Revolutionary War Supercell? August 21, 1776


Staff member
I am reading “1776” by David McCullough. Weather played a pivotal role a number of times during the Revolutionary War, but I was particularly intrigued by this account of a storm over New York City on the eve of the British attack and what became known as the Battle of Long Island (emphasis added):

“On the night of August 21, 1776, a terrifying storm broke over New York, a storm as vicious as any in living memory, and for those who saw omens in such unleashed fury from the elements—those familiar with the writings of the Roman historian Livy, say, or the plays of Shakespeare, of whom there were many—a night so violent seemed filled with portent.

Chroniclers Philip Fithian, Ambrose Serle, and Pastor Ewald Shewkirk called it ‘a storm like a hurricane,’ ‘a most terrible storm,’ ‘the most vehement I ever saw,’ ‘an uncommon … awful scene.’ …

The storm raged for three hours, yet strangely the cloud appeared to stand still, ‘and swing round and round,’ all over the city. ‘The lightning fell in masses and sheets of fire to the earth, and seemed to strike incessantly, and on every side.'”

Given where this took place, as I began reading the passage I envisioned a derecho type event, but the description of a stationary storm that swings “round and round” had me imagining a supercell, perhaps even a visibly-rotating supercell that would have prompted a tornado warning if Doppler radar had yet existed, which is interesting to contemplate because of the relative rarity of such storms in the NYC area.

I did a search here on ST and couldn’t find anything about this historical event, and a wider internet search yielded only the following article, if you are interested in the broader context of what was happening in the Revolutionary War at this time. (Of course, there is much more online about the battle, but this is the only thing I could find that mentions the storm, because it actually quotes the very same McCullough passage above - which I was able to copy and paste the above text from, rather than retyping it):

If any weather historians out there happen to have access to additional information about this event, I would appreciate your insights!

Thanks Mark, that looks like a very interesting paper and I do intend to read the whole thing because I do have a broader fascination with how much weather affected the course of the Revolutionary War (and other wars), which it did many times, not always in dramatic fashion with storms but also with wind direction (keeping the British from sailing in certain areas) and fog (offering cover for American troops on the move).
I just read "A Furious Sky" by Eric Dolin.There are a couple of paragraphs about two hurricanes that slammed parts of the Caribbean in Oct. 1780. Historian Nathaniel Philbrick believes these two hurricanes influenced the decision of the French to relocate troops to the areas of battle rather than endure the losses of ships & personnel in the Caribbean. "Because of this, the French played a key role in the crucial Battle of the Chesapeake and the ultimate victory over the British in the Battle of Yorktown." A bit indirect, but still.
Happened to read an article recently about a key person that many may be less familiar with from the Revolutionary War, Henry Clinton, who lead that New York campaign >>> The General Who Lost America?

And found it interesting to read there about the key delays to an army (and the related navy) diverted from New York to capture St Lucia that were then delayed in returning and how that may have hindered the British momentum in the US through the key year of 1779.
Until today, I just found the St Lucia diversion interesting, but after reading your accounts, I got to wondering more. And found that the troops from New York sailing down to St Lucia (and the French fleet that was sailing for other parts of the Caribbean):

On November 3, 1778, the force set sail under the protection of Commodore William Hotham. “Very early this morning the fleet got under way and stood to the S.E. with a fair pleasant breeze.” On the same day, a French fleet of twelve warships under the Comte d’Estaing also set sail for the West Indies from Boston harbor.
A severe gale struck the two fleets in the latitude of Bermuda.
(>>> The Battle of Vigie Peninsula - Journal of the American Revolution)

A British ship was separated from the fleet and captured by the French, and so they learned the attack was coming. And so the battle of St Lucia becoming as complex for the British... and the French losses there... and so the whole war, may well have turned on those "severe gales" in the western Atlantic near Bermuda in early November. Certainly sounds like some type of tropical system\extratropical remnants! Interesting stuff, and remarkable that we all stumbled upon these facts around the same time (I certainly can enjoy history, but certainly don't continually go looking for it! :p )