Sunday, January 26, 2020

Episode 133: The Peekskill Raid




Last week I went over all the confusion in London over who planned to attack what and where in 1777.  This week the British start moving out of winter quarters and begin their first tentative action for spring 1777.

Hudson River Valley

As I hope I’ve stressed enough times by now, British military leaders had long held that the key to victory was cutting off New England from the rest of America by taking control of the Hudson River Valley between Quebec and New York City.  By the end of 1776, the British had a large army in Quebec and an even larger one in New York City.

That the two armies had not created this link so far was due primarily to the heroic efforts of General Benedict Arnold.  Remember, just after Lexington and Concord, Arnold scraped together an army, and along with Ethan Allen, captured Fort Ticonderoga.  This deny the British that important launching off point into the Hudson Valley.  Arnold then attempted to take Quebec.  The Continental Army’s lack of resources and a scrappy last minute defense by Scottish immigrants in Canada prevented Arnold from taking that stronghold before British reinforcements arrived.

British map of Peekskill area 1777
(from Wikiwand)
Even after the British deployed an overwhelming force in Quebec and pushed the patriots out of Canada, Arnold still managed to control Lake Champlain with a small fleet, effectively preventing the British from retaking Fort Ticonderoga throughout 1776.

To protect the Hudson valley, the Continentals focused on securing Fort Ticonderoga to prevent an invasion from Quebec toward New York.  Well, focused on securing the fort may be an overstatement.  Everyone thought it was an important fort to hold, but after General Arnold left in late 1776, the defensive plan for holding the fort to was, in hindsight, a clearly wrong-headed approach.  That’s a topic for a future episode.  For now, I’ll just say that the Continentals tried to improve the fort’s defenses, but did nothing like Arnold had done to prevent the British from reaching the fort at all.  The intent, though, was to hold the British at Ticonderoga and prevent them from moving into the Hudson Valley from the north.

On the southern end, the Continentals did little to prevent British General William Howe from continuing to move up the Hudson River after his victory at White Plains, NY.  In part, this was because Howe was not in any hurry to move upstate in late fall when the wilderness in winter would probably do more harm to his soldiers than the Continentals or the militia could.

Besides, General Washington had retreated back through New Jersey toward Philadelphia.  In the fall of 1776, it made much more sense for General Howe to chase Washington rather than venture further upriver where American General Charles Lee commanded a large force to oppose them.

Recall that after Howe’s British and Germans pushed the Continental Army out of New York City, Washington had deployed an army to the north under Lee’s command, while Washington led the forces who retreated toward Pennsylvania.  As Washington’s army dissolved, he begged Lee to move south and join forces with him.  Lee kept putting him off, until the British captured Lee in December.  At that point, the remainder of Lee's Northern Army moved south to assist Washington with his counter-attack that began at Trenton.

As Washington fought to take back most of New Jersey over the rest of the winter, there was not much of anyone to defend the Hudson Valley.  General Arnold was off sulking and contemplating resignation because Congress had promoted several junior officers over him.  General Phillip Schuyler still served as the commander of the region, but his political fighting with General Horatio Gates had left the command a complete mess.  Their attention focused on Fort Ticonderoga, which the British would have to take before moving south, not an attack from the south into the Hudson Valley.

General Howe’s army controlled the land for miles surrounding New York City.  He was fighting with the Continentals in New Jersey over the winter, but had successfully captured Providence, Rhode Island without a fight and felt confident that he could move British ships up the Hudson River whenever he wanted.

So with spring approaching, it was time to consider the 1777 offensives.  By this time, Lee was a prisoner of war, and the remainder of his forces had joined Washington in New Jersey.  As I discussed in detail last week, in the spring of 1777, Britain planned once again to push into New York, from Canada, this time with General Johnny Burgoyne in charge.

General William Howe
(from Wikimedia)
Howe was more interested, at this point, in taking Philadelphia.  He did not think he had enough troops to do that and mount a full scale invasion of the Hudson Valley.  Therefore, he had no intention of doing the latter. As I said last week, such a move would only contribute to Burgoyne’s glory by supporting his primary offensive from Canada.  As commander of North American forces, Howe was not terribly interested in playing a support role for a subordinate. While a full scale invasion of the Hudson Valley from the south was not a serious consideration, the British did want to begin to test the resolve of the Continental and militia forces in the area.

Washington, of course, would want to oppose any British movements. But at this point, he was not quite sure what the British might do next.  They had a force in Rhode Island that might move up through New England.  Washington had recaptured most of New Jersey over the winter.  It was quite likely that Howe would try to take back the State and continue his offensive into Pennsylvania.  From there he could capture Philadelphia.

So while the Americans, hoped to prevent a British incursion into upstate New York, coming up with the soldiers to defend that area was a big problem.  Washington kept the bulk of his troops in New Jersey, to prevent a move on Philadelphia, with the other significant force further north at Lake Champlain and Fort Ticonderoga, preparing to oppose the British push from Canada.

Peekskill

The Continentals had created a supply depot at Peekskill, New York, about 20 miles north of White Plains, along the Hudson River.  Area mills produced leather, wood, flour, and gunpowder.  Local slaughterhouses also provided meat for the Continental army and patriot militia.  Washington thought the area would prove a good location for supplies, since it was in between the two expected British invasion zones that were likely for 1777.  If the British attacked the northern army at Fort Ticonderoga, the supplies could be taken north to the soldiers defending upstate New York.  If the British launched another attack across New Jersey in pursuit of Philadelphia, the supplies could be moved south to support that army.

The Continentals had not built any serious defenses at Peekskill itself.  Until February 1777, General William Heath of Massachusetts had commanded from Peekskill.  However, after his disappointing raid on Fort Independence, which I discussed back in Episode 128, Washington had written him a rather scolding letter.  Heath requested and received a leave of absence.  He returned to Boston and shortly took over there after General Artemas Ward finally retired.

Alexander McDougall
(from find-a-grave)
The Peekskill command then fell to General Alexander McDougall.  You may recall that McDougall had been an active member of the Sons of Liberty in New York City, and played a role in the pre-war battle of Golden Hill.  That was where British soldiers and the Sons of Liberty had a street riot over the city’s liberty pole, see Episode 32.  McDougall had received a general’s commission in the Continental army.  We last heard from him in Episode 112 when he was serving under Washington at the Battle of White Plains.  At Peekskill, he commanded the area with a force of 250 soldiers, most of whom appeared to be local militia.

McDougall’s small independent command at Peekskill kept a check on British incursions up the Hudson River. Over the winter, Washington deployed a few New England regiments there to be used as reserve reinforcements either in upstate New York or in New Jersey as needed.

There was no notion the Americans would launch a full blown offensive against British controlled New York City.  The Continentals focused on trying to resist whatever spring offensive the British might execute.

New Yorkers had attempted to block British ships from moving up river by placing a chain across the Hudson at Fort Montgomery, also under McDougall’s command.  This chain was a few miles further upriver from Peekskill, so it would not play a role in this raid.  In any event, it was not going to prove very effective.  It actually broke once on its own during the winter and had to be repaired.  When the British actually did move upriver later in 1777, they had no problem disabling the chain and continuing on their way.  I mention this only to note that the Americans were at least concerned about the British moving up the Hudson and cutting off New England from the middle and southern states, even if they did not garrison large numbers of soldiers in the area.

The Raid

As soon as the ice melt made river travel safe again, the British moved up the Hudson river.  In March, Colonel John Bird took a fleet of 12 ships transporting over 500 soldiers up river to Peekskill.  On March 23, the British landed at Lent’s cove, about a mile and a half south of Peekskill.  They deployed about 500 British regulars and at least two cannon unopposed.

The British force set fire to houses near where they landed.  They also used their cannon against a number of structures in the small village.  The initial goal seemed to be to terrorize the local citizenry.

The American General McDougall realized that he was outnumbered by about two to one.  He pulled his soldiers out of Peekskill and back to a hill known as Fort Hill behind the town. As he pulled out of town, McDougall set fire to some of his own supplies in order to deny them to the enemy.  The only way he could win would be to provoke the British into attempting a charge up a hill where the outnumbered Americans would have the better entrenched position.

British Colonel Bird, however, was not terribly interested in confronting the Continentals.  His troops took control of Peekskill and continued what the Americans had started, destroying the food, supplies, and equipment left in the town.

The two sides did fire on each other with their cannon, killing one or two on either side with an occasional lucky shot.  But the British were not intent on driving off Americans.  They were there to destroy the supply depot, which they did.  They burned the mills, workhouses, barracks and storage houses in and around the town.  They carried away some materials, but given the limited space on the ships, they destroyed most of what they found.

George Clinton
(from Wikimedia)
Even though the British did not seem to be preparing to take the hill, the cannon fire was enough for McDougall and the Americans to retreat back another two miles or so to Gallows Hill, where they were out of range of the British cannon.  Meanwhile New York General George Clinton put out a call for militia in the region to muster. By the way George Clinton was a distant cousin of British General Henry Clinton. He was mostly a politician who would soon become Governor of New York and would eventually serve as Vice President under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. At this time though he was a New York militia general.

It would take time to get the word out to local militia and for them to muster.  This sparsely populated region could not muster within hours like other regions.  There were smaller numbers of soldiers ready to go a few miles upriver at Forts Montgomery and Independence.

Fort Montgomery was the larger fort several miles upriver. The Continental officers at Fort Montgomery did not want to send large numbers of men from their fort. If they took the fort garrison to Peekskill, the British could climb aboard ship again, sail upriver and capture the fort defended by only a skeleton crew. The Continentals wanted to wait for militia to arrive and occupy the fort before sending any soldiers to Peekskill.

Fort Independence was closer to Peekskill.  It was not much of a fort.  It had only been built a few months earlier, just north of the town.  Just to avoid confusion, this is not the same Fort Independence near New York City occupied by the British and which General Heath failed to capture.  This is a totally different fort in a different place with the same name. To make things even more confusing some primary documents refer to Fort Independence as Fort Constitution. 

Fort Independence was not only closer to Peekskill, it was not a terribly well built fort that the patriots needed to occupy and defend.  General McDougall ordered the commander Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willet to leave just a handful of soldiers and to bring as much as he could from the 3rd New York Regiment.  Willet did not wait for reinforcements.  He set out almost as soon as he got the message with about 80 soldiers from his regiment, expecting more to follow later..

Several hundred New York militia had heeded the call and began marching directly toward Peekskill to join the battle.  However, most of them would not arrive in time to fight.

The day following the British landing, the regulars deployed an advance line about a mile northeast of Peekskill to prevent the Americans from moving forward on them while they occupied the town.  Willet and his militia from Fort Independence arrived that morning, joining the McDougall’s men on Gallows Hill.

Marinus Willett
(from Wikimedia)
From the hill, McDougall and Willet could observe the British plundering the area around Peekskill, burning farms and supplies.  Willet noted that about 200 of the British were far enough separated from the main force that they might be attacked.  He encouraged McDougall to order a strike on this separated force.

McDougall sent a small group against the British left flank to distract them, while another force under the command of Willet tried to sneak up on the enemy’s right flank and attack them.  They lost the element of surprise when inexperienced New York militia got nervous and fired on the enemy from too far away to do any damage.  They only alerted the British to their position and gave them more time to react.

Realizing they had lost the element of surprise, Willet gave the order to fix bayonets in preparation of a charge on the British lines.  Before they could charge though, the British retreated back to their main lines, telling Colonel Bird that “the woods were full of rebel soldiers.”  The British lost 13 killed or wounded in the skirmish.  The Americans reported two killed and four or five wounded. By this time it was dusk.  The British could not tell whether there would be a larger attack.  They remained on alert for a night attack that never came.

Overnight Colonel Bird prepared to withdraw his troops back to their ships. The British had destroyed the American supplies, which had been their objective.  Rather than wait to see if the enemy could collect more militia from the area and mount a larger attack, the British simply packed up and left.  That was probably the right decision.  Over the next few days, hundreds more New York patriot militia would descend on the area, ready to contest the British.

Continental General McDougall indicated in his reports that the British left sooner than they would have liked.  There was still a fair amount of supplies that they had not destroyed.  The Continentals recovered a portion of their supplies and regained control of the area.

Conclusion

So in the end, both sides claimed victory.  The British fleet moved back downstream to report a successful raid.  The American leaders reported successfully chasing off the British after two days.

The fighting at Peekskill was not a terribly significant battle by itself, more of a skirmish.  There were less than a thousand troops engaged on both sides combined.  Casualties were minimal, and the amount of damage to Continental supplies was annoying but not fatal to any larger strategic plan.  In fact, far more significant for American supplies, the same month of this raid, a ship arrived from France full of equipment for the Americans.

The Peekskill raid proved more of a test by the British to see the resolve of New Yorkers further upriver to challenge their movements.  If the British wanted to control more territory further up river, they would have to come in much larger numbers to overwhelm the enemy.  Following the raid, the British did not attempt another raid all summer.

They did send one small fleet in April.  But as it turned out, that was only sent as a distraction to try to get the Americans to deploy more forces to the Hudson Valley while the British launched a real raid on Danbury Connecticut.  The Danbury raid will be the topic of a future episode.  The launch of a few troop transports on that occasion up the Hudson River turned out to be nothing.  It would not be until October that they would attempt another serious move up the Hudson.

The raid also should have been a warning to the British.  General Burgoyne based his invasion of the Hudson Valley on the premise that a majority of the citizenry would turn out in loyal support of the British as they made their way from Canada to New York City.  This raid proved that there was no evidence of a loyalist majority waiting to show itself, quite the opposite.  Perhaps the British thought a larger force would bring out the loyalists, as it had in New Jersey during the earlier invasion there.  If so, it was a fatal error that,  as we will see in future episodes, put Britain on the road to defeat.

- - -

Next Episode 134 the Battle of Bound Brook

Previous Episode 132 Britain Adjusts its War Plans


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Further Reading

Websites

Sheehan, Michael J. F. “An American Perspective on the Peekskill Raid” Journal of the American Revolution, May 13, 2015: https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/05/an-american-perspective-on-the-peekskill-raid

Attack on Peekskill, N. Y. – British account of the Attack on Peekskill
http://www.historycarper.com/1777/03/31/attack-on-peekskill-n-y-british-account-of-the-attack-on-peekskill

Van Cortlandtville Skirmish of March 1777
https://patch.com/new-york/peekskill/the-van-cortlandtville-skirmish-of-march-1777

The Van Cortlandville Skirmish of March 1777:
https://patch.com/new-york/peekskill/the-van-cortlandtville-skirmish-of-march-1777

Letter from Gen. McDougall to Gen. Washington March 29, 1777: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-09-02-0018

Letter from Ann Hawkes Hay to Gen. Washington March 23, 1777:
https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-08-02-0670

Letter from Colonel Henry Beekman Livingston Gen. Washington March 29, 1777:
https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-09-02-0017

Letter from George Washington to William Heath, Feb. 3, 1777: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-08-02-0246

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

Clinton, George Public papers of George Clinton: first Governor of New York, 1777-1795, 1801-1804, Vol. 1,  New York: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co.1900.

Kemble, Stephen The Kemble Papers, New York Historical Society, 1884:

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*

Champagne, Roger J Alexander McDougall and the American Revolution in New York,
NY State American Revolution Bicentennial Comm. 1975.

Diamant, Lincoln Chaining the Hudson: Fight for the River in the American Revolution, Carol Publishing Group, 1989 (book recommendation of the week).

MacDougall, William L. American Revolutionary: a Biography of General Alexander McDougall, Greenwood Press, 1977.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.



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