How A Miracle Saved the American Revolution…and My​ Family Name

This last week of August 2019, is the two hundred and forty-third anniversary of one of the most pivotal moments in American history.  At the time, soldiers on both sides of the conflict called the events of the week a miracle.  Historians ever since have also considered its outcome providential, or at the very least, an unusual confluence of a number of coincidences.  The event of which I discuss occurred on the western tip of Long Island, New York, and is referred to as the Battle of Brooklyn.  Pardon me if TheBuddyBlog.com strays from its usual reflection agenda, but I wanted to document for the record a little American and family history, a history that you may find remarkable.

I am the Great, Great, Great, Great Grandson of an American Revolutionary War soldier.  His name was John McElhannon, the man from whom all American McElhannons are descended.  The following is a true story of how a miracle, just weeks after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, kept the dream of the American Revolution alive and, as a matter of course, saved my family namesake.   

In 1768, at the age of sixteen, John emigrated from Ireland and settled in Pennsylvania. Following his war service, he moved his family south, first to North Carolina for a year before receiving a land grant in Northeast Georgia. He had 13 children in all. He died in 1834 and is buried in Jackson County, Georgia.  Over a hundred years later, family genealogists discovered his will, along with his application for a Revolutionary War Pension. Congress had passed the Revolutionary War Act on June 7, 1832, granting any still-living soldier a pension of $50 a year. John’s handwritten pension application included two affidavits from two other men testifying to the truth of his war service.

In his application, he outlined his military service, which included the following statement,

“…volunteered services in York County Pennsylvania under the command of Captain Peoples and served for term of three years……was attached to Colonel Chamber’s Regiment of the Cumberland County Pennsylvania and marched from there to New York under the command of General Anthony Wayne and from there to Long Island and was in the Battle of Brooklyn on the 27th of August, 1776 in which battle Captain Peoples lost his life and the whole of his Company was killed or taken prisoner with the exception of seven men among whom was your petitioner and after the retreat of the American army from Long Island was attached to captain Armstrong’s Company under the command of Colonel Stewart……”

When I first read those words, I was fascinated.  But being a Revolutionary War buff, I was only vaguely familiar with the Battle of Brooklyn, recalling what I thought was just a minor skirmish on Long Island between American and British forces.

That perspective changed in 1992.  While listening to a radio broadcast on my way home from work, I learned something that humbled, yet excited me beyond measure.

The radio program, Focus on The Family, with host Dr. James Dobson, had a guest by the name of Peter Marshall. He talked about a book he had co-authored entitled, The Light and The Glory. (1) In this book, Mr. Marshall shares story after story of how God intervened in the formation of the United States.  This was all very interesting until he mentioned the Battle of Brooklyn.

Then it got personal!

My throat tightened, my eyes widened, and my hands tightened their grip on the steering wheel, as I navigated through Atlanta’s rush hour traffic! What Marshall described was so unbelievable that if true, could mean only one thing. The success of the American Revolution and the future of the McElhannon family line were saved those miraculous days of August 27-30, 1776 when a fog, a wind, a storm, and too many coincidences to number saved the American Army, and John McElhannon, from almost certain defeat and death.

I rushed out, bought Mr. Marshall’s book, and with eager curiosity, searched the pages for the author’s detailed description of the Battle of Brooklyn.  The British considered control of New York City crucial to squashing the rebellious Americans. By controlling New York and the Hudson River, the British could sever the hotheaded New England states from the other colonies.  A single obstacle stood in their way. The Americans held the town of Brooklyn on the western end of Long Island. Washington had committed what many historians consider his worst tactical mistake of the War.  He split his forces, leaving 12,000 troops on Manhattan Island on the Northside of the East River while he took 8,000 troops across the East River to Long Island. 

Map provided by: http;//media.worldbookonline.com/image/upload/f_jpg,w_630,c_limit/content/lr012092.jpg

In late August 1776, the British saw an opportunity to swiftly end this ridiculous revolution by trapping Washington on Long Island.   While the British Army landed 20,000 British and Hessian troops on the Southeast shore of Long Island, the British fleet sailed up the East River to cut off an American retreat.  The odds favored the British who outnumbered the Americans almost 3 to 1.

The stage was set for a crushing American defeat.

Early on the 27th of August, the Battle of Brooklyn began. The British attacked and succeeded in killing or capturing several hundred Americans. Overwhelmed, the Americans retreated to their final perimeter and waited. All day they waited for the next British assault. Low on gunpowder, they could only contemplate their noble, but soon to be short-lived days of glory. The Declaration of Independence had been signed just 54 days earlier and, now,  40 percent of their army was about to be annihilated, along with General Washington.

General Howe of the British Army had brilliantly executed the surprise attack that forced the Americans back. Now, against all military logic, he failed to follow up his military advantage and finish off the Americans. No doubt, the lessons learned from Bunker Hill a few months earlier were still fresh in his mind.   As the author noted, “Howe’s unaccountable delay was only the opening curtain on what would be one of the most amazing episodes of divine intervention in the Revolutionary War.

Under overcast and threatening skies, the morning of August 29th found the Americans still waiting for the British barrage to start. But it inexplicably never began. 

And then it started raining, a cold battering rain that continued into the evening.  While it soaked the poorly clothed American Army, it came on a strong northeast wind. This same wind prevented Howe’s fleet from advancing into the East River.

By now, General Washington had begun to realize the futility of staying and fighting. Deciding to evacuate his forces across the East River, his generals quickly pointed out all the risks. It was a mile across the river.  The British fleet could easily blast apart a small flotilla of boats. And the British land troops would surely attack at the first sign of a retreat. Nevertheless, convinced his plan could work, Washington gave orders for the retreat to begin.

The success of Washington’s gamble depended on a number of variables.   He needed boats and men skilled enough to navigate the treacherous two-mile round trip through choppy waters in the dead of night in the midst of a storm. By “coincidence” the last men to join the forces on Long Island were a Company of Marbleheaders, all expert oarsmen. They, along with the skilled boatmen of the 27th Massachusetts, rowed the treacherous waters all night long.  Their skills proved necessary to deal with the initially windy, choppy river conditions. Then, after midnight, when the wind died down and the waters calmed, they had to glide noiselessly across the river to remain undiscovered. Onshore the Americans had to keep men visible on the front lines so the British would not suspect a retreat was in progress. The night sky had cleared and the early morning moonlight made the American sentries clearly visible to the British troops. A near-tragic mistake occurred when two Pennsylvania Companies were told to withdraw to the boats. These were the last troops on the front line. Washington himself discovered the error and quickly got the men back in position. The British had somehow failed to recognize the absence of American defenders for the hour they were away.

Dawn approached with three hours still needed to evacuate the remaining troops. August 30th would be a clear day.  What happened next is best described by the American Major Ben Talmadge who wrote in his diary,

“ As the dawn of the next day approached, those of us who remained in the trenches, became very anxious for our own safety, and when the dawn appeared, there were several regiments still on duty. At this time a very dense fog, began to rise (out of the ground and off the river), and it seemed to settle in a peculiar manner over both encampments. I recollect this peculiar providential occurrence perfectly well, and so very dense was the atmosphere that I could scarcely discern a man at six yards distance…. we tarried until the sun had risen, but the fog remained as dense as ever.”

The fog remained intact until late morning when the last boat, with Washington in it, departed. When the fog finally lifted, the shocked British ran to the shore and started firing, but the Americans were now out of range. With some 1,500 casualties from the earlier fighting, the Battle of Brooklyn was a severe American defeat. Yet thanks to a storm, a wind, a fog, and many “coincidences,” nearly 8,000 American troops were evacuated without a single loss. The Continental Army remained alive, as did John McElhannon.

What had been a little known battle in America’s fight for independence had suddenly become a pivotal moment in the McElhannon family lineage.

Since John McElhannon made reference in his pension application that he “...was in the Battle of Brooklyn on the 27th of August, 1776 in which battle Captain Peoples lost his life and the whole of his Company was killed or taken prisoner with the exception of seven men among whom was your petitioner...,” I was curious to see if I could identify when his close call with death or capture occurred. Further research confirmed the events of August 27-28, 1776. In The Compact History of the Revolutionary War by R. Ernest Dupuy, the Battle on Long Island is described in much more detail. On the morning of the 27th, British General Howe initiated his first attack. One key element of his strategy was to outflank the Americans. He had General Clinton move unseen around the Eastern flank of the Americans around dawn on the 27th. About the same time, Colonel Miles of the American Army had grown concerned about the vulnerability of the American’s eastern flank. He led his regiment of 500 Pennsylvanians through the wooded heights parallel to the Bedford Road. The British, advancing westward on Bedford Road, were completely unaware of the Americans advancing eastward through the woods, just a few hundred yards away. They soon surprised each other. After a brief exchange of musketry, almost all of the Pennsylvanians were killed or captured. A few of the Pennsylvanians escaped through the wooded hills to the main Brooklyn fortification to alert the American army of approaching troops on the eastern flank.

This skirmish matches almost perfectly with John McElhannon’s testimony. Remember, earlier he was quoted as saying,

“…Captain Peoples lost his life and the whole of his Company was killed or taken prisoner with the exception of seven men among whom was your petitioner…”

It is quite possible that John was one of the few Pennsylvanians to escape this encounter. The American Army lost some 1,500 men in the entire Brooklyn campaign, five hundred of them during the encounter on Bedford Road. No other encounter during this battle remotely matches John’s description. This was more than likely the specific battle John refers to in his pension application.

John McElhannon’s narrow escape made it possible for the McElhannon name and lineage to continue in America.

Yorktown, Valley Forge, and Bunker Hill are names seared into the memory of any American with even a rudimentary understanding of the events of the American Revolution.  But for me, none is as significant as the little known Battle of Brooklyn.  I am an American and a McElhannon thanks to a timely storm, a northeast wind, and an unusually long-lasting morning fog. 

Coincidence or a miracle? General Washington called it Providence. 

I dare not disagree.

 

(1) The Light and The Glory, by Peter Marshall and David Manuel, 1977

2 thoughts on “How A Miracle Saved the American Revolution…and My​ Family Name

  1. I have been doing a lot of family genealogy. I love stories like this that intertwine family with historical events. Thank you for sharing!

    Like

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