Up to August 22, the British army made no move from its camps at Staten Island. On their part, the Americans could only watch and wait. On this day, however, active operations began with the landing of Howe's troops, in great force, on the Long Island shore, opposite.
This force immediately spread itself out through the neighboring villages from Gravesend, to Flatbush and Flatlands, driving the American skirmishers before them into a range of wooded hills, which formed their outer line of defense. Howe had determined to attack in front, clearing the way as he went.
As the enemy would have to force his way across these hills, before he could reach the American entrenched lines around Brooklyn, all the roads leading over them were strongly guarded, except out at the extreme left, beyond Bedford village, where only a patrol was posted. This fatal oversight, of which Howe was well informed, suggested the British plan of attack, which was quickly matured and successfully carried out. It included a demonstration on the American left, to draw attention to that point, while another corps was turning the right, at its unguarded point.
A third column was held in readiness to move upon the American center from Flatbush, just as soon as the other attacks were well in progress. When the flanking corps was in position, these demonstrations were to be turned into real attacks, which, if successful, would throw the Americans back upon the flanking column, which, in its turn, would cut off their retreat to their entrenchments.
This clever combination, showing a perfect knowledge of the ground, worked exactly as planned.
By making a night march, the turning column got quite around the American flank and rear unperceived, and on the morning of the 27th was in position, near Bedford, at an early hour, waiting for the signal-guns to announce the beginning of the battle at the British left.
Both columns then advanced to the attack. Being strongly posted, and well commanded, the Americans made an obstinate resistance and did hold the enemy in check for some hours at one end of the line, only to find themselves cut off by the hurried retreat of all the troops posted at the passes on their left; for as soon as the firing there showed that the turning column had come up in their rear, these troops, with great difficulty, fought their way back to the Brooklyn lines, leaving three generals and upwards of 1,000 men in the enemy's hands.
The resistance met with by the enemy's turning corps may be guessed from what an officer who took part has to say of it. "We have had," he goes on to relate, "what some call a battle, but if it deserves that name it was the pleasantest I ever heard of, as we had not received more than a dozen shots from the enemy when they ran away with the utmost precipitation."
Though not in personal command when the action began, Washington crossed over to Brooklyn in time to see his broken and dispirited battalions come streaming back into their works. Fearing the worst, he had called down two of his best regiments (Shee's and Magaw's) from Harlem Heights, and Glover's from the city, to reënforce the troops then engaged on Long Island, but as has already been pointed out, reënforcing in this manner was out of the question. By making a rapid march, the Harlem troops reached the ferry in the afternoon, after firing had ceased. They were, however, ferried across the next morning.
These movements would indicate a resolution to hold the Brooklyn lines at all hazards and were so regarded, but during the two days subsequent to the battle, while the enemy was closing in upon him, Washington changed his mind, preparations were quietly made to withdraw the troops, while still keeping up a bold front to the enemy, and on the night of the 29th, the army repassed the East River without accident or molestation.
Having thus cleared Long Island, the British extended themselves along the East River as far as Newtown, that river thus dividing the hostile camps throughout its whole extent. And though New York now lay quite at his mercy, Howe refrained from cannonading it, for the same reason as Washington did from shelling Boston; namely, that of securing the city intact a little later.
In spite of this brilliant opening of the campaign, and outside of the noisy subalterns who were making their début in war, it was felt that the British army, fresh, numerous, and splendidly equipped, had acquitted itself most ingloriously in permitting the Americans to make their retreat from the island as they had when the event of an assault must probably have been most disastrous to them.
On the other side, defeat had seriously affected the morale of the Americans. Fifteen hundred men had been lost on Long Island. A great many more were now being lost through desertion. In Washington's own words the unruly militia left him by companies, half regiments or whole regiments, leaving the infection of their evil example to work its will among the well-disposed.
Although the defense of New York had thus broken down at its vital point, a majority of generals favored still holding the city. To this end Washington now divided his forces, leaving 4,000 in the city, posting 6,500 at Harlem Heights, and 12,000 at Fort Washington and King's Bridge. Though furnished by a general officer, these figures really include the sick, who were estimated at nearly 10,000, as well as the large number detached on extra duty. Washington, himself, vaguely estimated his effective force at under 20,000 at this time.
As thus arranged, Harlem Heights, in the center, became the army headquarters, for the time being, Washington, by one of those little accidents that sometimes arrest a passing thought, occupying the house of the same lady who had formerly refused the offer of his hand in marriage, Miss Mary Phillipse, later to accept that of Colonel Roger Morris, his old companion in arms during Braddock's fatal campaign.
 This range of hills includes the present Prospect Park and Greenwood Cemetery.
 This weak point was the approach from the east where the Jamaica road crossed the hills into Bedford village. By striking this road somewhat higher up, the enemy got to Bedford before the Americans, guarding the hills beyond, had notice of their approach.
 Captain Harris, of the Fifth Foot.
 General Glover's estimate.
 The Morris House is still standing at 160th street, near 10th Avenue, N. Y., and is now occupied by Gen. Ferdinand P. Earle.