“General Washington, Sir,” Alexander Hamilton said, pointing with his finger towards the Gowanus Road. “Stirling was attacked on three sides and is retreating across the millpond. It looks like they will be successful.”
Washington turned his spyglass towards the scene and watched for a moment in silence.
“Who’s that holding the retreat?” he asked abruptly. “They keep charging against the greatly superior British!”
Hamilton raised his spyglass and scanned the battle. “Looks like the 1st Maryland Infantry sir,” he reported. “They’re charging again! There’s no way anyone could survive that!”
“Good God, be with them!” Washington exclaimed. “What good men I must lose this day!”
August 27, 1776, 1:00 pm, Gowanus Road, Long Island.
I spat the end of the cartridge out of my mouth and primed my musket. Glancing around I saw the remnants of our men doing the same. The British cannon boomed again and we all ducked as the grapeshot exploded over our heads. Smoke filled the air and I steeled myself for another assault. Five times we had charged forward at that stone house, and five times we had been driven back, losing more men each time. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and hands then drained my canteen as I waited for another rush.
I looked around at the faces of my comrades. Some wore a look of fearful apprehension, probably wondering if they would be the next men lying prone on the field. Others showed anger, as they looked out on our other men the Brits had shot down, while still others faces were set like granite, unmoved and unreadable. Despite all the different reactions there was one uniting factor among all, a determination to do or die, to drive the Redcoats and Hessians back, or to be killed in the attempt. I felt proud to be part of this courageous band.
“Come on boys!” Gist shouted to us. “We can take them again! This is the time we’ll take that house!”
“Charge!” Stirling ordered waving his sword over his head.
“Charge!” we all shouted in unison as we ran forward over the bloody ground yet again.
An iron determination was rising in me not to stop until I was killed, or took the house. We rushed on like a mighty wave into the blasting of the British cannon and muskets. Once again the attack seemed to waver as we got nearer, but I didn’t slow up for a moment. Screaming out a battle cry, I rushed at the British gunners. I pulled up short and fired my musket into the man that was about to light the cannon. He stumbled backwards and fell, and I sprang upon the others, swinging my musket like a club.
One of them drew a pistol and pointed it straight at me. I was too far away to knock the weapon aside in time to save my life. Just as he was about to pull the trigger there was the report of a rifle and he toppled sideways. I glanced to my right to see Quinn drop his empty gun and pull out a long knife, then close with one of the gunners. A third soldier jumped over the stone wall and rushed towards the house, followed by a second and third man. Soon our entire company was sweeping over the British position at the house.
I snatched a musket and bayonet from a fallen British soldier and followed the others. A huge Irishman lunged at me with his bayonet and I deflected it upwards with my musket barrel, then smashed the butt of my gun into his jaw. He stumbled back and I used the opportunity to finish him with the bayonet.
Several of our boys had broke down the door and there was fierce fighting going on inside. I rushed past the bodies of dead and dying men that lay scattered about the doorway and into the thick of the fight. British and Continental soldiers were locked in a duel to the death. The acrid smell of gunpowder smoke permeated the air as pistols and muskets blasted flame and smoke. Swords and bayonets flashed as men who during peace time might have been friends and neighbors fought desperately to kill each other. Such are the cruel ways of war.
I rushed forward with a shout at a British soldier who had just cut down an American. He saw me and leveled his musket straight in my face. I heard the click of the trigger and saw the flash of his priming, but the gun never went off. With a yell I dove at him, bayonet first, and heard the sickening sound of steel entering his body. I saw the surprise and pain on his face for a moment, then he slumped back, dead. I stood up and had to fight hard to keep from vomiting. It was one thing to shoot a man from far away, and a whole ‘nother when I had to run a bayonet into him so close I could smell his sweat. I strove to maintain control of my emotion and threw myself back into the battle. I knew the price of our freedom would be paid in blood, and I prayed that it would be won soon.
The battle in the house raged on fiercely for a few more minutes, but the British resistance was overrun by our superior numbers, though they fought bravely. Within minutes we held the position.
“Quick, turn those guns around! We’ll knock the British cannon further back out of commission!” Major Gist shouted. I turned and ran out of the house to where the two cannon lay abandoned. I grabbed the trails of one gun and pulled with all my might. Bill suddenly appeared at my side and together we pulled the big gun around to the other side of the house and pointed it back at the British guns, which were shelling our troops in retreat, the house, and us.
“I think it’s loaded,” Quinn said as he quickly lit one of the extinguished match ropes. One of the men dropped beside the gun and lined up its sights on the British artillery.
“Okay, fire!” he shouted, as he jumped back from the cannon. Quinn lowered the smoking wick into the touch hole and the gun blasted. My ears nearly split apart with the report and I coughed and sputtered in the thick white smoke.
“I think we hit!” one of the men shouted. Sure enough, one of the British cannon now lay on it’s side, pointing its muzzle harmlessly into the sky.
“Look out!” Quinn shouted, pulling me to the ground. There was the whine of incoming shells, then the tremendous explosion of grapeshot canisters. One of the men screamed and clutched his face, blood streaming from between his fingers, while another two dropped dead to the ground without so much as a groan.
“Quick, reload!” Sergeant Brenton shouted from behind me.
“I don’t know how!” I said desperately.
“I do,” one man said as he stepped forward to the gun. Two others followed and immediately began to load the cannon. Off to our right the second cannon was now in action.
Again and again we loaded and fired our two pieces, while the enemy fired back just as furiously. Men dropped on my left and right and shells slammed into the house, yet I myself wasn’t hit. The din was almost more than my ears could stand, but I stood by and helped in any way I could.
“Look! We’ve hit their last gun!” I shouted after the smoke cleared from one of our shots.
Wild cheering broke from our men as we realized we would be free from the enemy’s incessant shelling.
“Oh no!” one of the men suddenly broke off. “Their infantry is coming again!”
“Reload and give ‘em grapeshot!” Quinn ordered as he picked up the ram rod. We worked as quickly as we could and were just about to touch off the guns when Sergeant Brenton came up behind me.
“We’ve been ordered to join the retreat!” he called. “They’re too much for us to hold!”
“What?” Bill demanded. “After all this?”
“That is an order!” Brenton yelled over his shoulder as he hurried towards the bridge. “They’ve nearly surrounded us, and they will if we don’t get outta here now!”
I glanced back at the oncoming regulars. They were advancing fast, bayonets fixed.
“Fire these guns then spike them!” Major Gist ordered as he came up from around the house.
“Where’s General Stirling?” one man asked.
“He was cut off with fifty men, I think he’s trying to break through the British line. Now fire these guns then spike them right away!”
“Yes sir,” the man holding the wick answered as he lowered it into the touch hole.
“BLAM! BLAM!” the two cannon reported one after another, cutting swaths of British soldiers down, yet they kept coming.
“Hurry and spike ‘em!” Quinn ordered, “We’ll give ya cover from the Brits.”
Bill, Quinn, and I seized our muskets, and along with a few others opened fire on the British. I watched as our volley took effect, cutting down half a dozen men in the leading ranks.
“Reload!” Quinn shouted. I grabbed for a cartridge and realized I only had one left. I loaded it as fast as possible, but the Redcoat line was only ten feet from where we stood when I raised the gun to my shoulder.
“Finished!” I heard one of the men at the cannon shout, and I wasn’t sure if he meant that we were finished, or that they had finished spiking the gun. I could see the expressions on the Redcoats faces and hear their shouts and curses as they ran at us. Bullets sang past me as I pointed forward my gun and fired, without bothering to aim.
“Run!” I heard Quinn shout above the din of battle. Without a second thought I dropped my musket and ran. There was nothing more I could do here, my ammunition was gone, and there were more redcoats than leaves on the trees. I looked to the left and right and saw the gunners running along with me, away from the hoard of oncoming Lobsterbacks.
Directly ahead of us was the millpond, and our only option was to swim across it. I kicked off my boots as I ran and dropped my canteen and empty cartridge box. Just as I reached the bank I noticed another soldier just to the left of me. We leapt into the water at the same moment, and I struck out swimming, while the other soldier just floundered in the water. I quickly realized he couldn’t swim. I swam back over to him, grasped his collar, and struck out again. He wrapped his arm around me and we continued on.
Suddenly a bullet whistled over our heads and struck the water ahead of us, skipping like a stone on the surface for a moment, then sinking. I glanced back to see a British soldier on the bank, reloading his musket. A second one stood a little ways to the left of him, aiming carefully at a man who was scrambling out of the water. The musket blasted and the American slumped back into the millpond, staining the water red with his blood. I swam as fast as I could with the soldier’s arm wrapped around me for support, and we gained the bank moments later. I pushed the man onto the muddy shore and he turned to pull me up. The British musket behind us reported again and a bullet spattered into the mud only an inch from my head. The man quickly pulled me up and we took off running across the field.
“That was way too close!” the soldier said in a voice I recognized as Major Gist’s.
I looked in surprise at the man I had rescued without breaking my running stride. We weren’t safe yet.
August 27, 1776, 9:00 pm, Shore of the East River.
I sat quietly with the remnants of the Maryland 1st Infantry as we waited our turn to cross in the boats. General Washington had decided to retreat the entire army to Manhattan under the cover of darkness and fog. Only twenty or so of us Marylanders had made it back, and I hadn’t seen Bill or Quinn among them. I cursed myself for not standing and dying with them when the British had overrun our positions.
“You all fought well, men,” Major Gist said quietly to us. “We may have lost this battle, but we live to fight another day.”
At that moment I heard the sound of heavy footsteps behind me. I turned to see Old Quinn carrying a man over his shoulder.
“Quinn! You made it!” I exclaimed as I stood to greet him. He just nodded and gently set down the man he had brought back. I looked down at the boy and barely recognized my friend Bill, he was so covered in mud and blood. I quickly knelt down next to him.
“Bill!” I cried as I grasped his hand. Bill’s eyes opened at my voice and he smiled up at me.
“Thank God you made it,” he whispered. “Old Quinn was right, I wasn’t going to come back in one piece.”
“You’re gonna be fine!” I exclaimed.
Bill smiled, then coughed, and blood trickled from his lips.
“They got me pretty good,” he said, then coughed again. “I don’t think I’ll ever see another sunrise. But Dick, I want you to know, you fought bravely today, more so than some grown men, and I want you to know, I’m proud to be your friend.” With that his body shuddered, and his eyes closed.
“No!” I whispered, and my body shook with sobs as my best friend’s life drained out of him.
“He was a brave boy,” Old Quinn said quietly. “You were too.”
Tears ran down my face as I slowly let Billy’s hand drop from mine. A couple of soldiers came over and lifted his body, then carried it away. He would be buried like a true soldier, with his grave facing east, towards the next sunrise he would never get to see.
“Time to go,” Major Gist said quietly as he laid a hand on my shoulder. I silently stood to my feet, my heart heavy. Our group made our way towards the boats that would take the army to Manhattan, in what would become one of the greatest evacuations of all time. Quinn handed me Bill’s musket, which he had brought all the way from the battlefield.
“Next time we fight ‘em,” he whispered to me. “Give ‘em one for Billy.”
I took the musket and nodded to him gratefully, wiping the tears from my eyes with one hand. Every soldier loses friends, and the cruelty of war forces him to move on with his life, trust in God, and fight another day. However, we would never forget those who fought and died in Freedom’s Fight.
Historical note: Washington and the Continental Army would retreat first to Manhattan, and then to New Jersey, avoiding destruction by Howe’s army and living to fight another day. This retreat was made possible by the fight put up by the ‘Maryland 400’, or 1st Maryland Infantry, who guarded the retreat of the army after Howe’s flanking maneuver. Because of their heroic actions in this battle the regiment would become known as the ‘Old Line,’ which is how Maryland earned the nickname of ‘The Old Line State.’