Monday, October 10, 2011

October 10, 1776

From October 8th to November 1st, I am blogging about the White Plains “campaign” of 1776. Click here for an overview of this project, a listing of the sources used, and other general information.

Synopsis for October 10th: Gunning Bedford described life in the American army; the Americans feared the British would seize key points on the Hudson; William Howe prepared for the move to Throg’s Point.

Previous entry: October 9th; next: October 11th.

The passage of the British ships up the Hudson on the 9th alarmed the American army. Once it became clear that no major movement was afoot, the officers and men returned to their usual routine. Lieutenant-Colonel Gunning Bedford (the Delaware Regiment) described the situation of the army on this date:

“We are strengthening our [defensive] lines,--the enemy are also busy with theirs. Our duty continues hard, having the lines to man every morning before day, and they are a mile and a half from here, and [we have] a great deal of other duty… many of our men have deserted to the enemy, though none from our regiment... [British] deserters say the enemy are apprehensive of an attack from us. They all, likewise, say they are healthy, and their army strong,--above thirty thousand… Our army is very sickly yet. We have one hundred and forty of our regiment unfit for duty. We have neither hospitals nor medicines for them, which makes them suffer much… Our army seems in good spirits, and we think our lines are secure, if they should be attempted.”

Although the British vessels on the Hudson posed no immediate threat to the American army, their presence was suggestive of Britain’s longer-term plans. Writing from the town of Fishkill, the New York Committee of Safety described to George Washington their fears that British vessels, acting in conjunction with local Loyalists, would take control of key points on the river:

“Nothing can be more alarming than the present situation of our state; we are daily getting the most authentic intelligence of bodies of men [i.e., Loyalists] enlisted and armed in order to assist the enemy[.] We much fear that they[,] cooperating with the enemy may seize such passes as will cut off all communication, between the army and us and prevent your supplies.”

This map (click to enlarge) shows the lower Hudson River, which was a primary route for the flow of men and materials to and from Washington’s army. On October 9th, a handful of British vessels successfully passed Fort Washington (4) and Fort Constitution (5) and took post in a wide stretch of the Hudson’s River near Dobb’s Ferry (7) and Tarrytown (8). The Americans had previously begun construction on Fort Montgomery (10) to defend one vital chokepoint on the river, but other points seemed vulnerable, such as Stony Point (9) and West Point (11).

The painting is Dominic Serres’ depiction of the frigates Phoenix, Roebuck, and Tartar passing, on October 9th, between the American batteries in and around Fort Constitution (left) and Fort Washington (right).

The Americans were well aware that their supply lines extending north and east of Manhattan were also vulnerable. Although they had no forts to control the shoreline (like they did on the Hudson), the Americans were at least aided by geography: British vessels moving troops into Long Island Sound would have to pass through a treacherous passageway known as Hell Gate.

Colonel George Weedon (3rd Virginia Regiment) wrote with amazement that the British kept a vessel anchored in this passage: “at this time a 28 gun frigate lays in Hellgate, a place not much wider than the streets of Williamsburg, [Virginia]”

Lieutenant-General William Howe had in fact decided to move his entire army through this passage and land on Throg’s Point (cf. October 8, 1776). At this time he was attending to the details of this operation. In brief, the British occupied several posts in the New York City area: the lower half of Manhattan, western Long Island, Staten Island, Paulus Hook on the New Jersey shore, and a couple of islands in New York’s East River. Howe decided to largely strip these posts of troops, although on Manhattan Lieutenant-General Hugh Percy would be left with three brigades of British troops and one of Hessians.

Howe’s force would consist, at first, of the 1st, 2nd, and 6th brigades of British regulars, the British Reserve (three battalions of British grenadiers, and the 33rd and 42nd regiments), the brigade of Guards, one brigade of Hessian grenadiers, one brigade of Hessian musketeers and fusiliers, three battalions of light infantry, two battalions of the 71st Foot, some light dragoons, the Hessian jaegers, and a couple of recently formed Loyalist corps.

Howe expected to receive substantial reinforcements while the campaign was underway, including an entire division of Hessian troops that was then crossing the Atlantic. In addition, Percy would be able to release some of his men to Howe if and when Washington pulled back from Manhattan.

The exact timing of these decisions was unrecorded, but by this time the British were nearly ready for the offensive to begin. On this date the army was issued 6 days’ worth of provisions (a sure sign that a move was imminent) and they were ordered to “dress” these provisions on the 11th.

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