Tuesday, October 25, 2011

October 25, 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 25th: The British army advanced towards White Plains; Clinton and Howe grew irresolute; the Americans prepared for battle; New Yorkers celebrated George III.

Previous entry: October 24th; next: October 26th.

In the morning, one of the British vessels on the Hudson came under fire near Dobb’s Ferry. The Americans fired on it with a 12-pounder gun they brought down to the shore under cover of darkness. An officer in New Jersey bragged, “They hulled her eleven times out of fifteen” before the British ship was towed out of range. He added, “Little skirmishes happen almost every day; but they are thought so little of that they seldom are mentioned as news.”

Since October 21st, Major-General Charles Lee’s division had been defending the crossings of the Bronx River while the rest of the American army moved to White Plains. It's mission now virtually complete, Lee's men began to move towards White Plains also.

Sergeant John Smith (Lippitt’s Regiment, Nixon’s brigade) wrote:

“about one o’clock in the morning the major called to us in our tents and ordered us to strike out tents at 4 o’clock in the morning and to cook our provisions… and get in readiness to march by day[light][.] We turned out immediately and cooked our provisions… and ate our breakfasts… and got ready to march[.] About 9 or 10 o’clock we began to load our baggage[.] The officers destroyed their chests not being allowed any wagons to carry them… and about 12 o’clock we began to move forward… We marched about northwest 7 or 8 miles and then east 2 miles[.]… we halted about two miles from the White Plains and posted ourselves as a picquet[.] We were 250 in number[.] It was very cold lodging on the ground without tents and but little fire[.]”

At about 9 A.M. the British army marched towards White Plains in two columns. The right column halted “at the distance of four miles from the White Plains”, according to Howe, on the Mamaroneck Road. The left column halted on the East Chester Road, about 6 miles from White Plains.

The troops in the left column could see part of Major-General Charles Lee’s division, but the two forces remained on opposite sides of the Bronx. According to Archibald Robertson (Royal Engineers) “[we] took a position on the East Chester Road… facing west[,] the Bronx River in our front and the rebels on the heights [on the] other side of the river facing us.”

Situation of the armies on October 25th (click to enlarge). Howe’s forces in Westchester County were divided into three parts. One part, under Henry Clinton, approached White Plains from the direction of Mamaroneck (10). Another part, under Leopold Philip von Heister, approached White Plains from the direction of Eastchester. The third part, under Wilhelm von Knyphausen, remained near New Rochelle. Washington had four divisions at White Plains (11); Charles Lee’s division was at Mile Square (9), and Nathanael Greene’s division was positioned along the Hudson.

This map shows the location of British and American army units between New Rochelle (lower left) and White Plains (upper right). Heister's column encamped on the East Chester Road, near the Bronx River; Clinton's column encamped on the Mamaroneck Road, only 4 miles from White Plains. Lee's division is shown at Mile Square, the position he held in the morning; by nightfall, his brigades were 2 miles from White Plains. North is at upper right.

Charles Blaskowitz made this representation of British units on the road leading from Mamaroneck to White Plains. Text on the map states that this was the position held by the British army on October 21st, but a comparison with the accounts of the campaign by William Howe and others suggests that this was the position occupied by Clinton’s forces on the 25th. Clinton commanded the first and second battalions of light infantry (red triangles at top), the British Reserve (which included three battalions of British grenadiers), a brigade of British regulars, a brigade of Hessian grenadiers, the Brigade of Guards, part of the 16th Light Dragoons, and a company of jaegers (green triangles at right).

The British were now within easy striking distance of Washington’s army, but Lieutenant-General Henry Clinton had become irresolute. He later wrote, “not knowing the ground about White Plains or how the rebels had posted themselves on it, I could not think an immediate attack of their camp there prudent”. He felt that if Howe “had any such intention” as attacking, he should first “reconnoiter in force,” develop a plan of attack, and then engage in an elaborate ruse so as to surprise the Americans at daybreak. He recommended first marching back to New Rochelle, then making a feint towards the town of Rye (to the east of Mamaroneck, on Long Island Sound), and then finally performing a countermarch to White Plains during the night.

Whether these maneuvers would have improved the odds of a successful assault on White Plains was doubtful; whether the marching would have tired the troops was certain. Howe ignored Clinton’s suggestion, but he clearly harbored reservations of his own, for no attack plans were made.

The Americans closely monitored the British advance. Robert Harrison (Washington’s secretary) wrote: “The general officers are now reconnoitering the several passes leading from the enemy, [so] that the most important may be immediately secured.”

Before long, parties of armed men were sent out to watch the British movements and contest the roads to White Plains. Among these was Sergeant James McMichael of the Pennsylvania State Rifle Regiment; he wrote: “One captain, two subalterns, three sergeants with one hundred men, were ordered on a scouting expedition. We left White Plains at 11 P. M. direct for the enemy’s advance sentries.”

At the end of the day, according to British Ensign Henry Stirke, “the pickets” of the two armies were “within musket shot of each other.”

Washington even considered making some kind of preemptive attack. Major-General William Heath recalled that “Eight American regiments were ordered to be ready to march in the approaching night. [Major] General [Israel] Putnam was to command them; and they were intended to make an attack on the enemy’s advance, if it should appear to be practicable.” One of these may have included Sargent’s 16th Continental Regiment (Sargent’s brigade, Sullivan’s division). Private How wrote, “This evening we all marched to East Chester in order to attack the enemy there[,] but the General thought best not to attack them there and we returned to camp in the morning.”

Captain Johann von Ewald (2nd Jaeger Company) was placed in a position to guard the left flank of the British army. He felt vulnerable in this situation and he took every precaution to ensure the security of his men:

“Here I was left alone for the first time with my own theory of partisan warfare, which I had acquired through much reading. I took my post in a large apple orchard surrounded by a wall of fieldstones, behind which, since it lay on a hill, I thought I could defend myself well against an enemy attack. I placed two pickets on two knolls from which we could see far around, and dispatched constant patrols as far as Mile Square.”

In New York City, the British celebrated the anniversary of George III’s accession to the throne. According to the New York Gazette:

“the day was celebrated here with every demonstration of joy. The flag ships hoisted the royal standard; and all the ships in the harbour gave a salute of twenty-one guns each. So noble an appearance, and so grand a salute, was never known in this port before. The two admirals [i.e., Richard Howe and Molyneux Shuldham] gave entertainments, and many loyal toasts were drank upon the occasion.”

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