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July 7, 2005
Column #1,245


What Do You Know about the American Revolution?
 

In a week when America celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence, I have a timely question. How much do you know about the American Revolution?

In what battle did 40,000 troops - American, British and Hessian - clash?

Hint: the British lost only 59 killed and 267 wounded, while 300 Americans (including three generals) were killed and 1,000 U.S. troops were taken prisoner.

"For the Continental Army, now the Army of the United States of America, in this first great test under fire, it had been a crushing defeat," writes David McCullough in his powerful new book, "1776".

General George Washington lost this great battle, having been caught utterly by surprise. Again, where was this great battle? Do you know?

It was the Battle of Brooklyn on August 27, 1776, less than two months after the Declaration was signed. Its great promise seemed dashed on the battlefield.

That battle should never have been fought. Washington knew his odds were formidable. How could his army with no navy, defend a city bounded by navigable rivers on two sides and a harbor of a size sufficient to accommodate the largest fleet possible, he wondered. Indeed, 300 British ships with 30,000 Redcoats arrived within days, more than triple the size of his troops. Yet he expressed no doubts about defending New York.

Washington's judgment to fight was more political than military. He wrote that New York had "vast importance" because control of its harbor would dominate the Hudson River, isolating New England from other colonies.

Perhaps the reason the 46-year-old general had more confidence than the facts justified is because he had won a major victory over the British against great odds.

Again, in what city was that victory?

Washington's "war chest was empty," at end of 1775 writes McCullough. He had no major cannons and little gunpowder. Of his 10,000 troops, only 2,540 agreed to re-enlist. Many who quit - took government muskets with them.

Washington despaired in a letter, " Few people know the predicament we are in."

Henry Knox, a 25-year-old bookseller, took troops to recover cannons at far-off Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain in New York State. Ethan Allen led a handful of Green Mountain Boys to capture the fort from the British in May. Knox found 58 mortars and cannon which fired cannonballs of 12 and 18 pounds.

He loaded the cannons on boats to float down Lake George. Then he had to haul 100,000 pounds of cannons across 300 miles to Washington's army. Knox gambled that it would snow, so that oxen could pull them on sleds. After days of a "cruel thaw," three feet of snow fell on Christmas. A month later Washington had the cannons.

Where? Boston. In a single night on March 4, Washington brilliantly moved the cannons to Dorchester Heights, hills 112 feet above Boston, a commanding position. To conceal the movement, bales of hay were thrown up.

"At daybreak the British commanders looking up at the Heights could scarcely believe their eyes. The hoped-for surprise was total," reports the book, "1776." The British considered trying to scale the Heights, but wisely decided to flee the city in ignominious defeat, having been outsmarted by "the rabble in arms."

In August, however, it was the British who surprised the Americans in Brooklyn.

In the face of catastrophe Washington calmly planned a spectacular escape, in every vessel from fishing boats to row boats across the mile-wide East River with its rapid current, despite the armada of 300 British ships nearby. Fortunately, a huge storm erupted that kept the British ships in harbor. For hours the waters were so rough, crossing was impossible.

At 11 p.m. winds died down. Wagon wheels were covered with rags to muffle sounds from the British. Horses, cannon and troops loaded onto small boats rowed by Massachusetts sailors and fishermen.

By dawn however, most of the army still waited to embark. Without the curtain of night to conceal them, their escape seemed doomed. Incredibly, the hand of Providence intervened and a thick fog blanketed Brooklyn. When the fog lifted, 9,000 troops had escaped across the river with no lives lost. British redcoats were visible on the opposite shore.

Never again did the British have such a rare chance of winning the war.

Washington lost three more battles within a few weeks. However, on Christmas Day, his ragged troops crossed the Delaware River in a similar night crossing, and defeated Hessians encamped at Trenton.

"The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage of this army," Washington told his troops on July 2. How prescient he was.

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