Miracles do happen. Sometimes we may not call them that or even recognize them as such — but they do, indeed, occur. God simply reaches down and directly intervenes in our lives. Several years ago, there was an incredible story of how an airline pilot landed his plane on the Hudson River in New York City and saved the lives of all of the people onboard after a flock of birds flew into the engine and damaged it. Everyone called it “The Miracle on the Hudson.” Surprisingly, one of the most dramatic examples of a miracle in our history happened in that same city during one of the great battles of our War of Independence. This miracle, like the water landing, saved many lives, but even more importantly it saved George Washington’s Continental Army and, in fact, the American Revolution. Like many miracles, it may sound unbelievable, but this “Miracle on the East River” really happened.
The story begins in the early days of the American Revolution just over a month after the signing of the Declaration of Independence when the very survival of the new nation was in doubt. The Continental Army was poised for battle against British forces on that part of Long Island now known as Brooklyn. Determined to smash the revolt quickly, on the night of August 26, 1776, British soldiers marched around the American left flank using an unguarded road called the Jamaica Pass. The following morning, August 27th, the British attacked and routed the Continentals. The Americans retreated in chaos and disorder to their fortifications on Brooklyn Heights above the East River. There, under George Washington’s leadership, they reorganized and held their position for the following two days.
The British generals believed that victory was inevitable, so they did not press the attack; rather, they were content to wait until the British fleet closed the back door on the East River. On August 28th rain and stormy weather began with a strong wind from the northeast, keeping the British ships from blocking the river. With his men trapped between the Redcoats in front of them and the East River behind them, Washington realized that his position was indefensible. The question was how to save his army. He needed to find a way to ferry all nine thousand of his soldiers across the river to the island of Manhattan and from there further inland to safety. There were no bridges like today, and the only available means of transport were small boats that would have to be rounded up. Washington issued orders for all of the boats to be gathered along the banks of the heights. As night fell on the 29th, the wind, tide and rough water prevented the small boats from beginning the evacuation. Fortunately, it also kept the British warships away as well. But, time was running out on the Americans.
With Washington and others beginning to think there would be no retreat that night, at about eleven o’clock the northeast wind suddenly died down. Then, as if told to do so, the wind shifted to the southwest — part one of the “miracle.” The crossing began. The small armada of boats manned by sailors and fishermen started ferrying the soldiers to the opposite shores of Manhattan. Under strict orders to maintain silence, the American troops kept the British from detecting their escape. The boats went back and forth all night, but it was slow work. As morning began to dawn, there were still hundreds of American soldiers waiting on the Brooklyn side of the East River, including George Washington himself who had stayed behind to help direct the crossing. Soon the British ships would arrive to cut off the retreat and a slaughter in broad daylight would begin. It was at this moment that part two of the “miracle” happened.
Just at daybreak on August 30th, a fog as thick as pea soup began to lay across Brooklyn and the river, masking the continued crossing. No one could believe it, but the fog kept the British soldiers from discovering what the Americans were up to. When the American soldiers reached the Manhattan side of the river, they saw that the fog lay only on the Brooklyn side of the river. As the last of the Americans were preparing to leave, the British soldiers began to move forward. They stared in complete surprise at the empty American fortifications. In the last boat was George Washington, the American Commander-in-Chief. With the others in the boat, he watched the Brooklyn side of the river and the stunned British soldiers standing at the edge of the river slowly fade from sight. He and his entire army had escaped.
Some people have called Washington’s escape “fate” or “luck;” others have attributed it to the circumstances of Mother Nature or the hesitation of the British to press the attack. It has often been called “Providence.” I personally believe that it was the direct hand of God who intervened favorably on behalf of George Washington and the American soldiers. I believe it was He who, through adverse winds, kept the British fleet from entering the East River; I believe it was He who changed the winds to allow the crossing; I believe that it was He who laid down the blanket of fog at the critical moment; and I believe that it was He who kept the retreat from being detected by the thousands of British soldiers and sailors all around the Americans.
Regardless of what you may call it, in one night nine thousand American soldiers escaped across a treacherous river in small boats without the loss of a single life. Our Commander-in-Chief and his army went on to fight for the next seven years until they achieved victory and freedom. I will always call it “The Miracle on the East River.”