August 22, 1776, 8:00 am, New York Bay:
An advance guard of 4,000 British troops leave Staten Island, New York, and land unopposed on American held Long Island. By noon 15,000 troops and forty pieces of artillery were on shore.
August 26, 1776, 9:00 pm, Long Island, New York:
The majority of the British forces move out in a secret flanking maneuver through the undefended Jamaica Pass, while the remainder of the British and Hessian troops remain to attack the front of the American line through Gowanus Pass.
August 27, 1776, 4:30 am, Guan Heights, Long Island:
“Get up! Get up! The British are on the march!” Sergeant Brenton bawled out.
I jerked upright and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, then kicked off my blanket and reached for my musket.
“How close?” Bill Stanton asked groggily as he tried to pull on his uniform jacket.
“They’ve been marching up the Gowanus Road. Reached the Red Lion Tavern around one o’clock!” the Sergeant replied, then kicked a still sleeping soldier in the ribs. “This is it, boy! Don’t lay around like a fat sow! Get moving!”
All around us the 1st Maryland Infantry was astir, and by the firelight I could see the men of 6th Company beginning to assemble. I quickly rolled up my bedroll and attached it to my knapsack, then hurried to join the other men. Moments later 1st Company’s men joined our ranks as we waited for orders in the early morning chill.
“Do you think this is it?” seventeen-year-old Bill asked excitedly.
“I don’t know, I hope so,” I replied as I checked the flint on my musket. A lot of us boys had joined up together when the war started and we were chomping at the bit for action.
At that moment Major Gist rode up.
“Men!” he shouted, “We are moving forward with the 1st Delaware Regiment to reinforce Colonel Atlee and his men. You are to obey orders explicitly and to stand firm in battle. Keep your powder dry and fall in! The Connecticut regiment should be along to reinforce us shortly.”
After a few moments jostling in the darkness we all managed to get in formation and began our march, following the Major’s white horse through the gray light of dawn.
“I wonder if it’s going to be a fight!” Bill said enthusiastically.
“You don’t know what you’re asking for,” one of the older men retorted in a husky whisper. “You young uns ain't seen no battle yet, and heaven knows ya don’t want ta neither! I was at th’ battle o’ Bunker ‘ill and it was nothin’ but brutal slaughter and bayonets and the like. No, boy, you don’t want this ‘ere march to end in a fight with them lobsters. Twenty chances to one you shan’t make it out in one piece, and if you do, it’ll be cause you turned an’ ran like a rabbit when them redcoats first came in view!”
Bill shrugged his shoulders and shifted his musket strap. I could imagine him rolling his eyes in the darkness.
“So, what do you think?” I asked Bill in a low tone. “Do you think you’ll run?”
“Naw, not me! When I see them redcoats I’ll put lead in their eyes!” Bill retorted confidently.
I sighed as I thought of what I would do. I knew all the camp fire bravado we had shared would be tested under fire, and even if I didn’t run I knew we weren’t the only people looking to put lead in our enemies’ eyes.
After twenty minutes march the command “Men Halt!” was shouted and we came to a clumsy stop. The 1st Delaware Regiment also halted to our right. I strained my neck to see over the others and spotted General Stirling sitting atop his horse, the first rays of dawn lighting up his face. The others obviously saw him too, for the mass of men hushed to silence.
“Men,” Stirling said in his Scottish brogue. “The British will be here very soon. It is our job to defend this road and thwart the British attack. I am trusting you men to do it. I want you to take up positions along this hill and give them Redcoats bullets for breakfast when they come down that road. Let’s teach them Lobsters a thing or two about fighting!”
“Hear, hear, General!” I yelled, but my shout was swallowed up in the shouts of the other men. Stirling raised a hand and we all silenced.
“Very good! Now, take up positions along this ditch. The Brits will have to come along that road unless they want to cross the swamp.”
We all spread out along the canal that drained the swampy area. I leaned my musket over a fallen log and cocked back the hammer.
“Aw, my boots are getting wet!” Bill complained as he tried to get out of the puddle he was standing in.
“Quit yer complainin’,” Old Quinn snapped. “You’ll be grateful fer that mucky ditch when the Brits are on the other side of it!”
Bill shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes, as he usually did when Old Quinn spoke to him, then set to emptying his boots of the murky water that had seeped in.
“You know he’s right, Bill,” I said to my friend as I uncorked my canteen. “He’s been under fire, you haven’t, so why don’t you pay him a bit more respect?”
“Aw, he’s just an old hound, got more bark in him than bite,” Bill replied with a snort. “We’ll be the ones whipping the Brits while he runs home to his mummy with his tail between his legs!”
I shook my head then downed a draft of freezing cold water that hurt my teeth. As I replaced the cork in my canteen I noticed Quinn eyeing me.
“You a prayin’ man, private Dick?” he asked.
“Yes sir,” I replied, thinking it a rather strange question.
“Well then, I’d suggest that you be sendin’ your prayers up a fast an’ furious like, as I’ll be a-doin’, as we’ll be a-needing God’s help pretty soon. If you look through them trees yonder you’ll see them Lobsters a-comin’.”
I peered in the direction he had pointed and my eyes got as big as saucers, for I caught the glint of sunlight on bayonets and the sound of marching feet. My heart started beating faster, and I started praying ‘fast and furious’, for I could now see hundreds, if not thousands, of British Redcoats marching towards us in their perfect rows. Line after line of muskets with fixed bayonets moved down the road towards us.
“Ready men!” Sergeant Brenton yelled. “Level muskets! Don’t shoot until you know you can hit! Take your time and be sure of your aim!”
I lined up my sights on an officer and steadied myself.
“FIRE!” Brenton yelled, and the entire line of the 6th Company erupted in the sound of gunfire. Through the gray smoke I saw the officer topple from his horse and suddenly the realization that I had just killed another human being hit me in the pit of the stomach. I nearly vomited and my head spun.
“Reload!” I heard the Sergeant yell, and mechanically I set the butt of my musket on the ground.
With shaking fingers I pulled a fresh cartridge from my pouch and bit off the end to expose the powder.
I poured a small amount of the powder from the open cartridge into the firing pan, then dumped the rest of the powder and the ball into the muzzle, pushing the paper after it.
“Ram!” Brenton shouted.
I pulled my ramrod from its place and shoved it down the muzzle, ramming the powder, ball, and wading home.
At that moment there was a shout, then the blast of smoke and flame from the British line as they fired in return. Musket balls sung around me like angry bees and men to my right and left screamed in pain and fell. Panic rose in me as a lead ball grazed my shirt. I glanced over at Quinn, and he stood like a flint rock, and that gave me courage.
“Return ramrod!” Sergeant Breton shouted as if nothing had happened. I inserted the tip of my rod into it’s housing and pushed it in place.
“Aim...FIRE!” our Sergeant shouted. My gun bucked as I squeezed back the trigger and the sixty caliber ball hurtled towards the red line. Smoke filled the air and I completely lost sight of the enemy as I slammed my musket butt to the ground to repeat the process of loading.
At that moment a bullet sang past me and struck the ground just behind my friend Billy. He dropped his gun, screaming, “We’re all going to die! We’re all going to die!”
I stared at him in disbelief as he took off running back the way we had come. Like a flash Old Quinn had dropped his musket and sped after him like a racehorse. An instant later he had caught up to the terrified boy and seized him by the collar and began to drag him back to our cover. When they were only ten feet away another British volley rang out and both of them dropped to the ground. For an instant I thought they were dead, and was just about to rush towards them, when Quinn rose to his feet and dashed the rest of the way to the thick brush, dragging a terrified Billy behind him.
“Don’t run like a coward!” he yelled at the sobbing boy as he shoved his musket into his hands and closed the fingers around it. “You’ll only be killed by running! Fight it out!”
Bill nodded and swallowed hard. I quickly snapped my mind back into the battle, raised my loaded musket and fired at a young soldier, who was on one knee aiming carefully. My ball smashed into his forehead and he toppled forward and into the ditch. My stomach churned once more and I had to fight to keep control of myself as I pulled out another cartridge.
The British troops came on towards us, bayonets fixed. Every step of the way they faced our withering fire, which cut down dozens of men with each volley. I saw the puffs of smoke as they fired in return, and the bullets whined over our heads.
“They’re shooting high!” Quinn muttered. “At this rate they’ll kill every bird on Long Island.”
“Fire!” Sergeant Brenton yelled. Instantly our lines erupted again in the sound of musketry and it seemed as if not a bullet missed. The Redcoats faltered, then began to fall back, leaving dead and wounded on the road behind them. Their officers urged them forward, and they obediently moved up the hill once more. I reloaded as quickly as I could, but the British seemed to move faster, and they were nearly upon us when I once again threw my muzzle forward.
“Fire!” Brenton ordered. I pulled the trigger and the British lines disappeared from my view in a white cloud of musket smoke. As soon as the weapon had discharged I had another cartridge out and was reloading my musket. When the smoke had cleared enough for me to see where the British had been, all that remained were the dead and wounded, while the main body of the troops was retreating down the hill.
“We’re doing it! We’re winning!” Bill shouted as he fired his musket. I rammed down a cartridge and replaced my ramrod, then fired again. I realized that we were doing it, we were winning!
“Don’t rejoice too soon, they’ll be comin’ back!” Quinn warned.
And he was right. Those British didn’t charge us once, but over and over again, through sheets of musket fire from two sides. Time and again they were stopped and driven back, leaving more fallen men behind each time, yet they regrouped and charged forward again.
“How can they stand it!” Bill ejaculated. “They’ve already lost scores of men, but they keep coming back!”
“Learn from ‘em, boy. Afore long you might ‘ave to do the same yerself!” Quinn said. “Besides, I’ve seen much heavier casualties in battle afore.”
“Those British are brave men!” I said to myself as I rammed another cartridge down my musket. I wished I didn’t have to be standing here sending them to their deaths, but such was the cruel ways of war.
Suddenly I heard the sound of a galloping horse behind me and turned to see General Stirling riding up to Major Gist. I strained my ears to listen.
“We’ve been outflanked and the entire left has collapsed. Howe secretly marched through the Jamaica pass and hit Stirling in the rear while he was trying to hold Battle Hill. The Hessians are attacking our boys on the left and smashing them. We’ll be surrounded if we don’t fall back too!”
“Yes sir,” Gist replied. “All right men!” he shouted. “Fall back, fire, and fall back.”
“We held them for four hours, and now we have to lose it all!” I heard Quinn mutter under his breath.
Slowly at first, then more quickly, our line began to fall back down Gowanus road, loading and firing as we went.
“We’re done for now! They’re behind us!” I heard someone yell, and turned to see column after column of redcoats marching south towards us down the Gowanus Road.
“Come on men! This way, this way!” General Stirling shouted. He redirected us down a small road that lead across a bridge that spanned a millpond. It was our only escape left.
Suddenly Major Gist shouted out, “Men, hold here! We need to cover the retreat for the rest of the Army. That’s right, my Maryland boys! Come on, form battle line!”
I quickly turned and ran towards where he stood waving his sword to rally us. The fear I had felt earlier seemed to evaporate as I watched my commander braving the enemy fire. General Stirling rode up to him.
“That’s right, good man!” he called out. “I’ll be here with you!”
Soon all the remnants of the 1st Maryland Infantry had gathered and we quickly formed battle line. I looked desperately for Bill or Quinn, but could see neither of them. Behind me I could hear the sound of many men and a few horses crossing the bridge over the millpond, which was the whole army’s only way of retreat back to Brooklyn Heights.
“Load your muskets, men!” Gist shouted. “We need to hold this bridge from the Redcoats!”
“You see that stone house them Brits are positioning their cannon by?” Stirling called to us in his Scottish accent. “That’s an American house, ain’t it boys? Let’s drive out them Lobsterbacks!”
I looked towards the object of our next attack. It was an old, Dutch style stone house, surrounded by low stone walls. A detachment of British troops had moved forward of the rest of their men and had positioned two field guns behind the stone wall. The guns were now in a position to threaten our soldiers in retreat. We needed to put those cannon out of action.
“Charge!” Gist yelled and kicked his horse to a gallop.
I let loose a battle cry and took off after him, musket at the ready. “God, give us strength!” I prayed under my breath.
“BOOM! BOOM!” ahead of us the British cannon sounded, as puffs of white smoke issued from the stone wall in front of the house. I could hear the canisters of grapeshot whine over my head, and explode somewhere to the rear of me. The staccato of musketry from the house ahead and the fields beyond cut into our ranks and dropped boys to the left and right of me. Still I fought my way forward.
About twenty paces from the house I realized that I was alone. Most of the others had either been killed or driven back by the heavy British fire. Fear welled up inside me, but I forced it down, dropped to one knee, and took careful aim at a redcoat officer outside the house. I pulled the trigger, then turned and ran after my retreating comrades, not waiting to see the effect of my shot. To my right I saw Old Quinn fire his musket, then turn and follow me. The bullets were flying about so hotly that it seemed as if no man could live under the fire, yet by God’s grace I still stood, as did many of our boys.
“Come on boys!” I heard Gist shouting. “Rally, men, rally!”
“We can drive those red hornets outta there!” Stirling called. “Reload men, and we’ll charge ‘em again!”