Even on March 17, 1776 when General George Washington marched his men back into Boston, he knew the British army was headed for New York. If the British captured New York, they would have control of the Hudson River and would divide the northern colonies from the southern colonies. It would also give them control of the water route to Canada. General Washington started immediately to organize his men to follow General Sir William Howe's Army to New York.
General Howe didn't go directly to New York. Instead he sailed his troops to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Here thousands of new troops joined his army. Some of these troops were German mercenary soldiers called Hessians. Howe now had more than 30,000 soldiers with a large navy.
General Washington sent word out that General Howe was headed to New York. The Patriots in New York started to fortify the city. The New England units who had not gone to Canada with Benedict Arnold met General Washington's forces at Long Island between Brooklyn and New York City.
Henry Knox was now Colonel of the Artillery. He came from Boston with the British heavy cannons and mortars captured at Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point. General Nathaniel Greene scouted out the area to decide the Continentals' best defensive position. General Israel Putnam was put in charge of organizing the regiments. John Durkee brought his 20th Connecticut regiment. Loammie Baldwin came with the 26th Massachusetts unit. Blue Hen's Chickens were there. John Haslet's Delaware Continentals joined them. William Smallwood of Maryland brought men from the wealthy families of Annapolis and Baltimore. Men from New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware reported led by a Virginia skipper. There were about 25,000 Continental soldiers. Cannons lined New York Harbor. Patriot units were stationed on both sides of the East River and spread all over Manhattan Island. This was the largest army General Washington would ever command.
General Washington stayed at Abraham Mortier's house while his men carved Fort Washington out of rock on the northern part of Manhattan in the Brooklyn Heights area. It was built on the highest ground on the west side of Long Island.
General William Howe and his troops arrived in New York Bay on June 30th and set up camp on Staten Island. He made no moves towards the Continentals or Patriots living in the area. Admiral Howe, the General's brother and the fleet commander, remembered how the British failed at Charleston. He did not want to run his boats into the East River. He wanted to wait until Sir William Howe could take control of the the harbor. Each day more and more boats arrived in the harbor carrying more British and Hessian soldiers.
After seven weeks of increasing and strengthening his forces for on Staten Island, General Howe finally ordered his troops to move against the Continentals on August 22, 1776. Admiral Howe moved 88 frigates under a bridge to Gravesend Bay. General Sir Henry Clinton, Major General Charles Cornwallis, and Count von Donop landed 15,000 men in Brooklyn.
The Continental Army were confident. They totaled 25,000 men and had the victories of Breed's Hill and Sullivan's Island in their minds. But in the end, the Patriots were outnumbered three to one. They had no navy to control the waters. Their Army was divided between the mainland and the island. The army was not disciplined and poorly trained. Most men didn't even have experience with artillery.
To make matters worse, General Nathanael Greene was sick. Major General John Sullivan and General Israel Putnam, who didn't know New York, were put in charge. They did not know which important places needed protection the most. In one case it took three Long Island Loyalists to march through an important pass that was guarded by only five Continentals. This err put the British on two sides of the Continentals.
The British soldiers under General Sir Henry Clinton and General Cornwallis and the Hessians marched onto the mainland. In no time, the Continental Army was almost completely surrounded. The battle was a disaster for the Patriots. The Patriots lost more than 1,000 men. For some reason, General Howe stopped his men in front of the Patriot trenches. (Most historians believe that had he marched his troops forward, the war would have been over with a British victory.
For two days the Continental Army waited for the British to attack again. Then, a fierce rainstorm from the northeast came in and Admiral Howe couldn't sail into the East River. This opened the door of escape for the Patriot Army. General Washington asked every small Patriot boat in the harbor to report to two Massachusetts regiments. During the storm, all 9,500 remaining men of the Continental Army and their equipment, guns, horses and supplies crossed the East River and landed in New York City.
It was a brilliant escape that saved a lot of lives. The Patriot retreat gave control of Brooklyn to the British and now the British navy could sail all around Manhattan Island without threat from Patriot forces. The British Army could land soldiers any where and completely cut off New York. But they didn't. General Howe and his brother, Admiral Howe, did not like Britain's policy towards the Colonies and wanted to try to find a peaceful solution. They asked for a meeting between them and Patriot representatives to discuss their differences.
The Continental Congress sent Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Edward Rutledge to meet with the Howe brothers on Staten Island on September 11th. The Howe brothers didn't really have anything to offer. They were only authorized to pardon rebels who repented for their actions against King George. Since the Howe brothers couldn't offer anything, the Patriots didn't really have any reason to compromise.
This was the first of many battles that would take place in or around New York. The British forced the Patriots from New York, then pushed them back from Harlem Heights and chased them from White Plains. There would also be the burning of New York.