I was watching a program on the American Revolutionary War the other day when I was reminded of what I think is one of the most extraordinary yet little known incidents in American history.
I want to tell you what happened. But first, I must say that for many years I was a skeptic and didn’t go to church. One of the things that helped get me back in the fold was my study of history. It just became obvious that at many crucial moments in history, divine intervention was pretty evident.
I could cite stories from World War II and the Civil War, too. You know, if some Confederate officer hadn’t lost a copy of Robert E. Lee’s secret battle orders, found by Union troops in Maryland in 1862, Lee would very likely have beaten the slow moving Yankee Gen. George McClellan and would have taken Washington D.C. But, as painful as it may be to many Southerners, it’s pretty clear the north was intended to win the war and end slavery.
But I want to concentrate on what happened to George Washington and his army in the momentous summer of 1776. First let’s set the scene. Washington himself had miraculously escaped death on more than one occasion. On a military expedition in the French and Indian War, he ended up with his coat just full of bullet holes and had a horse or two shot out from under him. But the future leader of America was untouched. Another time a British sniper had Washington in his sights, but the general had his back to the gunman, who thought it would be unsporting to shoot a man in the back. It’s obvious that this man was meant to live on.
Now, to the summer of ’76. The British had skedaddled out of Boston after they took very heavy losses at Bunker Hill and Washington had managed to place artillery on hills all around the town.
So the Brits left Beantown to the Americans and retreated to Nova Scotia to rest, refit and get reinforced. Then, they moved on New York City.
On Aug. 22, just seven weeks after the colonies had declared their independence, 15,000 seasoned British troops began landing on Long Island. To make a long story short, they overwhelmed Washington’s inexperienced troops in the Battle of Brooklyn and pinned Washington and his army with their backs to the East River. If Washington and the Continental Army were captured or destroyed, it would all be over. No independent United States.
Gen. Richard Howe could almost certainly have taken the Americans on Aug. 29, but he said, in effect, “Well, we can wait until tomorrow to get ’em.” Miracle No. 1.
So Washington knows he has to evacuate his 9,500 men to Manhattan, a difficult task at best. He had his men gather every boat, barge and sloop in the area and at first dark, a group of watermen-soldiers from Marblehead, Mass., began ferrying the Americans over to Manhattan.
The British had planned to sail their deadly ships of the line up the East River and shell Washington’s troops into oblivion. But, lo and behold a very strong northerly wind comes up, keeping the ships out of the river. Miracle No. 2
Then, as dawn approached, many men remained to be ferried across the river. And of course Washington would be the last to go so he was very vulnerable.
Well, for some reason, a heavy fog comes drifting in, completely hiding the evacuation of the last of the Americans — and the general himself. Guess when the fog lifted. Just when the evacuation was completed. Miracle No. 3.
Just lucky coincidences, some say. Perhaps. But that fog lasting until the ferrying was just over is enough evidence for me.
Crises remained for Washington to overcome. He and his army ended up being driven out of Manhattan, with the loss of many men, and they retreated down to New Jersey, with it appearing that all might be lost after all. But then this indispensable man crossed the Delaware River, won battles at Trenton and Princeton and put a whole new life and spirit into the Patriot cause.
Five years later, with the crucial help of French troops, he captured a whole British army at Yorktown. And the rest, as they say, is history. And this story, as I said, helped get yours truly back to church on Sundays.