On this day in 1776, General George Washington writes to Major General Charles Lee that the Continental Army’s situation had deteriorated due to an outbreak of smallpox and problems with desertion. Washington feared that the superior British navy might blockade New York, thus isolating the city from communications with other states.
Washington was correct that the British intended to capture New York City and gain control of the Hudson River, a victory that would divide the rebellious colonies in half. British General William Howe’s large army landed on Long Island, however, 10 days later than they had planned, on August 22. Finally, on August 27, the Redcoats marched against the Patriot position at Brooklyn Heights, overcoming the Americans at Gowanus Pass and then outflanking the entire Continental Army. The Americans suffered 1,000 casualties to the British loss of only 400 men during the fighting. After the victory, Howe chose not to follow the advice of his subordinates and did not storm the Patriot redoubts at Brooklyn Heights, where he could have taken the Patriots’ military leadership prisoner and ended the rebellion.
General Washington ordered a retreat to Manhattan by boat. The British could easily have prevented this retreat and captured most of the Patriot officer corps, including Washington. General William Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, however, still hoped to convince the Americans to rejoin the British empire in the wake of the humiliating defeat, instead of forcing the former colonies into submission after executing Washington and his officers as traitors. Indeed, on September 11, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and other congressional representatives reopened negotiations with the Howe brothers on Staten Island; the negotiations fell through when the British refused to accept American independence.
The British captured New York City on September 15; it would remain in British hands until the end of the war.