Thursday, October 27, 2011

October 27, 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 27th: Synopsis for October 27: Hugh Percy made a feint at Fort Washington; Waldeckers were ambushed near Mamaroneck; the British planned a move to White Plains.

Previous entry: October 26th; next: Morning of October 28.

On October 18, Lieutenant-General William Howe cut one of the main supply lines of the American forces in Manhattan (the Boston Post Road). Not long after, George Washington pulled his army away from Manhattan, and took a strong post at the town of White Plains, New York. Howe, meanwhile, established a base for his army at New Rochelle, brought up reinforcements, examined the countryside, and made plans to battle the American army.

Howe’s battle plan came to consist of two main parts. First, his army would attack Washington’s men at White Plains. Second, Lieutenant-General Wilhelm von Knypahusen’s recently arrived Hessian division would advance on upper Manhattan from the north. Although Washington had pulled out of Manhattan, some men were left behind to garrison Fort Washington and the other defensive works in upper Manhattan.

The twin advance was scheduled to begin on the 28th. To draw attention away from Knyphausen’s advance, Lieutenant-General Hugh Percy had orders to make a feint at Fort Washington from the south on the 27th. It was hoped he might also seize some of the Americans’ defensive works in the process.

Percy took with him six British regiments (the 10th, 17th, 37th, 40th, 46th, and 55th regiments of foot), and two Hessian regiments from Stirn’s brigade. The troops advanced in line of battle with the Hessians on the left, and the British regulars on the right. Percy later wrote:

“I approached… with caution, for I had not force enough to attack them. By the time I had advanced within random musket shot [range], their [defensive] lines (three in number) were all completely manned… As our moving forward did not make them evacuate their works, I tried what a few shots from six-pounders and shells from two howitzers would do”.

The shot and shell had little effect: “they were too well secured by their parapets.”

American defenses in upper Manhattan (click to enlarge). Upper Manhattan is bounded on the left by Hudson's River and on the right by the Harlem River. Fort Washington appears at the top of the image; below the fort are three defensive lines spanning the width of the island. On October 27th, Percy's men skirmished with American forces defending the first (lowermost) line. The troop movements shown on this map pertain to a later engagement (the assault on Fort Washington on November 16, 1776).

Charles Lefferts illustration of drummers and infantrymen of the 10th Regiment of Foot.

Percy observed that the Americans brought cannon down to their lines, and he “retired with the main body about halfway between their works and ours.” Soon, he added, “The rebels… began to cannonade us”. This fire, however, was not very dangerous: “Their cannon were so ill pointed, that tho' they fired annoyingly at us, they hit nobody.” Nevertheless, he noted, “I retired a little out of reach.” Percy’s men then encamped for the evening.

While these movements took place on land, the frigates Repulse and Pearl advanced up Hudson’s River. Soon the vessels began to be bombarded by the guns from Fort Washington and Fort Lee (the renamed Fort Constitution).

Major-General Nathanael Greene boasted about the battering the Repulse received:

“Colonel [Robert] Magaw got down an eighteen-pounder and fired sixty shot at her, twenty-six of which went into her. She slipped her cable and left her anchor, and was towed off by four boats. I think we must have killed a considerable number of their men, as the confusion and distress exceeded all description.”

Captain Henry Duncan of HMS Eagle, acknowledged that “Many shots were thrown into the Repulse, and some into the Pearl”. However, he heard that “no men [were] killed in either, and only one man's leg broke on board the Repulse.”

Percy’s losses were also modest: five were killed or wounded in the 37th Foot; two in the 10th Foot, and three among the Hessians.

Greene stated that one man “was killed by a shell that fell upon his head” and that Major Andrew Colburn (Knowlton’s Rangers) was wounded.

The British made light of the whole affair. Lieutenant-Colonel Enoch Markham of the 46th Foot wrote that “Lord Percy very properly called it ‘the little excursion.’”

Closer to White Plains, the British sent out parties to reconnoiter. Archibald Robertson noted that he accompanied William Erskine on another expedition to the Mile Square area. He was surprised that “We returned [to that area] without firing a shot… as the enemy might have suspected our intention of occupying these heights.” Instead, according to Major Carl Leopold Baurmeister, Erskine “brought back nine prisoners and the assurance that all the rebels had left this part of the country and gone to White Plains”.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant-General Henry Clinton was ordered, as he later wrote, “to take out a part of the army to reconnoiter” the American position at White Plains. Clinton made a cursory effort, turned around, and gave Howe a discouraging report: “I suspected that the enemy’s lines at the White Plains shouldered to the Bronx and to the mountains, whereby their flanks were safe and their retreat practicable when[ever] they pleased.” He concluded, “[I] could not from what I saw recommend a direct attack”.

Howe could not have been pleased either with the incomplete information or the lack of support for his plans.

American scouting parties were also active. Baurmeister noted that one party attacked some men from the Waldeck Regiment:

“Eighteen men of this regiment went marauding in the region around Mamaroneck, where they were surprised and attacked by forty rebels and disarmed. One subaltern and twelve soldiers were captured and hurriedly sent away. Two men remained on the field, wounded.”

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