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ered 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 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 rowboats could be laden almost to the gunwale; and a favoring breeze sprang up for the sailboats. 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 anything 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
* Hist. Long Island, p. 258.
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 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 Montressor, aid-decamp 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, equaled 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 CityYearning 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 ad 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, “I have only time to say that 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, in which many have lost their lives. By the steps our general is taking, I imagine he will effectually
* Force's American Archives, 5th Series, ii. 123.
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 them. selves from the city-which, "with other favorable circum. stances,” gave the latter writer a lively “hope that this dis. tressful 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 bad 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 defense of it to any other than her own inhabitants. This stubborn and spirited resolution prevailed over the order of their commander, and the New Yorkers continue snugly in possession of that place." *
“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 hear we shall evacuate your poor city. The very thought gives me the horrors!” Still he indulges
* Force's Am. Archives, 5th Series, ii. 168.