American Dunkirk by Tom Reynolds
During World War 2, the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk, in France, is celebrated as the great achievement that it was. Cut off and about to be destroyed, the British army was saved to fight another day. After Dunkirk, America eventually came to Britain’s rescue, but the history of WW2 would certainly have played out differently without the Dunkirk evacuation.
America had its own version of Dunkirk during the Revolutionary War and the American crossing of the East River was even more important; there was no other nation to come to America’s rescue if its army had been destroyed in Brooklyn. It would have ended the revolution in a victory for Britain.
On July 4th 1776, the United States declared its independence from Great Britain. While independence was being celebrated in Philadelphia, 23,000 British regular soldiers and 10,000 Hessian mercenaries were being unloaded by British ships in New York Harbor.
George Washington was occupying New York City by order of the Continental Congress, even though he knew it was not defendable against the combined army and naval forces of Great Britain.
On August 26th, the first battle began on Long Island and the right wing of the American forces was about to be cut off and destroyed. But a group of Americans who were variously called “Washington’s Immortals” and the “Maryland 400” did not retreat. Instead, they made a suicidal charge which bought time and allowed the American army to survive and prevented the British and Hessians from bringing their plans to fruition. For their efforts, the Americans were bayoneted by the Hessians.
Less than two months after the Declaration of Independence was signed, the revolution was about to fail as a large portion of the American army had retreated to Brooklyn with the East River at their backs. But the British generals did not recognize the appalling state of the Americans and, more importantly, remembered their horrendous losses taking Bunker Hill. So, they laid siege and used the Royal Navy to attempt to cut off the East River from retreat.
Washington knew his only chance was to cross the mile wide East River - with its treacherous tidal currents - to the temporary safety of Manhattan. It had to be done immediately, after dark, in a horrendous rain storm. Multiple crossings would be needed. Security had to be airtight and it was so secret that Washington did not tell his officers about the night’s plans. John Glover, the leader of the “Marblehead Regiment” of mariners that would ferry the army across was not told of the purpose until it was time to man the boats. The crossing would be made in total darkness with the mariners depending on their experience to guide them to the other shore. The boats were a combination of rowed and sailed boats.
The tides and winds cooperated for the first two hours and the multiple crossings went well. Then, the tides shifted and the mariners were unsuccessfully rowing against tides and wind, making it impossible to complete the retreat before sunrise and the British becoming aware of what was happening. Then, the winds died and shortly thereafter shifted in the American’s favor.
Having lost time because of the wind and tide shift, dawn was coming. Panicked men were fighting for a place in the boats, which caused further confusion and angered Washington, who picked up the biggest rock he could find and threatened to sink the boat unless order was restored. It was.
When dawn arose, Americans were still in Brooklyn but a thick fog rose over the Brooklyn side, but not the Manhattan side. A fog was very unusual at that time of the year and it hid the Americans and allowed the complete evacuation. Only one boat with three men on it was captured by the British.
Eventually, the colonial army was completely driven out of New York and it retreated across New Jersey to a place in Pennsylvania called Valley Forge, where things became even more desperate – and a more famous river crossing was to come.
The Maryland 400 made a suicidal charge that bought time enough to save he American army. Luck certainly played a part in the successful evacuation when the wind turned and, later, an unusual fog allowed the whole army to safely evacuate.
Or maybe God really is on our side.
Another reason to be thankful this Christmas.