Three clear choices faced George Washington in late August 1776. As commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he had just lost to the British at the battle of Long Island, the latest major skirmish in the American Revolutionary War.


Washington could have carried on fighting, but this would have been a woefully misguided decision bearing in mind the superiority of the British, both in terms of personnel numbers and strategic strongholds around the New York archipelago. He could have surrendered along with his Patriot troops, but this would have meant the war was effectively over – and a dent would have been made in any long-term struggle for independence.

The battle of Long Island: in context

By late August 1776, the American Revolutionary War had been raging for 16 months.

Having successfully defended Boston against the British, George Washington’s Continental Army sought to do similar at the Port of New York. However, Washington’s troops were outnumbered at the battle of Long Island and he suffered the loss of around a fifth of his men.

But rather than fight on or surrender, the Continental Army escaped overnight, much to the British command’s surprise. While the port was ceded to the Loyalists, the Patriots regrouped and finally won independence seven years later, changing the face of North America forever.

Washington’s only realistic option – in order to preserve his men and live to fight another day – was to order a mass retreat, a large-scale escape under the cover of darkness. While this retreat gifted the crucial territory to the British, it meant the war would continue – as it did until the Patriots took ultimate victory seven years later.

Had Washington surrendered after Long Island, the momentum from the Patriot side, following the glow of victory at the Siege of Boston, would have been extinguished. So says Benjamin Carp, the Daniel M Lyons professor of American history at Brooklyn College and the author of several books, including The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution (Yale, 2023).

“Had Washington surrendered, along with the bulk of his army, at Long Island, it would have dealt a serious blow to Continental Army morale. It is impossible to know whether another commander-in-chief might have been able to rise up in his place, command the respect of the remaining troops, recruit new soldiers, and stand against the British Army.”

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George Washington and his men escaping across the East River into Manhattan
Another image shows George Washington and his men escaping across the East River into Manhattan. (Image by Getty Images)

Surrender is likely to have resulted in the puncturing of the independence movement. Professor Carp suggests, in that scenario, “perhaps many American Patriots might have taken an offer of pardon and agreed to negotiate away independence”. Certainly, surrender wouldn’t have impressed the French, whose support for the Patriot cause ended up being incredibly important to its eventual victory.

“Washington’s ability to remain in the field with his army was crucial for garnering support. The French had other reasons to support the Americans, of course – the ability to destabilise Britain and prevent it from becoming too predominant made the alliance with the American rebels quite tempting. But the French closely watched the rebellion for signs that it could sustain its resistance against Britain.”

If a surrender was likely to bring about the end of the war, would it have doused the fervour for independence? “It probably would have dealt a blow to the more aggressive factions of the Continental Congress,” reasons Professor Carp. “Perhaps a more moderate faction might have seized control of Congress and urged renewed negotiations with the British.” But what about the prospect of another war for independence further down the line?

“This is very difficult to know. The American colonists were clearly anxious to have a free hand in their commercial dealings and in their ability to settle the trans-Appalachian west at the expense of the indigenous inhabitants. The Patriot leaders had already demonstrated that they could mobilise the colonists’ grievances into widespread resistance. As to how quickly the Americans might have mobilised for another revolt would have depended in part on whether they could raise enough money, arms, gunpowder etc from Europeans.

“It is possible, instead, that the Thirteen Colonies might have left the British empire peacefully with diplomatic and commercial arrangements that both the Americans and the British would have found mutually beneficial.”

Did you know…?

During his time in charge of the Continental Army, George Washington was faced with two main enemies – the British and smallpox. In 1777, he made the decision to have the entire army inoculated, saving many hundreds of lives.

Whether through peaceful concessions or military victory, Professor Carp can’t envisage a scenario whereby some vestige of British rule remained to this day.

“I just can’t. Just as Canada eventually left the British empire, the American colonies would have eventually done so, too.”

If independence was almost inevitable, the advent of a sharply defined constitutional democracy, such as that which would form the bedrock of the newly minted United States, wasn’t. “American independence of some kind would have happened regardless, but I don’t know that a republic would have been inevitable. It’s possible that Britain might have established some sort of hereditary aristocracy in the British colonies.”

Without Washington’s victory, the distinct branches of American government, with those famous interlocking checks and balances maintaining a healthy democracy, might never have been authored – and thus wouldn’t have influenced the French Revolution and all that came in its wake. “It’s possible that,” concludes Professor Carp, “without George Washington, a strongman might have emerged in America who ruled in a more authoritarian fashion.”

And who knows the effect of such a figure, and his possibly equally authoritarian successors, on the development of American society. Washington’s fateful retreat in 1776 proved healthy for democracy.


This article was first published in the August 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed