Monday, October 31, 2011

October 31, 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 31st: The British assaults on White Plains and Fort Washington were postponed by rain; Washington was alarmed by the state of his army; Washington ordered the troops to a stronger post.

Previous entry: October 30th; next: November 1st.

A downpour struck White Plains in the early morning hours. The rain increased Lieutenant-General William Howe’s unease, but he did not alter his plans to attack the American army at dawn.

George Washington was expecting an attack, and he had the Americans lie on their arms in the fortifications at White Plains. Brigadier-General George Clinton (Heath’s division) wrote:

“Our lines were manned all night… and a most horrid night it was to lie in cold trenches. Uncovered as we are, drawn on fatigue, making redoubts, fleches, abatis and lines… I fear [these things] will ultimately destroy our army without fighting. This I am sure of, that I am likely to lose more in my brigade by sickness occasioned by extra fatigue and want of covering, than in the course of an active campaign is ordinarily lost in the most severe actions”.

At 5 AM, the British army was in motion. A powerful blow was to be made on the left, where Mirbach’s and Lossberg’s Hessian brigades, the 4th British brigade, the Brigade of Guards, the 2nd and 3rd light infantry battalions, and the 5th and 49th regiments of foot assembled for battle. These forces were entrusted to Lieutenant-General Leopold Philip von Heister who apparently had replaced Lieutenant-General Henry Clinton as Howe’s favored subordinate.

Clinton commanded the center, and Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis the right. The forces in this sector included the 1st Light Infantry Battalion, the 1st British brigade, the Hessian grenadiers, the British Reserve, and the 28th, 35th, 44th, 64th, and 71st regiments of foot.

As the troops formed up and moved into place, they looked upon the forbidding American lines. The British redcoats and Hessian bluecoats were cold, wet, and no doubt fearful of what was to follow.

Then, around 7 AM, the men were told that the attack was cancelled, and they marched back to camp.

Hessian Major Carl Leopold Baurmeister later wrote: “a heavy rain, fortunately perhaps for the army, frustrated all our plans. The enemy, well advised of everything[,] were prepared and ready to repulse us, sleeping on their arms that night.” Lieutenant-General Henry Clinton noted that the rain “much swelled the river,” and Charles Stedman claimed that the rain “made the ground so slippery that it was thought it could not be possible to mount the face of the hill”.

The cancellation was only temporary. Headquarters ordered that “the army [is] to be in readiness to move upon the shortest notice.” Commissary Charles Stedman claimed that “the weather proved fine about noon, but the commander in chief did not think proper to put his former intentions in execution.” Instead, Howe seemingly preferred to wait until early the next morning when poor visibility would partially mask the attack.

Baurmeister wondered why Howe did not take other steps to hide his intentions:

“Much might have been done on our left wing to mislead them [i.e., the Americans]. For example, we might have built some bridges [over the Bronx] and constructed roads to them—but nothing was done.”

Although the British did not make a major feint, Washington was anxious for their flanks. Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Harrison (Washington’s secretary) wrote:

“The enemy are throwing up some lines and redoubts in our front, with a view of cannonading as soon as they are ready, and at the same time [they] are extending their wings further by our right and left. It is supposed that one of their objects is to advance a part of their troops, and seize… the bridge over Croton River, that the communication may be cut off with the upper country” [i.e., upstate New York].

Washington dispatched Brigadier-General Rezin Beall to secure this crossing with several regiments of Maryland militia.

Washington was unable to detach many men because his army was rapidly losing strength. Harrison noted:

“Our army is decreasing fast: several gentlemen who have come to camp within a few days have observed large numbers of militia returning home on the different roads”.

General orders from American headquarters on this date admonished the troops for being away from the fortifications:

“The General, in a ride he took yesterday, to reconnoitre the grounds about this [place], was surprised and shocked to find both officers and soldiers straggling all over the country, under one idle pretence or other, when they cannot tell the hour or minute the camp may be attacked, and their services indispensably necessary. He once more positively orders that neither officer [n]or soldier shall stir out of camp without leave… The provost marshal is to take up all stragglers; and it is enjoined upon all officers to seize every man who fires his gun without leave, and to have him tied up immediately and receive twenty lashes.”

Once again, there were small clashes between the armies.

Lieutenant Colonel William Henshaw (Moses Little’s 12th Continental Regiment, Nixon’s brigade) was stationed on the American right where the armies lay especially close together. He wrote:

“The enemy are now encamped within gunshot of us, so that there is a continual firing of small arms…. We daily expect an engagement with the enemy.”

Brigadier-General George Clinton noted that on this date one Captain Van Wyck was killed while commanding a company of rangers.

“He went out in the morning, with about thirty men, fell in with about one hundred of the enemy, and at once, not far distant from their lines, charged them with spirit, gave them a brisk fire, but unfortunately when loading his piece the second time, was shot in the head and fell dead. His lieutenant shot down the man who killed his captain. The enemy fled. Our party brought off their captain [i.e., Van Wyck]… He was a good man and valiant officer.”

During the day, a British deserter provided Washington with a detailed description of the planned British attack. Washington decided that the new position his men had begun to occupy on the night of October 28-29 was a better place to meet this attack. He ordered the troops to withdraw to the new position during the night.

This image uses a White Plains map of 1891 to illustrate the positions held by Washington and Howe at White Plains. The road network is substantially more developed at this time than it was in 1776; nevertheless, the area was still predominately rural (unlike today). The American positions were chiefly within the blue lines, and the British positions were chiefly within the red lines.

Washington’s initial position was on high ground north just north of the village of White Plains, with his flanks bounded by the Bronx River and St. Mary’s Lake. Part of the British army crossed the Bronx River on October 28, and remained on the high ground west of the river in the days that followed. These forces were opposite the American right, but to attack this flank they had to re-cross the Bronx River.

Washington’s initial position was a good one, but his army was more secure in the position they occupied on the night of October 31-November 1 (the area at the top of the map).

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