America’s Dunkirk: 245 Years Ago, Real Leadership Saved a Nation.

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As events unfold in Afghanistan with thousands of Americans and allies tragically needing rescue, 245 years ago this week, an American general successfully executed an extraordinary rescue–an “American Dunkirk”—that saved the Revolution. Washington’s army faced potential annihilation–all could have been lost. However, leadership, daring, and initiative transformed that critical moment into one of the greatest evacuations in history. 

The disastrous leadership in Afghanistan brings to mind General George Washington’s iron-clad axiom to “not be drove”—to always seize the initiative. Washington and his fledgling army were able to defeat a much more well-funded and well-trained force in part because of their ability to adapt with the utmost celerity. In August of 1776, the indispensable man’s bold, agile leadership set into motion an epic operation that would save the Revolution.  

After sustaining several significant losses in Brooklyn, the British had Washington’s army trapped against the East River. It appeared the Revolution might be snuffed out only weeks after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Two days earlier, Washington’s army had already been saved from British annihilation by an epic stand, an American Thermopylae, by several hundred Marylanders, known as Washington’s Immortals, whose courageous charge against an enemy stronghold bought Washington’s army a precious hour to make their escape to their fortifications in Brooklyn Heights. 

Their reprieve would not last long.

Howe’s massive army lay siege in front, poised to attack at any moment, and the Royal Navy planned to sail behind the American defenses and cut off their escape. A two-day-long raging nor’easter pelted both armies and slowed their plans. After a council of war with his subordinates, Washington wisely decided to evacuate troops from Brooklyn and retreat to Manhattan. The mile-wide East River and the watchful eyes of the British stood in his way.

The extraordinary story of how a small unit of men from Marblehead, Massachusetts transported Washington’s men and matériel across the East River under the cover of darkness is now told in the new bestselling book, The Indispensables: Marblehead’s Diverse Soldier-Mariners Who Shaped the Country, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware. The book is a Band of Brothers-style treatment of this unique regiment, a largely unknown group of Americans who changed the course of history.

The Americans not only had tens of thousands of British regulars and Hessian troops arrayed in front of them, but they would also face three powerful natural enemies: time, wind, and tide.

The Marbleheaders were the right men in the right place at the right time. Having worked together for years as a team fishing in the icy Atlantic waters off Nova Scotia, their leadership, grit, and priceless sailing experience would be indispensable in accomplishing the near-impossible that night. The diverse unit contained men of all backgrounds. White, Black, Hispanic, and Native American–they set a standard for inclusivity that would not be matched again in America’s military for over a hundred and fifty years.

Amphibious operations and disengagement under pressure are some of the most complex and dangerous in warfare. Even with a rearguard, the Americans rendered themselves vulnerable as they departed their defenses and boarded the boats. A British night attack might prove unstoppable. Secrecy, discretion, and forethought were of paramount importance.

The first boats to make the crossing did not carry troops but horses, ammunition, cannons, and baggage. The decision to transport equipment, guns, and ammunition first had two significant consequences. First, it postponed the notification of the men about the retreat for as long as possible, decreasing the likelihood that word of the covert plan would reach the British. Washington wisely did not inform his men they were retreating and instead told them they were positioning for an attack. Second, it left the army without the artillery they would need to continue to hold out against the enemy, making retreat the only option.

The Marbleheaders had to acquaint themselves with the motley collection of sailing and rowed vessels assembled quickly in complete darkness. Even the minimal light from a shuttered lantern might tip off the British about the operation underway. The sailors had to trust their instincts and nautical knowledge to guide them successfully in the mile-long journey across the river. The mariners took extraordinary measures to prevent discovery of their clandestine mission, including wrapping their oars in cloth to minimize the sound they made dipping into the water. At any moment, the British navy could sail up the East River and blow the flotilla out of the water. Miraculously, the wind never shifted in the direction to power the British sails up the river.

At approximately 10:00 p.m., Brigadier General Alexander McDougall gave the order to begin transporting the troops. Colonel John Glover and his men moved the sick and injured to the boats first. After making the crossing and returning, they transported the Marylanders and other units which remained in the rear guard. To maintain secrecy as long as possible, officers instructed men not to speak or even cough. Orders were communicated in whispers. The soldiers had no idea where they were going until they boarded the boats.

A fortuitous language barrier assisted the Americans’ clandestine retreat as well. According to legend, a staunch Loyalist sent her enslaved Black servant to warn the British soldiers that Washington’s army was escaping. The servant first encountered a group of Hessians who did not speak English and did not take him to a British officer until the following day. By then, it was too late.

At first, the weather favored the Americans. Carefully, the Marbleheaders dipped their cloth-coated oars into the murky, cold waters of the East River. The tide and the winds collaborated to push the boats swiftly across the waterway, and over the next two hours, the men made multiple crossings. Then the tide shifted, and their luck turned.

The Marbleheaders now fought against Mother Nature, who seemed hell-bent on sending the Americans downriver and into the clutches of the British Royal Navy. For the sail-powered sloops, the combination of wind and tide proved insurmountable. Despite the best efforts of the expert seamen, the Marbleheaders nearly lost control of their vessels on their return trip across the river.

The weather and swirling river placed the evacuation in immediate peril. The Marblehead men could not possibly deliver everyone across before morning using only the rowed boats. General McDougall sent Colonel William Grayson, one of Washington’s aides-de-camp, to find the commander in chief and apprise him of their situation. McDougall believed that a retreat was no longer possible.

Fortuitously, Grayson could not find Washington, so McDougall proceeded with the retreat. Before midnight, the fickle winds shifted again, making it possible to return the sloops to service. Despite the wind shift, however, the Americans had lost precious time. Dawn was coming and with it, the British Army.

At the embarkation point, chaos ensued. The troops now understood the necessity of returning to New York if they wanted to survive, and they rushed to get into the boats when their turns came. The sight of the men fighting for a place on the boats enraged Washington. Displaying his enormous strength, the commander in chief picked up the biggest rock he could find, stood near one of the vessels, and threatened to “sink it to hell” unless the men who had pushed others aside got out of the boat. Washington’s gravitas and leadership immediately restored order.

The Marblehead soldier-mariners worked through the night and accomplished an ostensibly impossible task, transporting most of the Continental Army—thousands of men—nearly a dozen trips across the East River throughout the night. However, even this was not enough. When the first rays of dawn crept over the entrenchments, Americans were still manning fortifications. For those who remained in the trenches, the approach of daylight brought the chance of a renewed attack from the British—and certain death.

But then a thick fog miraculously appeared and cloaked the rest of the escape.

One of the soldiers who made the crossing in the early morning recalled that the water, which had been so turbulent the night before, was smooth as the fog rose with the dawn. The deus ex machina fog at exactly the right time and place proved crucial to saving the United States.

Among the last to cross the river was the commander in chief himself. Washington’s leadership proved as vital to the operation as the fog, the shift in the wind, the skill of the Marbleheader soldier-mariners, and all the other variables that combined to save the American army that day. Disregarding the concern of his officers for his own personal safety, the general stayed behind to oversee the retreat and encourage the men. British troops did not discover the evacuation until nearly everyone was safely away. 

A contemporary later observed, “This event, one of the most remarkable in the war, did much toward establishing the fame of Washington and confidence in his ability as a military leader.” Even Stephen Moylan, Washington’s Muster Master General, observed, “Perhaps there does not occur in history a sadder retreat, so well concerted, so well-executed, then was made from that island.” 

Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of twelve books, including The Indispensables, which is featured nationally at Barnes & Noble, Washington’s Immortals, and The Unknowns. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and often speaks on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickODonnell.com @combathistorian

Patrick K. O'Donnell

Patrick K. O'Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of twelve books, including The Indispensables, which is featured nationally at Barnes & Noble, Washington’s Immortals, and The Unknowns. O'Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and often speaks on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks' award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery.