The American Dunkirk and The Indispensables

World War II history buffs recall the British retreat at Dunkirk.  Backed against the sea, the British miraculously evacuated most of their forces despite being cornered by the unstoppable German war machine. This Allied defeat actually saved the British, French, and Belgian forces to fight another day and ultimately win the war.

But did you know that America has its own Dunkirk?

In the summer of 1776, just weeks after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington and the American Army faced capture and an embarrassingly quick conclusion to their battle for liberty on the western end of Long Island, New York. Though history would consider the Battle of Brooklyn a British victory, the outcome saved the American forces to fight another day. This little-known conflict is America’s version of Dunkirk.

How so?

Just as Dunkirk is the amazing story of an evacuation succeeding far beyond expectations, so too is the night-time escape by Washington from Long Island in 1776.  It does make one wonder if Providence had a hand in its success.

Providence?

Years ago, I learned that my ancestor, John McElhannon, had fought in the American Revolution, and specifically, had survived the Battle of Brooklyn. Ever since, any story or book that highlights this battle is one I read with intensity.  Peter Marshall’s 1977 book, The Light and the Glory, is one such book as it details the miraculous (there’s that word again) details of Washington’s escape.

This all came to mind this week when I finished reading The Indispensables by Patrick K. O’Donnell.  The book’s premise is that Washington may have been the indispensable leader of the American Revolution, but the soldier-mariners from Marblehead, Massachusetts were the indispensable men who served under him.  According to the author, no other group played a more significant role in the American Revolution than the Marbleheaders.  These soldier-mariners served at Lexington, fought at Bunker Hill, formed the elite guard that protected General Washington, helped start the American Navy, and rowed Washington across the Delaware River for the successful surprise attack on Trenton. 

Dr. Nathaniel Bond, a doctor from Marblehead, is credited by some historians as a key to American independence. In 1777, a smallpox epidemic had already infected a fifth of the American army and threatened to incapacitate the remaining troops. Acting on Washington’s orders, Dr. Bond inoculated American troops against smallpox. Washington is credited with taking decisive action to inoculate his troops but, once again, a Marbleheader, Dr. Bond, proved to be indispensable. 

AND then there was the fateful evening of August 29th, 1776.  It was the sea-hardened Marblehead men who, under the cover of darkness and in the midst of a raging storm, rowed 9,000 rebel troops from the Brooklyn shore across the mile-wide East River to the relative safety of Manhattan.  The Marblehead men made at least eleven breath-taking, heart-pounding, undetected trips back and forth across the stormy waters of the East River.

The powerful winds of a nor’easter kept the British ships at bay.  The storm reduced visibility and masked any sounds of the retreating troops. But, despite their best efforts, by sunrise on the 30th, Washington and several hundred troops still remained on Long Island.  Yet a timely dense fog arose and continued, for several hours, to screen the evacuation of the remaining troops. 

Was it a coincidence that these men from Marblehead, who possessed priceless sailing experience, just happened to arrive on Long Island the day before the evacuation?  Was it a coincidence that enough flat-bottomed boats were found to facilitate the retreat? Was it a coincidence that a storm, wind, and fog arose just when Washington needed cover for his covert withdrawal? 

Yet another fascinating “coincidence” was revealed in The Indispensables.  Washington had taken extraordinary measures to maintain secrecy, even ordering all troops not to speak or even cough as they moved to disembark. If the British discovered a retreat in progress, the Americans would have been easy prey, and the American rebellion would have quickly crumbled. 

Washington also feared the presence of Loyalists (those who supported the Crown) who lived behind the American lines. And rightly so.  The story goes that one such Loyalist, a Dutch woman named Catrina Rapaljes sent her servant to warn the British of Washington’s actions.  Her servant, who spoke Dutch and very little English, sneaked across the lines in hopes of contacting British officers.  He first encountered German Hessian troops, mercenaries hired by the British.  The servant couldn’t understand German, the Germans didn’t speak Dutch. By the time the Germans took the servant to a British officer late the next morning, it was too late to intervene.  

Coincidence? 

This book, The Indispensables, is a literary reminder of how history can turn on the minutest of details. It also provides detailed insights into unappreciated aspects of the Revolutionary War.  

If you seek to better understand the War for Independence, the American version of Dunkirk, or how and why the men from Marblehead played such a consequential role, this book is worth the time to read.

And if you have an ancestor who served under Washington…the book is on sale at Barnes and Noble.

Note: Another detailed discussion of the Battle of Brooklyn can be found at:

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

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