‘A Brave Resistance, or the Most Abject Submission’

Recently by Becky Akers: ‘Why We Had the Revolution in 1776,’ Accordingto Our MegalomaniacalRulers

I'm not much of a movie buff, but Lunch Scholars sets me laughing each time I watch it. Especially entertaining are the students' responses to the question, "In what war did the US gain its independence?" If they don't shrug or stare in silent confusion, they hazard such guesses as "The Civil War?" One girl giggles, "We just did this, and I don't remember!"

For a while, I attended meetings of the American Revolution Roundtable, convivial and festive affairs that "[bring] together a diverse group of people…," – many of them published historians – "united by a common interest in the Revolutionary era." One evening, a member advocated government's "protection" of some site dating to the war; I have forgotten whether she wanted it officially designated a landmark, or, if it already had been, desired an increase in its budget. At any rate, the crowd vigorously applauded her efforts to extend the State's power in honor of a rebellion against that very evil.

For all their "common interest in the Revolutionary era," these adults had little more understanding of it than the stars of Lunch Scholars. Sadly, ignorance of both the facts and the spirit of the American Revolution curses our society; it's one reason Leviathan has triumphed so thoroughly over a people formerly noted for their fierce autonomy and love of liberty.

In a sense, we can hardly blame folks for their indifference to the Revolution. The powder-smoke obscuring Yorktown had hardly cleared before the new country's politicians distorted the war into a glorification of the American State. Historians continued that misrepresentation in the 19th century until its latter half, when they portrayed the war as a Marxist fantasy of proletarian revenge. Thereafter, further perversions turned the Revolution irrelevant: the Founding Fathers fought against obscure, isolated points that no longer mattered, according to the government's indoctrination centers-sorry, schools, such as monarchy or taxation without representation. No wonder most Americans today care nothing for the Revolution, while its few enthusiasts completely miss its resounding rejection of government.

This week marks the 236th anniversary of one of the war's seminal and most heartrending battles – a lost cause overflowing with heroism, betrayal, outright miracles, and a thrilling escape that still amazes experts in military tactics and history. The Battle of Brooklyn (also known as the Battle of Long Island) isn't a musty old page in a textbook: it is instead an awesome clash of inexperienced but courageous lovers of liberty against the professional forces of the world's most powerful empire – of people like us defying an army as rigorously trained and murderously equipped for their day as US troops are now.

The Revolution was only 16 months old in August 1776. Those months had been heady ones for freedom's friends – and there were plenty of those on both sides of the Atlantic. Americans and Britons revered liberty as vehemently then as they do democracy now.

In fact, they fought the war over how best to preserve liberty (American independence, usually touted as the Revolution's raison d'etre, was only a means to the end of securing liberty). Some folks, whether in England or America, were appalled at their imperial government, with its bureaucracies and ruthless army; they wanted the empire to end its abuses; many of them even hoped to end the empire and, indeed, all government. The Revolution was intensely anarchic.

Others rejoiced in their strong empire and its troops, fretting lest powerful nations – by which they meant Catholic France – conquer England and its colonies. Eighteenth-century Protestants feared "Papists" as much as twenty-first century neocons do Moslems.

With criticism of his administration surging, King George III resorted to the same tack the Feds have: stifling dissent. Seven hundred of his soldiers marched from Boston in April 1775 to grab and indefinitely detain two of those dissidents, Sam Adams and John Hancock, then staying about 11 miles down the road near the village of Lexington. The Redcoats also hoped to seize guns, ammunition and rations (yep, prepping has a long and honorable history) the colonists had stockpiled, a la modern Americans who eye the metastasizing swamp on the Potomac.

By sunset, the Redcoats were back in Boston, sans Adams and Hancock but with the farmers and shopkeepers who had chased them there jubilantly besieging them. When His Majesty's Army tried to escape that June in the Battle of Bunker's Hill, the Americans ceded the hill – but they merely moved their lines to exclude it and resumed the siege.

The Redcoats admitted defeat the following March. They boarded ship and sailed for New York. At 16,000 residents, New York was the colonies' second largest city (Philadelphia was first with 25,000). It was also a strategic treasure because of its harbor and its situation at the head of the Hudson River – the indispensable highway to New England in these days before interstates and diesel engines.

Congress insisted that General George Washington march his Continental Army to New York and hold the area against the Redcoats. But obeying that order would prove impossible. Riparian New York – ocean and rivers lapped its three islands, Staten, Long, and York (now known as Manhattan) – immensely favored the enemy and its fearsome navy. Even without the navy, the upcoming contest tilted heavily against the Continentals thanks to the reinforcements London had sent: 32,000 Redcoats and Hessians, the pitiable farmers German princes kidnapped from their fields and sold to George III, would contend against Washington's roughly 15,000 men (that figure fluctuated daily and dramatically due to illness, desertion, the arrival and departure of militia, etc. On August 7, for example, the Continental Army officially counted 17,225 soldiers, but only 10,514 were "fit for duty"). The British Army could pulverize the outnumbered rebels on land if the British Navy didn't cannonade them from the water first. Worse, Washington didn't know which island, nor where on that island, the Redcoats would initially attack – and the non-existent American navy couldn't shuttle troops there even if he had. The Continental command solved this problem by dividing its forces, a foolish error even for such neophytes. About 7000 men dribbled to Long Island during the next weeks, with the rest remaining in Manhattan.

Perhaps the beleaguered Washington was exhorting himself as much as the troops – and he seems to shout down the ages to us as well – when he urged, "The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be, Freemen, or Slaves: whether they are to have any property they can call their own … our cruel and unrelenting Enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance, or the most abject submission … Let us therefore rely upon the goodness of the Cause, and the aid of the supreme Being… we shall have [our countrymen's] blessings, and praises, if happily we are the instruments of saving them from the Tyranny meditated against them. Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and shew the whole world, that a Freeman contending for LIBERTY on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth."

Alas, those slavish mercenaries landed without opposition on Staten Island, then cruised to Long Island. The Continentals there built outworks on the Heights of Guan, a ridge of hills about 4 miles north of the British beachhead. They constructed their main fort another 4 miles north, on the edge of Brooklyn, directly across the river from New York – when they weren't thrashing in their beds with fever (an epidemic of typhus ravaged the ranks) or scouting provisions (feeding so many mouths had become a daunting problem in Boston, and it worsened in New York). So wretched were the Continentals that one Loyalist crowed to his journal, "If my countrymen [i.e., the Redcoats] are defeated by these ragamuffins I shall be much surprised."

At nightfall on August 26, His Majesty's professional soldiers began stealthily marching across Long Island toward those starving, diseased, and nervous amateurs huddled in their forts and outworks. Tragically, the American command had no staff, no scouts, no rangers; the Redcoats effortlessly captured the five picket-guards who could have reported their movements.

By morning, the British Army had outflanked the Continentals as easily as it had disembarked earlier that summer. While a few troops skirmished with the Continentals' front, more swept in from behind, enveloping the terrified novices, killing or capturing over a thousand while driving the rest uphill along with their red flags emblazoned "Liberty" to their principal fort.

From that high ground, Washington watched the disaster – and the heroism of his recruits: one company suicidally charged the British lines five times to cover others' retreat. Washington famously groaned, "Good God! what brave fellows I must this day lose!"

By evening, the British Army had reversed its ignominy at Boston, besieging the Continentals in their fort on the edge of Brooklyn. The battle – and the Revolution – were over. The rebels hourly expected His Majesty's troops to finish the job, swarming the works and capturing its defenders. Or His Majesty's navy could sail into position behind the fort and bombard it, driving the men forward into the Redcoats' arms.

Unless you believe in the Almighty and the inalienable rights He provides and protects, you'll have a hard time explaining what happened next. No attack came that night, nor the next day. Rather than batter the fort, the British Navy inexplicably remained at anchor. And the British Army began not the climactic assault that would have finished things but a "regular approach." This involved digging a series of trenches zig-zagging ever closer to the defenders; it was correct, by-the-book procedure but hardly necessary, given the Redcoats' huge numbers and advantages.

The digging continued while Washington and his generals conceived a daring plan. They sent messengers to Manhattan for rowboats, schooners, anything that could float. That night, with the enemy tunneling nearer, the Continentals silently filed from their fort down to the landing and glided across the river to Manhattan's comparative safety.

Lest the Redcoats realize that their prey was fleeing, the Americans "began to retire from the lines in such a manner that no chasm was made. As one regiment left their station on guard, the remaining troops moved to the right and left, and filled up the vacancies," according to one of them, Benjamin Tallmadge. That stranded "several regiments" in Brooklyn at dawn. Just 22 years old, Tallmadge confessed that "those of us who remained in the trenches became very anxious for our own safety… At this time a very dense fog began to rise and it seemed to settle in a peculiar manner over both encampments. I recollect this peculiar providential occurrence perfectly well, and so very dense was the atmosphere that I could scarcely discern a man at six yards distance." The remnant safely embarked for Manhattan under cover of that "providential occurrence." As have generations of tacticians and historians after him, Tallmadge marveled, "In the history of warfare I do not recollect a more fortunate retreat."

The Continentals' desperate flight saved the Revolution but not New York. It fell to the Redcoats and remained under their control until the war ended. But the battle for liberty is never about territory: it seeks instead to win hearts and minds.