Thursday, October 20, 2011

October 21, 1776 (Part 2)

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 21st (Part 2): Alexander McDougall considered the makings of an effective leader; John Haslet attacked Loyalists at Mamaroneck.

Previous entry: October 21st (Part 1); next: October 22nd.

While William Heath’s and Joseph Spencer’s divisions marched to White Plains, Major-General Charles Lee’s division defended the crossings of the Bronx River. They had a quiet day, and Brigadier-General Alexander McDougall found time to write about what he saw as the main weakness in the American army: the lack of good officers to command the men.

“All the discerning officers of the army see the necessity of having good officers in it. Without that, you never can have a regular or brave army. The contrast between those troops who are well [officered] and those who are ill officered, now in service, is so great, that it is impossible to have an adequate idea of it but by experience.”

The cause for poor leadership, in McDougall’s view, was that too many older citizens had been given important posts in the army for no reason other than their standing in society. He complained:

“Old men without experience, are utterly unfit for the army. They want [i.e., lack] ambition, which is the life and soul of a soldier; nor are they fit for it if they have seen service, unless they are men of genius, capable of improving by service; otherwise they are a burthen to it. They are useless old boys, who pride themselves in having been in service, without profiting by it.”

In McDougall’s view, the army needed officers who were active and intelligent gentlemen: “men who have a sense of honour, and whose class in life is respectable. These are necessary qualifications, among others, to make the officer. Where these meet in men of genius, those they command will be soldiers; but without it, they will only be men.”

Lieutenant-General William Howe took one relatively aggressive action on this date, and sent a detachment of men eastward along the coastal road to occupy the town of Mamaroneck.

George Washington was soon apprised of this move, and he ordered Major Zabdiel Rogers of Connecticut, who commanded the militia there, “to make the best stand you can, with the troops under your command”. He also promised to support him by sending “a party to attack them in flank”.

However, before the attack party could be organized, Washington was informed that “our people shamefully abandoned [Mamaroneck] at their approach, not for want of numbers, but [for] want of a good officer to lead on the men.”

Washington learned that there was still an opportunity to make an attack. The British placed in a vulnerable near Mamaroneck a corps of Loyalists known as the Queen’s Rangers. He organized a force to attack and destroy this unit. The attacking force was entrusted to Colonel John Haslet of the Delaware Regiment, and consisted of men drawn from William Alexander’s brigade and the militia at White Plains [see footnote].

Charles Blaskowitz made this representation of British army units near Mamaroneck. The Boston Post Road (modern day US Highway 1) can be seen crossing from lower left to the right edge of the map. The Queen’s Rangers are represented by triangles at several points along this road. The road extending to the north (top) went to White Plains. New Rochelle is misidentified at the bottom of the map; the town was a considerable distance to the west.

The attack party set out in the afternoon, and was near Mamaroneck at dusk. However, after night descended things did not go as planned. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Gunning Bedford (Delaware Regiment), “instead of meeting with this main body [of the Loyalists] our guides brought us (it was eleven o’clock at night) on their picket-guard, consisting of seventy men” (In other words, one of the isolated triangles on the Blaskowitz map).

Major John Green (1st Virginia Regiment) led the troops which stumbled on this detachment. Bedford claimed that Green “made the first attack, with one hundred and fifty men” and that he “had the chief merit”. Colonel George Weedon (3rd Virginia Regiment) later heard that Green succeeded in surrounding the Loyalist detachment. However, the captain commanding the Loyalists cleverly confused the issue by shouting at the Virginians, “Surrender, you Tory dogs! Surrender!” Approximately 20 of the Loyalists were killed, and more than 30 captured. Amid the confusion, the Loyalist captain and some of his men fled to safety.

The Americans then groped forwards towards the main Loyalist camp, and there was another spat of combat. The British claimed that they gave the Americans a check. However, Sergeant James McMichael (Pennsylvania State Rifle Regiment) heard that “we fired on each other” “unfortunately taking the Delaware Blues for the enemy… six of our riflemen and nine of the Blues were killed.”

Haslet said that “three or four were left dead, and about fifteen [were] wounded”. Having been unable to take the main Loyalist camp by surprise, he returned to White Plains.

Footnote: Alexander’s brigade on this date included the Delaware Regiment, three battalions of Pennsylvania State troops, and the 1st and 3rd Virginia Regiments. It is likely that troops from all of these units were present. For example, Sergeant James McMichael of the Pennsylvania State Rifle Regiment noted in his journal that the force included “a party of 100 men, properly officered, from our riflemen”. Evidence that militia participated in this expedition is found in the journal of New Hampshire militiaman Peter Kimball. He recorded: “there was a detachment of about 600 men sent to engage the enemy at Mamaroneck[,] 8 [went] out of our company”. Other militia companies likely made a similar contribution.

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