Sunday, June 14, 2020

Episode 153 Staten Island and Setauket

A few weeks ago, I talked about General Howe’s decision to put most of his army aboard ship and sail out to sea.  No one was sure where he would land, but most thought the ultimate destination was Philadelphia.

British Remnant in New York

When the fleet sailed away from New York City in late July 1777, Howe left General Henry Clinton in command of the city with a few thousand soldiers, most of whom were Hessians or local militia.  General Howe wanted his best combat troops with him for the conquest of Philadelphia.

In preparation for the removal of so many troops from New York City, the British abandoned even the tiny toe holds across the Hudson River in New Jersey, which they had held all winter - places like Elizabethtown, Amboy, and Brunswick.  Although this meant completely abandoning New Jersey, the British did not want to leave any isolated outposts that could be subject to attack.  Putting the Hudson River between the two armies, was a pretty substantial barrier for any army to cross.  The river was deep enough at all points that no army could ford it from New Jersey to New York.

 Gen. John Sullivan
(from Sullivan Co. NH)
British forces, however, were still spread out all over the New York City area, including the occupation of all of Long Island, Staten Island, and Manhattan Island.  This was probably about two thousand square miles of land being guarded by a few thousand soldiers.  With the departure of Howe’s fleet, even holding the New York City area left some units in relatively isolated and in areas potentially vulnerable to attack.

After a slow start that spring, mid-August saw a flurry of activity.  General Burgoyne’s northern army had reached the Hudson River.  General St. Leger was still besieging Fort Stanwix.  Washington was still desperately searching for where General Howe’s fleet was headed.

As Washington moved around the Philadelphia area, trying to get intelligence on General Howe’s army, Major General John Sullivan commanded the army keeping an eye on General Clinton in New York City.  Sullivan, you may recall, had been captured during the Battle of Long Island a year earlier, then exchanged at the end of 1776 in time to command Washington’s right wing at the Battle of Trenton.  Over the winter, Sullivan remained with Washington near Morristown as the Americans contended with the British over northern New Jersey in the Forage War.  Sullivan maintained an independent command after Washington took the bulk of the army south toward Philadelphia in search of General Howe.

Sullivan expected that at some point Washington would determine that Howe was headed for Philadelphia or some other point further south.  Once confirmed, the bulk of the army remaining in northern New Jersey would march to support the main army.  In the meantime, Sullivan’s soldiers mostly remained in camp, just in case the enemy in New York conducted another raid into New Jersey, or in the event General Howe’s fleet returned to New York City.

Staten Island Raid

Although the British had given up their camps in northern New Jersey, Tory militia stationed on Staten Island still conducted raids into the area, looking for prisoners and supplies.  Sullivan learned that these loyalist raiders operated from along the western edge of Staten Island, just across the river from New Jersey, totaling between 400 and 700 militia (accounts differ).  These soldiers were not all in one place, but scattered in groups of between 100 and 250 soldiers per camp.

There were another estimated 1600 or so British regulars stationed at the northeastern edge of Staten Island facing Manhattan.  Sullivan and his officers developed a plan to land about 2000 soldiers on Staten Island, surround and capture the isolated loyalist militia there, then bring back their prisoners and supplies to New Jersey before the larger camp of British regulars could learn of the raid and react to defend the island.

Gen. William Smallwood
(From Wikimedia)
The Americans would land two separate forces totaling about 1000 men each on different parts of the island.  General William Smallwood would command one force.

Smallwood was an experienced officer who had distinguished himself as a colonel commanding Maryland regiments during the New York campaign.  Smallwood’s Maryland Regiment had distinguished itself and had taken very heavy casualties while fighting a rearguard action at the Battle of Long Island that had allowed many of the other American’s to escape capture.  Smallwood was not with his regiment that day because he had been called to court martial duty.  He did, however, lead his regiment with distinction in subsequent battles during the campaign, being wounded at the Battle of White Plains.

While recovering from his wounds over the winter, Congress promoted him to brigadier general and sent him back to Maryland to recruit more volunteers.  He returned to serve under Sullivan’s command.  Sullivan had him lead a division that would row across the river from Elizabethtown, New Jersey and land near the northern tip of Staten Island.

Sullivan selected General Prudhomme de Borre to lead the other division.  I mentioned in an earlier episode that de Borre was one of the first French officers to reach America with a commission from Silas Deane.  Before Congress got overwhelmed with these commissions, it enthusiastically commissioned de Borre as a brigadier general and back dated his commission so that he would have seniority over more than a dozen other recently promoted Continental brigadier generals.

Up until this time, de Borre had not seen much action in America.  He had joined Washington at Morristown in May and had played a minor role at the Battle of Short Hills.  For the attack on Staten Island, General Sullivan had de Borre  take his division across the Hudson River, landing on the west coast of the island where his army would round up and surround the loyalists, and ship them back to New Jersey.

The Americans rowed across the Hudson River in the pre-dawn hours to avoid detection.  The Continentals assembled and marched inland, the two divisions raiding several Tory militia outposts as planned.  The plan of action was hit and run raids, taking militia prisoners and bringing them back to a ferry which was near a tavern called Old Blazing Star on the west coast of the island.  From there, the Continentals would ship the captives back to New Jersey and hold them as prisoners of war.

Battle of Staten Island (from Wikimedia)
The morning landing and initial attacks went as planned. Colonel Mattias Ogden reported a sharp firefight against a loyalist outpost where he took 80 prisoners.  His force soon retreated to Old Blazing Star Ferry and removed the soldiers and prisoners back to New Jersey.

Generals Sullivan and de Borre took a larger force of Continentals to attack a larger loyalist outpost under the command of Skinner’s Brigade.  These loyalists were named after their commander, Brigadier General Cortlandt Skinner, a New Jersey loyalist now serving as a militia commander for the Tory army on Staten Island.  This outpost was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Barton.  In this case, the loyalists detected the continental attack and fled into the woods and swamps before their attackers could capture them.  The Americans did capture about 40 prisoners, including Colonel Barton.  Some of the soldiers chased retreating loyalists all the way back to General Skinner’s headquarters.  There, a stiff defense from the larger garrison forced them to back off.

At the same time General Smallwood took a separate force led by a local guide.  Their goal was to get behind the loyalist force on the northern coast commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Abraham van Buskirk. He was another north Jersey Tory who led a militia regiment.  His regiment had moved to Staten Island after the British had left New Jersey.  Although Smallwood had hoped to attack this group from the rear, their local guide either through incompetence or more likely Tory leanings, led the Americans right to the front of the loyalist defenses.

Nevertheless, General Smallwood ordered a charge.  The surprised loyalists fled their camp, allowing the Americans to plunder their supplies and capture the enemy standard.

By mid-morning, the raid seemed to be going pretty well for the Americans.  They began moving back toward their designated retreat point at the Old Blazing Star Ferry.  The divisions met up at Richmond, which was a village in the center of the island, and marched together back to the ferry.

That is where things started to break down.  General Sullivan had expected to find the fleet of boats that carried his army to the island there and ready to move them back to New Jersey.  Instead, the boats were not there.  They only had three smaller boats which would require multiple trips and many hours to transport the soldiers across the river.

In the meantime, loyalist militia General Skinner had rallied and organized the militia that had fled in the morning. He began marching a column after the Americans.  Similarly, the regulars on the island received word of the attacks.  British General John Campbell led a column of nearly 1000 regulars and Hessians on a march after the American raiders.

As the Americans attempted to cross their soldiers and prisoners at Old Blazing Star Ferry, the enemy arrived and engaged them.  General Sullivan deployed a rearguard of two companies totaling between 80 and 100 men to hold off the enemy while the Americans did their best to escape across the river.

By about 5 PM, the Americans had managed to evacuate all of their forces, except for the small rearguard that was covering their escape.  Sullivan attempted to extract the rearguard.  However, the boats he deployed refused to come near shore for fear of taking enemy fire.  By this time, the British had brought up artillery and could fire on the boats from the shore.  The frightened pilots tried to return to New Jersey.  The Americans on the New Jersey coast fired on the boats in order to force the pilots to go back to Staten Island and pick up their retreating comrades.  As a result, the pilots simply sat in the middle of the river, trying to avoid fire from either side.

Eventually the men in the rearguard ran out of ammunition. The much larger British and loyalist force overran their position, capturing the about half of the American defenders still on the island.  The rest of the soldiers jumped into the Hudson River and swam across to New Jersey.

Overall the Americans considered the raid a failure.  The British had managed to capture about 150 of the raiders, although the British commander reported to his superiors that he captured 259.  The Americans lost about ten killed and twenty wounded.  General Sullivan reported to Washington that he held about 150 enemy prisoners, although he is vague on whether all of them were captured on this raid.  It appears that many were not.  The British reported only 89 missing after the raid, with another five killed and seven wounded.

General Sullivan later would face a court martial over complaints that the raid was not properly organized, that the goals of the raid did not justify the risk, that the evacuation of the island was bungled, and that exhausted soldiers were marched away without a chance to rest in New Jersey after the battle.  The court martial would acquit Sullivan of all charges and he would continue with his reputation intact.

Battle of Setauket

On the very same day as Sullivan’s raid on Staten Island, August 22, the Continentals conducted a second raid on Long Island.  I have found no evidence that these two were coordinated in any way.  It appears that they were launched on the same date as a coincidence.  The Long Island raid was done under the command of General Israel Putnam, which was a completely separate command from that of General Sullivan.

This attack seems to be a reprise of the Meigs Raid on Sag Harbor when the Continentals raided the eastern tip of Long Island back in May, something I discussed in Episode 139.  Following that raid, which was considered a great victory, General Samuel Parsons began planning additional similar raids on Long Island.  Over the summer, Parsons had been moved to Peekskill to help shore up defenses there and in preparations to deploy forces either north to Fort Ticonderoga or south to support Washington should General Howe attack in New Jersey, and indeed Parsons had participated in defending against several of the British raids into northern New Jersey in late spring and early summer of 1777.
Gen. Samuel Parsons
(from Find-A-Grave)

By mid-July General Burgoyne had captured Fort Ticonderoga and was making his way south.  At the same time, General Howe had put most of his army aboard ship and had sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean for parts unknown.

General Schuyler was screaming for any reinforcements that could be spared to defend against Burgoyne’s invasion.  General Parsons was writing Washington around this time expressing concern that too many reinforcements had been taken from Peekskill, leaving his garrison vulnerable to another raid should General Clinton decide to use some of his army in and around New York City to move a larger force up the Hudson River to support Burgoyne.

For me, all of this makes it perplexing why General Putnam would order Parsons to bring a division down to Fairfield Connecticut and prepare for another raid on Long Island.  The point of putting troops in Peekskill was so that they could support Fort Ticonderoga if needed.  Although Ticonderoga had fallen quickly, the northern army was in desperate need of support.  A force under General Nixon had gone north, but Parsons had remained in Peekskill fearing a raid from General Clinton.  Now he was practically abandoning Peekskill, not to go north and support General Schuyler but to engage in a quick one day raid on Long Island.

Putnam ordered Parsons to assemble a force of about five hundred Continentals in Connecticut, to row across Long Island Sound and attack loyalist garrisons at Setauket and Huntington on Long Island.  Parsons should take out the garrisons, free any American prisoners being held in the area, and capture or destroy any loyalist supplies.
Samuel Webb (from Wikipedia)

General Parsons and his second in command, Samuel Webb, brought their brigade to Fairfield Connecticut within a few days of receiving Putnam’s orders.  They assembled whaleboats and prepared for a nighttime crossing.

Over on Long Island, loyalist Colonel Richard Hewlett received word of a raid.  Hewlett was a Long Island native who had been a staunch loyalist.  He had served as a militia officer in the French and Indian under then Colonel Oliver DeLancey.  By this time, DeLancey was, by this time, a loyalist militia general and Hewlett served as a colonel in his brigade.

Hewlett’s command at Setauket consisted of only about 260 loyalist militia.  Hewlett had been using Setaukett’s Prebyterian Church as his headquarters.  The church, which sat at the top of a hill provided a good defensive position.  Hewlett’s men had built earthen fortifications around the church, by some accounts six feet high and five feet thick.  Some accounts indicate they used gravestones from the churchyard to reinforce the walls.  This, however, seems to have been added to the story later and likely is not true.  Primary sources only note that a few of the stones were damaged during the battle.  Hewlett posted four swivel guns, which are basically small cannons usually used on ships.

The loyalist regiment which had been quartered around the village, learned of the approaching column in time to get inside their earthworks and take up a defensive position.  By one account, Colonel Hewlett had to rush from his quarters to reach the fort just before the Americans arrived.

When General Parsons and his army marched into Setauket after dawn they found the enemy well entrenched and ready for battle.  Under a flag of truce, Parsons sent forward a note to demand their surrender.  The loyalists refused and the two sides began firing on one another. Parsons had brought some small brass field cannon with him, while Hewlett defended with his swivel guns.  The American cannons were not large enough to do much damage to the earthen walls.  The Continentals did not have the equipment or overwhelming manpower to storm the walls and did not have enough time to conduct a siege.

After about three hours, Parsons grew concerned that the sustained cannon fire might draw the attention of British warships.  He withdrew his men and returned to the whaleboats where they crossed back to Connecticut.

Battle of Setauket (from Occupied Long Island)
In the end, the raid accomplished almost nothing.  Parsons did not capture any prisoners.  By some accounts the Americans did not manage to kill or even wound any of the defenders.  The American attackers suffered only one man wounded.  In other accounts, they were maybe up to a half dozen killed or wounded on each side.   The Continentals did take a few houses and some other supplies, but nothing of any significance.

The Continentals monitored the Connecticut coast for a few days to make sure the loyalists did not plan a counterattack.  General Parsons then took up a position in White Plains, New York.  From there, he kept surveillance on the British forces in and around New York City to make sure General Clinton did not try to launch some sort of offensive up the Hudson River.  Parsons reported to General Israel Putnam who had moved his headquarters to Peekskill.  Parsons also reported to the new Governor of New York, George Clinton.

Over on Long Island, Colonel Hewlett received praise from British commander Henry Clinton for Hewlett’s defense of his brigade at Setauket.  Clinton’s adjutant Major Stephen Kemble wrote:
The General desires particularly to express his approbation of the spirited behavior and good conduct of Col. Hewlett, and the officers and men under his command, in the defence of the redoubt at Setauket upon L.I., in which Col. Hewlett was attacked by a large body of the enemy with cannon, whom he repelled with disgrace.
Despite the fears of Continental officers though, General Clinton had no wishes to go on the offensive.  He was still concerned that his army, composed mostly of Hessians and militia, was at risk of attack by the Continentals.  The raids on Long Island and Staten Island did nothing to assuage this fear.

The same day the Continentals conducted the raids on Staten Island and Setauket, General Washington received notification that the British fleet was landing in Maryland.  Washington ordered all available Continentals in New Jersey to march down to the main army near Philadelphia where they would prepare to meet General Howe’s army.

Next week, we head north again as militia General John Stark raises a New England militia army to take on General Burgoyne.

- - -

Next  Episode 154 John Stark Raises and Army

Previous Episode 152 Fort Stanwix and Oriskany

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Further Reading


Battle of Staten Island:

Sullivan’s Descent on Staten Island, American Account:

Braisted, Todd W. How George Washington Saved the Life of Abraham Van Buskirk’s Son:
Journal of the American Revolution, Sept. 16, 2014:

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hewlett: The Loyal-est Loyalist April 17, 2015:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Provincial and State Papers of New Hampshire, Vol. 17 (contains records of Sullivan Court Martial pp. 154-210) (Google Books):

Amory, Thomas Coffin The Military Services and Public Life of Major-General John Sullivan of the American Revolutionary Army, Port Washington, N.Y., Kennikat Press, 1868.

Culver, Francis B. “Sullivan’s Descent Upon the British on Staten Island - The Escape of William WelmontMaryland Historical Magazine, March 1911, Vol 6, No. 1 pp. 138-144 (Google Books):

Hall, Charles S. Life and Letters of Samuel Holden Parsons: Major-general in the Continental Army, Otseningo Pub. Co. 1905.

Hamond, Otis (ed) Letters and Papers of Major-General John Sullivan, Continental Army, Vol. 1, New Hampshire Historical Society, 1930.

Onderdonk, Henry Revolutionary Incidents of Suffolk and Kings Counties, Leavitt & Co. 1849.

Webb, Samuel Blachley Correspondence and Journals of Samuel Blachley Webb, Vol. 1
Wickersham Press, 1893 (Google Books).

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Desmarais, Norman Guide to the American Revolutionary War In New York, Busca, Inc.  2010.

Grasso, Joanne S. The American Revolution on Long Island, History Press, 2016.

Griffin, David M. Lost British Forts of Long Island, History Press, 2017.

McGuire, Thomas J. The Philadelphia Campaign Vol. 1, Stackpole Books, 2006.

Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan, 1952.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


  1. Regarding the Staten Island piece, "The rest of the soldiers jumped into the Hudson River and swam across to New Jersey." They would have swam the Arthur Kill, not the Hudson. The Arthur Kill separates Staten Island from New Jersey. It's also possibly swim-able. The Kill is rather narrow and the currents aren't very strong. The lower Hudson would be more or less impossible to swim across given its width and strong currents.