This past week was huge for American History as we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Battle at Gettysburg and our annual Independence Day. I hope your 4th was filled with friends, family, and moments of revelry under a firework lit sky. If you had lived in Staten Island in 1776 then your day may have been a little different; you may have felt like you were in Afghanistan instead New York City's 'forgotten borough.'
After reading Professor Phillip Papas' book, That Ever Loyal Island, which brilliantly documents Staten Island during the Revolutionary War, I was surprised to learn our Island’s role during the struggle to found this country. I knew that Staten Island was known to be pro-English but I had no idea the extent to which this was true. Once I learned of the circumstances surrounding this phenomenon, and the reasons the Island’s people favored English sovereignty, I could not necessarily blame them for their loyalty to the crown.
By the time of the Revolution Staten Island was predominately inhabited by small communities of farmers and their slaves, fishing crews, and others who lived a similarly agrarian lifestyle. Islanders sold their surplus goods and produce in regional markets across the Arthur Kill in New Jersey, as well as in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. Although the Island was often considered to be isolated from the rest of the world, local residents participated in interstate and international trade. The Island's location and coastal features made it very accessible to ships coming and going from the American colonies. It was these same features that also made Staten Island a key strategic point for military forces wishing to launch an invasion of New York and by extension, New England as well.
English commercial policy favored the agrarian lifestyles of many Islanders and this granted them a degree of comfort. In addition, local residents retained elements of English culture, best demonstrated by the large Anglican community of church goers who continued the same religious traditions as their English forefathers. The lack of partisan and craft professionals, who were deeply angered by imposing English taxes and governing policy found throughout the rest of the colonies, set Staten Island apart. These combined factors led to a deep running Loyalist, pro-English, sentiment to be held on Staten Island, even as relations between England and her colony grew strained and open conflict seemed inevitable.
Once the war started the high commander of the English army, General William Howe, knew that New York had to be captured so that his army could move to capture Lake Champlain; with the assistance of the mighty English Navy, New England could be cut in half, isolated, and forced into submission. After suffering a humiliating tactical defeat at Boston by Continental forces under the command of General George Washington, Howe withdrew his army and planned the next phase of the war, which would bring Staten Island directly into the fray. In June of 1776, after anchoring near Sandy Hook New Jersey, English forces entered the New York Bay area and briefly landed in Grave's End Brooklyn, before they decided that Staten Island had a greater strategic and logistic advantage
At this point, Islanders were becoming increasingly ostracized by independence seeking Whigs and colonists, whose economic boycotts and mistrustful attitudes towards islanders made them all too willing to accept English liberation. Upon arrival, English forces quickly removed the few troops set to guard valuable geographic assets, such as the island's many fresh water spring; islanders greeted the English with joy and immediately began supplying them with essential resources such as lumber, livestock, produce, and fish. Many residents experienced English occupation during the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and expected to profit handsomely from trade with the English once again. Some residents hid their Whig, pro-independence views or fled in advance to parts of New Jersey. However, most islanders choose to stay; as many as 500 men swore an oath of allegiance to the crown and formed a local militia to protect their home as well as aid their English allies.
From his launching point in Staten Island, Howe was able to outmaneuver Washington's defenses in brilliant tactical moves that forced Continental troops to withdraw while he captured vital strategic waterways including New York Bay, and the Hudson and East Rivers. Had it not been for the warm welcome the English received and the failure to properly defend Staten Island, the English may not have been able to effectively invade and wrestle control of New York City.
Now here is where it gets ugly. Once they established a base on Staten Island the English employed spies and other agents to gather intelligence on nearby towns in New Jersey, which would soon become the targets of frequent raids. Staten Island and the surrounding area become home to skirmishes between Loyalists, Whigs, and English forces; guerrilla style warfare became increasingly common. Small bands of paramilitary fighters, some of whom a year ago were tending their fields and maintaining amicable relations with their neighbors, crossed the Arthur Kill from New Jersey to set up ambushes, raid outposts, ransack local farms and steal supplies, and destroy whatever provisions could be used by English troops. These sorties produced high numbers of captives on both sides, who were imprisoned or more commonly sold back for ransom or exchanged for other prisoners.
Local residents suffered tremendously from this type of unconventional warfare. Much of the island's population experienced mistrust from both patriot and English forces concerned that these locals could be doubling as spy, providing critical intelligence to their enemies. Staten Islanders underwent instances of humiliation and violent interrogations because of their Whig, Tory, or Loyalist views. On many occasions islanders' watched their families tortured by raiders, who desperately sought supplies that were hidden or already taken. The waterways surrounding the island saw increased banditry as partisan, as well as privateers interested in benefiting from the instability captured ships and looted supplies. By the end of the war, much of the Island's population wore the scars of war and wished that their English 'liberators' would leave them alone.
This type of combat was not as common amongst the large European armies that clashed in open fields and plans. Rather, it was known by colonists to be the way of Native Americans, who were deemed savages for their dishonorable customs, fought. These very tactics implemented by native tribes were adopted by patriots to better help them undermine the English's ability to effectively wage war: necessary provisions were destroyed; soldiers suffered psychologically from the impacts of this style of fighting; it was nearly impossible to score a decisive victory against an enemy who fired from cover and fled before they could be targeted. Had it not been for these ruthless and cunning tactics, patriot forces may not have been able to eventually defeat the world's superpower, the English Empire.
I find it particularly ironic that nowadays some of our military's weapons of mass destruction derive their names from Native American ones: Tomahawk Cruise Missile, Apache and Blackhawk Helicopters, and a new line of UAVs (unpiloted aerial vehicles, Grey Hawks, to name a few. We can take a lesson from history by drawing connections between the past and the present. Granted technology has changed warfare significantly but in essence the same tactics American forces struggled to combat in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are the same tactics when implemented against the English Empire, allowed our descendants to overthrow their oppressors and establish The United States of America. We rebuke paramilitary bands of insurgents for conducting this style of warfare abroad and associate these tactics with 'terrorism,' but they came in handy when we were the underdogs.
Have we now, like the English, become the empire who can readily deploy immense military might, yet cannot crush small and effective groups of cunning insurgents? Read up on the ongoing, escalating Syrian Civil war to find out more about this unconventional type of combat, which has increasingly become more conventional. The United Sates isn’t the only nation that suffers from this paradox; it seems to be a phenomenon experienced by large empires, from the Romans to the English that face smaller, yet fiercely determined rebels in distant theaters of war.
See you next time!
Joe the intern