Suffolk Closeup: Long Island’s role in American Revolution

11/02/2014 12:00 PM |


Long Island is known for, among other things, beautiful beaches, the site of the first “mass-produced” suburb in the U.S, the resort areas of the East End, notably the Hamptons and peaceful Shelter Island, and for farmland that allows Suffolk County to remain the top farming county in New York State in yearly produce. But Long Island isn’t sufficiently recognized for its major role in the American Revolution.

A symposium to be held in two weeks at the Long Island Museum titled “Long Island in the American Revolution: The Seat of Action,” should help to fill that gap.

Speakers at the event on Saturday, November 15 will include John Staudt, a Hofstra University history professor discussing “A State of Wretchedness: Suffolk County, New York in the Revolution” and Natalie Naylor, a Hofstra professor emerita and past director of the Long Island Studies Institute, author of “Women in Long Island’s Past.”

Mr. Staudt got his title from George Washington, who wrote, as the British Army got set to capture Long Island, that “Time is now near at hand which” will “most probably determine whether Americans are to be Freemen or Slaves … whether their Houses, Farms, are to be pillaged and destroyed, and they consigned to a State of Wretchedness.”

“Within two months,” Mr. Staudt has written, “the people of Suffolk County … began enduring the ‘State of Wretchedness.’ British forces occupied Long Island in late August 1776 and for seven years soldiers plundered, pillaged and terrorized the civilian population.”

The patriots of Suffolk fought the British hard. Some “five days after the initial invasion of Long Island, the British won a decisive victory and routed the American forces at the Battle of Brooklyn. Over five hundred Suffolk County troops, under the command of Colonel Josiah Smith of Brookhaven, took part in the battle.”

The struggle continued with the revolutionaries conducting attacks on “the structures that made the British occupation possible — the enemy’s ships, depots, storehouses and lines of communications … One of the most innovative partisan officers on Long Island was Benjamin Tallmadge. Tallmadge grew up in Brookhaven … A good example of one of Tallmadge’s raids was his assault against the British-held Fort St. George in Mastic.”

He also tells of how “the Revolution altered attitudes towards slavery on Long Island … After having suffered dearly … a number of enlightened citizens questioned the justice of denying enslaved Africans their freedom …. Sag Harbor resident David Frothingham, editor of the Long Island Herald, Long Island’s first newspaper, condemned public slave sales and labeled one auction … ‘a disgrace to humanity.’”

Ms. Naylor points out that during “the Revolutionary era, women were nearly half the adult population on Long Island and should not be ignored and forgotten as they have been in most of the histories.” She notes, “On Long Island, Suffolk County was overwhelmingly patriot, while the majority of the population in Kings County were Tories or loyalists, and Queens (which included present day Nassau County) was divided.”

She tells of how the British Army blanketed Long Island. “At the peak of occupation, one of six residents on Long Island was a British or Hessian soldier.” She calls it likely that “Long Island suffered more than anywhere — certainly longer … Long Island women bore more than their share of that suffering … Many became widows and some themselves were victims of the war. Many women had their household goods stolen and homes and property destroyed … They endured the battles, skirmishes, and most of all, the calculated humiliations of the seemingly endless occupation, but they survived the ordeal … After the Revolution they resumed their lives and again embraced domestic concerns. They rebuilt families, homes, churches and communities, thereby enabling the island to do its share in creating the new nation.”

Also at the symposium, M. William Phelps will draw from his book, “The Life and Death of America’s First Spy.” That was Nathan Hale, captured on Long Island, who before  mounting the gallows pronounced the immortal words: “My only regret is that I have no more lives than one to offer” for his country.

Barnet Schecter, author of “The Battle for New York,” will provide an overview of the Battle of Long Island.  Richard Welch, a history professor at Farmingdale State College, author of “General Washington’s Commando: Benjamin Tallmadge in the Revolutionary War,” will also speak.

The symposium at the museum, located in Stony Brook, is being held in conjunction with its exhibition: “Long Island at War: Battle Front and Home Front,” which includes 200 artifacts.

For more information on the event, visit the museum’s website at