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In the daylight of the 27th the British opened fire on astonished Americans, who quickly recognized their dire situation. Soldiers under John Sullivan of New Hampshire broke and ran. Fellow American commander William Alexander of Pennsylvania, known as Lord Stirling because of his claim to a Scottish title, fought effectively for a while, but was slowly encircled by numerically superior British forces. It was evident that disaster could be averted only by retreating down the hill and across the swamplands by Gowanus Creek.

Such a move, however, would expose the Americans to deadly fire from the British in the hills above. To provide cover for the retreat, Alexander and Major Mordecai Gist led a band of Marylanders on a direct assault against the British lines. The Americans broke under withering fire, but regrouped and bought sufficient time to allow the bulk of the army to flee, often throwing arms aside, to Brooklyn Heights.

Only a handful of the Marylanders were able to escape. Alexander was eventually surrounded and he surrendered, and Sullivan was captured. The Americans listed about 1, casualties from the Battle of Long Island.

The British toll numbered fewer than This embarrassing display was observed by a helpless Washington from atop Brooklyn Heights. For the next two days, he and his army expected a British assault, an event that would most likely had led to a decisive British victory.

During this period of quiet, the weather was unseasonably cold and a steady rain fell; American morale was at a low point and many soldiers talked of surrender.

On the advice of his subordinates, Washington took advantage of British inaction and planned a retreat to Manhattan. British control of the harbor and rivers made this a risky prospect. Nevertheless, on the evening of August 29, the American army was ferried across the East River in a flotilla of small craft provided by sympathetic civilians. The question remains about why the British did not use their superiority on land and sea to strike a potentially lethal blow against the Patriot cause.

Most historians agree that William Howe chose not to assault Brooklyn Heights because of his earlier experience at Bunker Hill where he also commanded an overwhelming force, but suffered extremely heavy losses.

The general decided instead to set up a siege, believing that time was on his side. The failure of his brother, Admiral Howe, to halt the retreat across the East River has been ascribed to unfavorable winds that prevented his ships from destroying the tiny American flotilla and its human cargo. More recent historians, however, have argued that no ill wind was blowing at the time and that the admiral, a friend of America, was hoping to conclude affairs with a peace settlement, not a military victory to conclude the Battle of Long Island.

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