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Westchester County, New York and the Revolutionary War: The Battle of White Plains (1776)

The British vanguard marched at 1 AM for the move to Pell’s Point. The move, however, was soon cancelled because of a storm. Ensign Henry Stirke (light infantry company of the 10th Foot, 1st Light Infantry Battalion) recorded in his journal that “very heavy rain, and high wind” “obliged us to return to our quarters at ½ after 3 o’clock [A.M.].”

Lieutenant-General William Howe decided to make the move on the 18th instead.

Lieutenant Tench Tilghman (one of Washington’s aides) was puzzled by the British inactivity:

“The enemy has made no move from Frog's Point. We may say the 17th October is come and nearly past without the predicted blow. The winds have not been favorable to pass Hell-Gate, where several of their transports are now laying; perhaps that may be the reason…. If we can but foil General Howe again, I think we knock him up for the campaign.”

Tilghman expected the British advance to be made overland from Throg’s Neck, not by water to the east; therefore, he was puzzled by the British inactivity. He was right, however, about the winds causing delays for the British.

Captain Frederick Mackenzie (23rd Regiment of Foot) commented on the slow movement of men and supplies from New York City to Throg’s Neck:

“The recruits lately arrived for those regiments which are with the army under General Howe, went though Hellgate this morning in flatboats. The ships with the Hessians [see footnote] cannot go through for want of a proper wind. Several ships with horses and wagons are detained for the same reason. The Senegal sloop of war got through this morning with much difficulty; she touched the shore several times but at last effected the passage with much labor and danger.”

This map illustrates the distribution of Washington’s army units in Westchester County on October 17, 1776 (click to enlarge). North is at the upper-right corner of the map. A part of the Hudson is at the top of the map, and a part of Long Island Sound is at the bottom. By the end of the day, four of Washington’s divisions were on the New York mainland (those of William Heath, John Sullivan, Charles Lee, and Joseph Spencer) as was Benjamin Lincoln's brigade of Massachusetts militia. The placement of the units on this map is inexact.

Washington’s army units were deployed with three objectives in mind:

  • First, units were deployed to defend the crossings of the Bronx River (marked by the numbers 1-4). Glover’s brigade of Lee’s division was positioned in advance of these crossings near the town of East Chester. As long as the British were kept from crossing the Bronx, Washington had a secure connection with upstate New York and New England.

  • Second, units were deployed to contain the British army on Throg’s Neck (partially visible at extreme lower left).

  • Third, units were deployed to guard the shoreline between Throg’s Neck and Manhattan (off the map, at left).

The divisions of Israel Putnam and Nathanael Greene (not shown) defended upper Manhattan, and nearby Fort Constitution in New Jersey. Around this time, Fort Constitution was renamed Fort Lee, after the American general.

Spencer’s division was in a reserve position at Kingsbridge, where it could quickly move to reinforce American forces in either Westchester County or upper Manhattan.

Howe had wanted to land his forces at Pell's Point on this date (bottom of the map), but the move was delayed by bad weather.

On this quiet day, Colonel William Smallwood of the Maryland Battalion (McDougall’s brigade; Lee’s division), wrote about his misgivings with the army. He asserted that “Our Commander-in-Chief is an excellent man,” but he found much fault with the officers below Washington:

“Were our officers good, and our men well trained, it would be impossible [for the British] to effect their purpose…” but “there seems to be a total ignorance of and inattention to” the kind of military discipline “necessary to render an army formidable.” He argued that many of the officers essentially “train” their men “to run away” from the enemy, “and to make them believe they never can be safe unless under cover of an entrenchment… Discipline here is totally neglected, and yet after all it is the only bulwark in war. Had our troops been trained better, and worried less with the pick-axe and spade, by this time our army would have been in a condition to have sought for their enemies in turn.”

Smallwood also complained that the men were poorly fed, and that many were sick from “being often moved, and… exposed to lie on the cold ground… often lying without their tents for several nights”. He added, “We want medicine much; none can be had here. Our sick have [been] and are now suffering extremely.” “I foresee the evils arising from the shameful neglect… One good-seasoned and well-trained soldier, recovered to health, is worth a dozen new recruits, and [it] is often easier [to] get [a well-trained soldier] recovered than [it is] to get a recruit…”

But, Smallwood also saw glimmers of hope. He believed the British “are as much afraid and cautious of us, as we can be… of them”. He remarked also that all ranks in the army understood what was on the line: they must either “fight or starve and surrender at [British] discretion”.

The Hessian reinforcement consisted of the Lieb Regiment, Regiment von Dittfurth, and Regiment Prinz Carl, which together formed a brigade under the command of Friedrich Wilhelm von Lossberg. These troops departed Staten Island on October 12th, but were still awaiting the opportunity to join Howe’s army.

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