was, however, what Lee himself would have termed a mere brutum fulmen.
These letters show the state of feeling in the opposite camps, at this watchful moment, when matters seemed hurrying to a crisis.
On the night of Monday (September 2), a forty-gun ship, taking advantage of a favorable wind and tide, passed between Governor's Island and Long Island, swept unharmed by the
1 Force's Am. Archives, 5th Series, ii., 188.
batteries which opened upon her, and anchored in Turtle Bay, above the city. In the morning, Washington despatched Major Crane of the artillery, with two twelve pounders and a howitzer to annoy her from the New York shore. They hulled her several times, and obliged her to take shelter behind Blackwell's Island. Several other ships-of-war, with transports and storeships, had made their appearance in the upper part of the Sound, having gone round Long Island.
As the city might speedily be attacked, Washington caused all the sick and wounded to be conveyed to Orangetown, in the Jerseys, and such military stores and baggage as were not immediately needed, to be removed, as fast as conveyances could be procured, to a post partially fortified at Dobbs' Ferry, on the eastern bank of the Hudson, about twenty-two miles above the city.
Reed, in his letters to his wife, talks of the dark and mysterious motions of the enemy, and the equally dark and intricate councils of Congress, by which the army were disheartened and perplexed. "We are still here," writes he on the 6th, "in a posture somewhat awkward; we think (at least I do) that we cannot stay, and yet we do not know how to go, so that we may be properly said to be between hawk and buzzard.”
The shameful and scandalous desertions," as Washington termed them, continued. In a few days the Connecticut militia dwindled down from six to less than two thousand. "The impulse for going home was so irresistible," writes he, "that it answered no purpose to oppose it. Though I would not discharge them, I have been obliged to acquiesce.”
Still his considerate mind was tolerant of their defection. "Men," said he, "accustomed to unbounded freedom, cannot brook the restraint which is indispensably necessary to the good order and government of an army." And again, Men just dragged from the tender scenes of domestic life, unaccustomed to the din of arms, totally unacquainted with every kind of military skill (which is followed by a want of confidence in themselves, when opposed to troops regularly trained, superior in knowledge, and superior in arms), are timid and ready to fly from their own shadows. Besides, the sudden change in their manner of living, brings on an unconquerable desire to return to their homes.”
Greene, also, who coincided so much with Washington in opinions and sentiments, observes: "People coming from home with all the tender feelings of domestic life, are not sufficiently fortified with natural courage to stand the shocking