It was 234 years ago today that the British snuck across the little channel from Staten Island, slipped in through the back door of Brooklyn, and began their assault on New York.
It was a very bad day for the adolescent nation, still giddy from declaring its independence eight weeks earlier and eager to take its shiny, new liberty out for a spin. The British had been amassing ships, some 400, off Staten Island for weeks while the citizens of Manhattan watched, waited and gradually flipped out (but also made creative use of their time by redecorating – a prominent statue of King George III was melted down for musket balls).
When the onslaught finally came, it confused the hell out of George Washington, Esq. — as the British commander impudently addressed him — who had been expecting the main offensive to come on Manhattan. Washington grossly underestimated the size of the British force that had landed in Brooklyn, was betrayed by some Loyalists who tipped the British off to an unguarded pass, and soon found his troops surrounded and badly outnumbered.
But here’s the delightful part, as anyone who has read David McCullough’s essential “1776” surely recalls.
Thanks to some very unfavorable winds that prevented the British from sailing up the East River, Washington and Co. were not entirely cut off. On the night of August 28, 1776, they agreed on an ingenious plan — run away! Or rather, row away. Very, very quietly. All 9,000 of them, in boat after boat, in the rain and darkness.
The British troops awoke the next morning to find that the Americans had literally vanished into the mist.
Today, the only battle being waged on that historic embarkment place is one of tedium – tourists stand in line two hours for pizza, gaggles of bridesmaids wait to be photographed against the Manhattan skyline, toddlers fumble ice cream cones, tour buses idle.
This also happens to be the spot where I once heard Sheryl Crow repeatedly shout “Happy Birthday, America!” during numerous takes for a pretaped “Fourth of July” concert in the middle of June. The irritable crowd, which had been hastily recruited from the neighborhood, became impatient when Crow kept starting over because hair was blowing in her face. Like the British fleet, the wind was against her.
And like the American soldiers, who could not yet be called an army, I learned a valuable lesson about cutting your losses and beating a hasty retreat.