There is not a famous painting of this river crossing on the night of August 29/30, 1776 unlike the crossing of the Delaware before the Battle of Trenton four months later (see The Jersey Campaign) but it was just as important for achieving American independence.
In March 1776 the British abandoned Boston, sailing away to Nova Scotia. There, they were reinforced and developed a plan to capture New York City. Once New York was occupied they could move up the Hudson and sever the troublesome New England colonies from the other colonials and end the rebellion. In July, a huge British fleet appeared and offloaded more than 20,000 troops onto Staten Island
“I do declare that I thought all London was afloat.” So exclaimed one witness who, in August 1776, stood on the shores of New York harbor awaiting sure destruction. What the witness beheld was the largest naval fleet ever sent from one nation to another nation at that point in history. The British were coming to quash the American rebellion once and for all. They had already begun landing at Long Island, New York, just eastward across the river from New York City-George Washington’s headquarters.
What was America to do? Her cause was all but lost. Certainly General Washington, waiting in relative safety in New York City, would not walk into this British trap. Certainly he would not lead his men-his citizen-soldiers-eastward across the mile-wide East River, to meet the foe. Certainly he would not do this and trap himself on Long Island with this fearsome and lethal enemy. For the British not only outnumbered the Americans 2 to 1, and not only did the British overwhelm them in terms of skill and resources, but the Red Coats were en route to surround Long Island. Land troops rushed westward toward Washington, while state-of-the-art British war ships made their way up the East River.
And yet, inexplicably, Washington did just that. Virtually all of the Continental soldiers found themselves, at the behest of their leader, caught in the ultimate British trap. The Red Coats proceeded to brutalize the Americans at Long Island in the first major battle of the war. All the Americans could do was flee with all their might westward back toward the river in hopes of escaping back into the city. Caught! The British ships were already positioning themselves in the East River to cut off the evacuation.
At this point, it might have been said that George Washington was one of the silliest military commanders in history. Or perhaps there was something else. Perhaps George Washington was in possession of a secret – a secret that would be responsible not only for liberating the Americans at Long Island, but for securing American independence and creating the greatest nation ever known to mankind.
Washington commanded a few of his soldiers to stoke the campfires and make the British believe the Americans were bedding down for the night. Confidently, the British went to bed knowing they would fully conquer the rebels-whom they called the “ramble in arms”-in the morning. In the meantime, Washington commanded his thousands of troops to prepare an evacuation across the river, using the cover of darkness.
As the British fleet raced to the scene at the river to crush any rebel evacuation attempt, a ferocious wind began pushing the British back down. A total of five ships carrying over seventy-two guns attempted-but failed-to advance up the river to cut off the Americans. Washington would have a small window of opportunity to evacuate his troops from this would-be British trap. Though at first the same wind that disrupted the British was also obstructing the American effort to cross the river, a little after nine, the wind miraculously shifted to a westerly direction, facilitating the exodus with most favorable conditions.
But even with the favorable wind, the night was dying fast. The rising sun would soon expose Washington’s scheme to the full view of the British. Another miracle was needed. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, David McCullough, explains:
Troops in substantial number had still to be evacuated and at the rate things were going, it appeared day would dawn before everyone was safely removed. But again the “elements” interceded, this time in the form of pea-soup fog. It was called “a peculiar providential occurrence,” “manifestly providential,” “very favorable to the design,” “an unusual fog,” “a friendly fog,” “an American fog.” “So very dense was the atmosphere,” remembers Benjamin Tallmadge, “that I could scarcely discern a man at six yards’ distance.” And as daylight came, the fog held, covering the entire operation no less than had the night…while over on the New York side of the river there was no fog at all.
Quietly and stealthily the Americans moved across the river completing the evacuation shortly after dawn with not a man lost. General Washington was the last man on the last boat to cross. The Americans escaped! The Revolution would live on! It was a miracle!
“That the rebel army had silently vanished in the night right under their very noses,” according to McCullough, “was almost inconceivable.” British Major Stephen Kemble wrote in his diary that “[i]n the morning, to our great astonishment, [we] found they had evacuated…and the whole escaped to…New York.” British General James Grant wrote, “We cannot yet account for their precipitate retreat.”
THE MIRACLE BEHIND THE MIRACLE
Indeed, Washington knew a secret. It was the secret responsible for the miracle. That secret was his knowledge of God’s covenant upon the land America.
On May 15, 1776, shortly after the Continental Army’s initial arrival at New York, months before the British invasion, Washington prepared his men. Not only did he prepare them physically, but spiritually. He called them to the covenant. In a General Order, he declared:
Instant to be observed [on Friday the 17th] as a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer, humbly to supplicate the mercy of Almighty God, that it would please him to pardon all our manifold sins and transgressions, and to prosper the Arms of the United Colonies, and finally establish the peace and freedom of America, upon a solid and lasting foundation.
Then again on July 2, Washington in another General Order would remind his men that “the fate of unborn Millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army…Let us therefore rely upon the goodness of the Cause, and the aid of the Supreme Being, in whose hands Victory is.” Two days later, in Philadelphia, these same sentiments would be immortalized by the Continental Congress in the Declaration of Independence, which concludes, “And for support of this Declaration, with firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
Washington was so convinced of his utter dependence upon this covenant relationship with God that he would continue to extend reminders and calls to repentance. On July 9, Washington issued another General Order in which he called for chaplains in each regiment to ensure that the soldiers “attend carefully upon religious exercises.” The order concluded with the following: “The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger-the General hopes and trusts, that every officer and man, will endeavor so to live, and act, as becomes a good Christian soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.
“Just days before battle would commence, Washington issued yet another General Order in which he recommended the keeping of the Sabbath and pleaded with his men to shun the immoral temptations that abounded in the city, exhorting them to “endeavor to check [such behavior] and …reflect, that we can have little hopes of the blessing of Heaven on our Arms, if we insult it by our impiety and folly.
That Washington was assured the Lord would provide in the upcoming battle is evidenced by the army’s positive response to their commander-in-chief’s spiritual encouragements. One observant New Yorker, unaccustomed to seeing a pious group of soldiers, wrote of his surprise to see how Washington’s men attended prayers “evening and morning regularly.” “On the Lord’s day,” commented the observer, “they attend public worship twice, and their deportment in the house of God is such as becomes the place.” Washington’s trusted officer, Henry Knox, wrote to his wife that he would daily “rise with or a little before the sun and immediately, with part of the regiment attend prayers, sing a psalm or read a chapter [from the Bible].” They were trying diligently to keep their end of the covenant.
The faith and influence of Washington was extended through other revolutionary leaders who caught his vision and acted upon it. One such leader, Connecticut Governor Jonathon Trumbull, upon learning of Washington’s impending battle, called for nine fresh regiments to march in support of Washington (and this was in addition to the five regiments he had already sent). Trumbull’s call to arms sounded much like something Joshua might have said in the camp of Israel: “Be roused and alarmed to stand forth in our just and glorious cause. Join…march on; this shall be your warrant: play the man for God, and for the cities of our God! May the Lord of Hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, be your leader.”