The Navy and New York City
To those who don’t know its history well, New York City may not appear to be a Navy town. However, the connection between the U.S. Navy and New York goes back to the dawn of the country. In fact, New York Harbor was a site of major military action during the American Revolution, and the relationship has continued to the present.
The first naval engagement in New York was not a battle between warships but rather a joint operation where sailors transported soldiers. George Washington knew that, after being forced to evacuate Boston in March 1776, the British would probably attack New York next, because New York City was America’s most important port, and if the British could capture the Hudson River, it would split the colonies in two.
As Washington anticipated, on June 28, 1776, Gen. William Howe landed an army on Staten Island, and during July, the Royal Navy under Howe’s brother, Adm. Lord Richard Howe, brought more troops and more ships. An eyewitness wrote: “The whole bay was full of shipping as it could be. I thought all London afloat.”
Because then-New York City and the immediately surrounding area was ringed by water, the British could strike where they wished. Washington’s 20,000 men were positioned along a line running from Flatbush in Brooklyn, across the East River, to the southern tip of Manhattan and then up to Washington Heights in northern Manhattan. Washington’s artillery at the tip of Manhattan made an attack on the American center a poor option, and also precluded the British sailing up the Hudson and attacking Washington’s right flank. However, if the British could take Brooklyn Heights – the highest point in the area – Washington’s position would be untenable.
Realizing the importance of the Heights, Washington deployed the majority of his army to Brooklyn. But on Aug. 22, using nearly 90 frigates, the British moved 20,000 men from Staten Island to Brooklyn. Over the next few days, the British inflicted heavy casualties, and the Americans retreated to their fortifications on Brooklyn Heights.
Because of the casualties they had sustained attacking fortified positions during the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British decided not to assault Brooklyn Heights immediately. After all, Washington had his back to the East River and the Royal Navy controlled the waters. To the British, Washington’s position was unsustainable.
While Washington did not have any ships to challenge the Royal Navy, he did have sailors. A regiment of seamen from Marblehead, Mass., had come down to fight in New York. Washington directed the Marbleheaders to secure some small boats and ferry the Continental Army across the East River during the night of Aug. 29-30. Everything had to be done in complete silence to avoid alerting the encircling British Army or the Royal Navy. Accordingly, the sailors tied their shirts around the oars to muffle the sound. In the morning, a thick fog covered the final stages of the evacuation. Washington was in the last boat across.
The significance of what these sailors did cannot be overstated. If the Continental Army had been forced to surrender in Brooklyn, the rebellion would have been only a footnote in British history textbooks.
Within a few days of the evacuation the Americans struck back against the British fleet in New York Harbor with the first attack by an American submarine on an enemy warship.
During the Boston campaign, Washington was approached by a young Yale graduate named David Bushnell, who had the preposterous idea of attacking the British fleet from underwater. “Although I wanted faith myself,” Washington wrote, “I furnished him with money and other aids to carry it into execution.”
Bushnell called his craft “The Turtle” because it looked like two turtle shells glued together. Since she was only 7 feet high and 4 feet in diameter, there was only room for one man inside. By moving handles inside the craft, the driver operated two screw-like oars. One moved Turtle forward and backward, while the other helped the craft to ascend and descend. Diving and surfacing were also facilitated by foot-operated valves that allowed water to be pumped in and out of tanks in the hull. Normally, Turtle traveled along with a snorkel extending 6 inches above the surface, but she also had the ability to dive deeper for short periods.