Saturday, July 3, 2021

The Battle of Long Island

Philip Vickers Fithian (1747–1776)
From The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence

The Battle of Long Island, 1858, oil on canvas by American painter Alonzo Chappel (1828–1887). Wikimedia Commons.

When the British broke through American lines in their advance on the Continental Army headquarters in Brooklyn Heights on August 27, 1776, Brigadier General William Alexander (Lord Stirling) led a regiment of several hundred soldiers from Maryland against 2,000 British troops at the Old Stone House on Gowanus Creek. Alexander’s action, depicted in Chappel’s painting, allowed much of his brigade to retreat safely off the battlefield and rejoin the remainder of Washington’s army. Many of the Maryland 400, as they came to be known decades later, were killed or captured in battle before Stirling finally surrendered. The edifice in the painting is one of the two mills that were near the Old Stone House. The foreground shows American soldiers retreating across the marshy Brouwer’s Millpond to Brooklyn Heights.
Philip Vickers Fithian, a recently ordained Presbyterian minister, arrived in Manhattan in early July 1776, and he wrote in his journal how the city was “full of Soldiers—the streets barricaded—the Shores & neighbouring Parts, lined with Fortifications—Women, Children, & the Aged fled.” Weeks earlier, he had left his new post at the Greenwich Presbyterian Church in New Jersey and enlisted as a chaplain in the Continental Army, joining more than three hundred soldiers in the battalion led by Colonel Silas Newcomb, in the division commanded by Major General Nathanael Greene.

Fithian is known to historians and scholars primarily for the journal he kept while employed as a tutor in 1773 and 1774 at Robert Carter’s plantation in Virginia. In fact, “Philip’s Virginia diary was a staple of undergraduate and graduate history seminars for two generations of students trained during the cold war,” writes the historian John Fea in his biography of Fithian. “One would be hard-pressed to find a book on eighteenth-century Virginia that does not mention him.” Beginning in May 1775, Fea points out, the tone of Fithian’s journal changed. Aware that he was living through important historical events, which he believed to be ordained by God, the entries are more clearly written for “who shall read these Papers a couple of hundred Years hence,” as well as for his wife and children. “He wanted to represent as accurately as possible for his readers, whoever they might be, the story of American liberty and his place within it,” notes Fea, who adds that “if Philip were alive today, he would have been surprised to find that his Carter diary has received so much attention, especially since it was the 1775–76 journal (and not the plantation diary) that he tailored most specifically for future readers.”

George Washington had arrived in New York in April 1776 with approximately ten thousand troops, and Greene’s division was headquartered on Long Island, in the area that is now Brooklyn. Meanwhile, the British commander-in-chief William Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, built up their forces on Staten Island. By mid-August, the British army had amassed 32,000 troops, including 8,000 Hessians, against approximately 19,000 Continental soldiers and state militia members. On August 20, after Greene became ill, Major General John Sullivan took command of the division on Long Island.

Between July and August, Philip moved back and forth between Long Island and Manhattan. As a chaplain, he was allowed to take lodgings and avoid many of the hardships faced by ordinary soldiers. In mid-August he and another chaplain from Greenwich, his longtime friend Andrew Hunter, Jr., moved to a new place closer to the East River.
Our Situation, & Living now are most fine. A genteel, sober, patriotic Family, of which, in order to be agreeable, I need say no more. We have a small neat Room, free of Noise, well furnished, & with a good Bed—But our Situation—! From the Door of our Room, we have a good View of the Fleet—A perfect View of New-York; Governors Island; Powles-Hook; & Red-Hook—We live on the very Bank of the Water opposite to Governors Island.

Some say our Situation is dangerous; but all places in the Neighberhood of York are, I think, equally dangerous—We fear not Tory George, & his War-worn Army!
Fithian’s separate quarters did not spare him from the dysentery raging through the Continental army, however, and he spent a good part of July and August sick in bed and nursed to health by the women who let him his rooms.

On August 22, Howe began landing troops at Gravesend Bay on eastern end of Long Island; five days later he ordered an attack during which 1,400 American soldiers were killed or captured. (Many of those taken prisoner later died from disease and malnourishment.) General Sullivan and one of his officers, Brigadier General William Alexander, were both captured during the battle. Faced with certain defeat, the Americans retreated behind fortified lines in Brooklyn Heights. In one of the most famous actions of the war, Washington ferried 9,000 men and their supplies across the East River under cover of night and heavy fog on August 29–30. The Howes did not realize the entire rebel army had escaped to Manhattan until the morning fog lifted.

“We have been, it is true, under the prudent Necessity of leaving all our Lines on Long Island last Fryday Night,” Fithian wrote to his wife, Betsy, “but we have left them with Profit & Honour, for they could have surrounded us. . . . The whole Army is now in Town.” His diary entries offer a firsthand account of the scene in Brooklyn during the Battle of Long Island—including how, skeptical of his landlady’s claim that the Americans were evacuating, he nearly missed the boats transporting the troops to Manhattan.

In mid-September, when British forces conducted an amphibious landing on the east side of Manhattan, the Americans took flight, retreating to the north end of the island. They were followed by the dysentery that had been plaguing the army all summer, and soon Fithian fell ill again. No longer able to avail himself of a room, much less a bed, Fithian spent a week on the floor of a tent, beset by fever and covered with boils, and he died on October 8.

Notes: To sleep “sub-jove” is to spend the night beneath the open sky. Fithian refers to Brigadier General William Alexander as General Lord Sterling. Born in New York City to a Scottish father, Alexander had unsuccessfully claimed the earldom of Stirling while living in England between 1756 and 1762, and he continued to use the title Lord Stirling after returning to America. After his capture during the Battle of Long Island, Alexander was freed in a prisoner exchange in October 1776 and promoted to major general in 1777.

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