A reenactment of the 1776 reading of the Declaration of...

A reenactment of the 1776 reading of the Declaration of Independence at the Colonial Arsenal Museum in Huntington, July 17, 2016. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

It took more than two weeks for the news to reach the Village of Huntington.

The signing of the Declaration of Independence was completed in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776 — 248 years ago Thursday. The Continental Congress declared the 13 colonies had severed all ties with Britain, were now “free and independent” from British rule.

Days later, the news reached New York City.

But, it wasn't until July 22 that the news reached Huntington — and, when it did, members of the Huntington Militia promptly hauled down the old town flag, the red one sporting the Union Jack in the corner, stuffing the remnants and some gunpowder into an effigy of King George III and hoisting it up a flagpole. Then, they blew it to smithereens.

   WHAT TO KNOW

  • Long Island was the site of an important early battle of the Revolutionary War in 1776.
  • The British won the battle and went on to use the region as a headquarters and breadbasket for their troops during much of the war.
  • There are few remnants of the Battle of Long Island but other historical markers from the Revolutionary War can still be found here.

Many crucial moments of the American Revolution, and the stuff of local lore, played out across geographic Long Island — present-day Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau and Suffolk. A war within a war between loyalists and patriots: at stake, control of New York Harbor, the crossroads of commerce and communications, and the vast, untapped resources of Long Island.

The Battle of Long Island

Control of the Island went to the British after their rout of Gen. George Washington's Continental Army in the first major post-Declaration of Independence battle of the Revolutionary War: the Battle of Long Island in August 1776.

Losing Long Island created an uphill fight for Washington and his patriots, one that would take years, the enlistment of the French, and the efforts of a spy ring to win.

Colonial reenactors load their muskets at the Colonial Arsenal Museum...

Colonial reenactors load their muskets at the Colonial Arsenal Museum in Huntington, July 17, 2016. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

“New York is British headquarters for the entire war,” said historian Jim McKenna, who served for 21 years as director of the Old Bethpage Village Restoration and, in retirement, works as visitor services manager at the Cradle of Aviation Museum.

“Manhattan, Staten Island, Long Island: This is where the British are. Long Island is the breadbasket for the British in the American Colonies. … Food for the troops, wheat and hay for bread and horses. Trees to be cut down for heat and for housing. And, you have water as mode of transport.”

Yet, remnants of the epic struggle here are hard to find.

“The role of Long Island in the Revolution is significant, but, unlike many other Revolutionary War sites, you don’t have many remaining markers of it,” said Justine Lake-Jedzinak, director of education of public programs at Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay. “Go to Lexington and Concord. Go to Boston, go to Philadelphia. Colonial Williamsburg. The architecture is still there.

“Here? You have an 18t century building surrounded completely by 20th century architecture, she said. “It makes it difficult to see the history.”

Loyalists, rebels at odds on LI

A series of incidents ignited the fire of revolution over decades, and Long Island found itself a place of great divide, where strongholds of British loyalists spanning from what is now Lawrence and the Five Towns, through Hempstead and beyond, found themselves at odds with their neighbors. Royal acts of taxation led to resistance and violence in Boston, culminating with the “shot heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts,

Colonists once loyal to Britain and George III were becoming American patriots.

Patrick Mantle, commander of the Huntington Militia, leads a group of more than three dozen members who regularly meet in full militia dress to reenact moments of Huntington's Revolutionary War history. Each year, they recreate the moment when residents heard the reading of the Declaration of Independence on the local village green.

“People don’t realize that Long Island during the Revolutionary War was much like Nazi Germany in World War II, with soldiers walking down the street, stopping you to ask for your loyalty oath. If you didn’t have that paperwork, well … “

It was a failed plot to kill George Washington that led patriots to battle loyalists in the first Revolutionary War bloodshed on Long Island. The Battle of Hempstead Swamp, at what is now the Tanglewood Preserve in Rockville Centre, took place about two weeks before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. 

Members of the first Huntington Militia found themselves fighting the Battle of Long Island that summer, only to disband once the patriots were routed by British General William Howe.

Remnants of Revolutionary War history

But you can still find the militia and other living remnants of Long Island’s Revolutionary War history all across modern Long Island.

Among the places cited by Discover Long Island, a regional marketing organization, are Raynham Hall, where the British headquartered throughout the war, including the Loyalist Queen’s Rangers and British Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe. That home, settled by the Townsend family, would also play a key role in Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, a network of spies that helped colonists undermine the British.

There's the Arsenal in Huntington, where Job Sammis hid gunpowder and arms in his attic across from village green at the onset of British occupation, Mantle said.

There are many others: Rock Hall in Lawrence; Joseph Lloyd Manor in Lloyd Harbor; and Brewster House in Stony Brook, where patriot Caleb Brewster spied on the British. Fighting took place near the Setauket Presbyterian Church, central to the Battle of Setauket. There's Sagtikos Manor in Bay Shore, which British forces occupied during the war and where George Washington indeed once slept long after the war was won.

“I think there’s a misunderstanding that somehow Long Island is a hinterland, that it was so rural that no one came out here,” Lake-Jedzinak of Raynham Hall said. “But in some ways I think it was more connected to New York City than it is today. Ships come here to bring and to load supplies. It’s the backbone for the British.”

Lake-Jedzinak said that is why it is important that thousands of visitors, among them fourth- and fifth-graders learning American history, tour places like Raynham Hall annually to understand Long Island's role in the Revolution.

“Our main focus,” she said, “is to show why Long Island was so important to the war — as a site of occupation, as a place where supplies were found.”

McKenna, who as a college student worked as a re-enactor in Eisenhower Park, said: “George Washington … loses the Battle of Long Island and then his Continental Army spends the rest of the war trying to get back here.”

“Though most Long Islanders today don’t realize it, Long Island plays a key role in the entirety of the Revolutionary War.” McKenna said.

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