The British Lion Roars
There was worse, much worse, to come.
Beginning in the summer of 1776, British forces wrested the initiative from the Americans. British general Guy Carleton, the very able governor of Quebec, was ordered to chase the Americans out of Canada and down through the region of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. This action would sever the far northern tier of colonies from the southern. Simultaneously, a much larger army led by General William Howe (who had replaced Gage as supreme commander of Britain’s North American forces) was assigned to capture New York City and its strategically vital harbor.
Carleton succeeded handily in driving the remaining Americans out of Canada, but, plagued by supply problems and the approach of winter, was unable to pursue them back below the border. This setback, however, did not stop Howe, who hurled against New York City the largest single force the British would ever field in the Revolution: 32,000 troops, 400 transports, 73 warships (commanded by his vice-admiral brother, Richard Howe, with whom he shared the American supreme command), It was all too apparent to General Washington that, militarily, the situation in New York was hopeless. In the course of the war, the American commander would prove highly skilled at the art of the strategic withdrawal, pulling back in a manner that cost the attacker and yet left his own forces intact to fight another day. This is precisely what he wanted to do in the case of New York, but Congress, fearing that the loss of a major city would dispirit Patriots throughout the colonies, ordered him to defend the position. Washington met with defeat on Long Island on August 27, 1776.
If Washington and the Continental Congress had weighed the odds more soberly, perhaps they would have raised the white flag. But Washington did not surrender. Instead, he fought a series of brilliant rearguard actions against Howe on Manhattan Island, which cost the British time, money, and energy. It took Howe from August to November to clear Washington’s forces from New York City and its environs. Then, instead of moving inland via the Hudson, Howe simply pushed Washington across New Jersey. If he had hoped to corner and fight the Continental Army to a standstill, Howe was mistaken. The Americans escaped across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania on December 7, 1776.