Amphibious operations, which involve landing troops and supplies from the sea to the land, are extremely difficult and require special techniques, close coordination between the navy and army, as well as specialized equipment. The British learned the required skills during the Seven Years’ War. After a failed attack on the French port of Rochefort the British revised their amphibious command and control procedures, and designed purpose-built launches, known familiarly as flatboats, especially for landing on enemy beaches.
Ideally, the troops would be taken as close to the shore as possible so they would have the shortest distance possible to wade ashore and be exposed to enemy fire. Standard longboats were unsuitable for landing operations due to their deep draft which could be up to five feet when loaded. Also, the long and narrow design of a longboat made loading and unloading troops difficult as they would have to get past the oarsmen and the oars to exit over the sides.
In April 1758 the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty approved the design for a shallow draft flatboat. Two sizes were planned. One was thirty-six-feet long and ten-feet two-inches broad. It would carry about fifty men plus a naval officer, gunner and twenty oarsmen. A smaller version was thirty-feet long, nine-feet nine-inches broad and carry sixteen oarsmen. Both of these boats were only two-feet eleven-inches in depth with wide, rounded bows and transom sterns. Fully loaded they required only two-feet of water, which allowed them to get close to the beach.
The British flatboats used in the American Revolution were, with minor variations, the same. Their capacity was about 10,000 to 12,000 pounds not including the oarsmen. Troops were packed in close together seated in two rows facing each other with their muskets standing upright between their knees. A sailor manned the tiller while twenty others sat outboard of the troops to man the oars. The flatboats could also be fitted with a mast, sails and a small cannon, or swivel gun mounted in the bow. The swivel gun added a slight bit of defensive firepower. However procedure dictated that the landing site would be heavily bombarded by warships prior to the landing. The flatboats were not meant to fight their way ashore.
Twin gangplanks were extended over the bow onto the beach allowing for fast and orderly entry and exit of the troops. The procedure was described by a witness:
“All these flat boats…were lying in one row along the shore, and as soon as the regiment had marched past, it formed up again close to the shore, and awaited the signal for entering the boats. Immediately on this being given each officer marched with his men to the boats,…then he and his drummer entered first and passed right through from the bows on shore to the stern, the whole division following him without breaking their ranks; so that in two minutes everybody was in the boat.”
On reaching the enemy shore the men would march out over the bow onto the beach and would be combat ready immediately. Just prior to hitting the beach the flatboat would drop a kedge anchor off the stern. When the troops had disembarked the anchor was pulled, oars backed, and the flatboat would head out to sea for another load.
One variation of the flatboat was constructed and used in Canada. Major General Phillips’ brigade orders of June 3, 1776 state:
“Lieut. [William] Twiss is to proceed to Three Rivers and give his directions for construction of Boats. The description of one of these Boats is, a Common flat Bottom called a King’s Boat or Royal Boat calculated to carry from 30 to 40 men with stores and provisions, with this only difference, that the Bow of each Boat is to be made square resembling an English Punt for the conveniency of disembarking the Troops by the means of a kind of broad gang board with Loop-holes made in it for Musquetry, and which may serve as a Mantlet when advancing towards an Enemy, and must be made strong accordingly.”
Documentation of such a gang board or ramp used elsewhere in the American Revolution has not been found. An image of flatboats with a similar “gang board” appears in a 1780 image “A View of Gravesend in Kent, with Troops passing the Thames to Tilbury Fort.” Such a gang board or ramp strong enough to provide protection from enemy fire would have been very heavy and may have caused stability problems for the flatboat. The infantry, being packed in tightly, would not have been able to use the gang board as a mantlet or fire through the loopholes.
Another modification to the flatboats allowed them to be used to carry artillery. Planks installed the length of the boat and gangplanks placed over the bows allowed the artillery to be wheeled on and off the flatboat. The Robert Cleveley image of the landing at Kip’s Bay clearly shows flatboats carrying artillery and others carrying infantry.
The effectiveness of the flatboats was clearly demonstrated on the morning of August 22, 1776 in a spectacular display of organizational prowess and seamanship when the Royal Navy shifted the bulk of the British army from Staten Island to Gravesend Bay on Long Island. At 4 AM flatboats were at the beach at Staten Island to pick up the first wave of troops.
The landing itself was covered by three frigates and two bomb-ketches which bombarded the beach prior to the landing. The landing however was unopposed. The Captain of H.M.S. Eagle, Henry Duncan who was involved in the landing, records that:
The flat boats were all assembled by four o’clock [AM] on the beach, under the particular command of Commodore Hotham…About eight the Phoenix fired a gun and hoisted a striped flag, blue and white, at the mizen top-mast head, as a signal for the troops to proceed to the shore. A little after eight all the ships with troops for the first landing were in motion; and the boats that had taken in about 1,000 troops from Staten Island began to move across towards Gravesend Bay, in Long Island. Half-past eight Commodore Hotham hoisted the red flag in his boat as a signal for the boats to push on shore. The boats immediately obeyed the signal, and in ten minutes or thereabout 4,000 men were on the beach, formed and moved forward. The wind blew down the harbour, but the flood tide had made up too strong for the ships to get down in their intended station; nevertheless, by twelve o’clock or very soon after, all the troops were on shore, to the number of 15,000, and by three o’clock we had an account of the army being got as far as Flat Bush, six or seven miles from where they landed.
This landing involved seventy five flatboats each carrying fifty infantrymen, plus eleven bateaux (long, shallow draft boat with pointed bow and stern). The first embarkation of 4,000 men consisted of the light infantry and the reserve. It is very significant that not only did these troops reach the beach quickly but that after their arrival they were immediately able to move out in an orderly fashion to secure the beach. The evening before the amphibious landing on Long Island the troops to be landed in the second and third waves were put on board transports. The second embarkation, from the transports, of five thousand men was delivered to the beach by the flatboats so quickly after the first landing that they could have supported the light infantry should there have been opposition. While the flatboats made their way to the beach with this second wave of troops the now empty transports moved out and were replaced by transports containing more troops to be taken to the beach in their turn. Three hours after the first landing 15,000 troops were ashore along with their baggage, equipment and forty pieces of artillery. Moving a combat force of this size so quickly had never before been seen on this continent.
Less than a month later, on September 15, the flatboats were again used with great success. Unlike the landing at Gravesend Bay the crossing of the East River from Long Island to Manhattan Island required an assault on a hostile shore.
During the night of the 14th the British anchored five warships with their broadsides facing the American position on shore, only three yards away. The Americans had dug trenches in anticipation of a landing. However they were not prepared for the power of the Royal Navy’s assault.
An American, Joseph Plumb Martin was on the receiving end of the attack. He described seeing “…their boats coming out of a creek or cover on Long Island side of the water, filled with British soldiers. When they came to the edge of the tide, they formed their boats in line. They continued to augment their forces from the island until they appeared like a large clover field in full bloom.” A British officer, Captain William Evelyn of the Light Infantry, recalled that “the water covered with boats full of armed men pressing eagerly toward the shore, was certainly one of the grandest and most sublime scenes ever exhibited.”
Francis, Lord Rawdon was in one of the eighty four flatboats making up the landing force. As he “approached [we] saw the breastworks filled with men, and two or three large columns marching down in great parade to support them. The Hessians, who were not used to this water business and who conceived that it must be exceedingly uncomfortable to be shot at whilst they were quite defenceless and jammed so close together, began to sing hymns immediately. Our men expressed their feelings as strongly, though in a different manner, by damning themselves and the enemy indiscriminately with wonderful fervency.”
When the flatboats were within fifty yards of the ships the signal was given and the warships let loose their first volley upon the breastworks. To Martin “there came such a peal of thunder from the British shipping that I thought my head would go with the sound.” Bartholomew James aboard HMS Orpheus wrote that “it is hardly possible to conceive what a tremendous fire was kept up by those five ships for fifty-nine minutes, in which time we fired away, in the Orpheus alone, five thousand three hundred and seventy six pounds of powder. The first broadside made a considerable breach in their works, and the enemy fled on all sides, confused and calling for quarter…..” To Lord Rawdon it was “the most tremendous peal I ever heard. The breastworks were blown to pieces in a few minutes, and those who were to have defended it were happy to escape as quick as possible…..We pressed to shore, landed, and formed without losing a single man…” HMS Carysfort “fired 20 broadsides in the Space of an hour, with Double headed round & Grape Shott.” 
American Captain Samuel Richards saw “a dense column of the enemy moving down to the waters edge and embarking on board flat boats. Knowing their object we prepared to receive them. As soon as they began their approach the ships opened a tremendous fire upon us. The column of boats on leaving the shore proceeded directly towards us; when arriving about half way across the sound [East River] they turned their course and proceeded to Kip’s bay – about three quarters of a mile above us – where they landed; their landing there being unexpected they met with no opposition: the firing from the ships being continued – our slight embankment being hastily thrown up – was fast tumbling away by the enemy’s shott. Our troops left their post in disorder…”
The landing at Kip’s Bay was entirely successful. The astonishing firepower of the warships combined with the efficient landing of numerous troops was far more than the Americans could withstand. This was shock and awe.
Such is the power of a well orchestrated amphibious landing. Without flat-bottomed landing craft the Royal Navy and the British Army would not have been capable of taking advantage of the enormous coastline of the United States. While the humble flatboats did not win the war for the British the boats did allow a strategy of mobility which was hoped would overcome the Americans whose movements were limited by the feet of the foot soldier.
 Robert Beatson, Naval and Military Memoirs of Great Britain, from 1727-1783 (London: Longman, 1804), 2:167.
 Hugh Boscawen, “The Origins of the Flat-Bottomed Landing Craft 1757-1758,” Army Museum ’84 (Journal of the National Army Museum, Royal Hospital Road, London, UK, 1985), 24.
 Contemporary scale models, complete with Army and Navy figures, can be found at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England.
 Boscawen, Origins, 25.
 National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England.
 Boscawen, Origins, 28. The quotation is from Count F. Kielmansegge, Diary of a Journey to England in the Years 1761-1762 (London: 1902), 258-259. A division, in this context, is a company or half-company, about 50 men.
 Mantlet, a portable defensive shield.
 James Murray Hadden, Hadden’s Journal and Orderly Books (Albany: Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1884), 169.
 “A view of Gravesend in Kent, with Troops passing the Thames to Tilbury Fort, 1780,” British Museum, http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=904082&objectId=3312410&partId=1
 Adrian B. Caruana, Grasshoppers and Butterflies: The Light 3-Pounders of Pattison and Townshend (Bloomfield, Ontario: Museum Restoration Service, 1980), 30.
 Don N. Hagist, “A New Interpretation of a Robert Cleveley Watercolour,” Mariner’s Mirror, 94:3, 2008, 326-30.
 Henry Duncan, “Journals of Henry Duncan,” in John Knox Laughton, Naval Miscellany (London: Navy Records Society, 1902), 122-123.
 Beatson, Naval and Military Memoirs of Great Britain from 1727-1783, (London: Longman, 1804), 4:156-157.
 Journals of HMS Phoenix, HMS Roebuck, HMS Orpheus, HMS Rose, HMS Carysfort in William James Morgan, ed. Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington: Department of the Navy, 1972), 6:838-840.
 Joseph Plumb Martin, George F. Scheer, ed., Private Yankee Doodle (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962), 33-34.
 Henry P. Johnston, Battle of Harlem Heights (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1897), 34.
 William P. Cumming and Hugh Rankin, The Fate of a Nation, The American Revolution Through Contemporary Eyes (London: Phaidon Press, 1975), 110-111.
 Journal of Bartholomew James and journal of HMS Carysfort, in Morgan, Naval Documents, 6:841, 849. Martin, Private Yankee Doodle, 34. Cumming, Fate of a Nation, 111.
 Morgan, Naval Documents, 6:844-845.