Synopsis for October 20th: British victory appeared close at hand; Rufus Putnam made an unwelcome discovery; Washington decided to move his army to White Plains.
Lieutenant-General William Howe led the British army into the New York mainland from Pell’s Point on October 18th. However, he made no aggressive moves on the 19th or 20th. The inaction was partly due to the need to bring up provisions and other supplies. Perhaps too Howe was trying to get a sense of the lay of the land. He later explained to Parliament, “The [American] country is so covered with wood, swamps and creeks, that it is not open in the least degree to be known, but from post to post, or from accounts to be collected from the inhabitants entirely ignorant of military description. These circumstances were, therefore, the cause of some unavoidable delay in our movements.”
The British may also have felt little urgency because they believed victory was inevitable. A Loyalist in New York City wrote about what he saw as the impending end of the war:
“The Howes [i.e., General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe] do all that is possible to alleviate the sufferings of a persecuted people [i.e., the Loyalists]… we are now protected in our lives and properties; and some thousands have joined the King's troops; and every time they attack the rebels they rout them with great loss; they fly before our victorious army on every onset; and I don't doubt but in a very little time this daring rebellion will be crushed… It is resolved to attack Washington directly. Proper dispositions are making for that purpose; and I hope by the next letter to give you an account of an end being put to a government that have dared to call themselves the Independent States of America. Almost all the New Yorkers have returned to their allegiance, and there is not a doubt but the other colonies will do the same when they dare declare themselves, and be properly supported by [the British] government.
“There is a broad R [for Rebel] put upon every door in New York that is disaffected to government, and examples will be made of its inhabitants; on the other hand, every person that is well affected to government finds protection.”
A further reason for confidence was that the arrival of a large reinforcement at New York City: the second Hessian division, commanded by Lieutenant-General Wilhelm von Knyphausen. Ambrose Serle witnessed their arrival and wrote:
“The ships made a most beautiful appearance in coming up this morning, the sun shining clear, and the wind wafting only a gentle breeze. All the colors were flying; and the cheerful congratulations of the sailors as they passed along contributed to the beauty of the scene. Here are now between 4 and 500 sail—a number, which never appeared in this harbor together before.”
Whereas the British army had many thousands of professional soldiers, well equipped and supplied, the American rebellion tottered along.
Joseph Plumb Martin (5th Connecticut State Battalion) was encamped on Valentine’s Hill, near the Bronx River. There, he remembered, “[we were] keeping up the old system of starving. A sheep’s head which I begged of the butchers, who were killing some for the ‘gentleman officers,’ was all the provisions I had for two or three days.”
Washington continued to prepare for the next British move as best he could, and he dispatched his adjutant general (Colonel Joseph Reed), and his chief engineer (Colonel Rufus Putnam) to reconnoiter the position held by the British army.
According to Rufus Putnam, “when we arrived on the heights of East Chester we saw a small body of British near the church”. They dared proceed no further, although they had not yet seen the camps of the British army. Reed then departed and Putnam set out to reconnoiter the area around White Plains, a key crossroads to the north. Putnam wrote that he disguised himself “by taking out my cockade, loping my hat and secreting my sword and pistols under my loose coat”. It was a calculated risk; he reasoned that if he were captured while wearing this disguise “the probability is that I should have been hanged for a spy”.
The journey was especially hazardous because Putnam was liable to run into the British at any time. He wrote:
“I did not then know where White Plains was, nor where the road I had taken could carry me. I had gone about 1 ½ mile, when a road turned off to the right, I followed it perhaps ½ a mile and came to a house, where I learned from woman that this road led to New Rochelle that the British were there and that they had a guard at a house in sight. On this information I turned and pursued my route toward White Plains (the houses on the way all deserted) until I came with[in] 3 or 4 mile[s] of the place. Here I discovered a house a little ahead with men about it[.] [B]y my [eye]glass I found they were not British soldiers, however I approached them with caution.”
Fortunately for Putnam, the men turned out to be friendly militia.
Putnam then explored the White Plains area and found that the Bronx River could be crossed there in two places, that the British were only 9 miles away and that in between there was only “good roads and in general level open country”. In addition, “at White Plains [there] was a large quantity of stores, with only about three hundred militia to guard them”.
In other words, Putnam could see how the British could easily seize these vital stores and cut Washington’s connections with New England and upstate New York. Putnam then set out to share these disturbing findings with Washington. He wrote:
“[I]t was now after sunset…. I took some refreshment, and set off for headquarters… [along] a road I had never traveled, among Tory inhabitants and in the night. I dare[d] not enquire the way, but Providence conducted me – I arrived at headquarters near Kingsbridge (a distance of about 10 miles) about nine o’clock at night. I found the General alone. I reported to him the discoveries I had made, with a sketch of the country[. H]e complained very feelingly of the gentlemen from New York from whom he had never been able to obtain a plan of the country—that from their information he had ordered the stores to White Plains as a place of security— the General sent for [Major] General [Nathanael] Greene, and [Brigadier] General George Clinton [Greene was one of Washington’s most trusted generals, Clinton was from New York]… as soon as General Clinton came in[,] my sketch and statement were shown to him and he was asked if the situation of those places were as I had reported,– General Clinton said they were”.
Washington now knew that the safety of his army, and perhaps the future of the United States, depended on his getting to White Plains before the British. He began issuing orders for his troops to march.