Friday, October 14, 2011

October 14, 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 14th: Charles Lee joined the American army; Joseph Reed found cause for optimism; Loyalists were cheered by the new campaign.

Previous entry: October 13th; next: October 15th.

Major-General Charles Lee arrived at George Washington’s headquarters. Lee recently was in command of American forces in the south, and he was credited with foiling a British attempt on Charleston, South Carolina (June, 1776). He was one of the persons Congress considered placing in command of the army when it created the post of commander-in-chief. Both officers were widely respected.

It was thought that the British might soon attempt to move deeper into Westchester County and cut off the American army from New England. Washington wanted Lee to defend this crucial sector and he gave him command of the brigades of Alexander McDougall, John Nixon, and John Glover. These troops were almost wholly Continentals. Lieutenant Tench Tilghman (one of Washington’s aides) later wrote that Lee “will have the flower of the army with him, as our [defensive] lines in front are so strong that we can trust them to troops who would not stand [up to the British] in the [open] field.”

According to Major-General William Heath, Washington asked Lee “not to exercise the command for a day or two, until he could make himself acquainted with the post, its circumstances, and [the] arrangements of duty.”

Washington and Lee spent part of the day close to Throg’s Neck, inspecting the terrain and the situation of the British army. For a third straight day there was desultory firing across Westchester Creek. (According to Archibald Robertson of the Royal Engineers, “They fired several cannon shot and wounded some of our men.”)

The situation of the two armies appeared so favorable to the Americans that Colonel Joseph Reed (Washington’s adjutant general), was prompted to write:

“I had at one time concluded that the enemy would go into winter quarters, satisfied with the summer’s business, but I find I was mistaken. They have taken post above the main body of our army, keeping constantly the same object in view, that of surrounding us. We have now every advantage of ground, and if the men will fight, I cannot but hope we shall foil them in any attempt they make. My own opinion is that if we cannot fight them here, we cannot do it anywhere.”

This map of Throg's Neck (from the David Rumsey collection) was rendered many years after the Revolutionary War, but nevertheless well illustrates the disadvantages of Throg's Neck to the British army. The troops were separated from the mainland by Westchester Creek (running, at left, from nearly the top of the image to the bottom), and by a wide salt marsh that could not be easily crossed (the shaded area).

The British continued to bring up horses, wagons, provisions, and other materials of war to Throg’s Neck in preparation for their next move. This process, however, went slowly. The British transports had to pass through treacherous Hell Gate, and the wind, according to Chaplain Benjamin Trumbull (5th Connecticut State Battalion), was “entirely unfavourable for the enemy.”

Elsewhere, news of the British advance into Westchester Country excited American Loyalists. Reverend Ezra Stiles wrote:

“There is considerable motion among the Tories which are said to be a quarter of the people west of Stratford River [in Connecticut]. [There is an] Appearance of conspiracy and preparation for insurrection; they express great expectations that the King’s troops will prevail. The patriots and friends of liberty don’t love to take violent courses with them, but begin to think they must.”

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