Synopsis for October 9: British vessels on the Hudson River cut an important communications link to George Washington’s army.
The Americans defended their position in and about upper Manhattan with an extensive series of fortifications. Particularly impressive were the forts and batteries designed to keep the British navy from ascending the Hudson River (then commonly called the North River). British vessels would have to pass between a series of batteries in and around Fort Constitution on the New Jersey side of the river and Fort Washington on the New York side. In between, the river was obstructed by hulks that had been intentionally sunk. The Americans also had a small flotilla of row galleys on the far side of the obstacles.
Captain Andrew Snape Hamond of HMS Roebuck recalled that “the rebel army was chiefly supplied by the North River, and placed great dependence upon it… they looked upon it to be perfectly secure: and it is possible, from seeing the great preparation they had made, we might also have thought so”.
But then, in early October:
“a deserter… informed the admiral [Vice Admiral Richard Howe] that there was a passage open between two of the sunken vessels… and offered himself as a pilot. This intelligence was exceedingly agreeable to both the General [Lieutenant-General William Howe] and admiral, conceiving, that if ships could be got up the North River, the rebel’s supplies would not only be cut off from Albany and that country, but even their communication with the Jerseys would become very uncertain and unsafe which could not fail of distressing them, and would very much assist in the intended operation of surrounding their army”.
On October 9th, a southerly breeze made the expedition possible. The British dispatched three frigates (Phoenix, Roebuck, and Tartar), a schooner (Tyral), and two tenders.
According to Captain Hammond:
“Much praise is due to Captain [Hyde] Parker on this occasion (who led, in the Phoenix) for his steadiness and good conduct – when they drew near to the danger, the pilot, in great confusion told him, that the marks which then appeared were not those that had been described to him, and he was totally at a loss[,] upon which Captain Parker, very prudently, immediately determined to take his chance where he knew the deepest water to be, which was close to the eastern shore…”
The Americans watched with incredulity as the British vessels eased past their defenses.
George Washington wrote, “to our surprise and mortification, they all ran through without the least difficulty, and without receiving the least apparent damage from our forts, which kept playing on them from both sides of the river.”
Appearances were a little deceiving: the British lost 9 killed and 18 wounded. Among these were a servant boy killed by a cannonball on the Phoenix and a Captain-Lieutenant of His Majesty’s Marines flayed by splinters on the Tartar. The ships were also considerably damaged, although none came close to sinking.
On the far side of the forts, “the enemy began to fire small arms from the woods,” according to Captain Cornthwaite Ommanney of the Tartar. Apparently, the British fired back, for Lieutenant Enoch Anderson of the Delaware Regiment remembered:
“they gave us some volleys of grape-shot… and some bombs. The grape-shot made holes in our tents, and some of the bombs broke in the air. One fell amidst our tents, but one of our boys ran and soon had pulled out the fuse. We had one man wounded.”
Heading north, the British gave chase to the American vessels on the river.
Captain Hyde Parker of the Phoenix wrote, “at Noon… [we were] in chase of four of the rebel galleys[,] etc. [and I] sent the Tartar ahead to cut them off… at 1 P.M. two of [the] galleys, a schooner, and two sloops ran onshore”. At 1:30 the Phoenix “anchored … [and] fired several broadsides to scour the shore…”
Among the men on the row galleys were two junior officers of Hutchinson’s 27th Continental Regiment. They claimed the vessels were run on shore once it became clear they could not outrun the British vessels. They recalled, “We run her [i.e., their vessel] on shore just above Dobb’s Ferry where we had not time enough to get our people and things on shore…” Instead, the fast approaching enemy “obliged us to swim on shore. But no lives [were] lost”. Then the British “fired a broad side of grape shot as we lay in the bushes…”
In the end the British captured two of the American row galleys (Independence and Crane), two sloops, and a schooner. According to Major-General William Heath of Massachusetts, one of the sloops “had on board the machine invented by… a Mr. Bushnell, intended to blow up the British ships.” This was the famous Turtle, the world’s first submarine.
The American infantry now had the awkward task of chasing the British navy. Orders went down the line from George Washington (the commander in chief), to Major-General William Heath (a division commander), to Colonel Paul Dudley Sargent (a brigade commander), to send men north and prevent the British from doing additional damage.
General Heath’s orders to Colonel Sargent:
“Sir: The enemy, as it is reported, have landed a number of troops at or near Dobbs's Ferry; and it being thought indispensably our duty to dislodge them, you are immediately to take the command of the detachment designed for that purpose, consisting of five hundred men. You will march without the least loss of time, with the said detachment and forty light-horse, to Dobbs's Ferry, taking with you one howitzer and a detachment of the artillery, now at Philips’s Mills [i.e., two 12-pounders]… You will take particular care that the howitzer is properly covered, and defended by the battalion men.
You will, if possible, dislodge the enemy; killing or taking prisoners, as occasion may require…”
The British expedition caused a good deal of marching and countermarching for some of the Continentals. Among these was Private Davie How of Sargent’s 16th Continental Regiment. Like many journalists of this era he described the events of the day in simple terms, and left out how difficult such marches were for poorly clothed and often inadequately fed troops:
“This morning three ships sailed up the North River[.] Our people kept a hot fire at them[.] We were all alarmed and marched down to Morrisania – 6 miles – then we all marched back before night [another 6 miles]. This night I went with a party of men to Dobb’s Ferry[,] about 12 miles[; we] got there at daybreak.”