Wednesday, October 12, 2011

October 12, 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 12th: The British army crossed to Throg’s Neck; the Americans prevented the British from advancing far inland.

Previous entry: October 11th; next: October 13th.

During the night, the British army began to cross to Throg’s Neck (also known as Frog’s Point). Captain Henry Duncan of HMS Eagle, oversaw part of the crossing. He wrote:

“About three o'clock [on] Saturday morning, the 12th, the troops were embarked in the flat boats and bateaux, to the number of between four and five thousand men; the Guards and 42nd regiment, between fourteen and fifteen hundred men, were embarked on board sloops under my direction. At daybreak in the morning the boats set off, and no sooner had they put off, with an amazing strong tide, but it came on a fog equal to pitch darkness, with now and then an interval of light for a few seconds. The boats were put off; to attempt to stop them would have been very dangerous, for the headmost boats must have anchored, and the boats that followed would in all probability run [a]foul of them, to the imminent danger of sinking each other; the admiral [i.e., Vice Admiral Richard Howe], therefore, rather chose to run the risk of passing Hell Gate with all the boats in that rapid tide and dark fog. I went astern and ordered all the boats to move forward. Soon after their putting off, a galley towing one of the artillery boats, in endeavouring to cross a vessel lying in the passage, towed her athwart hawse; the boat ran directly up her cable, and overset instantly. Many of the people were picked up; there were three field-pieces lost, and I suppose five or six people. There were very few people in the flat boats [that] had ever been through or knew anything of the passage of Hell Gate. This made the danger much the greater.”

Captain George Harris (grenadier company, 5th Regiment of Foot) also had a close call:

“the point of an island… divides the river into two rapid streams, and causes a very dangerous whirlpool…. through the ignorance of our pilot, we were on the edge of the pool… too late to avoid the suction, and found ourselves, circle after circle, attracted to the centre, in spite of all our efforts, till at last the boatmen were on the point of quitting their oars, despairing of escape, when, animated I suppose by the love of life, I began to storm at them for their cowardice, and made them stick to their oars. We at length perceived that we made progress, and emerged from the whirlpool, escaping without other accident than the dislocation of a man's wrist”.

Lieutenant-General Henry Clinton had much praise for Vice Admiral Richard Howe and his fellow Royal Navy officers for getting the army through Hell Gate “almost miraculously” despite the heavy fog and treacherous waters. He added:

“About eight o’clock we arrived off Frog’s Point, where we found a frigate stationed to cover our embarkations. A few rebels made their appearance as we approached the shore; but some scattering shots soon dispersed them, and the landing was effected without loss.”

Two watercourses lay between Throg’s Neck and the American army: Westchester Creek and the Bronx River. Securing the passage over Westchester Creek was especially important as a single bridge over this creek provided the only good route inland. Therefore, according to Clinton, “As soon as the troops could be formed, we pushed for Westchester Bridge in hopes of securing it.”

The area nearest Throg’s Neck was defended by Colonel Edward Hand’s brigade of Pennsylvanians (this included Hand’s own 1st Continental Regiment, Colonel Henry Haller’s Berks County Regiment, and Colonel James Cunningham’s 1st Lancaster County Regiment; see footnote).

Major-General William Heath had previously stationed “25 picked men” from Hand’s brigade to watch over the Westchester Creek bridge at all times, “and, in case the enemy made a landing… to take up the planks of the bridge”.

The men quickly performed their duty, and when the head of the British column appeared, they “commenced a firing with their rifles.”

Clinton lamented: “the enemy had been too quick for us”.

The British then attempted to bypass the wrecked bridge and cross at the head of Westchester Creek. However, according to Heath, they “found here also the Americans in possession of the pass.”

Both sides called up reinforcements.

Situation of the British and American armies on October 12, 1776 (click to enlarge).

Throg's Neck area circa 1781. The map shows the solitary road leading inland from Throg's Neck, which crossed Westchester Creek. Colonel Edward Hand’s brigade had its headquarters at DeLancey's Mills on the Bronx River, but a detachment carefully guarded the Westchester Creek bridge. The town of West Chester was a short distance west of the bridge.

The site of the British landing on October 12th; from a map by Charles Blaskowitz.

Heath stated that “he immediately ordered Colonel Prescott, the hero of Bunker Hill, with his regiment, and Captain-Lieutenant Bryant of the artillery, with a 3 pounder, to reinforce the riflemen at West Chester causeway [i.e., the bridge]; and Colonel Graham of the New-York line, with his [militia] regiment, and Lieutenant Jackson of the artillery, with a 6 pounder, to reinforce at the head of the creek; all of which was promptly done, to the check and disappointment of the enemy.”

Captain-Lieutenant Archibald Robertson (Royal Engineers) wrote that “the [British] guns were taken forward to the bridge, 16 pieces” but no attempt was made to take either pass by force. Instead, he wrote, “we were ordered to encamp.” He noted that the remainder of the day was punctuated by “popping shots across the water.”

George Washington arrived in person to examine the situation of the British army. He later wrote that Throg’s Neck “is a kind of island” although “the water that surrounds it is fordable at low tide.” However, he was pleased to find that “The grounds from Frog's Point are strong and defensible, being full of stone fences, both along the road and across the adjacent fields, which will render it difficult for artillery, or indeed a large body of foot, to advance in any regular order, except through the main road.” He then ordered fortifications erected to guard the road and the pass at the head of the creek. He noted that “Our men, who are posted on the passes, seemed to be in good spirits”.

These fortifications, according to Hessian Major Carl Leopold Baurmeister, soon made “everything still more unapproachable.” At the same time, the Americans “cannonaded the camp of the 71st Regiment, which lost six killed and three wounded.” He claimed that “If the rebels had accurately aimed their guns, the balls of which flew over English headquarters, they could have annihilated the Guards and the 33rd Regiment in the reserve.”

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