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 November 1st: The Americans pulled back from White Plains; the British abandoned the pursuit of Washington’s army.
Previous entry: October 31st.
In the early morning hours, the last of the Americans in the entrenchments pulled back. Chaplain Benjamin Trumbull (5th Connecticut State Battalion) noted in his journal:
“This morning our guards come off and leave the lines in the centre of the town called White Plains, and to distress the enemy [they] burn all the barns of hay and grain and houses, where the inhabitants had stores of wheat and corn and also stacks and barracks of hay and grain.”
The British officers looked with surprise on the burning buildings and empty defensive works. When they rode forward they could see American forces encamped on a line of hills to the north, but the American army had been so reduced by sickness and other causes, that they thought this force was no more than a rear guard. Major Stephen Kemble wrote of this force, “[we] suppose them to be about 7,000 strong”.
The British concluded that the rest of Washington’s men had fled even deeper into the hills, which meant that their attack plans had gone to naught. However, as the British were not particularly eager to attack the American lines in the first place, there was undoubtedly some sense of relief.
Lieutenant-General William Howe opted not to attack this “rearguard”. He later explained that the Americans’ actions “plainly” indicated a “desire to avoid coming to action,” and added “I did not think the driving their rearguard further back an object of the least consequence.”
Instead, the British advanced and occupied the Americans’ former entrenchments. Ensign Henry Stirke (light infantry company, 10th Foot) wrote: “At half after 9 o’clock we got under arms, and pushed into the village of the White Plains, which the enemy had just abandoned, and the army advanced at the same time”.
This advance brought the armies within range of each others’ cannons. Major-General William Heath, on the left of the American army, wrote:
“In the morning, the British advanced, with a number of field-pieces, to the north of the road near late headquarters… and commenced a furious cannonade on General Heath’s division, which was nobly returned by Captain-Lieutenant Bryant and Lieutenant Jackson, of the artillery.”
During this cannonade, according to Heath, George Washington rode up to him and expressed concern over one of Heath’s regiments that was separated by a hollow from the rest of the division. “Take care that you do not lose them”, he warned. But the British did not attack this force. Instead, Heath wrote, the British guns withdrew from his front, “made a circuitous movement, and came down toward the American right.” As these guns moved into position, they were fired upon by some American heavy guns. Heath noted that “upon the discharge” from the American guns, the British crews “made off with their field-pieces as fast as their horses could draw them. A shot from the American cannon, at this place, took off the head of a Hessian artilleryman. They also left one of the artillery horses dead on the field.”
Sergeant John Smith (Lippitt’s Regiment, Lee’s division) witnessed the British movement towards the American right. He wrote:
“we saw the enemy advance down the hill towards us in three parties[,] one party coming towards the road the other [two] through a swamp[.] We sent some 25-pound shot to them that stopped some before they could get over the bridge to us and the others passed through the swamp to a hill opposite to us… we sent over some shot… that knocked down a light horse”. [see footnote]
British Major Stephen Kemble summarized the day’s action by writing: “[they] cannonaded us… the greatest part of the day; we lost 9 men [killed] by this business. Six of them Hessians.”
Isolated fatalities were noted by several British officers.
Ensign Henry Stirke wrote:
“We received a few straggling shot, which did no execution. The 15th regiment had one man killed, and another wounded, by the rebel cannon”.
Captain Francis Rawdon observed:
“We had some cannonading with their rear guard, by which my brother John (who is an excellent soldier in every respect) was very near killed. Two men who stood close to him were killed by a twelve-pounder, and a splinter of one of their skulls stuck in his thigh, but did not hurt him much.”
American losses were even fewer. Apparently one man in Levi Paulding’s New York militia regiment was killed, and two other New Yorkers were wounded. Their brigade commander (George Clinton) commented, “I have heard of no other injury done [to] us.”
Brigade-Major Benjamin Tallmadge characterized the American withdrawal from White Plains as something of a victory: He claimed that Howe was “baffled” by this maneuver, and as a result gave up the pursuit of Washington’s army. Thus, Washington’s army, brought perilously close in this campaign to capture or collapse, had survived to fight another day.
William Howe had a rather different perspective. Howe did not wish to place his own army at risk by chasing the Americans into the wild hills on the New York-New England border. He was sure, too, that if Washington did make a firm stand, it would only be on some set of steep and heavily fortified hills. Howe had had enough of this business. He felt he could now turn his back on Washington without losing face and proceed once again to wage war on his own terms. Howe’s preference was to capture Fort Washington and consolidate his hold on the New York City area. His developing plan also came to include sending expeditions into New Jersey, Rhode Island, and, if all went well, the American capitol at Philadelphia.
Heath noted that during the rest of this day, November 1st:
“The two armies lay looking at each other, and within long cannon-shot [range]. In the night time the British lighted up a vast number of fires, the weather growing pretty cold. These fires, some on the level ground, some at the foot of the hills, and at all distances to their brows… seemed to the eye to mix with the stars, and to be of different magnitudes. The American side, doubtless, exhibited to them a similar appearance.”
The bright orange flames licked the cold November sky, and another chapter of the Revolutionary War came to a close.
Footnote: Smith indicated that this event took place on Friday the 31st. Friday was November 1st. A comparison of Smith’s description of other events occurring at the time with the journals of other Americans suggests that he was right about it being Friday and wrong about it being the 31st.
Concluding Comment: The standoff at White Plains did not end on November 1st. For a few days the two armies glowered at each other, and during that time more men were killed in little brushes or perished from illness. The British left White Plains on November 5-6 and soon joined Knyphausen’s division near Manhattan. On November 16th, Howe captured Fort Washington and completed the conquest of Manhattan.