Friday, October 28, 2011

October 28, 1776 (Part 1)

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.

This is the first of four posts chronicling the events of October 28.

Synopsis for the morning of October 28th: The British marched to White Plains; Washington dispatched men to meet their advance; the armies skirmished south of White Plains.

Previous entry: October 27th; next: Midday of October 28.

The British army struck their tents at 5am. Ensign Henry Stirke (light infantry company, 10th Foot) thought the troops began to march at 7:30am. Once again, the British advanced in two columns, with Lieutenant-General Leopold Philip von Heister commanding the left column and Lieutenant-General Henry Clinton the right.

That morning, George Washington and some of his general officers began to reconnoiter the hills surrounding the American position at White Plains. According to Heath, “to the southwest there appeared to be a very commanding height, worthy of attention.” This was Chatterton’s Hill. Heath noted, “When [we] arrived at the ground, although very commanding, it did not appear so much so as other grounds to the north… ‘Yonder,’ says Major-General [Charles] Lee, pointing to the grounds [to the north]… ‘is the ground we ought to occupy.’”

Washington agreed to inspect it, but at that moment “a light-horseman came up in full gallop, his horse almost out of breath, and addressed General Washington, ‘The British are on the camp, sir.’ The General observed, ‘Gentlemen, we have now other business than reconnoitring,’ putting his horse in full gallop for the camp, and followed by the other officers.”

At headquarters, Washington was informed by Colonel Joseph Reed that the American pickets had been driven in, and that the army was prepared for action. Then, according to Heath, “The Commander-in-Chief turned round to the officers, and only said, ‘Gentlemen, you will repair to your respective posts, and do the best you can.’”

This late 19th Century map shows White Plains at a time when the area was still predominately rural. The blue lines roughly correspond with the site of the American entrenchments in 1776. The red arrows show the direction from which von Heister (left) and Clinton (right) approached White Plains.

Benjamin Tallmadge (brigade major for Wadsworth’s brigade, Spencer’s division) noted that:

“[Washington had taken] possession of the high ground north and east of the town. Here he seemed determined to take his stand, his lines extending from a mountain on the right, called Chatterton’s Hill, to a lake or large pond of water on his left. An entrenchment was thrown up from right to left, behind which our army formed. Long poles with iron pikes upon them, supplied the want of bayonets.”

At right: a drawing of several types of spears used by the American army (click to enlarge).

Major-General Joseph Spencer was dispatched with a number of regiments to meet the advancing British army and harass them on their approach.

Part of Spencer’s force went down the Mamaroneck Road to confront Clinton, while the other part went down the York Road (towards East Chester) to confront von Heister. Each British column was preceded by a battalion or two of light infantry, a company of jaegers, and a detachment of light dragoons.

Sergeant James McMichael (Pennsylvania State Rifle Regiment) was with the troops sent down the Mamaroneck Road. He wrote:

“My regiment was sent to the front to bring on the action, but not endanger ourselves enough to be taken prisoners. We had not marched two miles before we saw them coming. We were attacked by their right wing (all Hessians) and after keeping up an incessant fire for an hour, we were informed by our flanking party, that their light horse was surrounding us… [and then] we retreated to the lines.”

These forces probably consisted of the 1st Jäger Company, and a detachment of the 16th Light Dragoons.

Ensign Stirke of the British light infantry also described the skirmishing on the Mamaroneck Road:

“The army… dislodged several large parties of rebels, that threw themselves into the woods, in our front[,] in order to impede our march; but on our field pieces being fired into the woods, they immediately ran.”

The skirmishing on the York Road attracted more attention. Orderly Sergeant Thomas Craige of Moseley’s Massachusetts Militia Regiment was on Chatterton’s Hill, which loomed above the York Road. These militiamen could see the British advance guard approaching Spencer’s men on the far side of the Bronx River, and they promptly took measures to protect themselves:

“[The] regiment… went into entrenchments already to some extent prepared [on Chatterton’s Hill] and immediately began to extend them... There was an orchard in front… which the men… cut down and made into pickets for entrenchments.”

Colonel Gold Silliman of the 1st Connecticut State Battalion described the action on the York Road:

“I with my regiment and 3 others were ordered out about 1 ½ miles below our lines to take post on a hill to gall them [i.e., the British] in their march as they advanced. We accordingly took our post and mine and one other regiment had the advantage of a stone wall… the enemy came up within 6 or 8 rods… [then] our men rose from behind the wall, [and] poured in a most furious fire.”

As was the case at Pell’s Point on the 19th, the Americans’ fire appeared “most furious” but mostly was innocent. Perhaps, as often occurred during the war, inexperienced soldiers aimed too high.

Captain Johann von Ewald’s 2nd Jäger Company led the opposing British column, but he scarcely took notice of the Connecticut troops:

“The army had marched scarcely two hours when the left column encountered an advanced corps of the enemy, which I had to engage supported by the [3rd battalion of] light infantry. The area was intersected by hills, woods, and marshes, and every field was enclosed with a stone wall. This enemy corps had taken a stand behind the stone walls on the steep hills between two plantations. Several guns were set up on the main road at some distance, which were covered by cavalry. General Heister immediately mounted a battery on the main road and cannonaded the enemy, who withdrew…”

At least two of the Connecticut State Battalions (the 1st and 5th) fled towards Chatterton’s Hill. To get there, they had to cross the Bronx River.

According to Brigade-Major Benjamin Tallmadge:

“The troops immediately entered the river and ascended the Hill, while I[,] being in the rear, and mounted on horseback, endeavored to hasten the last of our troops, the Hessians then being within musket shot. When I reached the bank of the river, and was about to enter it, our chaplain, the Rev. Dr. [Benjamin] Trumbull, sprang up behind me on my horse, and came with such force as to carry me with my accoutrements, together with himself, headlong into the river. This so entirely disconcerted me, that by the time I reached the opposite bank of the river, the Hessian troops were about to enter it, and considered me as their prisoner.” [see footnote]

Tallmadge, however, was able to scramble out of the way, just as some militia on the western bank gave the Hessians a check.

Then, Tallmadge wrote:

“I rode to headquarters, near the courthouse, and informed General Washington of the situation of the troops on Chatterton's Hill.”

Footnote: Benjamin Trumbull kept a journal during the campaign. He did not mention in it his embarrassing mishap with Tallmadge, but he did write that “I had been in the river almost all over”.

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