Friday, October 28, 2011

October 28, 1776 (Part 3)

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 third of four posts chronicling the events of October 28.

Synopsis for the afternoon of October 28th: British and Hessian regiments attacked and seized Chatterton’s Hill.

Previous entry: Midday on October 28; next: Evening of October 28.

The first British troops to attack the Americans on Chatterton’s Hill were Regiment von Lossberg and the 28th and 35th Regiments of Foot. They crossed the Bronx River under cover of a cannonade

The Americans had two or three of their own field pieces on the hill. Colonel John Haslet (Delaware Regiment) tried to gall the approaching British infantry with one piece. However:

“[the gun was] so poorly appointed, that myself was forced to assist in dragging it along [in] the rear of the regiment. While so employed, a cannon-ball struck the carriage, and scattered the shot about, a wad of tow blazing in the middle. The artillerymen fled. One alone was prevailed upon to tread out the blaze and collect the shot. The few that returned made not more than two discharges, when they retreated with the field-piece.”

The two British foot regiments crossed at a ford, and made it across the river quickly. Then, according to Orderly Sergeant Thomas Craige, they “turned to their left and came up to storm the entrenchment” occupied by the Massachusetts militia regiments of John Moseley and Eleazer Brooks.

Brigadier-General Alexander McDougall sent the Maryland battalion to the support of the militia. According to a Maryland officer, “Colonel [William] Smallwood… was ordered to march down the hill and attack the enemy... and a smart contest ensued, in which the enemy gave way”.

Lieutenant-General Henry Clinton attributed this setback to the officer leading this advance. He observed that when the British “suddenly found themselves exposed to a very heavy fire… The officer who led them… marched forward about twenty paces… halted, fired his fuzee, and began to reload (his column remaining during the time under the enemy’s fire)”. Watching this, he predicted “that they would break. It happened as I said [it would]”.

To the south, Regiment von Lossberg also experienced difficulty. According to Johann Caspar Ries, “[we] found a little river [the Bronx] before us, though which we had to wade, the water going into the cartouche pouches of most of the men. Scarcely were we through the water, than a rain of shot fell upon us, by which many were wounded.”

Major Carl Leopold Baurmeister claimed that the regiment was exposed because “On the far side [of the river there] is a steep slope, where the right wing had to halt while the left maneuvered to the front”. Ries added that “the left wing had to march through a wood that had been set alight, so that many men burnt the shoes on their feet.”

The Hessians advanced towards the 1st and 5th Connecticut State Battalions, which were jointly led by Colonel William Douglas. The Connecticutians claimed that they drove back the Hessians just as the Massachusetts militia and Marylanders had with the British regulars.

One of the Connecticutians wrote that:

“[the Hessians] came up in the front of Colonel Douglas' s regiment, and we fired a general volley upon them, at about twenty rods distance, and scattered them like leaves in a whirlwind; and they ran off so far, that some… ran out to the ground where they were… and brought off their arms and accoutrements, and rum, that the men who fell had with them, which we had time to drink round… before they came on again.” [see Footnote 1]

More succinctly, Colonel Gold Silliman of the 1st Connecticut wrote, “We gave them a heavy fire which made them retreat but they soon returned”.

The British, it seems, intensified their cannonade after this initial check; possibly some field pieces were wheeled closer to the hill. Haslet described this as a “cannonade from twelve or fifteen pieces, well served, [which] kept up a continual peal of reiterated thunder.” A Connecticutian recalled, “the air and hills smoked and echoed terribly with the bursting of shells: the fences and walls were knocked down, and torn to pieces, and men' s legs, arms, and bodies, mingled with cannon and grape-shot all round us.” [see Footnote 1]

The British formed a line of battle on the lower part of Chatterton’s Hill. The troops crowded together, as there was little room for them to form. According to Thomas Sullivan (49th Regiment of Foot):

“Lieutenant Colonel [Robert] Carr, who commanded the 35th Regiment, behaved with great courage, being obliged to force the left of his battalion through the right wing of the 28th… The 49th Battalion formed as well as the ground would admit, [and] every company engaged as they came up… The hill was so narrow that the right-hand company of our battalion had scarcely room to form”.

The 49th Foot found itself opposite the Delaware Regiment. According to Thomas Sullivan:

“Captain[-Lieutenant William] Gore, who commanded the right wing of our battalion, seeing the rebels which we engaged on the right wing were dressed in blue, took them to be Colonel Rall’s brigade of Hessians, and immediately ordered us to cease firing; for, says he, ‘you are firing at your own men.’ We ceased for about two minutes. The rebels, hearing him, made answer that they were no Hessians, and that we should soon know the difference”.

Other British units moved to threaten the flanks of the American position.

Regiment von Rall advanced against the American right flank, with Regiment von Knyphausen and the Lieb Regiment in support.

According to Major John Brooks of Charles Webb’s 19th Continental Regiment, the American left flank was threatened by “a body of light infantry and jaegers”.

Brigadier-General Alexander McDougall spotted the threat to the left, and he ordered Webb’s Regiment, (and perhaps also the 3rd New York Regiment), partially down the hill to meet them.

This movement greatly exposed the men to British cannon fire. According to Second Lieutenant Elisha Bostwick of Webb’s Regiment:

“a cannon ball cut down Lieutenant Young’s platoon which was next to that of mine[;] the ball first took the head of [Nathaniel] Smith, a stout heavy man and dashed it open, then it took off Chilson’s arm… it then took [Joel] Taylor across the bowels, it then struck Sergeant [Amasa] Garret of our company on the hip [and] took off the point of the hip bone[.] Smith and Taylor were left on the spot. Sergeant Garret was carried [away] but died the same day[.] Now to think, oh! What a sight that was to see within a distance of six rods those men with their legs and arms and guns and packs all in a heap[.] There was not a better sergeant in the army than Sergeant Garret when the soldiers were murmuring, weary, without shelter cold and hungry[;] he would stir about among them build fires and get them all in good humour and cheerful.”

For this cost, Webb’s Regiment succeeded in turning back the threat to the left. According to Captain William Hull, “After a sharp conflict, the object was completely attained.”

Meanwhile, the British began a major push against the right and center of the American position. Their line now included, from left to right, Regiment von Lossberg, the 28th, 35th, and 49th regiments of Foot. Behind these troops crowded up two battalions of Hessians grenadiers (von Linsing and Block) and the 5th Regiment of Foot.

Joseph Plumb Martin (5th Connecticut State Battalion) recalled:

“There was in our front, about ten rods distant, an orchard of apple trees. The ground on which the orchard stood was lower than the ground that we occupied, but was level from our post to the verge of the orchard, when it fell off so abruptly that we could see the lower parts of the trees. A party of Hessian troops [Regiment von Lossberg], and some English [the 28th Regiment of Foot], soon took possession of this ground: they would advance so far as just to show themselves above the rising ground, fire, and fall back and reload their muskets. Our chance upon them was, as soon as they showed themselves above the level ground, or when they fired, to aim at the flashes of their guns—their position was as advantageous to them as a breastwork.”

Lieutenant Enoch Anderson (Delaware Regiment) remembered:

“Now began our firing with small arms on the hill and a hot fire was kept up for some time. Many lives were lost on both sides and many were wounded.”

He remembered in particular seeing a mortally wounded soldier of his regiment who “fell to the ground” and “in falling, his gun fell from him.” Then “He picked it up,--turned on his face,--took aim at the British, who were advancing,--fired,--the gun fell from him,--he turned over on his back and expired.”

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

I relied on Thomas Sullivan's account for the placement of the British foot regiments on Chatterton's Hill. Other details about the construction of this map can be found in the post for Midday on October 28.

Although the Connecticut battalions and Delaware Regiment offered stiff resistance, the units in between soon began to collapse. First, according to Haslet, “The [Massachusetts] militia regiment behind the fence fled in confusion, without more than a random, scattering fire” [see Footnote 2].

The Maryland battalion gave way next. According to Lieutenant William Harrison:

“We were badly disposed to receive the attack of the enemy’s small arms, and unfortunately much exposed to their artillery, which flanked us so heavily as to render the post tenable but a short time. The matter was ended by a confused and precipitate retreat on our part”.

The remaining American units were soon hard pressed. Haslet wrote that “the first three Delaware companies [those closest to the retreating troops] also retreated in disorder, but not till after several were wounded and killed.”

The Connecticut state troops found themselves almost surrounded. The collapse of the center of the American line allowed British and Hessian troops to threaten the left flank of the Connecticut men, while at the same time Regiment von Rall drove against their right flank.

One of the Connecticut men wrote:

“they advanced in solid columns upon us, and were gathering all round us ten to our one. Colonel Douglas's and Silliman's regiments fired four or five times on them as they were advancing, and then retreated; but not till the enemy began to fire on their flanks. Colonels Silliman, Douglas and Arnold behaved nobly, and the men [afterwards] gained much applause.” [see Footnote 1]

Most of the Connecticutians who were killed or wounded were struck down when they fled. According to Colonel Silliman, “we were obliged to retreat which we did through a most furious fire from the enemy for half a mile for so far there was nothing to cover us from it…”

Joseph Plumb Martin recalled:

“finding ourselves flanked and in danger of being surrounded, we were compelled to make a hasty retreat from the stone wall. We lost comparatively speaking, very few at the fence: but when forced to retreat, we lost, in killed and wounded, a considerable number. One man who belonged to our company… said, “Now I am going out to the field to be killed;”… and he was—he was shot dead on the field.”

Footnote 1: This passage is from an anonymous letter published in newspapers after the battle. Ezra Stiles believed the author was Chaplain Benjamin Trumbull of the 5th Connecticut State Battalion.

Footnote 2: Orderly Sergeant Thomas Craige of Moseley’s Regiment offered this curious recollection:

“While they [the British] were rallying [after the first unsuccessful attack], the Highlanders came down, stacked their arms, drew their broadswords, and formed in rear of the [British] infantry. Then they all came up. Our men opened fire as before, and soon the enemy’s infantry opened, and the Highlanders marched into our entrenchments, and the Americans retreated down the hill westwardly.”

None of the British or Hessian accounts make mention of a Highlander regiment participating in this attack (though there were two with the army – the 42nd and 71st regiments). This description would make considerably more sense if Hessian grenadiers were substituted for highlanders. The Hessian grenadiers were placed in the second line, and although they were not armed with broadswords, they did carry short swords called hangers.

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