Every once in a while, when my usual route home to Brooklyn from my job in Queens is clogged with traffic, I opt to take what I like to think of as the Revolutionary War Route. This route takes me past the site of a brilliant strategic move by the British that nearly cost the brand-new American nation its independence. You can learn much about that move from Henry Phelps Johnston’s fascinating account, The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn, published in 1878.
The campaign actually began months before the American Continental Congress issued its Declaration of Independence (the first e-book, by the way, that Project Gutenberg ever posted). Johnston relates how in January 1776, George Washington, rightly suspecting that the British would try to occupy New York City, obtained the Continental Congress’s approval to raise the city’s defenses. By August 1776, enough forts, batteries, barricades, and redoubts had been constructed so that the Americans “had inclosed themselves on the Brooklyn peninsula.”
The Americans, however, hadn’t reckoned on one key weakness in their position. Between them and the British lay a long, thickly wooded ridge, the product of glaciers receding thousands of years before. Today, this ridge is filled with parks and cemeteries, and along it runs the parkway I sometimes take to get home. Back in 1776, it was a wilderness. The Americans believed that they had all the important passes through this ridge under control.
But there was another pass that they had left essentially unguarded: the Jamaica Pass. Four miles to the east of the American lines, it was too isolated to keep covered effectively. Just a handful of officers were assigned to patrol it, for the Americans confidently believed that the British would be approaching from a different direction.
As Johnston puts it,
But little did the Americans suspect that at the very moment their defence seemed well arranged and their outguards vigilant they were already in the web which the enemy had been silently weaving around them during the night. That flanking column!… [W]ith crushing weight was it now to fall upon our outpost guards, who felt themselves secure along the hills and in the woods.
British troops poured through the pass, and the Americans were outflanked. They lost the Battle of Long Island, and eventually lost control of New York to the British. The war, fought on many fronts throughout the colonies, would not end until 1783.
The depth of Johnston’s scholarship is evident, but his writing is so clear that the reader never feels mired in detail. There are helpful maps, and a special bonus in Part II of the book: dozens of documents from the campaign that not only illustrate the strategies and concerns of the American generals, but also give a fascinating glimpse into everyday military life in the 18th Century. Johnston’s book is an outstanding contribution to American history.
Today is the 239th anniversary of American independence.