From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol I. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.
August 30. –About twelve o’clock last Monday night, (26th,) we were alarmed by the return of some of our scouting parties, who advised us that the English were in motion, and coming up the island, with several field-pieces. It was generally thought not to be the main body, but only a detachment, with a view to possess themselves of some advantageous heights. On which near three thousand men were ordered out, consisting chiefly of the Pennsylvania and Maryland troops, to attack them on their march. About sunrise the next morning, (27th,) we came up with a very large body of them.
The Delaware and Maryland battalions made one party. Colonel Atlee with his battalion, a little before us, had taken post in an orchard and behind a barn; and, on the approach of the enemy, he gave them a very severe fire, which he bravely kept up for a considerable time, until they were near surrounding him, when he retreated to the woods. The enemy then advanced to us, upon which Lord Stirling, who commanded, drew us up in a line, and offered them battle in the true English taste. The British army then advanced within about three hundred yards of us, and began a very heavy fire from their cannon and mortars, for both the balls and shells flew very fast, now and then taking off a head. Our men stood it amazingly well–not even one of them showed a disposition to shrink.
Our orders were not to fire until the enemy came within fifty yards of us; but when they perceived we stood their fire so coolly and resolutely, they declined coming any nearer, although treble our number. In this situation we stood from sunrise till twelve o’clock, the enemy firing upon us the chief part of the time, when the main body of their army, by a route we never dreamed of, had entirely surrounded us and drove within the lines, or scattered in the woods all our men except the Delaware and Maryland battalions, who were standing at bay with double their number. Thus situated, we were ordered to attempt a retreat, by fighting our way through the enemy, who had posted themselves, and nearly filled every field and road between us and our lines. We had not retreated a quarter of a mile before we were fired upon by an advanced part of the enemy, and those upon our rear were playing upon us with their artillery. Our men fought with more than Roman virtue, and would have stood until they were shot down to a man. We forced the advanced party, which first attacked us, to give way, through which opening we got a passage down to the side of a marsh, seldom before waded over, which we passed, and then swam a narrow river, all the time exposed to the fire of the enemy. The companies commanded by Captains Ramsey and Scott were in the front, and sustained the first fire of the enemy, when hardly a man fell.
The whole of the right wing of our battalion, thinking it impossible to march through the marsh, attempted to force their way through the woods, where they were almost to a man killed or taken. The Maryland battalion has lost two hundred and fifty-nine men, amongst whom are twelve officers. Captains Veazey and Bowey, the first certainly killed; Lieutenants Butler, Sterret, Dent, Courley, Muse, Prawl, Ensigns Coats and Fernandes; who of them are killed or who prisoners, is yet uncertain. Many of the officers lost their swords and guns. We have since entirely abandoned Long Island, bringing off all our military stores.1
Generals Sullivan and Stirling are both prisoners; Colonels Atlee,2 Miles, and Piper, are also taken. There are about a thousand men missing in all; we took a few prisoners. By a lieutenant we took, we understand they had about twenty-three thousand men on the island that morning. Most of our generals were on a high hill in our lines, viewing us with glasses. When we began our retreat, they could see the enemy we had to pass through, though we could not. Many of them thought we would surrender in a body, without firing. When we began the attack, General Washington wrung his hands, and cried out, “Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose.” Major Guest commanded the Maryland battalion, the colonel and lieutenant-colonel being both at York; Captains Adams and Lucas were sick. The major, Captain Ramsey, and Lieutenant Plunket, were foremost, and within forty yards of the enemy’s muzzles, when they were fired upon by the enemy, who were chiefly under cover of an orchard, save a few that showed themselves and pretended to give up, clubbing their firelocks until we came within that distance, when they immediately presented and blazed in our faces. They entirely overshot us, and killed some men away in the rear. I had the satisfaction of dropping one of them the first fire I made; I was so near that I could not miss. I discharged my rifle seven times that day as deliberately as ever I did at a mark, and with as little perturbation. 3
1 General Washington called a council, and it was determined to retreat early in the evening of the 29th, but the strong tide and a furious wind from the east prevented it. About half-past eleven, however, the wind changed to the southerly, and the boats passed and repassed with perfect safety. In our suspense, we all prayed for relief, and surely the Lord was with us, for we were not only accommodated with a changing of the wind, but a fog overhung our army and concealed our redoubts, until the last soldier landed in New York. We all feel sore, but swear we’ll do better in our next trial, which we are anxiously expecting. — Letter from Ezekiel Cornell.*
2 Samuel John Atlee commanded a Pennsylvania company in the French war. After his capture at Long Island, he remained a long period with the British, and soon after his release was appointed a commissioner to treat with the Indians. In 1780 he was elected to Congress, and was a member of the committee appointed to investigate the case of the mutiny of the Pennsylvania troops in 1781. He died at Philadelphia in November, 1786.
3 Extract of a letter from New York, September 1, in the Freeman’s Journal, September 28.
* Lieutenant-Colonel Cornell, of Scituate, in Massachusetts. He commanded the regiment in which Captain Stephen Olney served. —See Mrs. Williams’s Life of Olney.