“They must be well watched”

After the British landed on Long Island they advanced to within three miles of the American lines, and then they stopped. On August 23rd, 1776, the tension grew in New York as the American leadership tried to determine the enemy’s next move. The standoff that began on August 22nd reinforced the Americans’ belief that the British were using Long Island as a diversion, and the main attack would come to Manhattan.  General William Heath of Massachusetts captured the Americans’ uneasiness on the 23rd when he wrote to Washington, “I hope soon to hear good news from Long Island. I have never been afraid of the force of the enemy: I am more so of their arts. They must be well watched.”[1]

British General Howe issued a proclamation that day from his headquarters to the people of Long Island, offering protection to those who had been “compelled by the leaders in rebellion to take up arms against his Majesty’s Government.”[2] The proclamation also sought to recruit Americans, declaring that those “who choose to take up arms for the restoration of order and good government within this Island, shall be disposed of in the best manner, and have every encouragement that can be expected.” It is uncertain how many Americans answered Howe’s call to loyalists.

General John Sullivan was in command of the American forces on Long Island on August 23rd, 1776. He had taken charge earlier in the week on August 20th, after General Nathanael Greene fell ill and was unable to remain at his post.[3] However, disorganization prevailed on Long Island; Sullivan did not know the territory, nor was he certain of the precise location of his troops. After the landing of British forces, the disorganization of Sullivan’s forces became especially risky. On August 23rd, George Washington traveled to Long Island to plan with Sullivan. They moved 3,000 men further south from the Brooklyn Heights entrenchments, placing troops in defensive positions on the Heights of Guana, a steep, forested ridge approximately ten miles long.

That same afternoon, American riflemen on Long Island engaged in a skirmish on the road near Bedford. The Americans followed the retreating British to the house of Judge Lefferts, where they had been lodging. General Sullivan wrote to Washington that the American troops “burnt the house and a number of other buildings contiguous.” Additionally, that night Sullivan ordered a group of men to comb the countryside for British soldiers to take prisoner. His letter is optimistic about the battles to come, “these things argue well for us,” he wrote, “and I hope are so many preludes to a general victory.”[4]

The men of the First Maryland Regiment remained with the majority of the Continental Army in New York, waiting for the British to act. The General Orders from George Washington on August 23rd focused on materially and mentally preparing the men for their first battle. The General Orders of August 23rd reiterated the ideals of the revolution,

“Remember officers and Soldiers, that you are Freemen, fighting for the blessing of Liberty– that slavery will be your portion, and that of your posterity, if you do not acquit yourselves like men: Remember how your Courage and Spirit have been dispised, and traduced by your cruel invaders; though they have found by dear experience at Boston, Charlestown and other places, what a few brave men contending in their own land, and in the best of causes can do, against base hirelings and mercenaries… every one for himself resolving to conquer, or die, and trusting to the smiles of heaven upon so just a cause, will behave with Bravery and Resolution… And if this army will but emulate, and imitate their brave Countrymen, in other parts of America, he has no doubt they will, by a glorious Victory, save their Country, and acquire to themselves immortal Honor.”[5]

In this general order, George Washington articulated the revolutionary spirit to the First Maryland Regiment. Four days later, at the Battle of Long Island, the “Maryland 400” would embody that spirit.

[5] George Washington, General Orders, August 23, 1776, The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799.

the hour is fast approaching

Image from the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799.

To read the General Orders from General Washington to the American forces on August 23, 1776, click on the image of the manuscript to the right.


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1 Response to “They must be well watched”

  1. Arnie Sanders says:

    The disorganization of Sullivan’s forces, and the importance of Washington’s repositioning of their strength to counter the British deployment, really helps us realize what military strategy required from commanders in an era before Google Maps, airborne and satellite surveillance, and Internet enabled communication. It’s as if Washington had the better ability to mentally visualize the battlefield, its terrain and pathways of advance and retreat. The map you posted earlier might have been the kind of memory aid such commanders needed to augment what they could see by direct observation.
    Cool posting, Emily! Thanks for turning me on to it. Keep up the great work.


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