This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.

Washington’s Retreat at Long Island. Engraved by J.C. Armytage after an illustraton by Michael Wageman. Virtue & Co., 1860. 72026d.

The drama of bravery, defeat, and successful retreat in 1776 will be on display as “The Battle of Brooklyn” exhibition opens at The New-York Historical Society this week.  This first major battle of the American Revolution remained seared in George Washington’s memory.  An example of that can be seen in a letter, written from Mount Vernon eight years after the event, where Washington recalls the urgency that accompanied the silent retreat across the East River that saved the American army.

George Washington, engraving after a portrait by John Trumbull, PR 052, Box 148.

Washington was prompted to write this letter by Hugh Hughes who had acted as deputy quartermaster to the Continental Army.  It was Hughes who, on short notice, requisitioned enough small craft in northern Manhattan to ferry the rain-soaked and defeated army from Brooklyn to Manhattan in the silence of night.  Hughes feared, all these years later, that he would be held financially liable for the boats that fell into enemy hands or otherwise could not be accounted for.  Hughes wanted a testimonial that he was indeed following orders from the Commander in Chief, orders that, because of the urgency and secrecy of the operation, were spoken, rather than written.

Washington complied, repeating Hughes’s recollection that the quartermaster was tasked with “impressing all the Sloops, Boats and Water Craft, from Spyghten Duyvel in the Hudson, to Helgate on the Sound.” The General admits that he doesn’t remember the “particulars of the verbal order” but has no doubts of its importance, and of the great efforts to procure the boats to accomplish this retreat “under cover of the succeeding night; and that no delay, or ceremony could be admitted in the execution of the plan.”

George Washington to Hugh Hughes, Mount Vernon, August 22, 1784, MS 679, George Washington Papers.

“I recollect very well that it was a day which required the greatest exertion, particularly in the Quarter Masters department” Washington testifies.  But, which “day?” we might ask.  Washington — echoing Hughes before him — says it was the 27th of August 1776, the day of the decisive battle.  Historians, however, record that the masterful retreat across the East River came on the night of August 29-30, and the scant written evidence suggests that Washington came to this decision with his war council on the day of the 29th.  Did the men incorrectly recall the date eight years later, conflating it with the historic battle itself?  Or, less likely, had Washington planned on the contingency of retreat days earlier?  This Washington letter allows us a moment to ponder the question.

Hugh Hughes, son of a Welsh immigrant from Pennsylvania, came early to the patriot cause as an activist in the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765.  As a New Yorker, he was a resolute participant in the Sons of Liberty — if his name is not as prominent as the street activists Alexander McDougall, John Lamb, Isaac Sears, or Marinus Willett, it is only because he maintained a behind-the-scenes role, acting as an informant and correspondent with Samuel Adams in Boston.  Some have suggested that his low profile was occasioned by his financial difficulties and fear of imprisonment for debt.  With the start of the war, Hughes’s patriotic response was to accept commissary duty, first for New York state and then as a colonel in the Continental Army.

Hughes letterbooks in the New-York Historical Society consist of copies of his various requisitions from 1776 to 1782 and testify to the complexity his work.  Nothing written dates from the Battle of Brooklyn, but we can see here a copy of his August 1776 pass for one Alexander Hamilton, to seek out  “linens” for the troops in New York City, a search that could have sent him as far afield as Pennsylvania.  Is this the young captain of the artillery we have come to know so well?  Actually, Alexander Hamilton’s day-to-day whereabouts at this time are not fully documented by historians and biographers, but we are aware that he was determined to have his artillery company smartly outfitted.

Hugh Hughes Letterbook no. 2, 1776, BV Hughes.

Hugh Hughes’s role in providing supplies for the Continental Army only aggravated his fiscal woes, as he struggled for the rest of his life to be adequately reimbursed for debts accumulated in his frustrating work performed amidst shortages and inflated currency.  Like many veterans, he failed in this effort to be compensated, but what George Washington termed his “zeal, activity & intelligence” certainly contributed to saving the Revolutionary cause in 1776.

Source:  Bernard Friedman, “Hugh Hughes, A Study in Revolutionary Idealism,” New York History 64 (July 1983), 228-259.

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