As my father and I did family research for our historical fiction tale Submarines, Secrets and a Daring Rescue, we discovered that our ancestor Berty Clark fought in the Battle of Brooklyn.
Since most of my immediate family members were born in Brooklyn, I wanted to learn more about this battle. I was excited to learn that one of my favorite heroes from the American Revolution, Major Ben Tallmadge, also fought in the Battle of Brooklyn. To think that he may have known my relative is titillating.
Tallmadge was a Yale classmate and close friend of the American spy Nathan Hale. He joined the Continental Army in New York City in June 1776. He was in charge of helping to train the new army, which would have brought him in contact with General George Washington. Ben Tallmadge was also the secret leader of the Culper Spy Ring, a group of spies created at the request of General Washington. Tallmadge’s code name was John Bolton.
To give you a personal account of the Battle of Brooklyn, I want to share with you the account Ben Tallmadge gave in his personal memoir. This is his story…
We arrived at the city of New York in the month of June, 1776, and my place of regimental parade was assigned in Wall Street, where, every morning and evening, the regiment assembled for exercise. During the heat of the day, the men were excused from duty, the heat being too intense to be borne by them in the sun.
The American army, composed principally of levies, or troops raised for short periods, and militia, had now assembled at New York, and in its vicinity, when it was announced that a large British fleet was discovered off the Hook, on the 29th of June. In a few days, the British fleet entered the Hook, and Sir William Howe, who commanded the army, landed on Staten Island, where, by the arrival of Lord Howe, he had a force about 25,000 men.
The newly furnished troops, consisting of foreigners and native subjects, having now joined those who had recently left Boston, General Washington (having arrived also from Boston) began to introduce system and order into the heterogeneous mass of troops that had been brought into the field, and were placed under his command. The war now put on a very serious aspect, as independence has been declared, and it seemed no longer doubtful that the contest on which we had entered must be decided by the sword.
The British commissioners (of which Lord Howe was one), however, opened their commission by addressing a letter to General Washington in his private character, and forwarded the same to our Commander-in-Chief by Colonel Patterson. General Washington refused to receive these dispatches for the want of respectful address, and returned them to the commissioners, unopened, assigning the foregoing reasons for his refusal. The army was highly gratified by this conduct of General Washington, and Congress publicly approved of the same on the 17th of July, 1776.
The Declaration of Independence, which had been solemnly adopted by Congress on the Fourth of July, 1776, was announced to the army in general orders, and filled every one with enthusiastic zeal, as the point was now forever settled, and there was no further hope of reconciliation and dependence on the mother country.
The movements of the enemy indicating an intention to approach New York by the way of Long Island, Gen. Washington ordered about 10,000 men to embark and cross the East River at Brooklyn. The regiment to which I belonged was among the first that crossed over, and, on the 27th of August, the whole British army, consisting of their own native troops, Hessians, Brunswickers, Waldeckers, etc., to the number of at least 25,000 men, with a most formidable train of field artillery, landed near Flatbush, under cover of their shipping, and moved towards Jamaica and Brooklyn.
As our troops had advanced to meet the enemy, the action soon commenced, and was continued, at intervals, through most of the day. Before such an overwhelming force of disciplined troops, our small band could not maintain their ground, and the main body retired within their lines at Brooklyn, while a body of Long Island Militia, under
Gen. Woodhull, took their stand at Jamaica. Here Gen. Woodhull was taken prisoner and inhumanly killed. The main body of our army, under Major-Gen. Sullivan and Lord Stirling, fought in detached bodies, and on the retreat both of those officers were made prisoners. I also lost a brother the same day, who fell into their hands, and was afterwards literally starved to death in one of their prisons; nor would the enemy suffer relief from his friends to be afforded to him.
This was the first time in my life that I had witnessed the awful scene of a battle, when man was engaged to destroy his fellow-man. I well remember my sensations on the occasion, for they were solemn beyond description, and very hardly could I bring my mind to be willing to attempt the life of a fellow-creature. Our army having retired behind their intrenchment, which extended from Vanbrunt’s Mills, on the West, to the East River, flanked occasionally by redoubts, the British army took their position, in full array, directly in front of our position.
Our intrenchment was so weak, that it is most wonderful the British General did not attempt to storm it soon after the battle, in which his troops had been victorious. Gen. Washington was so fully aware of the perilous situation of this division of his army, that he immediately convened a council of war, at which the propriety of retiring to New York was decided on. After sustaining incessant fatigue and constant watchfulness for two days and nights, attended by heavy rain, exposed every moment to an attack from a vastly superior force in front, and to be cut off from the possibility of retreat to New York by the fleet, which might enter the East River, on the night of the 29th of August, Gen. Washington commenced recrossing his troops from Brooklyn to New York. To move so large a body of troops, with all their necessary appendages, across a river full a mile wide, with a rapid current, in face of a victorious, well disciplined army, nearly three times as numerous as his own, and a fleet capable of stopping the navigation, so that not one boat could have passed over, seemed to present most formidable obstacles.
But, in face of these difficulties, the Commander-in-Chief so arranged his business, that on the evening of the 29th, by 10 o’clock, the troops began to retire from the lines in such a manner that no chasm was made in the lines, but as one regiment left their station on guard, the remaining troops moved to the right and left and filled up the vacancies, while Gen. Washington took his station at the ferry, and superintended the embarkation of the troops. It was one of the most anxious, busy nights that I ever recollect, and being the third in which hardly any of us had closed our eyes to sleep, we were all greatly fatigued.
As the dawn of the next day approached, those of us who remained in the trenches became very anxious for our own safety, and when the dawn appeared there were several regiments still on duty. At this time a very dense fog began to rise, and it seemed to settle in a peculiar manner over both encampments. I recollect this peculiar providential occurrence perfectly well; and so very dense was the atmosphere that I could scarcely discern a man at six yards’ distance.
When the sun rose we had just received orders to leave the lines, but before we reached the ferry, the Commander-in-Chief sent one of his Aids to order the regiment to repair again to their former station on the lines. Col. Chester immediately faced to the right about and returned, where we tarried until the sun had risen, but the fog remained as dense as ever. Finally, the second order arrived for the regiment to retire, and we very joyfully bid those trenches a long adieu.
When we reached Brooklyn ferry, the boats had not returned from their last trip, but they very soon appeared and took the whole regiment over to New York; and I think I saw Gen. Washington on the ferry stairs when I stepped into one of the last boats that received the troops. I left my horse tied to a post at the ferry.
The troops having now all safely reached New York, and the fog continuing as thick as ever, I began to think of my favorite horse, and requested leave to return and bring him off. Having obtained permission, I called for a crew of volunteers to go with me, and guiding the boat myself, I obtained my horse and got off some distance into the river before the enemy appeared in Brooklyn.
As soon as they reached the ferry we were saluted merrily from their musketry, and finally by their field pieces; but we returned in safety. In the history of warfare I do not recollect a more fortunate retreat. After all, the providential appearance of the fog saved a part of our army from being captured, and certainly myself, among others who formed the rear guard. Gen. Washington has never received the credit which was due to him for this wise and most fortunate measure.
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Illustration 2 from Submarines, Secrets and a Daring Rescue.