After defeat at Boston, in March 1776 the British had pulled back to Halifax. Since February, the British commander in North America had been Admiral Richard Howe, an able man but not in agreement with the policy of military confrontation with the colonists, instead favouring a policy of conciliation throughout his time in command. The army commander was his brother William Howe, who had held the command in Boston for the later parts of the siege. He too was an able commander, but was almost crippled by his fear of a single defeat in battle that would destroy the British cause in North America. This fear goes some way to explaining the sluggish nature of some of his actions around New York.
At the centre of the British strategy for the summer of 1776 was the capture of New York. The army in Halifax, combined with forces from South Carolina and significant reinforcements from Britain, would seize New York, and march up the Hudson, to meet another army marching down from Canada. These two armies would isolate New England, splitting the rebellious colonies in two and allowing them to be pacified piecemeal. In the event this plan came to nothing in 1776 (and to disaster in 1777). The Canadian expedition bogged down on Lake Champlain, while the New York expedition concentrated instead on defeating Washington.
British troops started landing on Staten Island on 3 July. William Howe’s fear of a decisive defeat now led him to delay on Staten Island while his troops build up. Richard Howe arrived on 12 July, so must share some of the blame for the delay. Washington certainly didn't expect to have so long to prepare, and made plans to resist a British attack at any time in July. In the event, the Howes didn't make a move until mid August, when they had accumulated a force of 32,000 men, giving them a massive advantage over Washington.
Finally, on 22 August General Howe made his move, landing 15,000 men on Long Island. Three days later another two brigades were shipped onto the Island, and only then did Howe feel ready to make his move. Meanwhile, Washington was uncertain of what to do. He was uncertain of the size of the British army on Long Island, and so could not commit too many of his men there in case the British had enough men left to make a second landing on Manhattan Island. His initial response to the British move was to reinforce the defences of Long Island with six regiments.
The American position was centred on Brooklyn Village. The main defensive line cut across the Brooklyn Heights from Gowanus Creek in the south to Wallabout Bay in the north, with both ends of the line defended by salt marshes. A second defensive line was thrown out along the Heights of Guan, a range of hills that extended out for several miles from Brooklyn. The southern side facing the British was considered to be too steep for an army to pass. All the Americans had to do was defend the four passes that cut through the hills, and this they failed to do. The last pass, Jamaica Pass, was about five miles away from Brooklyn, and three miles on from the third pass. Perhaps considering it too distant to be a threat, General John Sullivan, who had command of the centre and left of the line on the Guan Heights, only posted a token guard of five men in Jamaica Pass.
General Howe had made good use of his time on Long Island. The eventual British attack was carefully planned and gained the success it deserved. On the evening of 26 August the main force moved east towards Jamaica Pass, using back roads to avoid being detected. General Henry Clinton led the van, Lord Cornwallis the reserve and General Percy with Howe the main army. At three in the morning on 27 August the British surprised and captured the five American guards at the Jamaica Pass and without any difficulty were behind the American lines.
They now began a quiet march towards Brooklyn, hoping to trap the American forces on the rest of the Heights of Guan. They were aided in this by two diversionary attacks, both also launched at about three in the morning. On the American right, where the Heights reached the coast, General James Grant launched a diversionary attack, which convinced the commander of the American right, William Alexander, ‘lord’ Stirling (his claim to the title had been rejected) that the main attack was about to come. Further along the line, the Hessians bombarded Sullivan’s forces, pinning them down half way along the Heights.
The main assault began at nine in the morning. The main British force reached Bedford village, behind Sullivan’s position, and opened fire. The Hessians also attacked up the pass and Sullivan’s command collapsed. The main American resistance came from Stirling on the American right. His Maryland and Delaware Continentals had only arrived on Long Island on the previous day, but fought doggedly for two hours. Reinforced by units from Connecticut and Pennsylvania, Stirling held on until he was almost surrounded. Finally, he ordered a retreat and the bulk of his men escaped across the marshes around Gowanus Bay, remaining behind with a rearguard of to 250 Marylanders to cover the withdrawal.
By noon, Howe’s men had captured the Heights of Guan, and forced the Americans in disarray back into their positions around Brooklyn village. The Americans were now very vulnerable, and Howe’s men were keen to finish them off, but once again Howe held back. 28 August saw Washington send three more regiments into Brooklyn, while Howe began to build regular siege works. Bad weather prevented the British from blockading the Brooklyn position from the sea, but also gave them the idea opportunity to use their superiority with the bayonet against the demoralised and outnumbered Americans. Once again, Howe declined to push his advantage, and finally on 29 August Washington came to realise that his position on Long Island was untenable. That night the 9500 American soldiers apparently trapped at Brooklyn were evacuated by sea to Manhattan Island.
The capture of the Brooklyn heights made the defence of New York almost impossible. British artillery on the heights could dominate the city, and Congress now made it clear that they did not expect Washington to attempt to defend the city. The next two months were to see Washington fall back from position to position, until finally coming to a halt on the Delaware, but the sluggish nature of Howe’s attacks removed the possibility of any other British action before the winter. He didn't cross onto Manhattan Island until 13 September, and the last American position in the area, Fort Lee, did not fall until 20 November. The rebellion would continue at least into 1777.