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the morning, Washington went the round of the works to see that all was right, and to speak words of encouragement. The morning broke lowering and dreary. Large encampments were gradually descried; to appearance, the enemy were twenty thousand strong. As the day advanced, their ordnance began to play upon the works. They were proceeding to intrench themselves, but were driven into their tents by a drenching rain.
Early in the morning General Mifflin arrived in camp with part of the troops which had been stationed at Fort Washington and King's Bridge. He brought with him Shee's prime Philadelphia regiment, and Magaw's Pennsylvania regiment, both well disciplined and officered, and accustomed to act together. They were so much reduced in numbers, however, by sickness, that they did not amount, in the whole, to more than eight hundred men. With Mifflin came also Colonel Glover's Massachusetts regiment, composed chiefly of Marblehead fishermen and sailors, hardy, adroit, and weather-proof; trimly clad in blue jackets and trousers. The detachment numbered, in the whole, about thirteen hundred men, all fresh and full of spirits. Every eye brightened as they marched briskly along the line with alert step and cheery aspect. They were posted at the left extremity of the intrenchments toward the Wallabout.
There were skirmishes throughout the day between the riflemen on the advanced posts and the British "irregulars," which at times were quite severe; but no decided attack was attempted. The main body of the enemy kept within their tents until the latter part of the day; when they began to break ground at about five hundred yards distance from the works, as if preparing to carry them by regular approaches.
On the 29th, there was a dense fog over the island, that
wrapped everything in mystery. In the course of the morning, General Mifflin, with Adjutant-general Reed and Colonel Grayson of Virginia, one of Washington's aides-decamp, rode to the western outposts in the neighborhood of Red Hook. While they were there, a light breeze lifted the fog from a part of the New York Bay, and revealed the British ships at their anchorage opposite Staten Island. There appeared to be an unusual bustle among them. Boats were passing to and from the admiral's ship, as if seeking or carrying orders. Some movement was apparently in agitation. The idea occurred to the reconnoitering party that the fleet was preparing, should the wind hold and the fog clear away, to come up the bay at the turn of the tide, silence the feeble batteries at Red Hook and the city, and anchor in the East River. In that case the army on Long Island would be completely surrounded and entrapped.
Alarmed at this perilous probability, they spurred back to headquarters, to urge the immediate withdrawal of the army. As this might not be acceptable advice, Reed, emboldened by his intimacy with the commander-in-chief, undertook to give it. Washington instantly summoned a council of war. The difficulty was already apparent of guarding such extensive works with troops fatigued and dispirited, and exposed to the inclemencies of the weather. Other dangers now presented themselves. Their communication with New York might be cut off by the fleet from below. Other ships had passed round Long Island, and were at Flushing Bay, on the Sound. These might land troops on the east side of Harlem River, and make themselves masters of King's Bridge; that key of Manhattan Island. Taking all these things into consideration, it was resolved to cross with the troops to the city that very night.
Never did retreat require greater secrecy and circumspection. Nine thousand men, with all the munitions of war, were to be withdrawn from before a victorious army, encamped so near that every stroke of spade and pickax from their trenches could be heard. The retreating troops, moreover, were to be embarked and conveyed across a strait three-quarters of a mile wide, swept by rapid tides. The least alarm of their movement would bring the enemy upon them, and produce a terrible scene of confusion and carnage at the place of embarkation.
Washington made the preparatory arrangements with great alertness, yet profound secrecy.
Verbal orders were sent to Colonel Hughes, who acted as quartermaster-general, to impress all water craft, large and small, from Spyt den Duivel on the Hudson round to Hell Gate on the Sound, and have them on the east side of the city by evening. The order was issued at noon, and so promptly executed, that, although some of the vessels had to be brought a distance of fifteen miles, they were all at Brooklyn at eight o'clock in the evening, and put under the management of Colonel Glover's amphibious Marblehead regiment.
To prepare the army for a general movement without betraying the object, orders were issued for the troops to hold themselves in readiness for a night attack upon the enemy. The orders caused surprise, for the poor fellows were exhausted, and their arms rendered nearly useless by the rain; all, however, prepared to obey; but several made nuncupative wills; as is customary among soldiers on the eve of sudden and deadly peril.
According to Washington's plan of retreat, to keep the enemy from discovering the withdrawal of the Americans
until the main body should have embarked in the boats and pushed off from the shore, General Mifflin was to remain at the lines with his Pennsylvania troops and the gallant remains of Haslet, Smallwood, and Hand's regiments, with guards posted and sentinels alert, as if nothing extraordinary was taking place; when the main embarkation was effected, they were themselves to move off quietly, march briskly to the ferry, and embark. In case of any alarm that might disconcert the arrangements, Brooklyn church was to be the rallying-place, whither all should repair, so as unitedly to resist any attack.
It was late in the evening when the troops began to retire from the breastworks. As one regiment quietly withdrew from their station on guard, the troops on the right and left moved up and filled the vacancy. There was a stifled murmur in the camp, unavoidable in a movement of the kind; but it gradually died away in the direction of the river, as the main body moved on in silence and order. The youthful Hamilton, whose military merits had won the favor of General Greene, and who had lost his baggage and a field-piece in the battle, brought up the rear of the retreating party. In the dead of the night, and in the midst of this hushed and anxious movement, a cannon went off with a tremendous roar. "The effect," says an American who was present, "was at once alarming and sublime. If the explosion was within our lines, the gun was probably discharged in the act of spiking it, and could have been no less a matter of speculation to the enemy than to ourselves.” *
"What with the greatness of the stake, the darkness of the night, the uncertainty of the design, and the extreme
Graydon's Memoirs, edited by I. S. Littell, p. 167.
hazard of the issue," adds the same writer, "it would be difficult to conceive a more deeply solemn and interesting scene."
The meaning of this midnight gun was never ascertained; fortunately, though it startled the Americans, it failed to rouse the British camp.
In the meantime the embarkation went on with all possible dispatch, under the vigilant eye of Washington, who stationed himself at the ferry, superintending every movement. In his anxiety for dispatch, he sent back Colonel Scammel, one of his aides-de-camp, to hasten forward all the troops that were on the march. Scammel blundered in executing his errand, and gave the order to Mifflin likewise. The general instantly called in his pickets and sentinels, and set off for the ferry.
By this time the tide had turned; there was a strong wind from the northeast; the boats with oars were insufficient to convey the troops; those with sails could not make headway against the wind and tide. There was some confusion at the ferry, and in the midst of it General Mifflin came down with the whole covering party; adding to the embarrassment and uproar.
"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 G—, I did!” was the blunt rejoinder. "Did Scammel act as aid-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 discov