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 11th: Friendly fire killed men on the Hudson; Joseph Reed contemplated defeat; Ambrose Serle watched the new offensive get underway.
The Americans closely watched Hudson’s River for signs of renewed British activity. A vessel was observed coming down the river. Sergeant John Smith (Lippitt’s Rhode Island State Regiment) noted “she hoisted an uncommon sail,” and Major-General William Heath wrote that she was thought “to be one of the British tenders”.
Henry Hallowell (Hutchinson’s 27th Continental Regiment) remembered: “I was ordered with a party to place ourselves near the shore [with muskets] all loaded to stop [the vessel]… and [we were] just about to fire” when “Knox’s Artillery threw a shot from the fort” at it. In fact, the Americans were firing on their own men – the vessel was one of the few vessels to have escaped the Royal Navy on the 9th.
According to Smith, the shot “killed three men as they was sitting aft and wounded the captain slightly”. Afterwards, the dead men were “landed at the ferry and buried in one grave”. Hallowell called it “a sorrowful sight.”
Colonel Joseph Reed was Washington’s adjutant general. He was shocked by the poor showing of American troops when the British first landed on Manhattan one month earlier (September 15, 1776), and he was convinced that the American army lacked the discipline to defeat the British in battle. Reed also didn’t think the situation was likely to improve. He complained in a letter to his wife:
“To attempt to introduce discipline and subordination into a new army must always be a work of much difficulty, but where the principles of democracy so universally prevail, where so great an equality and so thorough a leveling spirit predominate, either no discipline can be established, or he who attempts it must become odious and detestable…”
Reed previously informed the Continental Congress that he wished to resign from his post, but he was stuck in this position as they had not appointed a replacement.
He told his wife, “I never meant to make arms a profession, my duty to you and my dear children will lead me to pursue that course of life which will contribute most to their and your happiness, for though I would wish to serve my country… I have not the least desire to sacrifice you and them to fame, even if I was sure to attain it.”
He feared that “if France or some other foreign power does not interfere” in this conflict “we shall not be able to stand” against the British “next spring”. But he consoled his wife that if the war were lost, they would not suffer too much for it: “my estate is no object of confiscation, my rank is not so high as to make me an example”.
New York City was devastated by a massive fire on September 21st. Its port was closed, many of its inhabitants had fled, and it was now occupied by hundreds of British soldiers. The remaining citizens attempted to maintain a degree of normalcy. Ambrose Serle (Vice Admiral Richard Howe’s secretary) recorded that he “walked about the town, which begins to fill, and has some of its markets open for meat and vegetables.” He noted disparagingly that “The meat is sweet, but generally lean: the vegetables are mostly good: but both very inferior to those of England; at least, what I have seen.”
In the afternoon Serle saw that the invasion of Westchester County was getting underway:
“all the flat-boats, belonging to the fleet were ordered up the East River in order to effect a landing for the troops… The admiral [Howe] and the other principal officers of the navy went up to conduct the embarkation and debarkation, intended in the morning; so that tomorrow or next day, warm work may be expected.”
He exulted, “May God prosper the king’s arms, and the cause of my country!”
No spies or deserters warned the Americans of the British plans. Nevertheless, the Americans closely watched the shore, and they had an inkling of what was coming. Major-General William Heath observed, “There was a considerable movement among the British boats”.