In March 1776, the British had pretty much evacuated Boston. General George Washington suspected that New York City would be the next target of British and began moving troops and fortifying several locations on Long Island.
By April 1776, Washington had his force of 19,000 rag-tag and poorly trained Continental soldiers in Lower Manhattan. He spent the next couple of months building and strengthening the fortifications in Manhattan and across the East River on Long Island.
In early July, Washington found that this suspicions were correct when British General William Howe arrived at Staten Island with 400 British ships carrying 32,000 trained British troops.
Washington divided his forces into three divisions. What he didn’t expect was for Howe to bring in his British forces via a route that wasn’t planned for. Howe managed to get behind Washington’s strongholds on Long Island.
By the end of August, the British had driven the last of Washington’s forces from Long Island. The Battle of Long Island was a major victory for the British and an embarrassing loss for Washington.
For the next nine months, the British fortified their positions on Long Island from Brooklyn Heights at the southwest end of the island to Sag Harbor near the northeastern tip of the island.
Allow me to introduce a man with an unusual name who ended up a Revolutionary War hero. His name was Return Jonathan Meigs, born in December 1740. By 1774, Meigs had worked his way up to a captain in the local Connecticut militia. In April 1775, he led a light infantry division to Boston and soon promoted to major and assigned to the 2nd Connecticut Regiment. In early 1776, he was with General Benedict Arnold on his march to Quebec City. Meigs was captured by the British and put in prison. In May 1776, he was pardoned by the British for showing kindness to a British prisoner earlier in the war. After returning to the colonies in January, 1777, he continued on as a major with 3rd Connecticut Regiment. In February 1777, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel with Sherburne’s Additional Continental Regiment. In May 1777, Colonel William Douglas of the 6th Connecticut Regiment fell ill and Meigs was given the command.
On this day, May 23, 1777, Meigs led a daring raid on the British at Sag Harbor on Long Island. Sag Harbor was a key British post as it monitored all shipping traffic in and out of Long Island Sound. It was also a major port for receiving British supplies.
A large contingent of the British stationed at Sag Harbor had been moved to New York City, leaving fewer than 100 troops at the port. Meigs led around 200 men in 13 whaling boats. They rowed from Guilford, Connecticut across Long Island Sound under the cover of night. Landing at Southold on Long Island, they hauled their boats over the thin strip of land and then rowed across Little Peconic Bay to Sag harbor.
Meigs sent half of his men to attack the fort and the other half to attack the British ships at the port. The attack on the fort didn’t last long, as only one single shot was fired. Meigs’ raiders managed to capture 53 British troops without losing a single man.
The second half of the raiders began burning British ships. They were fired upon by one British frigate, but Meigs’ men managed to set 12 British ships ablaze and capture 37 more prisoners before returning back across Long Island South in the whaling boats to Connecticut.
Total casualties for the British was 6 killed and 90 captured. For Meigs’ men, the casualties were 0 killed, 0 wounded and 0 captured.
Meigs’ Raid, as it was known as, was the first victory in New York since Howe drove Washington out of Manhattan and Long Island the year before. For his bravery and successful mission, Meigs was promoted to Colonel of the 6th Connecticut Regiment and awarded a special presentation sword by Congress.
Meigs went on to serve well in the rest of the war. After the war, Meigs was appointed to be the surveyor of the Ohio Company of Associates. He was instrumental in the founding and establishment of Marietta, Ohio. In 1801, he was appointed to agent to the Cherokee Nation in Tennessee along with being the military agent with the US War Department. He died in 1823.
On a side note, his son, Return Jonathan Meigs, Jr., was a legislator and served as the fourth Governor of Ohio from 1810 to 1814.
Sources for the above includes: Battle of Long Island; The Battle of Long Island 1776; Patriots win the Battle of Sag Harbor; Stealth Attack from Guilford Launched – Today in History: May 23; Meigs Expedition claims sole Patriot victory on Long Island; Battles of America by Sea and Land: Colonial and revolutionary; Col Return Jonathan Meigs.