Like all history, the history of Imperial America has been written hundreds of times by hundreds of scholars, in the past 200 years, and I do not dare to say that I am better. I have sought here to do two things: one is to make the history “come alive”, by putting in fictional dialogues, based on what we know about the historical characters, as well as setting fictional stories to illustrate broader social and economic changes which we know to have taken place. Second, I have sought to work through developments in Imperial America as they impacted the history of the British Empire as a whole and of the broader world.
Everyone assumes that the British Empire impacted Imperial America (and every other region) in a top-down fashion, overly-concerned with its political structure (and even misrepresenting that, as it was never a unitarian structure like that of the Roman Empire). Yet we know that the reality was that the British Empire was an integrated system, in which each part affected every other part. Imperial America profoundly affected and changed Britain, as it ultimately affected and changed the rest of the Empire, Europe and Asia as well: this is the story of how.
Professor Sir William George Washington- Howe, BA (Hon) (Hist) (William and Mary) MA, PhD (Oxon)
Faculty of History
King’s College, New York City, New York
27 August 1776. 4.00 pm. Cobble Hill. Brooklyn Heights. Province of New York.
George Washington stretches his spyglass as far as it will go, to get the clearest possible view of damnation. As he looks down the hills in front of him, on one side, thousands of Hessians, the King’s German mercenaries, paid partially in gold, but mostly in the joy of ripping their designated enemy’s guts out with bayonets at close range, wait for him. On the other side, thousands of the King’s regular Army, mostly poor boys from London scooped up off the street and put on ships for training and drill, with no more ideology or commitment to the King’s policy of governing the colonies directly than "shoot before shot", wait for him. Behind him, hundreds of the battleships of the King’s Armada fill up the East River, coming up from their base at Gravesend Bay.
"Gravesend", Washington thinks, "Most inopportunely named! If I cannot find an escape route from here, it will describe their occupation and our destination".
George thinks about this horrible day, the worst in his 45 years. He arrived at about 9 am in the morning, to perch here on Cobble Hill, on the Brooklyn Heights, to look down on the battle of Long Island, stretching that spyglass. At the time when he arrived, he heard two cannon shots: those were fired by the artillery brigade of his nemesis, the King’s Commander-in-Chief, Gen William Howe. They were signals for the Hessians to smash into the rebels at Battle Pass, while the King’s regulars sandwiched them from the rear.
George watched the mess, as his forces emptied their muskets at the overwhelming number of King’s soldiers, ending up swinging their guns at them like cricket bats to try to escape. The rebel commander, John Sullivan, surrendered. The Hessians bayoneted their prisoners and the remaining rebels ran for their lives up the Brooklyn Heights.
At 11 am, the King’s Army executed another sandwiching maneuver against Bill Alexander, the fake "Earl of Stirling", and his 1,600 men. This led to the King’s Army chasing the Continentals up the Gowanus Road and across the 80-yard Brouwer millpond, then up the Brooklyn Heights.
The "Earl of Stirling”’s title may have been questionable, as the House of Lords had rejected it for lack of proof, but that day he got a new title, from the press in New York and London, which even his enemies did not question: "the bravest man in America". He tried to cover his troops’ retreat by leading a counterattack personally, against the King’s 2,000 soldiers, with less than 300 men. Yet, before the end of the day, the bravest man in America had surrendered to Hessian Gen de Heister.
George Washington still feels devastated. He says aloud, to no one listening, “We lose and indeed, we lose our best, our heroes”.
Now, the King’s forces are clearly positioning themselves to charge up the hills. George Washington, not to mention his troops, has nowhere to go. Hell in front of him, high water and the best Navy in the world behind him: both against him. Washington tells his men to dig trenches, aim well and conserve their ammunition.
Washington is pretending that this is Bunker Hill over again. Last summer, fourteen months ago, at Bunker Hill, he stopped a Royalist advance by shooting downward. He even still has Israel Putnam with him, to tell his men again "Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes".
Yet, this is not Bunker Hill and, hiding inside that confident Commander exterior, Washington knows it. It is not enough to be on a hill shooting down. It matters where the hill is, what is behind you and who is on the land and who is on the sea.
At Boston, the King’s troops were surrounded on land by Washington’s forces on three sides. Yet, at their back was the King’s Navy. Gen Howe was trying to break out of Washington’s siege of Boston and put down the revolution in rural Massachusetts. The King’s Army actually won the battle: they took the Charlestown Peninsula, the rebels ran out of ammunition and Washington and his men ran away to Cambridge (in Massachusetts).
Over the next ten months, the King’s Army were unable to break out of the siege and eventually they just sailed away: first, to Halifax and then here, to Long Island. Yet the King’s losses were horrendous, Washington and his men survived and got away and he was portrayed as a hero. Not being destroyed by the world’s greatest Army was perceived as a kind of victory.
Yet now, Washington realises that he made a tactical mistake in taking on the world’s best Army and Navy, together, on an island, when he has no Navy and no escape route. This time he has water on two sides and the enemy on the other two. He can shoot down, he can kill many of the King’s boys, but eventually some will get up here. If he runs behind him, down the hill, he will run smack into the East River. It would take some mad stupidity on Gen Howe’s part, like not attacking and letting Washington’s troops go, for them to survive.
George Washington does not know of, and cannot conceive of, the shouting match going on in the headquarters of the King’s commander-in-chief, a hastily constructed hut at the foot of the Heights, as he looks down the hill. The King’s Army do not know what to do next.
Gen William Howe should be on top of the world. He has had victory after victory this day. His enemy sits like a cockroach at his feet, ready for him to step down hard. Yet the King’s Commander-in-Chief is nervous: Gen de Heister says “Skittish, like a girl”. He walks back and forth, staring at the ground, sometimes even briefly putting his thumb between his teeth. He is clearly in emotional turmoil. Washington looks like Howe should look and Howe looks like Washington should look.
You can never understand how Gen William Howe feels unless you can get inside his head for a moment. You see, George Washington is stupidly (well, he knows it is stupid, so maybe that is not fair) pretending that he is back on Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775: but so is Gen William Howe. He can still smell every smell, hear every sound of that day. The Hellish smell of sulfur in the air from all the black powder guns and cannons firing, the screams of young British boys – from England and America – dying or moaning on the ground wounded, the pounding of the cannon giving him a headache. They are all suffering and dying BECAUSE OF HIM! BECAUSE HE ORDERED THAT ATTACK! Not only nameless impressed Privates from the pubs of the East End of London, but 19 OF HIS FELLOW OFFICERS, HIS CLOSE FRIENDS! He can still see them rolling on the ground, holding their pierced body parts – head, or hand or stomach - and hear them screaming and dying slowly. It is all there, now, in his head. And he has a chance now to re-enact that by ordering his troops to start playing their drums, fifes and bagpipes, and march up the hill against the dug-in rebels at the top. And he cannot ….
Bunker Hill was a tactical victory: for Gen Howe, for King George III, for civilisation, for order, for law, for the supremacy of Parliament. And Gen Howe would rather burn in Hell for eternity than to do it ever again.
"We cannot! We dare not!", Gen Howe shouts, "I lost 1,000 men at Bunker Hill that way, marching into the rebels’ sights. Have we learned nothing?", he says, pounding a table with his fist.
"This is absurd!", Gen de Heister, commander of the Hessian mercenaries, dares to shout back at his Commander-in-Chief, "The enemy is there, they have nowhere to go and you do not want to attack them? Mein herr, are you a soldier or not? You do not know what to do?".
"Sir, meaning no disrespect, sir, I find it most difficult to understand why we are here, what we are meant to do, sir, if not but to attack the enemy when he is within our grasp”, Gen Henry Clinton says, "With all due respect, sir, it appears that the whole Continental Army are up there, with their commanders and all. We won’t get another chance like this.". All the Generals are saying the same thing to the Commander-in-Chief, who can barely get a word in.
Finally, Gen Howe shouts "Put them under siege!". Even his closest supporter, Gen Cornwallis, who understands the angst that his friend is suffering, cannot stifle a little giggle.
"Does that mean that they are in their capital now?", Gen Erskine jokes, as, in the 18th century, you normally would siege your enemy’s capital.
“It is true, sir”, Gen Cornwallis says, “We could do so successfully. But is the slow death of hunger, going on for months, not more cruel? And will the whole of the American Provinces not grow to hate us more for that? And will they not eventually raise a larger Army to raise the siege, prolonging the war for years, when we can end this war today?” The other Generals shake their heads “Yes”, make affirmative grunts and say “Hear, Hear!”.
“If you do that”, Gen de Heister shouts, “The world will say that the British Army cannot subdue a gang of criminals with only muskets and a few stolen cannon unless they take months. I will take my soldiers back to Hesse-Cassel. I will not be made a fool of in such a way! And I will stop in London to tell his Majesty the King about your command genius! ”
“Very well, then”, Gen Howe says, looking down, dejected but realising that he has no choice, “But we shall not squander our men. The artillery will go first, even at the cost of pushing the heavy cannon uphill, to eliminate as many of the enemy as possible before the King’s soldiers advance. The Hessians will go next, since they are so bloody keen. Then the King’s regulars, marching in formation, will proceed to accept the surrender of any remaining rebels, if possible, returning fire only if fired upon. Prisoners will be disarmed and escorted here, not murdered, do you understand, Gen de Heister? “Ja wohl, mein General”, de Heister says, clicking his heels.
At about 5 pm, the rebels face the bloodcurdling sight of a wall of cannons being pushed up the hills, their mouths wide open. The cannons fall down the hill and spill over after firing, often running down the bare-backed soldiers who had pushed them up: but their ammunition does devastating work in the trenches, killing as many as half the Continental defenders. Then come the Hessians, fearless, bloodthirsty, running up the hills into the rebel gunfire, and, if they survive, jumping into the trenches to cut down the sources of the gunfire with their bayonets. By the time the King’s regulars arrive, playing their music, the remaining rebels throw their guns down and put their hands up. The King’s soldiers cut down the rebels’ "Don’t Tread On Me" snake flag, replacing it with the Union Jack of his majesty King George III.
By 7 pm, even before the flag changing, revolutionaries had been abandoning their trenches and running down the back side of the Brooklyn Heights to the East River bank, including George Washington and his commanders. They look out across the river now and see nothing in the darkness. Even the fishermen have gone home.
Israel Putnam thinks it best to make a last stand with whatever they have and to die for the dream of independence. George Washington, is silent for a long time, listening, regarding the darkness. Then he speaks. “Of what profit our deaths, but to the King and to his rogues in Parliament?” George Washington says, “No, my friend Israel, this Continental Army will surrender as an Army, not be shot down like yelping dogs in the night".
Gen Howe, knowing the Hessians too well, orders them to stay on the Heights and secure the fortifications there. One of the first things they secure is the cannon, which the rebels had stolen from Fort Ticonderoga in May 1775, the only artillery of the “Continental Army”, which had just done the greatest damage in raking the Hessians as they had run up the hill.
Gen Howe asks all his commanders where George Washington is and hears nothing. “I know”, Gen Howe says. Gen Howe gets his regulars together and marches down the Heights to the riverside, with full drum, bagpipes and fife play, waving the King’s Ensign.
At about 8 pm, by fire-torch light, the King’s Army approaches Washington’s camp. “Stay your arms!” George Washington shouts. Gen Howe leads his troops right up to Washington and his commanders and waives his arm to stop the music.
“General William Howe, Member of Parliament for Nottingham, Commander-in-Chief of His Most Gracious Majesty King George The Third’s Army in America and Peace Commissioner on behalf of King and Parliament, at your service, sir”, he says. George Washington shouts to his men: "Lay down arms!".
When they do so, Washington draws his sword and hands it with both hands to Gen William Howe. Gen Howe smiles, says "You, sir, are a gallant gentleman" and shouts "Take the prisoners - gently".
The revolution is over.
 In history, that is precisely what happened. However, I consider this result more probable and what happened in history almost inexplicable, as do many historians. See e.g. Fischer, WASHINGTON’S CROSSING (2006).The text here gives an explanation, consistent with Fischer’s and Trevelyan’s, AMERICAN REVOLUTION PART I (1898) , portrayal of Howe, and with Gen Howe’s own explanation to Parliament in 1779.