Sunday, October 16, 2011

October 16, 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 16th: Hugh Mercer attacked British troops on Staten Island; George Washington held a council of war; the British army began to move.

Previous entry: October 15th; next: October 17th.

Late in the day on October 15th, Brigadier-General Hugh Mercer led a force consisting of militia from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware onto British-held Staten Island. During the night they found and burned some old British camps and they attempted to capture some troops stationed at the town of Richmond. This force, Mercer later learned, consisted of 20 British regulars, 45 Hessians, and a newly-formed Loyalist outfit called the New Jersey Volunteers [see footnote].

Mercer moved one part of his force behind the British so as to cut off their retreat. The rest of his force was to attack at daybreak from three directions. The attack, however, did not go as well as planned. According to Colonel Samuel Patterson, who was with the troops behind the British:

“Colonel [Samuel] Griffin was too eager. He ordered my battalion to attack as soon as it came up. At this time the others had not a man arrived. This then was dawn of day. We began it as hard as we could blaze. The few enemy… were ready at a church and a corner of the street near there. We should not have begun so soon, but came near one of their sentries, who fired at our advanced flanking-party, [commanded by] Captain Rumford, which brought us all to work, and not being light, had liked to have shot our own people. It lasted about one hour in attacking parties of regulars that ran up the hill, and [who] made a small stand in the cedars, and then ran off. We… [had] two of ours killed, and three or four wounded… Colonel Griffin got wounded in the first fire in the heel…. About half an hour after the first attack the general [Hugh Mercer] came up, amidst the smoke, and escaped narrowly from being fired on by our own people, as it was not light [enough] to know him.”

Mercer wrote, “Well disciplined troops would have taken the whole [enemy force] without the loss of a man, but we only took… eight Hessians and nine British, one of those wounded, and besides these, two mortally wounded, left at Richmond town.”

Sometime later, Ensign Samuel Richards (Samuel Wyllys’ 22nd Continental Regiment) was given charge of the prisoners. He recalled that the Hessians “were well built young men, very athletic. As they were the first Hessians we had taken [during the war]… they attracted much attention, and procured for me many civilities and some substantial refreshment [from grateful citizens]”.

Back at American headquarters, George Washington held a council of war with his general officers (Charles Lee, Nathanael Greene, William Heath, Israel Putnam, Joseph Spencer, John Sullivan, and Benjamin Lincoln, among others). According to the minutes of that meeting:

“After much consideration and debate, the following question was stated: whether, (it having appeared that the obstructions in the North River have proved insufficient, and that the enemy's whole force is now in our rear on Frog Point,) it is now deemed possible in our situation to prevent the enemy cutting off the communication with the country and compelling us to fight them at all disadvantages, or surrender prisoners at discretion?”

In other words, could they safely hold their current position given that British vessels could ascend the Hudson and that the main British army had entered Westchester County?

The generals agreed (General Lee was particularly vocal on this point) that they could not prevent the British from cutting their supply lines and that it was necessary to move the army to defend them. However, the general officers also agreed to leave a garrison in and about upper Manhattan.

Afterwards, Major-General Nathanael Greene wrote, “The troops appear to be in good spirits, and I am in hopes, if Howe attacks us, he will meet with a defeat. A battle is daily, nay hourly, expected.” He was chagrined however, that he would have “no share of the honour or glory of the day, if victorious” because he had been ordered to remain with the American troops left guarding the Hudson.

The Americans wasted no time in undertaking the movement into Westchester County. The same day that the general officers met, Benjamin Trumbull observed that “the stores[,] baggage[,] etc.” are being “moved to places of safety with the greatest expedition.”

Meanwhile, Major-General Charles Lee began shifting his units inland to defend the left flank and rear of the army. Glover’s brigade was moved east. Private John Dewey (Shepard’s 3rd Continental Regiment) noted in his journal, “We marched about one mile… and encamped in the woods.” Nixon’s brigade was moved north to guard a key crossing on the Bronx River. Sergeant John Smith (Lippitt’s Rhode Island State Regiment) wrote in his journal that the troops were ordered “to draw 4 days’ provisions and cook it” lest they should have to move “at a moment’s notice”.

Lieutenant-General William Howe was at last ready for his next move: a crossing from Throg’s Neck to Pell’s Point to the east. Although this move would place his army at a greater distance from the Americans, there was no broken bridge at Pell’s Point to prevent the British from marching inland.

In the evening, orders were issued for the vanguard “to strike their tents and load their wagons at 12 tonight, and march at 1 [A.M.]”.

Footnote: The detachment of British regulars at Richmond was commanded by one Captain Stanton of the 14th Foot. Some men of the 6th Foot were also present. These two understrength regiments were weeks later drafted into the other regiments in the British army. The 6th, according to one of Mercer’s prisoners, consisted of only 150 men (see Force or Naval Documents of the American Revolution for their testimony). The Hessian prisoners were from Regiment von Trümbach.

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