The History of New York State
Book XI, Chapter II
Part VI

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

Putnam used those hours of viceregal dalliance to good advantage. He affected a skillful retreat along the wooded bank of the Hudson, Howe having seized the post-road and send some Hessians along it toward the city. Donop's Hessians, marching southward, came upon some of Putnam's command somewhere near Twenty-third Street. three hundred Americans were captured at this point, but there was consolation in the fact that the remainder of Putnam's 4,000 escaped.

Late in the afternoon, his force was making its way along the western rim of what we now call Central Park, strung out in a long column, and encumbered not only with baggage, but with women and children; while Howe's belated columns were actually advancing almost step for step with him along the present line of Fifth Avenue. At the latitude of Ninety-sixth Street, within the present park boundaries, the British caught up with some of the American rearguard, a few shots were fired, and the, with approaching darkness, the pursuit ended.

Perhaps Howe was satisfied with what he had accomplished that day. The enemy had eluded him, but New York City was his and no doubt he would soon be able to disperse the forces that were still on the island, this perhaps bringing a successful end to the rebellion. Certainly his task ash not, up to now, developed much awkward checks as he had had to suffer on the Massachusetts front.

Washington's forces were now gathered safely on Harlem heights. The defense was from the Point of Rocks as Ninth Avenue and one Hundred and Twenty-sixth Street, northwesterly to the Hudson. Opposite these heights on the south side, and cross a hollow way along which Manhattan Avenue now runs, was a parallel line of bluffs now known as Bloomingdale heights, and reaching from One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street and Ninth Avenue to One Hundred and Twenty-ninth Streets and the North River. Between these two positions was neutral ground, the British extending their lines from Bloomingdale across the island to Horin's Hook. The American forces numbered perhaps 12,000 to 14,000, an indefinite uncertain quantity, though now not so likely to give way to panic. Howe's army, it is said, numbered about 25,000.

Nothing disastrous happened during the night of the 15th, but on the morning of the 16th a detachment of Knowlton's Rangers, while scouting, encountered a British force neat Hoagland's house (One Hundred and Twelfth Street and Twelfth Avenue). There was a sharp skirmish, and against overwhelming numbers the Rangers behaved well. they used stone walls to advantage, and retired in good order, inflicting considerable loss upon the enemy. Washington, still smarting from the experiences of the day before, used this opportunity to demonstrate that even the American who had failed to rally the day before could fight. He reinforced Knowlton's Rangers and executed another manoeuvre which nearly cut off the advanced part of he British forces. He sent a small detachment into the "hollow way." At once, the British were tempted to send a force to capture them. They fell into the trap, another detachment of Americans slipping to their rear. But for a confusion of orders the British might have been captured. They retreated just in time, but what had been merely "an affair of outposts" had by this time developed into an engagement in which probably 3.00 troops took part. It raged for three hours in the region lying between One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street and One Hundred and Seventh Street, and between the present site of Columbia University and the North River. then Washington prudently withdrew his forces. It was not a major engagement, but had brought the American commander-in-chief some satisfaction, for he realized that the behavior of his soldiers had stiffened the morale of the shaken soldiers of the day before. The improved morale was due, to an extent, to the masterly generalship of their commander-in-chief, but perhaps to a greater extent to the example in courage manifested that day by some of the regimental leaders. Such men as Knowlton and Leitch were of the type that Washington had been praying for. Their fearless actions in the face of death thrilled their commands. Men who the day before had scampered away like rabbits at the sight of the British bayonets and the thunder of the British guns were now eager to chase the same dreaded regulars. Men of free America could stand against any men from Europe. Uniform did not make the man. Their hearts were now thrilled by the confidence shown by their leaders. The Connecticut Rangers under Knowlton showed that they were worthy descendants of the brave men who had sailed their little ships past the Dutch fort on the Connecticut river a century and a quarter before, and calmly settled on the lands they had marked out for themselves, paying no heed to the rattling of the Dutch sabre. Leitch's Virginia Riflemen lived up to the highest traditions of the oldest colony. Knowlton and Leitch inspired their men to atone for the disgrace of the day before. Heroism is sometimes almost as contagious as panic. The brave Knowlton fell pierced by three bullets; and Leitch went down to death; but there were others who were now well able to carry on the fight. Some knew that the day before, while they were scampering away, their commander-in-chief alone had faced the enemy, taking no heed of the cannonade that had frightened them so, notwithstanding that one cannon ball dropped almost at his feet. Knowlton, with his dying breath, had gasped: "I do not value my life if we but get the day." Washington was not so disconsolate after that "affair of outposts" on the morning after the day of disgrace; and the English had now a better opinion of the potentiality of the American irregulars. It is said that when Knowlton fell, his men drove the British "up and down hill and over fields and fences and through lanes and orchards" with a fury that was irresistible. The British rallied near the site of Grant's tomb, but soon gave way again before the maddened rangers. The British were driven almost within sight of their own lines north of Ninety-first Street, before some Hessians came to their rescue. Later, the Hessian commander, Donop, declared "that had it not been for his valiant grenadiers, the British engaged at Harlem heights would have been exterminated." Of course it was technically a British victory inasmuch as the Americans in the end retreated; and a only a small portion of the armies had been engaged, the English commandeer was perhaps justified in giving this "affair of outposts" only an insignificant place in his reports; nevertheless, he had seen that the Americans were not less courageous than those he had, to his sorrow, encountered in Massachusetts. To Washington's army, the day had brought stimulation. flagging hearts had quickened in those patriots who watched the manoeuvres from Harlem Heights. The flush of victory took the pallor of defeat out of many cheeks. Although Adjutant-General Reed was right on his opinion that the engagements usually known as the Battle of Harlem Heights "hardly deserves the name of battle," he was ready and glad to recognize its great value. AS he admitted: "It was a scene so different form what happened the day before that it elated our troops very much, and in that respect has been of great service."

Of course, Harlem heights did not win the war. It was merely one touch of inspiring color in what would otherwise have been one long stretch of dismal brad that seemed to end in dead black. Americans had much to bear before they could feel their hearts lightening within them.

Lower down on the same day some interesting ceremonies were proceeding. Quoting from the diary of the Moravian clergyman, Ewald Gustav Schaukirk, pastor of the Moravian congregation in New York City, the English took possession of the city on the 16th, but on the day before "the King's flag was put up again in the fort, and the Rebel's taken down; and thus the city was not delivered from those Usurpers who had oppressed it so long." This was the opinion of a Crown adherent, of course. In his diary Schaukirk also describes the ceremonies of the next day. he writes: "In the forenoon the first of the English troops came to town. they were drawn up in two lines in the Broadway; Governor Tryon and others of the officers were present, and a great concourse of people. Joy and gladness seemed to appear in all countenances, and person who had been strangers, one to the other, formerly, were now very sociable together and friendly. The first that was done was that all the houses of those who had had a part and a shore in the Rebellion were marked as forfeited. Many, indeed, were marked by persons who had no order to do so, perhaps, to one or the other from some personal resentment."

But those who sow the wind usually reap the whirlwind. Five days later, on the 21st, there was great excitement in the city. The Moravian pastor writes: ". . . . .in the first hour of the day, soon after midnight, the whole city was alarmed by a dreadful fire. It spread so violently that all what was done was but of little effect; if one was in one street and looked about, it broke out already again in another street above; and thus it raged all night and till about noon. The wind was pretty high from the southeast and drive the flames to the northwest. It broke out about Whitehall; destroyed a part of Broad, Stone and Beaver Streets, the Broadway, and then the houses going to the North river and all along that river as far as the King's College. Great pains were taken to save Trinity Church, but in vain; it was destroyed, as also the old Lutheran Church; and St. Paul's at the upper end of the Broadway, escaped very narrowly. . . . .There are great reasons to expect that some wick incendiaries had a part in this dreadful fire, which has consumed the fourth part of the city; several person have been apprehended." #21

Four hundred and ninety three houses were destroyed, no doubt ending the resentment felt by many of the dispossessed. Still, the conflagration was probably as much regretted by the Americans as by the English, for it will be remembered that the Continental Congress in forbidding the burning of the city before the withdrawal, had looked forward to the time when they would again occupy it.

On the day after the fire one of the noblest of American patriots went bravely to his death. While the English were still on Long Island, inactive after the withdrawal of Washington's forced from Brooklyn Heights, the American commander-in-chief, then in New York City, had tried to organized an espionage system that would furnish him with more information as to the forces and plans of the enemy. One of the young men who had volunteered for the service was Nathan Hale, a Yale graduate, who had been brevetted captain for gallantry at the siege of Boston, and who had shown on other occasions that he was as resourceful as he was brave. Washington deemed him an ideal scout, and, temporarily detached him from his command of a company of Knowlton's Rangers. Dressed as a schoolmaster young Nathan Hale crossed over to Long Island. His army comrades had tried to dissuade him; to them it had hardly seemed proper that a military officer, a gentleman of refinement, should throw aside his military dignity and assume the role and risks of a spy. A soldier might at least demand to be shot, but according to the military code a convicted spy must die like a felon--on the gallows. However, the noble young patriot from Connecticut was unafraid; indeed, he could see nothing ignoble in espionage, if by it he could benefit his country. Relying to his warning friends., he has said: "Gentlemen, I owe to my country the accomplishment of an object so important and so much desired by the commander of our armies. I know no mode of obtaining the information but by assuming a disguise and passing into the enemy's camp. I am fully sensible of the consequences of discovery and capture in such a situation. I wish to be useful, and every kind of service necessary for the public good becomes honorable by being necessary." So, with resolute, high-minded purpose, young Hale entered the enemy's lines,. He gather valuable information, and, with it safely hidden between the soles of his shoe, prepared to return to Manhattan. Alas! He was recognized and betrayed by a worthless cousin. Tried by drumhead court-martial in New York City on September 21, while the city was burning, Hale had not hesitated to admit that he held a commission in the American Army. He was condemned to death, not as officer but by the ignominy meted out to spies. Delivered into the provost-marshal's custody, Nathan hale passed the night under strong guard in a little greenhouse that stood in the garden of the Beekman mansion. Before the sun rose next day on a smoldering city, the noble young patriot had passed to immortality. The hangman's noose could not deny Nathan Hale the honorable place into which he comes in American history. Death on the gallows could not enshroud his memory with shame. Indeed, the gibbet carried no ignominy to this true son of America. Conscious that he had served his country honorably, and to the uttermost, he cared not what the enemy thought. The only regret that came to Nathan Hale as the hangman fastened the noose around his neck was that he had "but one life to lose" for his country. Provost-Marshal Cunningham tried to hide the details of Hale's last moments, for, as he later confessed, "it was necessary that the rebels should never know that they had a man who could die with such firmness"; but the story came to light and stand for posterity in all its inspiration in a monument placed on the spot where the young patriot had fearlessly stood with the noose round his neck in the gray of early dawn, upright, steady, his eyes lifted to heaven, exulting in a spirit that death could not daunt, his face tranquil--ennobled by the thought that to his country in her extremity he had been true, even unto death. Nathan Hale gave his life but received the other for which he had craved; and in the second--immortality--he is serving his country as well as in the first.

Soon after taking New York Howe despatched some frigates up the Hudson River to cut off Washington's supplies, preparatory to a land engagement in his rear. This caused the American Army eventually to fall back on White Plains from Harlem,. Before the battle of White Plains took place another quite important and inspiring, though unsuccessful campaign was carried on in another part of the New York. White Howe has seized the southern end of the Great Warpath, another British general was fighting desperately for control of the other end within New York State.

After the collapse of the Canadian expedition, with the defeat at Point du Lac on June 8, the worse was feared. A congressional Commission, consisting of Benjamin Franklin, Charles Carroll, and Samuel Chase has been sent northward to investigate the Canadian situation. Franklin, then seventy years old, was overcome by the fatigues of the journey. He was forced to leave his fellow commissioners at the Sorel and return to Philadelphia. The report drafted by Chase and Carroll, however, shows how foredoomed to defeat the expedition had been. Their report, in part, reads: "WE cannot conceal our concern that 6,000 men should be ordered to Canada without taking care to have magazines formed fro this subsistence and cash to pay them or to pay the inhabitants for their labor in transporting baggage, stores and provision for the army. WE cannot find words strong enough to describe our miserable situation. You will have a faint idea of it if you figure to yourself an army broken and disheartened, half of it under inoculation or under other diseases; soldiers without pay, without discipline and altogether reduced to live from hand to mouth, depending on the scanty and precarious supplies of a few half-starved cattle, and trifling quantities of flour, which have hitherto been picked up in different parts of the county." They short of almost all needs, even of bullets, and they had had to live through the winter half-clothed, and short of tents and blankets. Little wonder it was that commissioners dreaded that soon the soldiers "would be reduced to the dreadful alternative of starving or of plundering the inhabitants." In considering the report, the military flaws expressed by John Adams as bad enough, but he could excuse these mistakes for they developed from the first attempts of a nation of farmers to become a nation of soldiers. John Dams saw a far more ominous reason for the disasters. "All these causes would not have disappointed us," he said, " if it had not been for a misfortune which could not have been prevented: I mean the prevalence of smallpox among out troops. This fatal pestilence completed our destruction. It is a frown of Providence upon us which we ought to take to heart."

This dreaded pestilence, it is said, first appeared among the British troops of the Boston garrison in 1775. It might not have spread had it not been the habit of British commanders to allow stricken soldiers to be captured. Certainly, in this way, the disease was spread among the Continental troops. In Canada, the impoverish, half starved New Englanders under Arnold were unable to combat this scythe of death, which cut wide swaths through their ranks before inoculation became generals. Even the latter preventive measure was so crude that prevention prostrated the soldiers almost as much as the disease.

There was no consolation for the stricken army in the knowledge that Britain's India allies, who stripped the dead of their uniforms, were punished for their ghoulish greed when the put next to their own skin the apparel of scalped men upon whom the rash was still at its worst. In this way the disease again came into New York, and soon raged among the Iroquois.

As the month of June ended the remnants of the American Army left St. Johns, carrying their sick to the islands at the entrance of Lake Champlain. Some were taken to the Isle aux Noix, some to Point au Fer, which was fortified, and some to Isle la Motte. When Crown Point was ready to receive them the sick were transferred thither, under distressing circumstances, having to make the long voyage down Lake Champlain in leaky boats. Carleton followed with his strong Canadian army as far as St. Johns and Isle aux Noix. Soon two nations were busily at work constructing ships with which to fight for the control of Lake Champlain. The Canadian commander had an advantage, for three ships had been sent over in sections from England. These were assembled on the banks of Lake Champlain, and, together with many built on the spot, seemed to presage victory for the British. During the summer of 1776 Carleton gathered 12,000 troops on upper Lake Champlain. His purpose was to capture Crown Point and Ticonderoga as soon as possible and pass onto and down the Hudson River to join the brothers Howe at New York, thus completing the movement that would cut the rebelling colonies in half. The Americans were by no means inactive. The versatile Arnold had turned to shipbuilding. During the hot summer he strove frantically to hammer together tan emergency fleet with which to bar the way, and to show that the naval flag which the United Colonies were beginning to successfully fly in salted waters with the inscription" "Don't tread on me" was capable of carrying an even stronger warning. Before the end of September Benedict Arnold was in command of a fleet of three schooners, two sloops, three galleys and eight smaller craft. With these he lay in wait for the British fleet off Valcour Island, a little to the southward of Plattsburg. Arnold's fleet could boast of eighty-eight guns, and the English only had one more; yet the British guns were probably better pieces--as superior in caliber as the British ships were stronger in construction. As for the crews, Arnold had to make the most of "a wretched motley crew, the marines the refuse of the regiment, and the seamen few of them ever wet with salt water." At least this was this own opinion of them. Their adversaries, the British sailors, were probably deep-sea mariners, with the small of salt sea waves still upon them. However, Arnold was ready to tack and hack with the best. On October 11, the fleets sighted each other. Pringle, the British commander, immediately put about, manoeuvring for position. Arnold put on sail and pointed his ships straight at the enemy. Broadside after broadside was exchanged, the Americans began to ,imp toward their shelter. The British followed, thinking they had them trapped in the inlet. But there was still some resistance left in Arnold's battered command. He had lost sixty men; had had to run one of the best ships aground; the "Washington" and the "Congress" had been badly riddled; some of the smaller vessels had been beached and their crews massacred by Indians; but still the British commander deemed it unwise to press the engagement further by boarding the trapped ships. He preferred to blockade the inlet and wait until morning. But during the night, Arnold's ships, favored by a heavy fog, slipped past one by one. By morning, they were far down the lake, making for Crown Point. The English gave chase, and, when the wind failed, both fleets plied their oars desperately. The English, being the better seamen, overtook the Americans before the escaping fleet was half-way to Crown Point. A running fight could not be avoided. The American ships were not equal to the struggle, although they fought vigorously, and did further damage to the already much-battered enemy, but the end was certain. The "Washington," with General Waterbury on board, struck its colors; some ships sank in deep water, their crews stroking for the shore; some were beached; but a few escaped down the lake, being aided in this by the valiant fight that Arnold, in his flagship, the "Congress," was making. The guns of the enemy were concentrated upon his ship, but Arnold fought on; his flag still flew; his guns still belched out defiance. For four hours he beat off the attack of three of the largest British ships, fighting as courageous and desperate a rearguard action as any that American naval annals can show. At least he "ran his sinking schooner, cover with dead and dying men, into a small creek and set her afire, her flag flying until the flames plucked it down." Wading shore, Arnold, with the remnants of his crew and his wounded, succeeded in reaching Crown Point. Others reached the same station, or Ticonderoga; so there still remained to Arnold a fragment of his naval force.

The immediate victory, of course, lay with the British, but it soon became quite as obvious that Arnold's desperate two-days' battle had done such damage to the victor that the vanquished was also deserving of congratulations. The fleet with which Carleton had hoped to sweep all opposition out of his way along the Great Warpath was now in poor shape for the difficult task that still lay before it. In no other way than upon his ships could he carry the artillery and troops he would need to reduce and storm Ticonderoga. His ships were unseaworthy, and winter would soon be upon them. As a result of his victory Carleton was able to seize Crown Point, but after waiting another two weeks realized that he must defer the operation against Ticonderoga until the next year. On November 3, therefore, the British troops left Crown Point, and soon also vacated St. Johns. Whereupon Gates again took possession of Crown Point, and to all intents of Lake Champlain also. So Arnold's valiant effort had not been in vain. Mahan, the naval historian, writes: "Considering its raw material and the recency of its organization, words can scarcely exaggerate the heroism of the resistance which undoubtedly depended chiefly upon the military qualities of its leader; the little American navy on Lake Champlain was wiped out, but never had any force, big or little lived to better purpose or died more gloriously, for it saved the lake for that year." Possibly, it saved Washington from irretrievable disaster also, for had Carleton been able to form junction with Howe while Washington was still so dangerously situated near New York, who knows what might have been the consequences for America. Carleton's 12,000 added to Howe's 30,000 or so at this critical period might have finally decided the issue. In thinking of Benedict Arnold, we are apt to remember only the discreditable event that blackens his name, but it would be well to also bring to mind those earlier valiant efforts of his which had important part in saving the nation in its first most precarious years.

Now to return to the camp of the more consistent hero of the Revolution -- Washington, who had been left at Harlem with Howe in possession of New York City, hoping perhaps to welcome Carleton before the made the next movement against Washington.

Howe moved in a leisurely manner. Nothing seemed to ruffle him, nothing to hurry him. Opportunity after opportunity of military advantage slipped by, but still Howe maintained the same easy gait. Maybe the fact that royal blood coursed through his veins made him imagine himself immune from the censure he would seem to have deserved. It is more probably, however, that political considerations held him back. While the bulk of Washington's army was still on Long Island, Howe might have cut him off by the simple expedient of sending warships, of which he had plenty, into the North (Hudson) River, and others into the East river; but he allowed Washington to escape. Again, he might easily have snuffed out Putnam's New York City garrison when he landed at Thirty-fourth Street on September 15. Either he considered the American forces of too little importance to warrant very strenuous exertions, or he was held back by other reasons. A quick movement to the rear of Harlem Heights might have cornered Washington's forces before they slipped away from Manhattan Island. Instead, Howe moved so slowly hat the American commander had plenty of time to detect his plan and to meet or evade it.

As October opened, Washington still had most of his army centered in the upper part of Manhattan Island, holding approximately the line above the Columbia University site of today. Washington maintained communication with New Jersey, and his other line of supply was over King's Bridge from Westchester County. Washington had used the British inactivity to good advantage. His men spent most of their days during the lull wielding pick and shovel. Three lines of entrenchments extended almost across the island between 145th and 160th streets. On October 5, his rosters showed a total strength of 25,735, of whom 8,075 were sick of absent. Of the 18,000 who were nominally "for duty," some were in New Jersey and some others marked as "for duty," were probably beyond call. Unfortunately, his force still contained many one-man units; discipline was still unknown to many who were upon his rosters. No very positive line divided the officers from the rank and file. Adjutant-General Reed was disgusted once when told that "a captain of horse who attends the General from Connecticut, was seen shaving one of his men on the parade" near Washington's headquarters. They had learn that such extremely democratic impulses were destructive to discipline. However, while praying for improvement, Washington and the general officers took the situation as it was and did the best they could with the material they had. Inasmuch as, at the best, they were outnumbered almost two to one by the British, they recognized that their tactics could hardly take more ambitious form than rearguard actions. This spirit of eluding the enemy naturally spread to their own rank and file, making the American militiamen an elusive quantity--hard to hold even by their own democratic commandeers.

The first indication that Washington had of the next move by Howe was in the despatch of several English frigates up the Hudson River, early in October. This cut off one of his sources of supply, interrupting communication with New Jersey. But before the Howes disclosed the next step of their movement, Washington had full information on their main intention. So before October 12, when eighty or ninety barges full of British troops began to make their way up the East River, Washington and his generals, at a council of war, had already decided to forestall the operation. Plans had been well advanced to remove the main body of the American Army off Manhattan Island. The British barges two days later had got as far as Throgg's neck; but as there was not satisfactory landing place at his point, the barges went on to Pell's Point. It was not until the 18th that the troops disembarked at this place, and began to march to ward New Rochelle. But with the exception of about 3,000 left to garrison Fort Washington, the American Army was already in its new position. Washington two days earlier had preempted a strong position at White Plains, his new line running from there across county to Fordham Heights. By the worrying attentions of American sharpshooters, under Colonels Hand, Prescott, and Graham, at Throgg's Neck on the 16th, Genera Howe had been persuaded that the landing was not good at that place. At Pell's Point two days later Howe's force learned of the arrival of two British regiments of light horse and some Hessians from Europe. Washington had a scouting party at Pell's Point ready to give the coming Europeans a warm reception. Seven hundred and fifty men under General glover made good use of the rough country, which abounded with stone walls. Glover's American Brigade was not immaculately attired; indeed, many had no coats at all, and those that had were generally out-at-elbows. One British report has it that "in a while regiment there was scar a pair of breeches." Still, those correctly attired British soldiers, fresh from England, where they had been wont to judge soldiers by the state of their garb, had to admit that this miscellaneous ragamuffinry knew how to shoot. Glover's men caused much commotion at Pell's Point before they were compelled to fall back.

 

The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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