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 29th: The Americans strengthened their position at White Plains while the armies skirmished; Knyphausen advanced to Kingsbridge, and Howe vacillated.
During the night, the American army at White Plains began moving their camps to a line of hills to the north. Chaplain Benjamin Trumbull (5th Connecticut State Battalion, Spencer’s division) wrote, “at 2 o’clock [AM] the troops in General Spencer’s division had orders to strike their tents and carry them out about one mile and an half by hand and then return to the lines [i.e., the fortifications at White Plains].” The troops then made the roundtrip again, this time carrying their camp kettles and other cooking utensils. It was hard work for the exhausted men. Trumbull wrote that many “had no sleep at all” “though they had been engaged almost all day [yesterday] with the enemy and had been obliged to wade through a river [the Bronx] and were very wet”. “I was afraid I should be sick for I had been in the river almost all over, and could not change [clothes]… [and] was much fatigued with the action… but I am today well and vigorous”. Trumbull praised God for seeing him safely through the battle, and wrote that this protection “lay me under new obligations to live wholly to God and to seek his honor and glory in the little time I have to live in the world”.
Joseph Plumb Martin, who was also in the 5th Connecticut, was not so fortunate. He recalled:
“During the night we remained in our new made trenches, the ground of which was in many parts springy; in that part where I happened to be stationed, the water, before morning, was nearly over [our] shoes, which caused many of us to take violent colds… I was one who felt the effects of it, and was… sent back to the baggage to get well again, if I could, for it was left to my own exertions to do it, and no other assistance was afforded me. I was not alone in my misery; there were a number in the same circumstances. When I arrived at the baggage, which was not more than a mile or two, I had the canopy of heaven for my hospital, and the ground for my hammock. I found a spot where the dry leaves had collected between the knolls; I made up a bed of these, and nestled in it, having no other friend present but the sun to smile upon me. I had nothing to eat or drink, not even water, and was unable to go after any myself, for I was sick indeed. In the evening, one of my messmates found me out, and soon after brought me some boiled hog’s flesh (it was not pork) and turnips, without either bread or salt. I could not eat it, but I felt obliged to him notwithstanding; he did all he could do—he gave me the best he had to give, and had to steal that, poor fellow;--necessity drove him to do it to satisfy the cravings of his own hunger, as well as to assist a fellow sufferer.”
Beginning in the morning and continuing throughout the day, the two armies skirmished.
For Captain Peter Kimball (Stickney’s New Hampshire militia regiment), it was a tense day:
“we lay on our arms. The enemy appeared all round on every hill[,] the riflemen [were] firing on their guards. One of the riflemen [was] killed this day and at night our guard was alarmed. Another fired and killed Captain Buntin.”
Matters were no easier for the British light infantry across the way. Ensign Henry Stirke (light infantry company, 10th Foot) noted:
“I had a very troublesome picket, at the entrance of the village[;] at daylight my sentries were fired on which continued by popping shots all day. I had one man wounded”.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant-General William Howe had an enormously difficult decision to make. He had at last caught up with Washington’s army, but he loathed sending his troops against the Americans’ entrenchments. Although he was sure he could carry these works, he believed the assault would lead to the death of many of his men and produce little strategic gain.
The obvious alternative was to force the Americans from their trenches by threatening their flank. He later stated that this was his preference:
“I do not hesitate to confess, that if I could by any manoeuvre remove an enemy from a very advantageous position, without hazarding the consequences of an attack, where the point to be carried was not adequate to the loss of men to be expected… I should certainly adopt that cautionary conduct, in the hopes of meeting my adversary upon more equal terms.”
But on this occasion, Howe was unable to find a low-risk way of turning the Americans’ flank. Thus Howe was left with the unpalatable choices of either making a bloody frontal assault, or retreating.
Howe vacillated. His official excuse for not attacking was that the situation at White Plains had changed and that he now needed more men. He later explained:
“The enemy drew back their encampment on the night of the 28th, and observing their lines next morning much strengthened by additional works, the designed attack upon them was deferred, and the 4th brigade, left with Lord Percy, with two battalions of the 6th brigade were ordered to join the army.” [see footnote]
Curiously, when pressed by Parliament several years later to explain his conduct at White Plains, Howe mysteriously claimed that “I have political reasons, and no other, for declining to explain why that assault was not made”.
To the west, Lieutenant-General Wilhelm von Knyphausen continued his operation against upper Manhattan. First he detached Major General Martin Conrad Schmidt with regiments von Wissenbach and von Huyne to hold Valentine’s Hill. Then he proceeded with grenadiere battalion Köhler and regiments Wutginau, von Stein, and Buenau to Kingsbridge.
Footnote: The 4th brigade consisted of the 17th, 40th, 46th, and 55th regiments of foot. The two regiments drawn from the 6th brigade were the 44th and 64th regiments of foot. The 6th brigade had been encamped near Mamaroneck since October 25th.