A few weeks back I wrote a column about Dunkirk, the miraculous British escape early in the Second World War. A friend who spent his working career teaching history in Long Island, New York, pointed out to me that we had our own “Dunkirk” during the Revolutionary War. It was called the Battle of Long Island.

The date was Aug. 27, 1776. George Washington and his patriots had just come from a successful effort against the British in Massachusetts where his new army had fought the British to a draw.

He moved the bulk of his troops, more than 19,000 of them, to Manhattan Island where he hoped to defend New York City from the British. The British plan was to take New York and split New England from the more southern colonies. They could then use the Hudson River to bring reinforcements and war materials down from Canada.

The battle preparations developed for more than six weeks. The U.S. troops occupied Brooklyn Heights while the British brought in more and more reinforcements. Finally, the British had more than 32,000 troops and an astounding 150 ships surrounding Manhattan Island. Washington’s main army was much smaller but had created intricate defensive positions that made them difficult to breach.

The British attacked the U.S. positions from two directions and after 48 hours of fierce fighting forced Washington and his outnumbered troops from their positions. The U.S. Army found themselves fighting a rear guard action that slowed the British advance but soon they were backed up to the East River.

It was at the point that the heroes of the Battle of Long Island began to appear. One group, called the Maryland 400, though there were only around 270 men in their company, became the major rear guard to protect the retreat. They were led by Major Mordecai Gist. They inflicted great casualties on the British and sacrificed themselves almost to a man to protect the bulk of the U.S. troops. In the end, only 12 made it back to their battle lines.

General Washington found himself backed up to the East River with General William Howe’s British regulars surrounding his beleaguered army. Night fell and the British settled to rest through the night for the final push the next day. In the meantime, General Washington had put out a call for every flat bottomed boat available from across the East River in New Jersey to come to their aid. Hundreds rallied to their plight. To mask the withdrawal Washington ordered that the fires in his camp be kept burning all night so the British would think they were still there.

Washington had about two thirds of his army across the East River when dawn broke the next morning. Had the British ships surrounding the island been able to see what was happening they would have sailed in and cut off their escape. But, as often happens at important times, fate stepped in and a heavy fog enveloped the East River. The British could not see the many small boats on the river. Washington made his escape into New Jersey and continued his withdrawal into Pennsylvania. His army was preserved to fight another day. Four months later, on Christmas Eve, Washington brought his army across the Delaware River and defeated the German mercenaries at Trenton, New Jersey, the first major victory for the embattled U.S. Army.

The evacuation of 19,000 U.S. troops from Long Island does not compare with the several hundred thousand British troops evacuated from Dunkirk 165 years later. However, considering that Washington’s troops were the bulk of the U.S. Army at the time, it was a major accomplishment that was of immense importance in the eventual success of the Revolutionary War.

As Walter Cronkite used to say, “What kind of day was it? It was a day like all days, and you were there.”

— Dr. Mark L. Hopkins writes for More Content Now and the Anderson Independent-Mail in South Carolina. He is past president of colleges and universities in four states. Books by Hopkins currently available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble include “Journey to Gettysburg” and “The Wounds of War,” both Civil War-era novels, and “The World As It Was When Jesus Came.” Contact him at presnet@presnet.net.