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The “Little Boats” That Saved the American Revolution!

It’s July 4, 1776, and the official document of “The Declaration of Independence” is signed in Philadelphia by men such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and many others including Long Islanders William Floyd and Francis Lewis. Though there had already been armed altercations with the British such as the Boston Massacre, Concord, Lexington and Bunker Hill, this signing was the actual beginning of full hostilities. The British had already come prepared with an armada of over 500 warships and over 30,000 battle hardened British and Prussian Hessians against Washington’s army of 20,000, mostly made up by militia. The key to quick victory for British General Howe was to defeat the colonists on Long Island, which was considered “The Bread Basket” of the colonies.

Washington Immediately moved 9,000 0f his army onto Long Island from Manhattan and occupied the high ground of hills that ran through the middle of the Island from westernmost Brooklyn out to Hempstead with his men and artillery. Before the battle started on Aug 26, Howe sent long boats from his fleet to find landing places for a flanking movement through a small gap in the hills from Jamaica Bay. These scouts explored the coast from approximately today’s Howard Beach to the back of Rosedale, where I grew up. I have a copy of the report to Howe from these scouts calling these swamps (now called wetlands) as “Impassible to man, beast, artillery and supply.” Believe me, I knew it. My brother and I played in those swamps every day as kids. Today most of them are sadly gone. Finally, Howe then decided to land further west at Gravesend Bay and attack in force at Guan Heights (Greenwood Cemetery today) But this was a feint. He secretly split his force and marched around to the rear flank of Washington and attacked full force. It was an untenable situation for Washington and total defeat hung in the balance.

This was the largest battle of the entire Revolutionary War, right here in our back yards. Washington was outflanked, out manned, out gunned and trapped. Many of his best solders died during those August days. He took over 20% in losses of men. His troops began to panic. What would he do? He was not a man to surrender, He sent scouts all along both sides of the east river to find every serviceable small craft so he could retreat across to Manhattan in the cover of dark. There were many ferries and barges constantly rowing back and forth across the East River, as no bridges existed. Darkness descended and his troops started large camp fires along the remaining ridges they occupied with only two or three men to a fire. They made as much noise as they could to make the British believe that entire contingents of troops were still in place. Then they muffled the wheels of cannons as they were pulled back to the river replacing those cannons with logs to fool the British. All night many barges, rowed by four men and a “Sweep” rudder man, ferried almost the entire of Washington’s 9,000 men, artillery, ammunition, supplies and horses across in absolute silence. Oars were padded with cloth in their chocks as not make noise, and horse hooves were padded. Soldiers removed their boots and any talking was in slight whispers. They were aided by heavy rain and strong winds. By early morning barges were still crossing back and forth. Washington feared his remaining troops and generals, including himself, would be captured but fate was on his side! The sun was bright but fog laid thick over the water. The British fleet, which moved closer to Manhattan during the night, did not detect them. Eventually, soldiers manning fires left their positions to escape. Other than the men who died in the previous days of the Battle of Long Island, Washington did not lose one man as he retreated in those little ferries and barges plus he rescued every tent and supplies leaving nothing. The next day the British attacked and found nothing. General Howe, his tremendous fleet and army, had been out thought and out manipulated by the use of common small boats!
The next use of small boats by Washington was at the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776. After the Battle of Long Island, Washington held Manhattan for a time and then won the battle of Harlem Heights as he retreated to Westchester where he won the Battle of White Plaines. He then crossed into New Jersey by again using small packets and rowed barges to cross the Hudson. He proceeded through Jersey where he only stopped once at the Stone Pony In Asbury Park to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. He then crossed the Delaware river to Pennsylvania in flat bottomed boats favored in the area called “Durham Boats”. They were very wide , 60 feet long, flat bottomed, had bows front and back and drew little water. They were rowed by as few as three or as many as five with one serving as the “Tiller-Sweep man” with his very large oar at the back. There is another boat in contention called the “Batso” boat. It is 39 ft. long and has a deeper keel. The historical decision is out, so I take the position that when you’re Washington and scrounging for small boats, you’ll use both!
On December 25, Christmas day, Washington decided to cross the Delaware at night to attack the Hessians at Trenton who were fat, drunk, gassy, and lazy, from overindulging Christmas dinner. He used either or both “Durham” or “Batso” boats to cross an almost ice bound Delaware and surprised the garrison in a dawn attack. It was an overwhelming victory. Washington lost two men to exposure and five wounded. The Hessians suffered 22 killed, 83 wounded and 900 captured. This was a small but pivotal victory that stopped the desertion rate in Washington’s army and brought in fresh, enthused recruits.
The use of small boats continued throughout the war. While the British sat on their mighty war ships or dined in fancy pubs in occupied Manhattan, the colonists fought a new type of war, a war of mobility learned from Native Americans. The staid rules of the British military no longer applied. On the night of May 23, 1777, a group of 234 patriots crossed the Long Island Sound in whaling boats attacking 120 redcoats asleep in their quarters in Sag Harbor. The British soldiers surrended with their stock of munitions on the Sag Harbor wharf. They were marched away in pajamas and underwear!
There were so many actions and skirmishes using whaleboats around Long Island that they laughingly called it “The Whale Boat War”! Caleb Brewster of Setauket was called “The Terror of the Tories” and was one of the most noted patriots from Setauket who retreated to Connecticut and used his whaleboat militia to cross the Sound and saving harassed patriots such as Declaration of Independence signer William Floyd. Brewster became a member of the now famed “Culper Spy Ring” taking messages across the Sound from spymaster Benjamin Talmadge (You can visit his home in Oyster Bay.) With his whaleboat militia, he attacked the British at Fort Franklin at Lloyd Harbor. On another venture he crossed the Sound in his whaleboats at night, marched across the width of Long Island and subdued the British at Fort St. George in Mastic destroying most of the British cavalries supply of horse fodder. Brewster’s whaleboat militia attacks, rescues, and spying continued to harass the enemy until victory at the end of the war. To put Brewster and his militia’s accomplishments in perspective, a whale boat measures only between 27 to 31 feet long, 6 feet wide, 3 feet deep and propelled by oars rowed by four oarsmen and one at the tiller. It carried a small sail that could be rigged up quickly. They were fast, steady and stealthy when used by the colonists.
Without these small boats the Revolutionary War would never have been won. The British Navy couldn’t find or catch them, proving that bigger is not better. They could go where the great ships of the line could not. Think of that when our country spends another 50 billion on a giant aircraft carrier which is a duck sitting in the water.

Mark C. Nuccio is a writer, artist, and historian, focused on the oceans, environment, traditions of our nautical heritage. He can be reached at “