The Corner

Concluding The 4th

I just watched the Macy’s 4th of July fireworks display over the East River, from my apartment window. Then I looked up Washington Irving’s description of the climax of the Battle of Long Island–the first battle fought after the Declaration of Independence, only a few miles from where the fireworks were being lit.

Grant, Cornwallis and De Heister are British or Hessian officers. Stirling is an American general, who claimed a SCottish title (hence, Irving calls him “his lordship”). Smallwood was another American commander. Macaronis are dandified officers (as in Yankee Doodle: stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni). As the passage opens, the American line has crumpled, and Stirling is trying to take Smallwood’s Maryland unit, which he is commanding, back to the American lines on Brooklyn heights, where Washington is watching the fighting.

“….His lordship now thought to effect a circuitous retreat to the lines by crossing the creek which empties into Gowanus Cove near what was called the Yellow Mills. There was a bridge and a milldam, and the creek might be forded at low water, but no time was to be lost, for the tide was rising.

“Leaving part of his men to keep face towards General Grant, Stirling advanced with the rest to pass the creek but was suddenly checked by the appearance of Cornwallis and his grenadiers.

“Washington and some of his officers on the hill, who watched every movement, had supposed that Stirling and his troops, finding the case desperate, would surrender in a body without firing. On the contrary his lordship boldly attacked Cornwallis with half of Smallwood’s battalion while the rest of his troops retreated across the creek. Washington wrung his hands in agony at the sight. ‘Good God!’ cried he, ‘what brave fellows I must this day lose!’

“It was indeed a desperate fight, and now Smallwood’s macaronis showed their game spirit. They were repeatedly broken, but as often rallied and renewed the fight…..The enemy rallied and returned to the combat with additional force. Only five companies of Smallwood’s battalion were now in action. There was a warm and close engagement for nearly ten minutes. The struggle became desperate on the part of the Americans. Broken and disordered, they rallied in a piece of woods and made a second attack. They were again overpowered with numbers. Some were surrounded and bayoneted in a field of Indian corn. Others joined their comrades who were retreating across a marsh. Lord Stirling had encouraged and animated his young soldiers by his voice and example, but when all was lost he sought out General De Heister and surrendered himself as his prisoner.

“More than two hundred and fifty brave fellows, most of them of Smallwood’s regiment, perished in this deadly struggle…”

That is, 250 out of a total of 400.

They fought for us. Honor them. Be as brave as they were.


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