White Plains, New York

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White Plains, New York

WHITE PLAINS, NEW YORK. During the American retreat from northern Manhattan to Westchester County on 18-22 October, Washington knew that his forces would be surrounded if Major General William Howe reached White Plains first and proceeded westward to the Hudson River for a rendezvous with his brother's fleet at Tarrytown. If the Americans arrived first, the hills around White Plains would provide a strong defensive position. In addition, a substantial depot had already been established there with supplies sent from Connecticut. Washington ordered Major General William Alexander (Lord Stirling) to hurry ahead and secure the depot.

AMERICAN DISPOSITIONS

Stirling arrived on 21 October and Washington followed later that day. Immediately entrenching his forces in a three-mile line, Washington secured his flanks with the steep and wooded Chatterton's Hill on the right and a nearby lake on the left. Chatterton's Hill was separated from the American right wing by the Bronx River, but Washington occupied it to prevent the British from mounting artillery there. He sent his chief engineer, Colonel Rufus Putnam, and four regiments of levies—two from Massachusetts, one from New York, and one from New Jersey—to fortify the hill; and General Alexander McDougall's regiment was assigned to defend it, with orders to retreat, if necessary, to the American right wing. Washington later added Colonel Rudolphus Ritzema's Third New York, Colonel William Smallwood's Maryland Continental regiment, Colonel Charles Webb's Nineteenth Continental Connecticut regiment, and Colonel John Haslet's Delaware Continental regiment for a total of 1,600 two thousand troops and two fieldpieces on the hill.

BRITISH DELAYS

Howe had lost three days at New Rochelle waiting for eight thousand Hessian reinforcements under Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen, who finally joined him on 22 October. Howe proceeded north to Mamaroneck, where he paused for another four days while sending Clinton ahead to reconnoiter the ground within three miles of the American position. Clinton recommended the same kind of tactics that had succeeded on Long Island: extensive reconnaissance; diversionary detachments; and, finally, marching all night to attack the American lines at dawn. Howe initially agreed, but he changed his mind on the 27th and sent Clinton forward to determine if an immediate attack seemed feasible. Clinton recommended against it, since Washington's flanks were protected by the Bronx River and the hills, enabling him to retreat whenever he chose.

THE BRITISH ATTACK

Nonetheless, on the cold, bright morning of 28 October, Howe ordered a frontal attack on the American lines. The fourteen thousand British troops were arrayed in several columns, as Clinton recommended, and he led the one farthest to the right, assigned to outflank the Americans while they fought the British column on the left. Washington and his generals were on horseback that morning, discussing which of the surrounding hills should be occupied, when they learned that the British were advancing. General Spencer, with eight hundred Connecticut men, was sent to confront the British vanguard. They crossed the Bronx River and gathered behind a stone wall to await the enemy. They skirmished with some Hessians across an apple orchard until Clinton's flanking column forced them to retreat from the stone wall with heavy losses.

FIGHT FOR CHATTERTON'S HILL

The Americans retreated across the Bronx River and up Chatterton's Hill with the Hessians in pursuit. General McDougall's troops, shielded by a stone wall at the crest of the hill and supported by Captain Alexander Hamilton's artillery company, poured a volley into the Hessian column, inflicting numerous casualties and sending them back down the hill in disorder. The Hessians regrouped and, with reinforcements, made a second attempt, but McDougall's men "gave them a second warm reception" (Tallmadge, p. 14).

However, the column of eight regiments on the British left began crossing the Bronx River, sending three Hessian regiments to some ridges half a mile south of Chatterton's Hill. From there and from the east, the British began to pound the hill with their artillery. The militia panicked and tried to flee, but then they were rallied and put on the right flank behind Smallwood.

While additional Hessian units paused to build a bridge and were attacked by Smallwood and Ritzema, General Alexander Leslie's regiments forded the river further south and, supported by the cannonade from a dozen guns, charged up the steep, densely wooded slope. The dry autumn leaves and branches, ignited by British artillery shells, created a screen of smoke and fire that partially concealed Leslie's men during their ascent. However, the British gunners had to desist when the soldiers neared the top for fear of hitting them, and Leslie's troops fell back with heavy losses.

Undeterred, the rest of the British column crossed the river, formed a line, and swept up the hill under a hail of musket fire and grapeshot. Attacked by the Hessians under Colonel Johann Rall, the militia bolted, exposing the American right flank. Haslet's and Smallwood's troops put up stiff resistance, exacting an exorbitant price in British and Hessian lives before they retreated. The Americans suffered 175 casualties in the fight for Chatterton's Hill, later called the Battle of White Plains, but even by Howe's official estimate, they had inflicted more than 200 on the British. Including the Hessians, that number rose to 313.

FURTHER BRITISH DELAYS

The carnage on Chatterton's Hill discouraged Howe from further attacks on the American lines. With Bunker Hill, Long Island, Harlem Heights, and now White Plains, a pattern had emerged: after a show of American resistance, Howe refrained from a frontal assault—even when he had the advantage. Instead, on 28 October both sides hunkered down for a heavy exchange of artillery fire that continued throughout the day. British forces on Chatterton's Hill augmented the American fortifications, while Howe once again waited for reinforcements, losing two more critical days in which he might have stormed Washington's lines.

Six regiments of Hessians and one of Waldeckers newly arrived from Germany were brought to White Plains from Staten Island by Lord Percy on 30 October. Howe was finally ready to renew the offensive on 31 October, but a heavy rainstorm lasting twenty-hours forced a delay. The next day Howe's forces moved for- ward, only to find that Washington had moved out of reach, into the higher and steeper hills of North Castle Heights.

SEE ALSO New York Campaign.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Tallmadge, Benjamin. Memoir of Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge. 1858. Reprint, New York: New York Times, 1968.

Washington, George. The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series. 14 vols. Edited by Philander D. Chase. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985–2004.