Friday, May 13, 2011

More on White Plains

The battle of White Plains marked Britain’s last opportunity to destroy George Washington’s American army during the New York campaign of 1776. The battle was a British victory, but not a crushing blow to the fledgling American republic.

White Plains is also one of the least discussed of Washington’s battles and a subject that has attracted my particular interest. Earlier this month I posted a draft map of the battlefield. Since then I’ve been able to make some improvements to the map. Below I present the revised map, and describe how it was constructed.

Here is the revised version of the map (click to enlarge). Once again, British and American positions are not shown. To envision where they were, imagine a diagonal line running from the lower left corner to the upper right. During the main phase of the fighting, the Americans would have been on the upper left side of the line (especially on Chatterton’s Hill), and the British would have been on the lower right side of the line.

One important change from the previous map is that I expanded the map to the west. Three Hessian regiments – Regiments Lieb, Knyphausen, and Rall – deployed in the lower left corner of the map early in the battle in the area between the Dobb’s Ferry Road and the Bronx River (cf. Baurmeister’s and Ewald’s accounts of the battle [1]), and I wanted to make sure that I included this area.

Another change is that I added a minor road and a creek to the upper right corner of the map. Details about the road appear below. The creek generally does not show up on early maps of the battlefield, but it is clearly shown on several 19th-Century maps of White Plains, and surely it was also present at the time of the battle. I suspect this low-lying ground is what Hessian Captain Johann Ewald was referring to when he wrote the following:

“The two jäger companies had to work their way, under the heaviest enemy cannon fire, through the ravines and marshes which lay between the two [British] wings. Here we came upon a number of riflemen who were hiding in these ravines, and who withdrew when they caught sight of us after sharp firing.”

The British left wing was centered on Wolf Pit Hill; the British right wing was centered on high ground east of this map. There is little sign of “ravines” in the area of the creek, but possibly that is because of changes that have been made in the terrain. This area has been urbanized for more than a century.


The map was constructed first by removing the buildings and roads from a 1930s-era topographic map, and then by adding roads and woods that appear to have been present at the time of the battle.

The oldest maps I’ve been able to identify appear below (I’ve cropped the images so that the area shown roughly corresponds with the area I mapped). Three of these were made during the Revolutionary War, and electronic copies of them are hosted by the Library of Congress. The 1807 map is part of the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

Early maps of the White Plains Battlefield (click to enlarge).

The three Revolutionary War-era maps are somewhat crude and they differ from each other in some important respects. All three maps, however, show both the Dobb’s Ferry Road, the York Road, and the Bronx River. In all three cases, the Bronx is shown making a nearly 90-degree angle as it skirts the flanks of Chatterton’s Hill. The Dobb’s Ferry Road and the York Road are shown taking different courses on these maps, but it is possible to divine the correct path through comparisons with more skillfully-executed 19th Century maps.

Some roads show up on some maps but not others. The three Revolutionary War maps show a road running across Chatterton’s Hill thank links the Dobb’s Ferry Road and the York Road. The 1776 map shows a large American force deployed astride this road. The 1778 map similar designates this area (through text) as the site of the battle of White Plains. This road, however, does not show up on the 1807 map, and hints of it only appear on later maps. Therefore I drew this road in based on clues present in the early maps, especially the relatively detailed 1776 battlefield map.

I added another road linking the Dobb’s Ferry and York Roads to the revised map. This road is east of the Bronx River. This road shows up in the 1778 and 1781 maps, but not the 1776 or 1807 maps. From this I inferred it was a secondary route (and hence marked it with a thinner brown line). The path I assigned to this road is based on an 1868 map of White Plains, which shows a similar road. I suspect the 18th Century route did not follow the neat straight line of the 19th Century road, but this is what I’ve elected to show for lack of better information.

The 1776 and 1778 maps show another minor road extending northwest from the crest of Chatterton’s Hill. No corresponding path appears on later maps, and I opted to omit this road for lack of good information on its historic route.

Wooded areas are shown in the 1781 map and an 1891 map in the David Rumsey collection. I decided to mark as wooded on my map any area that was shown as wooded on either of these maps.

What’s Next

I’m not sure whether I’ll make any additional changes to this map yet or regard it as final. There’s a few things I’m uncertain about – like the original route of the Dobb’s Ferry Road in the Hartsdale area (lower left part of the map). The main X factor is whether I will find any other historic maps of the battlefield.

The next major step will be to locate exactly where the fighting took place during the battle of White Plains. In this regard, the 1776 map is invaluable. This map, by one Captain Charles Blaskowitz, shows the position of a number of specific regiments (a zoomable version of the map is available through the Library of Congress website; the regiment names can be read there quite clearly). Although the map is somewhat crude, the hills and ravines he drew generally have clear counterparts in the modern topography of the area. Thus, it would seem possible to use the Blaskowitz map to precisely locate where the fighting took place. However, in respect to certain details, the Blaskowitz map is contradicted by the accounts of Baurmeister and other participants. No obvious method of reconciling these differences has occurred to me.

The problem of identifying the exact location of the American units is even greater. Participant accounts make it possible to fairly precisely locate where certain regiments were located (e.g., the Delaware Regiment). But I have significant questions about a number of others (John Moseley’s regiment of Massachusetts militia, Jonathan Holman's regiment of Massachusetts militia, and David Forman’s regiment of New Jersey levies, to name a few). Maybe it’s not possible to show exactly where every regiment was located. In any case, I will describe the battle in as much detail as my research permits.


1. Bernhard A. Uhlendorf. (1957). Revolution in America: Confidential letters and journals 1776-1784 of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian forces. Joseph P. Tustin (1979). Diary of the American War: A Hessian journal. Captain Johann Ewald.

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