Friday, October 28, 2011

October 28, 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.

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

Synopsis for midday on October 28th: American infantry assembled on Chatterton’s Hill; Charles Stedman spotted an opportunity to destroy Washington’s army; the armies exchanged cannon fire; William Howe moved to seize Chatterton’s Hill.

Previous entry: Morning of October 28; next: Afternoon of October 28.

Washington decided to support the American troops on Chatterton’s Hill. It seems he first approached the elite Delaware Regiment (Alexander’s brigade, Spencer’s division) and ordered their commanding officer, Colonel John Haslet, to lead his regiment to the hill and take command of the militia there.

He then ordered Brigadier-General Alexander McDougall’s brigade (Lee’s division) to advance to the hill as well.

Among the men setting out with McDougall’s brigade was Second Lieutenant Elisha Bostwick of Charles Webb’s 19th Continental Regiment. Bostwick recently had a “sickness called bilious fever” which, he said, “took all the hair off my head”. He rejoined his regiment yesterday, but he was “still unable to do duty or guard”. As the troops marched off to battle, “some thought [I was] unable to go with them,” but, he said, “I chose to be with the company”.

Meanwhile, the head of the British army reached high ground south of the village of White Plains. For the first time, the British could clearly see how the American army was deployed. Commissary Charles Stedman wrote:

“They were encamped on a long ridge of hill, the brow of which was covered with lines hastily thrown up… The weakest part was the centre. The slope of the hill was very gradual in the direction of the road by the Court House. The lines were by no means formidable, not being fraized; and the rockiness of the soil prevented the ditch from being made of any troublesome depth.”

Stedman was convinced that “an assault… on the centre of the enemy’s works… would have been destruction to the Americans.” He noted that “When our army came in sight their tents were standing.” He could see the Americans were beginning to move their tents and baggage and this “together with the movement of troops backward and forward, in evident uncertainty of purpose, gave an extraordinary picture of alarm.” Thus, “victory was to be reasonably expected, not only from the valor of our troops, but from the confusion of the enemy.”

Unknown to Stedman, the British also had another advantage: the center of the American position was chiefly manned by inexperienced state troops and militia. With very few exceptions (e.g., Hand’s 1st Continental Regiment, Sargent’s 16th Continental Regiment), the Continentals were deployed on the left and right flanks of the army.

No immediate assault, however, could be made, as a number of units were still coming up.

As the British moved up and deployed, some of their artillery began to cannonade the mishmash of American troops on Chatterton’s Hill. Haslet recalled:

“We had not been many minutes on the ground, when the cannonade began, and the second shot wounded a militia-man in the thigh, upon which the whole regiment [of militia] broke and fled immediately, and were not rallied without much difficulty.”

In the center of the line, the Americans had a small stroke of success. Private Solomon Nash (Knox’s Artillery Regiment) noted, “about 12 o’clock the [British] light horse came near us[;] we fired and killed three men and 3 horses and took one of the enemy after a smart engagement.”

Major-General William Heath gave a different account of this incident:

“about twenty light-horse [of the 16th Light Dragoons], in full gallop, and brandishing their swords, appeared on the road leading to the courthouse, and now directly in front of General Heath's division. The light-horse leaped the fence of a wheat-field at the foot of the hill, on which Colonel Malcolm's [New York militia] regiment was posted, of which the light-horse were not aware, until a shot from Lieutenant Fenno's field-piece gave them notice, by striking in the midst of them, and [sending] a horseman pitching from his horse. They then wheeled short about, galloped out of the field as fast as they came in, rode behind a little hill in the road, and faced about, the tops of their caps only being visible to General Heath where he stood.”

Back on Chatterton’s Hill, Brigadier-General Alexander McDougall’s brigade came up and deployed for battle. Lieutenant Bostwick described “the place of action” as “a large field of fenced lots”. The British had a clear of these men, and Bostwick complained that they “were wholly exposed to the fire of their artillery”.

McDougall’s men were situated behind the Delaware Regiment, and Haslet noted that “Some of our officers expressed much apprehension from the fire of our friends so posted.” In other words, they didn’t want to be accidentally shot in the back if the British attacked. “On my application to the General [McDougall], he ordered us to the right, formed his own brigade on the left, and ordered [Colonel Eleazer] Brooks' Massachusetts Militia still farther to the right, behind a stone fence.”

This “stone fence” was part of a primitive fortification defended by Colonel John Moseley’s Massachusetts Militia Regiment. Orderly Sergeant Thomas Craige remembered that “Brook’s regiment, with some other troops, went into it. Brook’s regiment was next to us.”

All of this activity caught the eye of the British general staff.

Lieutenant-General William Howe later reported that “Colonel [Johann Gottlieb] Rall, who commanded a brigade of Hessians on the left, observing this position of the enemy and seeing a height on the other side of the Bronx unoccupied by them from whence their flank might be galled… took possession of it with great alacrity to the approbation of Lieutenant-General [Leopold Philip von] Heister who was acquainted with this movement by Sir William Erskine.”

Stedman thought that because the Americans were pushing men onto the hill, Howe was led “to imagine this hill to be of more importance than it… appeared to be”. Probably too, the British concluded that if the hill was worth taking, now was the time to take it. Major Stephen Kemble observed that the hill “might have cost us dear had we attempted it the next day”, that is, after the Americans had properly fortified it.

Howe wrote:

“Upon viewing the situation orders were given for a battalion of Hessians to pass the Bronx and attack this detached corps [of Americans on Chatterton’s Hill], supported by the 2nd brigade of British under the command of Brigadier-General [Alexander] Leslie, and the Hessian grenadiers sent from the right commanded by Colonel [Carl von] Donop, giving directions at the same time for Colonel Rall to charge the enemy’s flank”.

The Americans watched these developments with awe.

Captain William Hull (Charles Webb’s 19th Continental Regiment, McDougall’s brigade) remembered:

“we discovered at a distance the approach of the British army. Its appearance was truly magnificent. A bright autumnal sun shed its full luster on their polished arms; and the rich array of dress and military equipage, gave an imposing grandeur to the scene, as they advanced, in all the pomp and circumstance of war, to give us battle.”

This map (click to enlarge) illustrates the position of British (red numbers) and American units (blue circles) prior to the assault on Chatterton’s Hill.

There is some uncertainty as to exactly which American units were on the hill. The units represented are ones for which the source material clearly places on Chatterton’s Hill (as opposed to some other area of combat, such as the Mamaroneck Road). The location of these units on the map is somewhat approximate; particularly important to this reconstruction were the accounts by Joseph Plumb Martin, Benjamin Trumbull, Thomas Craige, John Haslet, John Brooks, and William Hull.

The British units represent the whole of von Heister’s column, minus several small commands (two battalions of the 71st Foot and some Provincials). This reconstruction of their deployment is based chiefly on the Charles Blaskowitz map of the battle, and, to a lesser extent, the accounts by Carl Leopold Baurmeister and Johann von Ewald. There are several discrepancies among these sources, which makes this representation more approximate than that for the Americans. For example, Blaskowitz did not show the 1st British brigade on his map; the location I’ve assigned to it follows from Ewald’s account, but it cannot be considered definite.

The village of White Plains and the Americans’ main defensive works are off-map to the upper right. Heister’s column advanced from the bottom of the map along the York (or East Chester) Road. Donop’s Hessian grenadiers marched into this area from the right edge of the map, probably near the units marked #6 and #7.

I commented on the development of this map in a couple of previous posts (here and here).

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