Sunday, September 1, 2019

Episode 112: Battle of White Plains

When we last left General Washington, he was holding firm at Harlem Heights on Manhattan Island.  Having created a series of defensive lines, he waited patiently for British General Howe’s frontal attack.  Washington expected that in such an attack he would inflict large numbers of casualties on the British, even if he had to give up the field.

The problem for Washington was that, since Bunker Hill, General Howe was not stupid enough to attempt a frontal assault against an entrenched enemy.  Washington had given Howe several opportunities for such an attack, but Howe refused to take the bait.

Hessian Soldiers (from Land of the Brave)
In holding this ground, Washington did not consider the danger to his army.  Holding an entrenched area on Manhattan Island, meant that the British could easily sail north of Washington’s position, land a force and effectively surround the Continental Army.  Fortunately for the Continentals, Howe ignored General Clinton’s advice to do just that: land a force to the north, capture King’s Bridge and cut off Washington’s army from any line of retreat.

Instead, after meeting resistance at Harlem Heights, on September 16, 1776, Howe did what he usually did: set up camp, entrench his troops in defensive lines and sit around for weeks doing nothing.

It appears that Howe was waiting to hear from Canada.  He knew Generals Carleton and Burgoyne planned to invade Lake Champlain and make his way down toward Albany.  From there, that 10,000 man northern army would be in Washington’s rear while Howe still sat in front of Washington’s lines.  The Continentals would have no choice but to see the hopelessness of their cause.  They would surrender and allow the Howe brothers to work out generous peace terms with the King, all without having a major battle that could kill thousands.

As we learned last week, however, the Canadian commander, General Carleton, could be just as conservative as Howe.  After the battle of Valcour Island and destroying Arnold’s fleet on Lake Champlain, Carleton decided that late October was too late in the year to begin his invasion of New York.  He pulled his forces back to Canada and waited for spring.

Landing at Throg’s Neck

With nothing happening to the north, Howe finally concluded that he needed to do something about Washington’s Army.  He still rejected Clinton’s plans to land a large army behind the enemy and trap them.  Instead, he permitted Clinton to perform another water landing a few miles up the East River at Throg’s Neck, often mistakenly called Frog’s Neck in many of the contemporary reports.

Throg’s Neck was a peninsula on the East River a few miles north of Kip’s Bay and just on the northern side of the Harlem River.  It was not far north enough for the British to get around Washington’s rear and cut off his army from retreat.  It was about due east of Washington’s headquarters at Harlem Heights.  By marching west, the British would threaten Washington’s position, but still give him time to retreat further north.

British Transports on East River (from Wikimedia)
In the early morning hours of October 12, Clinton’s army of 4000 returned to Kip’s Bay and boarded a fleet of navy warships and transport vessels.  The fleet got underway shortly after dawn moving up the East River toward Throg’s Neck.  A heavy fog set in over the river, making the journey extremely dangerous.  The fleet of 80 ships had to pass through an already dangerous part of the river known as Hell Gate, full of rocks and whirlpools that could damage a ship even in good weather.  Admiral Richard Howe personally commanded the expedition and somehow guided the fleet to its destination.  Only one small ship, carrying three cannon and a few men wrecked and sank.  That the bulk of the fleet made it through the treacherous waters in such bad weather is a testament both to the skill of Admiral Howe’s navy and probably also to some good luck.  British reports indicate they encountered “feeble resistance” upon landing.  But there were probably not more than a few lookouts in the area.

The real problems for the British started after the landing.  Throg’s Neck was an island at high tide. Even at low tide, the only way to cross from the neck onto the mainland was across a bridge.  The Continental General Heath had removed the bridge planks days earlier, just in case the British decided to land there. 

On the other side of the bridge, twenty-five Continental riflemen harassed the British and prevented them from attempting to cross and repair the bridge.  The British advance force instead threw up a defensive barrier and returned fire.  Another Continental guard blocked a marshy ford where the British might be able to pass.  Thus, because of the landing point, less than 100 Americans could block the advance of Clinton’s 4000 man army.  A member of the NY Provincial Congress noted later, “had [the British] pushed their imaginations to discover the worst place [to land] they could not have succeeded better than they have done.”

Rather than attempt to push through or return to the ships to move up river, the British did what they did best, sit and wait.  They spent several more days camping on Throg’s Neck and awaiting further supplies.  Meanwhile Washington deployed more reinforcements to prevent the British from getting off the neck.  Over the next few days, about 1800 Americans moved into the area to contest any British advance.

Lee Returns

About the same time Washington was preparing to contest the British attack at Throg’s Neck, General Charles Lee returned from the South.  Lee was probably at the height of his popularity following his victory at Fort Sullivan in South Carolina.  As I discussed in an earlier episode, Colonel Moultrie defeated the British at Fort Sullivan only by ignoring Lee’s advice to retreat and give up the Fort before the British even attacked.  Still, Lee was the commander on the scene and received the credit for the only clear American victory in a major battle against regulars so far.

Charles Lee
(from Wikimedia)
Washington assigned Lee to command the left flank of the Continental forces, which included the area along the East River that appeared to be where the British were launching their attack.  Lee, an experienced British officer took one look at the map and essentially told Washington and his generals: Are you guys crazy?  The only reason the British had not landed north of you and trapped your entire army yet is that they seem to be bigger idiots than you.  We need to retreat across Kingsbridge right away.  We need to move further north so that we don’t fall into a British trap.

The next day, in response to Lee’s advice, Washington held a council of war with his top generals.  They agreed to abandon Harlem Heights and move across the Harlem River to White Plains.  There, the mountains provided a natural defensive area.  It also served as a Continental supply depot for materials shipped to the army from New England.  Days later Colonel Joseph Reed credited Lee’s wakeup call for saving the army from certain destruction.  On the other side, General Henry Clinton agreed that the precipitous retreat, combined with the British delay at Throg’s Neck saved the Continental Army.

Landing at Pelham Bay

After the Continentals began their retreat to White Plains, General Howe finally conceded what everyone else had realized for days: his landing at Throg’s Neck was a huge mistake.  He ordered Clinton and his 4000 soldiers back into their 80 ships and moved further upriver.

The Continentals were on the move, but the lack of horses and wagons slowed that move.  The British might still beat the Americans to White Plains and take control of the hills before the Americans could entrench themselves.  The British chose to land at Pelham Bay, but before they left Throg’s Neck, several deserters slipped into the American lines and informed the Continentals of Howe’s new plans.

Pelham Bay (from Journal of Am. Rev.)
To oppose Howe, Lee deployed what amounted to about two regiments under the command of Colonel John Glover, the same mariner who had ferried Washington’s Army from Long Island to New York for the successful retreat from the battle of Brooklyn.  Now he had a chance to prove himself on land.  In the early morning hours of October 18, Glover saw Howe’s fleet landing at Pelham Bay.  The British apparently began the landing before dawn and all 4000 were ashore before the Americans could engage them.

As Glover advanced his men to engage the enemy, he encountered an advance enemy company of about 30 soldiers.  Glover deployed 40 men to engage the force while he deployed his defensive lines behind the fighting.  Glover made use of the stone walls dividing farm pastures that fell at intervals along either side of the road leading inland.

The Continentals deployed behind the walls.  As the British forced the American advance guard to retreat, they pushed forward expecting a rout.  When the British hit the first stone wall, the Americans stood up and fired a volley at close range, forcing the British to stagger back.  The two sides exchanged volleys as the British brought up their cannons.  The Americans, greatly outnumbered, fell back in good order as the next line of Americans lay behind the next stone wall ready to repeat the process.

Eventually, the armies reached a creek which Glover had set as his final line of defense.  He had pulled up the bridge crossing the creek and deployed his full force of over 700 men along the creek to prevent the enemy from crossing.  Glover also had a few cannon to back up his infantry.   The British failed to cross the creek but continued to exchange artillery fire until nightfall.  Under the cover of darkness, Glover’s brigade slipped away and marched the three miles to join up with the main Continental force.

The battle at Pelham’s Bay led to few American casualties, eight killed and thirteen wounded.  The number of British casualties is a matter of dispute.  In his official report, Clinton reported only three dead and twenty wounded.  But Clinton only reported British casualties, not the Hessian ones.  The Hessians made up about 3000 of the 4000 man force that engaged in battle, and were involved in some of the heaviest fighting.  Estimates range from 200 to 1000 dead and wounded among the Hessians.  While I suspect the lower range of that estimate is closer to the truth, it was still a lopsided battle and a dearly bought victory for the British and Hessians.  Outnumbered by about 5 to 1, the Americans never expected to hold the field.  The battle provided the Continental army with a successful delaying action, keeping the British from attacking the main Continental column all day.  This gave Washington the valuable time he needed to move the Continental Army out of danger.

White Plains

Rather than moving directly on Washington’s retreating column, the following day Howe ordered the army to move north to New Rochelle.  There, the army waited another three days until 8000 Hessians who had just made the Atlantic crossing could come up from Staten Island to join the forces pursuing Washington.  The Hessians came under the command of General Wilhelm Von Knyphausen.

Both sides continued to trudge north slowly.  The Continentals were so slow because they lacked the horses and wagons to pull their artillery and baggage.  The British and Hessians just seemed to move at a leisurely pace, stopping for a few days here and there in various towns along the way.

As Washington struggled to get his army over the Harlem River at King's Bridge, he sent Colonel Rufus Putnam to search out the British Army’s position.  I’m not sure why he sent his Chief Engineer on such a mission, especially when he had officers who were much more familiar with the local area than the Colonel from Massachusetts.  But Putnam set out on his own to find the enemy.  He learned from local militia that Howe’s forces were only about nine miles down the road from White Plains.  If General Howe had occupied the heights first and linked up with brother, Admiral Howe on the Hudson river, Washington’s army would have been cut off from any line of retreat.  Putnam rushed back to Washington’s camp and got Washington to push forward on a night march to take White Plains first.
British Grenadiers (from Britanica)

General Howe, though, was still waiting for the Hessians.  Putnam discovered the British position on October 19, but Howe did not begin to move until October 22.  When the British did finally move, they marched another few miles up the road from New Rochelle to Mamaroneck and paused there for another four days.  By the time the British and Hessians finally started moving again, the Continental Army had had almost a week to occupy and entrench its defenses at White Plains, making a direct assault inadvisable.

Washington had positioned the Continental lines between the Bronx river on his right, and a smaller creek and marshy area to the left, making a British flanking attack on his lines more difficult.

While the 14,000 British and Hessian force could have taken the Continentals, Howe feared another Bunker Hill level of casualties.  Howe’s second in command, Clinton, who had been urging faster movement all along, also agreed that a direct assault at this point would be a mistake.

Instead, the Howe stopped again and waited for a better opportunity to engage the Continentals.  General Clinton led the British contingent and Knyphausen led the Hessians.  The combined force moved to occupy the high ground Chatterton Hill.  It was across the Bronx River, but would give the British the high ground overlooking the Continental right flank.  From there, the British could use artillery to drive the Americans from the field.  On October 28, they attempted to occupy Chatterton Hill.

As soon as Washington learned the British were crossing the Bronx River, he realized Chatterton Hill was the obvious goal, and sent General Alexander McDougal, who you may recall from many episodes back had been one of the Sons of Liberty troublemakers in New York City, to support the few militia units already on the Hill.  Other deployed officers included Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who will become more important in future episodes, and Captain Alexander Hamilton’s artillery.  This force would try to deny the hill to the enemy.

Battle of White Plains (from Wordpress)
The Continentals first deployed a few companies as a delaying action to slow the British and Hessians from crossing the Bronx River and approaching the hill.  This gave McDougal time to get his soldiers on Chatterton Hill.  The Hessians led a few tentative assaults on the hill but were driven back each time.  The British eventually decided they needed to launch an all out coordinated assault on the hill using 4000 troops.

They organized the attack with three prongs, Colonel Johann Rahl would lead a charge up the hill on the American right.  Another Hessian, Colonel Carl Von Donop, led a second charge against the center, and British General Alexander Leslie would lead British regulars against the American left flank.  Colonel Johan Rahl’s assault ended up scattering the militia on the American right flank.  Rahl had newly arrived in America with the Hessian reinforcements.  A few months later, he would find himself in charge of the Trenton outpost during Christmas.

After Rahl scattered the militia, he was able to push into the American Center on Chatterton Hill.  The Americans did not panic this time.  Colonel John Haslet’s Delaware Regiment, which had been one of the few to stand and fight at the battle of Long Island, stood and fought again on Chatterton Hill, providing covering fire for the rest of the Americans to retreat.  Haslet’s regiment then maintained its own orderly retreat off the hill, giving way to the superior British and Hessian assaults while keeping their lines in good order.

John Haslet (from
Revolutionary War Journal)
The fighting on Chatterton Hill cost the British and Hessians about 200 casualties, while the Americans lost about 175.  Since this was just part of the overall battle of White Plains, casualty estimates are not very precise, but basically it was close to a draw in terms of casualties.  The British took the hill giving them the victory. They then entrenched themselves and prepared for a final assault on the main American lines.

But Howe still was not interested in an aggressive attack.  After capturing Chatterton Hill, the two armies spent the rest of the day mostly lobbing artillery shells at each other without much impact.  With British artillery now able to destroy the Continental right flank, the British could have launched a final assault and crushed the Continental line.

Instead, Howe did what he normally did, gave Washington a chance to realize that his position was untenable and that he should retreat from the field.  Howe reinforced his position on Chatterton Hill, and maintained his lines directly facing the American main lines, but did not advance.  The two armies faced each other for two more days as the Americans awaited the final assault that never came.

On October 30, General Lord Percy arrived from New York City with seven more regiments of Hessians.  Even with additional forces, the British did not attack.  According to Howe, he had planned to attack on the 31st, but did not do so because of a terrible rain storm. Washington finally decided that the Continental Army should retreat north.  On November 1, before dawn, the Continentals began to pull out and march north.  The continuing rain gave cover to the retreat.  Howe did not bother to pursue or harass the retreating Continental Army.

At first, the Continentals moved about five miles north to North Castle Heights, where they would be in a better position to resist a British attack.  But the British never bothered to pursue them.  Howe remained in camp for several more days, finally abandoning White Plains and returning south.  Washington, realizing he would not have to occupy the favorable ground for a battle, continued his retreat to the north.  At Peekskill, he took his army across the Hudson River into New Jersey.

With Washington’s retreat, the only Continental occupation on Manhattan Island remained the stronghold at Fort Washington.

Next Week: General Howe will turn his attention to the capture of Fort Washington, making his control of Manhattan complete.

- - -

Next Episode 113: Fall of Fort Washington (Available September 8, 2019).

Previous Episode 111: Retreat from Lake Champlain

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Further Reading


Battle of White Plains:

Battle of White Plains, facts:

White Plains:

Gen. Wilhelm Von Knyphausen:

Col. Rufus Putnam:

Col. John Haslet:,12044,ML_haslet_bkp,00.html

Gen. Alexander McDougall:

Col. Johann Rahl (sometimes spelled Rall) :

Col. Carl Von Donop:

Gen. Alexander Leslie:

Burdick, Kim "Delaware's Colonel John Haslet (1727-1777) Journal of the American Revolution April 30, 2019

The Enigma Of General Howe, by Thomas Fleming, American Heritage, Vol. 15, Issue 2 (Feb. 1964):

Dacus, Jeff "Pell's Point: John Glover Saves Washington's Army" Journal of the American Revolution, June 12, 2018:

Ross, David "The Hessian Jagerkorps in New York and Pennsylvania, 1776-1777" Journal of the American Revolution, May 14, 2015

Schenawolf, Harry "Battle of Mamaroneck, New York – 'A Pretty Affair' in the American Revolutionary War" Revolutionary War Journal March 5, 2013:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The Detail and Conduct of the American War, under Generals Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, and Vice Admiral Lord Howe, (original reports and letters) The Royal Exchange, 1780.

Carrington, Henry Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781, A.S. Barnes & Co. 1876.

Babcock, James, Memoir of Captain Nathan Hale, Hale Memorial Assoc. 1844.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 3, Washington: St. Claire Clarke, 1837.

Johnston, Henry The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn, Long Island Historical Society, 1878.

Martin, Joseph Plumb The Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier, 1830 (This is a copy of the original print, but in poor quality.  You can borrow a better quality copy or listen to a free audio copy of the book) or see below in "books worth buying" section.

Reed, William Life and correspondence of Joseph Reed, military secretary of Washington, at Cambridge, Vol. 1, Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847.

Reed, Henry Sparks, Jared (ed) The Library of American Biography, Vol. 8: The Lives of Charles Lee and Joseph Reed, Little & Brown,1834.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Atkinson, Richard The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, Henry Holt & Co. 2019

Daughan, George C. Revolution on the Hudson: New York City and the Hudson River Valley in the American War of Independence, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2016.

Ellis, Joseph Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Martin, Joseph Plumb A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier, Signet Classics, 2010 (original 1830) (book recommendation of the week).

McCullough, David 1776, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Schecter, Barnet The Battle for New York, New York: Walker Publishing, 2002.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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