Saturday, October 8, 2011

October 8, 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 8th: British leaders planned to drive George Washington’s army from Manhattan.

Next entry: October 9th.

George Washington’s army was ejected from New York City in mid-September. Afterwards, the Americans established their headquarters in upper Manhattan. They also erected strong fortifications spanning the width of the island. The British wished to complete their conquest of Manhattan without having to storm these works. Therefore, the British looked to drive the Americans from Manhattan by threatening their lines of supply and communication with New England.

In the words of the British commander in chief, Lieutenant-General William Howe:

“The very strong positions the enemy had taken on this island [Manhattan] and fortified with incredible labour determined me to get upon their principal communication with Connecticut, with a view of forcing them to quit the strongholds in the neighbourhood of King’s Bridge and if possible to bring them to action.”

In early October, General Howe, along with his brother, Vice Admiral Richard Howe, examined the coastline of the New York mainland to the east of Manhattan (New York’s Westchester County). They identified several possible landing sites. Not far from the shore lay the Boston Post Road, the principle connection between New York and New England.

On this date (the 8th), the British leadership apparently debated how to make this move into the New York mainland. According to Major Stephen Kemble (deputy adjutant-general), there was “a long council of general officers with the commander in chief and admiral [that] did not break up till half past three in the afternoon.”

Lieutenant-General Henry Clinton’s memoir provides insight into the deliberations. He noted that “many different plans were suggested”. He believed:

“our landing should be made at such a distance from the enemy’s gross [i.e., main part] that our whole army might have time to be disembarked before they could come upon us in numbers sufficient to disturb us, yet at the same time so near their three communications with the continent [that] they must be obliged to fight us on our own terms or fall back.”

This probably was not a controversial position. However, the generals disagreed about where exactly the landing should take place.

Clinton wanted the army to land near New Rochelle, where it could easily cut the “three communications” from Manhattan. Specifically, by seizing New Rochelle, the British would cut the Boston Post Road, which ran to the east. A short march later and they would seize the crossroads at White Plains and cut the northeastern route. One more march and they would seize the bridge over the Croton River and cut the northern route.

However, General Howe disapproved of landing at New Rochelle because of doubts that the British could be easily supplied there.

Instead, according to Clinton, Howe preferred to land at the mouth of Westchester Creek. There the British would have a shorter supply line of their own while also being closer to the supply lines of the Americans. However, this suggestion was dropped because a landing could be made only at high tide.

Finally, Brigadier-General William Erskine proposed a landing near Throg’s Point (also known as Frog’s Point), which lay just to the east of Westchester Creek.

Howe agreed to this proposal. Clinton did as well; he stated, “though roundabout, it led finally to the object I had in view.”

This map (click to enlarge) is based on a modern photograph of the New York City area, taken from the Space Shuttle Columbia. In 1776, New York City occupied only the lower tip of Manhattan Island (Number 7). The British intended to land behind Washington’s army on the northern shore of Long Island Sound (at the points designated by Numbers 8, 9, or 10). Washington’s army would then either have to retreat or face entrapment once the British began cutting the roads leading north and east from Manhattan.

The British had good reason to be optimistic about the success of this movement. On this date, Ambrose Serle (secretary to Vice Admiral Howe) spoke with several American deserters in New York City who told him that their army was “very sickly, ill clothed, and much dispirited.”

The American army had lost over the previous month-and-a-half the battle of Long Island and possession of New York City. The army was ill clothed – indeed, they were poorly supplied with almost every military necessity — and illness was rampant. However, morale had not reached a crisis point; the American army, as a whole, remained determined to continue the fight.

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