Synopsis for October 21st (Part 1): George Washington’s Continentals occupied White Plains; William Howe moved cautiously by the coast.
George Washington learned on the night of the 20th that he faced the potential for a catastrophic defeat if the British army reached the village of White Plains before he did. Indeed, the Americans wondered why the British had not already made such a move. Major-General William Heath wrote, “it is not a little unaccountable that they did not attempt to stretch themselves across to the Hudson, which [they] might have been done with great ease.” Colonel Rufus Putnam commented on “the stupidity of the British general in that he did not… send a detachment and take possession of… White Plains[,] for had he done this we must then have fought him on his own terms”.
Throughout the day, and into the night, the American army began streaming towards White Plains. The first troops on the road belonged to Brigadier-General William Alexander’s brigade (Spencer’s division). They reached White Plains sometime between midmorning (Rufus Putnam’s memoir) and early afternoon (journal of Sergeant James McMichael). Rufus Putnam accompanied these men and he breathed a sigh of relief when they reached the village: “thus was the American army saved… from a probable total destruction.”
William Heath’s division followed Alexander’s brigade on the road to White Plains. Heath recalled:
“At about four o' clock, p. m., General Heath's division moved from above King’s Bridge… About eight o' clock in the evening, they passed General Lincoln's quarters, on Valentine's Hill, where the Commander-in-Chief was to spend the night…. The division reached Chatterton's Hill, to the south of White-Plains, at four o' clock in the morning… having marched all night.”
Following Heath’s division was the rest of Spencer’s division (the brigades of James Wadsworth and John Fellows). Chaplain Benjamin Trumbull (5th Connecticut State Battalion, Wadsworth’s brigade) recorded in his journal:
“Marched about 10 o’clock at night for the White Plains, [we] carried our tents on our backs[,] packs[,] pots[,] kettles[,] and provisions[,] etc. The army marched all night excepting some small halts, [and the men] almost fainted under their burdens and were greatly fatigued.”
Joseph Plumb Martin served in the same battalion as Trumbull, and had a similar experience:
“We marched from Valentine’s Hill for the White Plains in the night… We had our cooking utensils (at that time the most useless things in the army) to carry in our hands. They were made of cast iron and consequently heavy. I was so beat out before morning with hunger and fatigue that I could hardly move one foot before the other. I told my messmates that I could not carry our kettle any further… my arms were almost dislocated; I sat down in the road, and one of the others gave it a shove with his foot, and it rolled down against the fence, and that was the last I ever saw of it. When we got through the night’s march we found our mess was not the only one that was rid of their iron bondage.”
The British commander, Lieutenant-General William Howe, was perhaps unaware of the opportunity at White Plains (just as Washington had been before the 20th). But that does not sufficiently account for his inactivity along the Westchester coastline. Howe, it seems, was extraordinarily cautious about sending men into the countryside. Perhaps this was, as Stephen Kemble (Howe’s assistant adjutant general) put it, because American deserters claimed that their generals “propose to surround us and cut off our communication with our shipping.” On this date, Howe did shift his army 2 miles further from the landing place, but, Kemble noted, “we keep the [Long Island] Sound in short views on our right”.
Howe’s army may have been slow to act, but it was quickly becoming more powerful. Recent reinforcements included Lossberg’s brigade of Hessians from Staten Island, a large detachment of light dragoons from Long Island, and the 2nd and 6th British brigades from Throg’s Neck (minus the 28th Foot, which was left to hold that post awhile longer).
Situation of the armies on October 21st (click to enlarge). Howe’s army remained near Pell’s Point (8) and New Rochelle, although a detachment was sent east to Mamaroneck (10). Most of Washington’s army was in the process of moving from the area of Kingsbridge (6) to White Plains (11). Washington himself made his headquarters on Valentine’s Hill near Mile Square (9). Major-General Nathanael Greene’s men remained in upper Manhattan and at Fort Lee in New Jersey.
Charles Blaskowitz made this representation of British army units on the heights of New Rochelle. Much of the army is visible, including the light infantry and jaegers (red and green triangles, respectively), the British Reserve (the British grenadiers, and the 33rd and 42nd regiments), the Brigade of Guards, the 71st Foot (Fraser’s Highlanders), and two brigades of Hessians. Other troops were encamped to the south and east.
The Hutchinson River bisects the map. To the left of the river can be seen the town of East Chester (which was plundered by both armies), and a position formerly held by John Glover’s brigade.