Masonic Spotlight: George Washington and The Battle of Long Island – The Retreat That Saved a Nation

Richard H. Ryder, 2018

There are volumes of books on George Washington.  There are no shortage of cities and streets named after our first president.  There are countless statues and monuments commemorating the father of our country and our Masonic Brother.  This article is not meant to provide a detailed biography of our most famous founding father, but rather to take one of his possibly little-known accomplishment to help illustrate the contribution Washington made to the protection of our liberties and the creation of our great nation.

The Battle of Long Island, fought early in what later became known as the War for Independence, was a critical milestone in that revolutionary cause. A defeat on the Long Island peninsula would have meant more than a British victory on the battlefield; it would have quickly and effectively ended the Revolution. Instead, the rebellious cause would live for another day and ultimately persevere in total victory. No small feat for a man who had reluctantly accepted his country’s call to lead the newly formed continental army made up of a collection of farmers, misfits, and citizens of separate colonies that were more independent from each other than a cohesive force for change.

Background

Born February 22, 1732, George Washington grew up in colonial Virginia among the provincial gentry of wealthy tobacco planters. Privately educated, mainly by his older brother, Washington gained surveying experience in the Shenandoah Valley, aspiring in 1749 to the position of surveyor of Culpeper County, VA.  In 1754, as a commissioned lieutenant colonel in the Virginia militia, Washington, along with 150 men, were sent to establish an outpost in in the Ohio Valley. On July 3,1754, at the Battle of Fort Necessity, a badly sited location not far from the recently lost Fort Duquesne, the young military officer found himself on the doorstep of history – the beginning days of what would become the French and Indian War, also known globally as The Seven Years War.  Here Washington was forced to surrender, after which time he returned home and soon resigned his commission.

The following year, as aide-de-camp to General Edward Bradford, he returned to the Ohio Valley in an expedition to Fort Duquesne. Once again, the French were victorious in a battle that cost Bradford his life.  For Washington, his frontier fighting experience would serve him well throughout the remaining years of conflict and later during the War for Independence.

Prior to the opening shots of the American Revolution, Washington and his wife, Martha had settled into a relatively normal existence at their Mount Vernon home in Virginia.  But this quiet life was soon interrupted by his election to command five Virginia militia companies. He then actively participated in the Second Continental Congress, having assuming a quiet role in the first. It was here that John Adams nominated Washington to serve as commander in chief of the proposed Continental Army.  Unanimously elected, Washington took command of his troops on July 3, 1775 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1776, after fortifying Boston and ultimately causing the British to evacuate the city, General Washington led his troops to New York, which, for many reasons, was a strategic location for both sides.

Defending Long Island

New York City was of major strategic significance for both sides, given it was situated at the mouth of the Hudson River. This waterway served as a natural divider, splitting New England and the rest of the colonies. More importantly, the Hudson River led to Lake George, which led to Lake Champlain, then to the Richelieu River that emptied into the St. Lawrence River.  From there, one could navigate to Quebec City.   It is no wonder that General Sir William Howe, commander of the British Army, sought control of the river to divide and conquer, and that Washington sought to prevent Howe from doing so.

On June 29, 1776 tensions escalated with the arrival of an armada of British ships in New York Harbor. This show of force was meant to shock and awe the colonists, with one American rifleman stating he “thought all London was in afloat”. Washington sent alarms out for more militia and sent Martha back home to Virginia. Sandbags were placed at strategic points, cart horses were rounded up to pull artillery, and men were ordered to load muskets and keep firearms ready, day and night. They feared the unexpected, and the unexpected was now upon then.

Through shore batteries and sunken hulls Washington tried to convince Howe that navigating the waters was both risky and useless. But by July 2, 1776, British troops landed unopposed on Staten Island and were warmly greeted by the Loyalist, who later pledged an oath of allegiance to King George III. The virtually non-existent American Navy and inexperienced American forces were no match for the superior British naval fleet and polished British Army. Eventually there would be 31,625 highly trained British forces matched against 19,000 Americans with varying military experience, if any at all.  Coupled with high desertion rates, geographic jealousy within the ranks, and expiring short term enlistments, Washington had much to deal with internally. To make matters worse, Congress was not cooperating in supplying adequate finances and enlistments, Tory plots were waged against the American forces, and there was lack of experience within Washington’s subordinate generals.  This is hardly the position one wants to be in while defending the most strategic geographic location of the war to date.

Despite his challenges, Washington remained confident in his fortifications, manifesting it by dividing his army among the Islands of New York Harbor, including Long Island to the east. In doing so, however, Washington ran the risk of cutting off routes of retreat should defeat seem imminent.  By trying to protect every conceivable location, Washington’s confidence put his men at risk, while also risking all that he had and especially the future of the Revolution. His military inexperience kept him from realizing the indefensibility of New York City.  His talents as a commander had never been tested on a large scale. He lacked formal training on the European pattern. His only military experience had been that of colonial warfare with no experience commanding large bodies of men or the use of special arms.

On July 12th, cannon was heard firing from the bay south of the British anchorage; a salute to the arrival on scene by General Howe. Also, that day, two British warships sailed up the Hudson River as far as Tappan Bay, suffering little from the American guns, and cutting off Washington’s communication with Albany and New Jersey. Washington’s army was now split between Manhattan and Long Island, with the Hudson and East Rivers as well as Long Island Sound under British control. Howe was positioned to strike the divided American forces at will and prevent the arrival of rebel reinforcements. Possible avenues of retreat were restricted to one route, up through northern Manhattan, but General Howe refused to act until he had definite military superiority over Washington. Retreat by water was seemingly impossible.

The original British objective was not battle, but peace.  General William Howe and his Brother, Admiral Richard Howe, were sent by Britain as Peace Commissioners. However, Washington spurned several overtures. General Howe never wanted to fight British subjects, and, at the time, Washington did not know why Howe refrained from attacking.  Had he known, a conflict might have been avoided.  From a military perspective, Washington could have removed all inhabitants of the city and burned the town, but this would have destroyed the spirit of future patriots and injure the American cause. He felt the need for action, and with the Howe brothers frustrated with their failed attempts at peace, the seeds of battle were sown.

During July and August American reinforcements continued to arrive, and yet, Howe restrained himself from attacking until his own troop strength increased.  He was also concerned about the American’s strong hill entrenchments – Bunker Hill and the Siege of Boston were still very fresh on his mind. Howe was still hoping to outwait Washington. He moved most of his army to Long Island, yet Washington, fearing a feint, kept most of his troops in Manhattan. Soon, fearing a joint attack on both locations, Washington moved over a third of his army to Long Island. His hope was to hold Long Island and starve the enemy out of the country.

Howe finally made the decision to eliminate the Americans on Long Island before attempting to take New York. On August 21th Washington noticed troop movement on Staten Island and ships began to sail to the tip of Long Island. On August 22, the enemy dropped anchor at Gravesend Bay to begin their landing and the American command on Manhattan could only watch.  At this point Washington still believed an attack on both Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights was still possible, but the protective guns on British war ships prevented Washington from opposing the landing.

Washington’s misfortunes continued.  General Nathanial Greene, who led the construction of the still uncompleted Brooklyn Heights defenses, took ill and was replaced by the unreliable General Israel Putnam of Bunker Hill fame.  The Americans had hoped to trap the British in another Bunker Hill and mow down the enemy during their frontal attack.  Greene’s illness was thus concerning to Washington.

Amidst this backdrop the Battle of Long Island began on August 27, 1776. Both Howe brothers believed the battle would last but two days, since they were confident Washington would be trapped.  In fact, they believed defeat would bring the war to an end. But, where unrealistic confidence kept Washington from accounting for the unwinnable predicament into which he was placing his army, the over confidence of the Howe brothers prevented them from adequately securing the East River as a possible retreat route for Washington’s forces. They were more concerned with negotiating peace and winning over the Continental Congress.

In the process they ignored the buildup of boats by the Americans on the Manhattan shores of the East River and the buildup of 9,000 American troops on Long Island.  Washington’s idea was to trick the British into thinking the boats were for more reinforcements, when instead, they were on standby for a possible retreat. Despite this, General Howe began a formal siege as the weather began to turn for the worse. On August 29th, Washington began to believe that the fate was not turning in their favor and thoughts now were of retreat. A council of senior officers decided that it was required that night. Mariners from the Massachusetts coastline were ready to steer the boats over and back, transporting men, horses, and supplies, all under the cover of darkness.  Howe had no inkling that Washington would try such a feat, so the element of surprise was in play. Then, as nighttime descended, lady luck brought in a northeast wind that prevented Howe’s fleet from protecting the East River, and a vicious rain storm began to blow in.  As morning broke the next day and the rain began to subside, fog contributed to the retreat effort and the mariners successfully transported their precious cargo. As the last of the men were brought across, shots rang out in their direction; four were wounded with no one killed.

Instead of using his fleet to land troops in northern Manhattan and deny a land escape route for the rebels, the Howe brothers allowed Washington and his troops to eventually retreat up Manhattan, cross the Hudson, and then march into New Jersey.  The war would drag on until September 1783, when Lord Cornwallis, who led British troops at Long Island, would surrender at Yorktown, Virginia.  During the intervening years, Washington would gain experience, surround himself with heroic generals, and motivate his troops through harsh winter quarters.  The love of those he served and who served him culminated in Washington being unanimously elected as the first President of the United States on January 7, 1789.  After serving eight years he retired back to Mount Vernon where he died on December 14, 1799.

Masonic Career*

George Washington was initiated as an Entered Apprentice in the Lodge in Fredericksburg in Fredericksburg, Virginia on November 4, 1752; passed to the degree of Fellow Craft on March 3, 1753; and raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason on August 4, 1753.

January – March 1788: A committee from Alexandria Lodge № 39 calls on George Washington at Mount Vernon. They ask him to serve as “Charter Master” of the lodge as it seeks to move from under the authority of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania and be re-chartered by the Grand Lodge of Virginia. Washington agrees.

April 28, 1788: Edmund Randolph, Grand Master of Masons in Virginia, grants a charter to Alexandria Lodge as the twenty-second lodge in Virginia. The charter names George Washington as the lodge’s Worshipful Master.

December 20, 1788: Washington is re-elected Master of Alexandria Lodge No. 22 for one year, starting December 27, 1788.

September 18, 1793: The cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol is laid by three Masonic Lodges with President Washington presiding as “Acting Master” of the ceremony.

 

Sources:

John R Alden, A History of the American Revolution, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1969
American History Magazine, December, 2017
Bruce Bliven, Battle for Manhattan, Henry Holt and Company,1956
North Callahan, George Washington, Soldier and Man, William Morrow & Co., 972
Henry B. Carrington, Battles of the American Revolution, Battles of the American Revolution, A.S Barnes and Company, 1876
Marcus Cunliffe, George Washington, in George Washington’s Generals, William Morrow & Co., 1964
James Thomas Flexner, George Washington in the American Revolution, Little, Brown and Co., 1968
Bruce Lancaster and J.H. Plum, The Book of the Revolution, American Heritage Publishing Company, 1958
Shelley Little, George Washington (1732-1799), Minton, Balsh, and Co., 1929
Henry Cabot Lodge, George Washington, The Riverside Press, 1889
John C. Miller, Triumph of Freedom, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1948
Frank Moore, The Diary of the American Revolution, Washington Square Press, 1967
John. W Shy, Charles Lee: The Soldier as Radical, in George Washington’s Generals, William Morrow & Co., 1964
* Gwmemorial.org
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