Alternate History Revisited — America’s Dunkirk

In December 2015, I wrote about some examples of one of my favorite subjects — alternate history.  I thought of this again while following our contentious election campaign.

We may take our democracy for granted, but it was actually hard-won, and could easily have been lost many times.  In the book What If?, historian Thomas Fleming lists 13 ways the American Revolution could’ve been lost.

One of the best examples gets its own chapter, “What the Fog Wrought” by David McCullough.  Recall that the British had evacuated Boston, then returned to the New York area beginning in July, 1776 with a huge force, ultimately over 400 hundred ships and 32,000 of the best soldiers in the world.  Washington’s force was scarcely 20,00 raw volunteers with zero ships, poorly equipped and supplied.  A considerable number were too sick to fight.

With no knowledge of the British plan, Washington put half his troops on the bluffs known as Brooklyn Heights with the remaining half on Manhattan island.  On August 22, the British began landing troops across the Narrows to land further south on Long Island.  Washington brought still more troops across the East River until he had about 12,000 to face 20,000.  It was an exposed position.  If the American army lost, they would be trapped against the river.

Which is what happened.  During the Battle of Long Island, several miles inland on August 27, the Americans were quickly out-fought, out-generaled and routed; losses were more than 1400.  The survivors entrenched on Brooklyn Heights.  If the British had sent some warships to block the East River, the revolution would probably have ended then and there.

But that’s where it gets weird.  The next day, the British General Howe, no doubt thinking of the bloody assault on Bunker (actually Breed’s) Hill in Boston, chose not to attack the remaining Americans on Brooklyn Heights.  A driving rain and cold wind, although greatly increasing the misery and supply situation of Washington’s exposed troops, also prevented the British warships from moving upriver.

When the British began building entrenchments closer and closer to the American line, it quickly became obvious that retreat was the only option.  Every conceivable kind of boat was gathered, and the army began crossing the East River as soon as darkness fell on August 29, as silently as possible.  Near 9:00 pm, the wind picked up and the operation seemed doomed, but after about an hour, the wind fell off and shifted to the more favorable southwest.

At daybreak, a significant numbers of troops were still stuck on Long Island.  But then came the fog, so thick visibility was less than 20 feet, and lingered long enough to cover the rest of the evacuation.

The British were astonished.  When the fog lifted, the American army was completely gone save for five cannon mired in the mud.  Half of Washington’s army, and more importantly Washington himself, had survived to continue the revolution.


What If? edited by Robert Cowley, Berkley Books, New York, 1999.



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