The fight in Charleston Harbour, the first serious contest in which ships took part in this war, resembles generically the battle of Bunker's Hill
, with which the regular land warfare had opened a year before. Both illustrate the difficulty and danger of a front attack, without cover, upon a fortified position, and the advantage conferred even upon untrained men, if naturally cool, resolute, and intelligent, not only by the protection of a work, but also, it may be urged, by the recognition of a tangible line up to which to hold, and to abandon which means defeat, dishonour, and disaster. It is much for untried men to recognise in their surroundings something which gives the unity of a common purpose, and thus the coherence which discipline imparts.
Although there was in Parker's dispositions nothing open to serious criticism,—nothing that can be ascribed to undervaluing his opponent,—and although, also, he had good reason to expect from the army active coöperation which he did not get, it is probable that he was very much surprised, not only at the tenacity of the Americans' resistance, but at the efficacy of their fire. He felt, doubtless, the traditional and natural distrust—and, for the most part, the justified distrust—with which experience and practice regard inexperience. Some seamen of American
birth, who had been serving in the Bristol
, deserted after the fight. They reported that her crew said, "We were told the Yankees would not stand two fires, but we never saw better fellows;" and when the fire of the fort slackened and some cried, "They have done fighting," others replied, "By God, we are glad of it, for we never had such a drubbing in our lives." "All the common men [pg 38]
of the fleet spoke loudly in praise of the garrison,"—a note of admiration so frequent in generous enemies that we may be assured that it was echoed on the quarter-deck also.
They could afford it well, for there was no stain upon their own record beyond the natural mortification of defeat; no flinching under the severity of their losses, although a number of their men were comparatively raw, volunteers from the transports, whose crews had come forward almost as one man when they knew that the complements of the ships were short through sickness. Edmund Burke, a friend to both sides, was justified in saying that "never did British valour shine more conspicuously, nor did our ships in an engagement of the same nature experience so serious an encounter." There were several death-vacancies for lieutenants; and, as the battle of Lake Champlain
gave Pellew his first commission, so did that of Charleston Harbour give his to Saumarez, who was made lieutenant of the Bristol
by Parker. Two years later, when the ship had gone to Jamaica, he was followed on her quarter-deck by Nelson and Collingwood, who also received promotion in her from the same hand.
The attack on Fort Moultrie
was not resumed. After necessary repairs, the ships of war with the troops went to New York, where they arrived on the 4th of August, and took part in the operations for the reduction of that place under the direction of the two Howes.
The occupation of New York Harbour, and the capture of the city were the most conspicuous British successes of the summer and fall of 1776. While Parker and Clinton were meeting with defeat at Charleston, and Arnold was hurrying the preparation of his flotilla on Champlain, the two brothers, General Sir William Howe
and the Admiral, Lord Howe, were arriving in New York Bay, invested not only with the [pg 39]
powers proper to the commanders of great fleets and armies, but also with authority as peace commissioners, to negotiate an amicable arrangement with the revolted Colonies.
Sir William Howe had awaited for some time at Halifax the arrival of the expected reinforcements, but wearying at last he sailed thence on the 10th of June, 1776, with the army then in hand. On the 25th he himself reached Sandy Hook, the entrance to New York Bay, having preceded the transports in a frigate. On the 29th, the day after Parker's repulse at Fort Moultrie, the troops arrived; and on July 3d, the date on which Arnold, retreating from Canada, reached Crown Point, the British landed on Staten Island, which is on the west side of the lower Bay. On the 12th came in the Eagle, 64, carrying the flag of Lord Howe.
This officer was much esteemed by the Americans for his own personal qualities, and for his attitude towards them in the present dispute, as well as for the memory of his brother, who had endeared himself greatly to them in the campaign of 1758, when he had fallen near Lake Champlain
; but the decisive step of declaring their independence had been taken already, on July 4th, eight days before the Admiral's arrival. A month was spent in fruitless attempts to negotiate with the new government, without recognising any official character in its representatives. During that time, however, while abstaining from decisive operations, cruisers were kept at sea to intercept American traders, and the Admiral, immediately upon arriving, sent four vessels of war twenty-five miles up the Hudson River, as far as Tarrytown. This squadron was commanded by Hyde Parker
, afterwards, in 1801, Nelson's commander-in-chief at Copenhagen. The service was performed under a tremendous cannonade from all the batteries on both shores, but the ships could not be stopped. Towards the middle of August it was evident that the Americans would not accept any terms in the power [pg 40]
of the Howes to offer, and it became necessary to attempt coercion by arms.
In the reduction of New York in 1776, the part played by the British Navy, owing to the nature of the campaign in general and of the enemy's force in particular, was of that inconspicuous character which obscures the fact that without the Navy the operations could not have been undertaken at all, and that the Navy played to them the part of the base of operations and line of communications. Like the foundations of a building, these lie outside the range of superficial attention, and therefore are less generally appreciated than the brilliant fighting going on at the front, to the maintenance of which they are all the time indispensable. Consequently, whatever of interest may attach to any, or to all, of the minor affairs, which in the aggregate constitute the action of the naval force in such circumstances, the historian of the major operations is confined perforce to indicating the broad general effect of naval power upon the issue. This will be best done by tracing in outline the scene of action, the combined movements, and the Navy's influence in both.
The harbour of New York divides into two parts—the upper and lower Bays—connected by a passage called the Narrows, between Long and Staten Islands, upon the latter of which the British troops were encamped. Long Island, which forms the eastern shore of the Narrows, extends to the east-north-east a hundred and ten miles, enclosing between itself and the continent a broad sheet of water called Long Island Sound, that reaches nearly to Narragansett Bay. The latter, being a fine anchorage, entered also into the British scheme of operations, as an essential feature in a coastwise maritime campaign. Long Island Sound and the upper Bay of New York are connected by a crooked and difficult passage, known as the East River, eight or ten miles [pg 41]
in length, and at that time nearly a mile wide abreast the city of New York. At the point where the East River joins New York Bay, the Hudson River, an estuary there nearly two miles wide, also enters from the north,—a circumstance which has procured for it the alternative name of the North River. Near their confluence is Governor's Island, half a mile below the town, centrally situated to command the entrances to both. Between the East and North rivers, with their general directions from north and east-north-east, is embraced a long strip of land gradually narrowing to the southward. The end of this peninsula, as it would otherwise be, is converted into an island, of a mean length of about eight miles, by the Harlem River,—a narrow and partially navigable stream connecting the East and North rivers. To the southern extreme of this island, called Manhattan, the city of New York was then confined.
As both the East and North rivers were navigable for large ships, the former throughout, the latter for over a hundred miles above its mouth, it was evident that control of the water must play a large part in warlike operations throughout the district described. With the limited force at Washington's disposal, he had been unable to push the defences of the city as far to the front as was desirable. The lower Bay was held by the British Navy, and Staten Island had been abandoned, necessarily, without resistance, thereby giving up the strong defensive position of the Narrows. The lines were contracted thus to the immediate neighbourhood of New York itself. Small detached works skirted the shores of Manhattan Island, and a line of redoubts extended across it, following the course of a small stream which then partly divided it, a mile from the southern end. Governor's Island was also occupied as an outpost. Of more intrinsic strength, but not at first concerned, strong works had been thrown up on either [pg 42]
side of the North River, upon commanding heights eight miles above New York, to dispute the passage of ships.
The crucial weakness in this scheme of defence was that the shore of Long Island opposite the city was much higher than that of Manhattan. If this height were seized, the city, and all below it, became untenable. Here, therefore, was the key of the position and the chief station for the American troops. For its protection a line of works was thrown up, the flanks of which rested upon Wallabout Bay and Gowanus Cove, two indentations in the shores of Long Island. These Washington manned with nine thousand of the eighteen thousand men under his command. By the arrival of three divisions of Hessian troops, Howe's army now numbered over thirty-four thousand men, to which Clinton brought three thousand more from before Charleston.
On the 22d of August the British crossed from Staten Island to Gravesend Bay, on the Long Island shore of the Narrows. The Navy covered the landing, and the transportation of the troops was under the charge of Commodore William Hotham, who, nineteen years later, was Nelson's commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean. By noon fifteen thousand men and forty field-guns had been carried over and placed on shore. The force of the Americans permitted little opposition to the British advance; but General Howe was cautious and easy-going, and it was not till the 27th that the army, now increased to twenty-five thousand, was fairly in front of the American lines, having killed, wounded, and taken about 1,500 men. Hoping that Howe would be tempted to storm the position, Washington replaced these with two thousand drawn from his meagre numbers; but his opponent, who had borne a distinguished part at Bunker's Hill, held [pg 43]
back his troops, who were eager for the assault. The Americans now stood with their backs to a swift tidal stream, nearly a mile wide, with only a feeble line of works between them and an enemy more than double their number.
On the morning of the 27th, Sir Peter Parker, with a 64-gun ship, two 50's, and two frigates, attempted to work up to New York, with a view of supporting the left flank of the army; but the wind came out from the north, and, the ebb-tide making, the ships got no nearer than three miles from the city. Fortunately for the Americans, they either could not or would not go farther on the following two days. After dark of the 28th, Howe broke ground for regular approaches. Washington, seeing this, and knowing that there could be but one result to a siege under his condition of inferiority, resolved to withdraw. During the night of the 29th ten thousand men silently quitted their positions, embarked, and crossed to Manhattan Island, carrying with them all their belongings, arms, and ammunition. The enemy's trenches were but six hundred yards distant, yet no suspicion was aroused, nor did a single deserter give treacherous warning. The night was clear and moonlit, although a heavy fog towards daybreak prolonged the period of secrecy which shrouded the retreat. When the fog rose, the last detachment was discovered crossing, but a few ineffectual cannon-shot were the only harassment experienced by the Americans in the course of this rapid and dexterous retirement. The garrison of Governor's Island was withdrawn at the same time.
The unmolested use of the water, and the nautical skill of the fishermen who composed one of the American regiments, were essential to this escape; for admirable as the movement was in arrangement and execution, no word less strong than escape applies to it. By it Washington rescued over half his army from sure destruction, and, not [pg 44]
improbably, the cause of his people from immediate collapse. An opportunity thus seized implies necessarily an opportunity lost on the other side. For that failure both army and navy must bear their share of the blame. It is obvious that when an enemy is greatly outnumbered his line of retreat should be watched. This was the business of both commanders-in-chief, the execution of it being primarily the duty of the navy, as withdrawal from the American position could be only by water. It was a simple question of look-out, of detection, of prevention by that means. To arrest the retreat sailing ships were inadequate, for they could not have remained at anchor under the guns of Manhattan Island, either by day or night; but a few boats with muffled oars could have watched, could have given the alarm, precipitating an attack by the army, and such a movement interrupted in mid-course brings irretrievable disaster.
Washington now withdrew the bulk of his force to the line of the Harlem. On his right, south of that river and commanding the Hudson, was a fort called by his name; opposite to it on the Jersey shore was Fort Lee. A garrison of four thousand men occupied New York. After amusing himself with some further peace negotiations, Howe determined to possess the city. As a diversion from the main effort, and to cover the crossing of the troops, two detachments of ships were ordered to pass the batteries on the Hudson and East rivers. This was done on the 13th and the 15th of September. The East River division suffered severely, especially in spars and rigging;
but the success of both, following upon that of Hyde Parker a few weeks earlier, in his expedition to Tarrytown, confirmed Washington in the opinion which he expressed five years later to de Grasse, that batteries alone could not stop ships having a fair wind. This is now a commonplace of naval warfare; steam giving [pg 45]
always a fair wind. On the 15th Howe's army crossed under cover of Parker's ships, Hotham again superintending the boat work. The garrison of New York slipped along the west shore of the island and joined the main body on the Harlem; favored again, apparently, in this flank movement a mile from the enemy's front, by Howe's inertness, and fondness for a good meal, to which a shrewd American woman invited him at the critical moment.
Despite these various losses of position, important as they were, the American army continued to elude the British general, who apparently did not hold very strongly the opinion that the most decisive factor in war is the enemy's organised force. As control of the valley of the Hudson, in connection with Lake Champlain, was, very properly, the chief object of the British government, Howe's next aim was to loosen Washington's grip on the peninsula north of the Harlem. The position seeming to him too strong for a front attack, he decided to strike for its left flank and rear by way of Long Island Sound. In this, which involved the passage of the tortuous and dangerous channel called Hell Gate, with its swift conflicting currents, the Navy again bore an essential part.
The movement began on October 12th, the day after Arnold was defeated at Valcour. So far as its leading object went it was successful, Washington feeling obliged to let go the line of the Harlem, and change front to the left. As the result of the various movements and encounters of the two armies, he fell back across the Hudson into New Jersey, ordering the evacuation of Fort Washington, and deciding to rest his control of the Hudson Valley upon West Point, fifty miles above New York, a position of peculiar natural strength, on the west bank of the river. To these decisions he was compelled by his inferiority in numbers, and also by the very isolated and hazardous situation in which he was operating, between two navigable waters, [pg 46]
absolutely controlled by the enemy's shipping. This conclusion was further forced upon him by another successful passage before the guns of Forts Washington and Lee by Hyde Parker, with three ships, on the 9th of October. On this occasion the vessels, two of which were frigates of the heaviest class, suffered very severely, losing nine killed and eighteen wounded; but the menace to the communications of the Americans could not be disregarded, for their supplies came mostly from the west of the Hudson.
BYA.T. MAHAN, D.C.L., LL.D