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

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

Howe tarried at New Rochelle pending the arrival of the new troops; and during the period he manoeuvred to get around Washington's flank. To prevent this, the American forces also extended inland. There were some sharp skirmishes during the next ten days, the Americans gaining confidence by these minor success. Some prisoners were brought in by Haslett, of Delaware, after one raid, and some Hessians were put to flight by Hand, of Pennsylvania. However, with the arrival of cavalry the British had a positive advantage, for American had no mounted troops. It was difficult indeed to get enough horses for the quartermaster department and to move the artillery. Generally, the American guns had to be dragged over even the roughest country by man-power. On October 25 some of Howe's forces were at Scarsdale, but found American facing them. After another three days of manoeuvring Howe moved his army up to within a short distance of the American trenches along the whole line. At that time the armies were about equal--each consisting of about 13,000 men. Washington, however, was at a disadvantage. The attack was with the English commander; the intention of Howe could only be disclosed by the operation. Washington now tried a daring manoeuvre. He supposed the enemy would still try to outflank him. He therefore made his wings much stronger than his centre. Indeed, the American centre was so thin that very little presence would be needed to break it. Fortunately, Howe had no idea of this departure from rule; he was an experienced tactician, and one of the elementary rules of battle formation called for a strong centre. He could not conceive it possible that any general would risk division of his army by resorting to such a stratagem as Washington tried. Had the English cavalry continued their gallop, instead of detouring as soon as they drew dire, they might have charged through the thin lines at the outset. Had the infantry which followed been permitted to continue their march a little farther, Howe night have quickly realized that a frontal attack here would not prove as disastrous as that bloody encounter of the year before at Bunker Hill. But having no inkling of where the American front was weakest, he followed the book by looking first to the flanks for victory. It was correct strategy to make a demonstration before the centre, to hold it, while the flanking operations were developing.

So on this ideal morning, the British forces advanced in two columns, General Clinton commanding the British troops on the right, and General Howe going with the Hessian legionaries, under De Heister, on the left. After driving in pickets and advance parties, the two armies were face to face at the American line of intrenchments. An eye-witness writes: "The sun shone bright; their (the British) arms glittered, and perhaps troops never were shown to more advantage than these now appeared. The whole now halted, and for a few minutes the men all sat down in the same order in which they stood, no one appearing to move out of his place," Obviously, movements more fearful than this parade were to follow. Soon Howe's plan became clear; at least on of them. The Hessians, under De Heister, began to move on the left. General Spencer, with about 2,000 Americans, checked them at Hart's Corner, at mile south of the lines; but only temporarily. The Hessians rallied quickly, and gained a position south of Chatterton's Hill, which was west of the Bronx River, near the village. Washington had anticipated the move, and entrenchments had been hastily thrown up in front of the hill. General McDougall, with 600 Continental and 900 militia troops and a battery of two guns--more potential at it commander, Captain Alexander Hamilton, than in its size--had been ordered to hold the hill. These 1,500 Americans had before them 4,000 Hessians. Colonel Haslett's Delaware Regiment had been ordered to the support of McDougall, but his force had been thrown into confusion by the Hessians, and had been replaced by the Maryland regiment. One of the New York regiments was on the extreme right of the line.

Hamilton's battery of two guns was never idle during the next hour, and wile the fight fro the hill was proceeding, the remainder of Howe's army sat where they were, with nothing to do save to watch the manoeuvre. The Hessians bridged the river and steadily advanced up the slope, their three columns attacking simultaneously. Several times they were driven back. "We fired a volley at the Hessian grenadiers at about twenty rods distance," said a rifleman, "and scattered them like leaves in the wind." The farmer, soldiers were beginning to remember that they had learned to shoot long before they had become soldiers; and with strengthened morale this familiarity with firearms was not standing then in good stead. However, the Hessians were in too great number. A strong detachment, under colonel Rahl, had crossed the river a quarter of a mile below the hill. McDougall was, therefore, in danger of being outflanked. So he abandoned the hill. The American forces retired in reasonably good order, "neither running nor observing the best order." Obviously, their withdrawal was not a route, for they carried with then their guns and their wounded, also some prisoners. The defenders of Chatterton's Hill lost about 140 in killed and wounded. The British loss was 239, however, Still, the possession of the hill perhaps compensated for the cost inhuman life. At all events, it was both the beginning and the end of the battle of White Plains, for Howe did no more that day than parade his victorious troops on the summit of the hill and march them down again. Duffus writes: "Having got the hill, Howe was not certain what to do with it, His victorious regiments dressed ranks on the summit, making a very handsome spectacle, and then most of them came down again," after the manner of the "famous Duke of York" of nursery-rhyme celebrity.

During that night and the next the armies faced each other at "long cannon-shot" distance. The bivouac fires of the British made their positions clear at night, but darkness screened the movement of Washington's resourceful fighters. The Americans apparently were to weak to risk attack, and their means of defense was not of the best. Some of their fortifications were made to look more formidable than they actually were. For instance, during the second night, all the cornstalks of the nearby cornfield were torn up and added to the bulk of the earthworks, the "tops of corn turned inward and the roots with adhering earth outward." Earth was then thrown over the heaps, which, viewed from the British positions, must have appeared to be formidable fortifications. They would not stop a bullet, but from a distance appeared to be awkward obstacles, and they proved to be well worth while, for Howe's expect attack did not develop.

On October 30, Lord Percy arrived with reinforcements for Howe, but no move forward was made. During a storm, however, the American forces withdrew to a much stronger position on the heights of New Castle, and awaited Howe's next move. The British followed, moving with great caution, and apparently finding this rough country not to their liking. Howe did not get with striking distance of the American position until the afternoon of November 3. On that day, however, another development changed his plans. From a traitor Howe had learned most important information as to the fortifications of Fort Washington, which, with Fort lee--almost opposite on the jersey side--had been designed to command navigation on the Hudson River. it seemed more desirable to move quickly upon the Manhattan Island fortress and wipe out its garrison of 3,000 than to pursue a force he could not outflank.

With the enemy immediately before them, the American sentries at New Castle were ultra-vigilant during the night of November 3. They were puzzled at the sound of wagon wheels rumbling westward, but when daylight came they new the reason; they knew that there would be no battle. The British were retiring in the direction of Dobbs Ferry. Whether this indicated an attempt to invade the Hudson Valley or operations in New Jersey was the problem that Washington could not solve at once. However, he decided to meet the danger as well as he could. Dividing his army into three, he sent 5,000 men under General Putnam to Hackensack, on the Jersey side, sent another force of 3,000 under Heath to Peekskill, and gave the command of those that remained in Westchester County to Lee.

Howe's feint in the direction of Dodds Ferry succeeded, enabling him to carry through with more certainty the operation he had planned. The force he had assigned to the storming of Fort Washington soon passed King's Bridge and began to invest the fort, the defenses of which extended along the Hudson River from 181st to 186th streets. It was a strong position, its supports being a series of strong redoubts and other works extending across the entire island at that point. Nevertheless, General Washington had from the first been opposed to its retention. He was now even more eager to withdraw its garrison across to New Jersey. But there was hindrances. If Washington found his militiamen hard to command, he found his generals almost as difficult to control. The political element was stills o strong that he could hardly risk ordering his generals to carry through certain movements. Instead, he was wont to hold council with them and abide by the opinion of the majority. In this case Generals Greene and Putnam were so confident that Fort Washington could prove such a stumbling block to Howe's movements that Washington gave way., after two of the enemy's ships had, on November 7, broken through the river impediments at that point, and thirty or forty flatboats has passed up to Spuyten Duyvil unobserved by either Fort Lee or Fort Washington, General Greene again heard from Washington, the latter deeming it imprudent "to hazard the men and stores of Mount Washington," though he was willing to leave the question of evacuation to Greene's discretion. The garrison commander, Colonel Robert Magaw, a Philadelphia lawyer, had confidence in his men, who were mainly Pennsylvanians; and Greene was willing that he should fight it out. So when Colonel Magaw on the 15th received Howe's demand to surrender, coupled with the warning that "if he were compelled to take the fort by assault, the garrison should be put to the sword." Magaw stood upon his dignity and replied: "that to propose such an alternative was unworthy an officer of the British nation, and that, for himself, he should defend the fort to the last extremity." For some days Washington had been absent from Fort Lee, having had to supervise movements farther up the river. Upon his return ;late on the 15th, he was surprised to learn that Fort Washington was still held. He was excited, restless, anxious. He doubted the military wisdom of Putnam and Greene. It seemed sheer folly to let 3,000 of the men he so badly needed remain in that trap. He would cross the river himself, and after inspecting the defenses, decide for himself, regardless of the opinions of the other generals. "I had partly crossed the North river," Washington wrote, "when I met Generals Putnam and Greene, who were just returning from thence, and they informed me that the troops were in high spirits and would make a good defense, and it being late at night I returned," to Fort Lee.

Next morning early he crossed the river, so a to decide what should be done. But it was then too late. Howe's forces had almost completely invested the fort, Lord Percy being on the south, the Hessians under Knyphausen and Rahl on the north, Cornwallis and others on the east, and a warship in the river on the northwest. Washington escaped only half an hour before fighting began. #22 Lord Percy, with whose force was Howe himself, began the attack. Cadwallader repulsed the first assault on the outworks, but was the first to be overcome. Baxter, on the north, was killed, and his detachment "melted away before the Hessians." Very soon, the whole of the American forces were huddled within the fort defenses. In such crowded quarters fighting was continued valiantly for some time under great difficulties. Finally, in the face of overwhelming numbers and of heavy artillery fire, Magaw surrendered to Knyphausen on honorable terms. The British had lost about 500 ion killed and wounded, and the American loss had been les than one-third as much. Still, the taking of 2,634 prisoners and forty-three pieces of artillery was a severe blow to Washington.

At this time Washington was "the gloomiest man in North America." Responsibilities weighed heavily upon him. He seemed, by his despatches, to be suffering from chronic pessimism, though to his soldiers he was still the model of determination, a personality superior to defeat. On the other hand, his adversary, General Sir William Howe, took his responsibilities very lightly. In some of his actions Howe was an enigma. When asked by a committee of Parliament, four years later, to explain why he had not attacked the main body of the American Army at white Plains, he said: "An assault upon the enemy's right. Which was opposite to the Hessian troops was intended. The committee must give me credit when I assure them that I have political reasons and no other for declining t explain why that assault was not made." But whatever may have been his faults, Howe was courageous. An instance of his coolness under fire--or of his irresponsibility--is in the following anecdote of his conduct before Fort Washington. The anecdote was published in the "Middlesex Journal," January 2, 1777. It reads"

George Selwyn, the other evening, in one of the polite gaming houses in London, hearing a young gentleman speaking with great animation of the miraculous escape of General Howe, who was said to have been patting Lord Percy's charger at the time the animal was shot under him, replied: "You are right; and never was a more miraculous escape, or perhaps more temper shown upon any occasion than by the two general officers in that situation." "How was that!" I did not hear anything about it." "No? Why it seems they were disputing about the age of the horse, and had made a bet on it. Lord Percy said he was aged; Sir William said otherwise; and just as the latter was looking into his mouth to satisfy his doubts, a nine pounder came from Fort Washington and severed the horse's head from his body; upon which Sir William Howe, with great composure, took up the head, and showed his lordship the mark in his mouth. Lord Percy, instantly dismounting, paid him the money, and then with greatest intrepidity led his brigade to the walls of the fort.

While his incident proves what is generally conceded--that General Howe was not lacking in courage, it seems to point to a reason why the British failed to take advantage of many opportunities of victory that presented themselves during the operations in the vicinity of New York City. Certainly, Washington had no general officer who served him so well. Howe solved the American commander's problems fro him, making is possible fro the latter to live to fight another day.

General Howe perhaps was not as lackadaisical as some of his conduct would indicate. He recognized, for instance, that having captured Fort Washington he should also blot out Fort Lee before he gave his time to New York festivities. He possessed a capable general in Lord Cornwallis. To him, he entrusted 6,000 men for the reduction of the new Jersey fortification. Cornwallis, on November 18, appeared before Fort Lee, and had no difficulty in taking it. The garrison was equal in number to his won force, but stubborn fighting at that point would soon draw other British troops from Manhattan; and Washington preferred to leave them, if possible, to their pleasure. So the garrison was withdrawn to the other side of the Hackensack River.

It will not be necessary for us to follow in close detail the movement of the American forces through the jerseys into Pennsylvania. Suffice it that despite traitorous conduct by General Lee, and close pursuit by Cornwallis, Washington succeeded in getting across the Delaware safely. He did not consider himself vanquished, but remained ever on the alert to strike back when opportunity presented itself.

The Howes, on the other hand, apparently thought that the insurrection had been quelled. A proclamation issued by them on November 30 offered amnesty or pardon to all rebels who would lay down their arms and return quietly to their homes during the net sixty days. The British army now took on the more prosaic role of an army of occupation; and in any case did not anticipate being called on for extraordinary vigilance until winter had passed. But Washington gave Cornwallis a shock, and on the day after Christman gave the British and Hessians a much greater shock at Trenton.

So, in the last days of 1776, the year of almost chronic darkness and gloom for Americans, the cause of Liberty was touched with silver--not the silver of old age and decrepitude, but the luminous ring of hope. The horizon of the dark dismal old year was beginning to show a faint radiance. A brighter year was dawning for America.

But for some group of Americans--more than 5,000--the year ended in almost inconceivable horror, with no hope for the future. To many of the unfortunate Americans who were crowded in the prisons and prisonships of New York and New Jersey it must have seemed that peace could not come soon enough to save their lives. The most painful records of the Revolutionary War are those that refer to the inhuman treatment meted out to the "rebels" by British military jailors. The archfiend seems to have been Captain William Cunningham, the Provost Marshal in New York. He was hanged for forgery in London in August, 1791, and his "last dying confession" reads:

I was appointed Provost Marshal of the Royal Army which placed me in a situation to wreck my vengeance on Americans. I shudder to think of the murders I have been accessory to, both with and without orders from Government, especially while in New York during which time there were more than two thousand prisons starved in the churches, by stopping their rations, which I sold. There were also two hundred and seventy-five American prisoners and obnoxious persons executed, which was thus conducted: a guard was despatched from the Provost about half past twelve at night to the Barrack Street and the neighborhoods of the upper Barracks, to order the people to shut their window-shutters and put out their lights, forbidding them at the same time to look from their windows and doors on pain of death; after which the unfortunate prisoners were conducted, gagged, just behind the upper Barracks, and hung with ceremony and then buried by the black prisoners of the Provost.

In what is now Chambers Street, New York City, a permanent gallows stood. The English jailers cursed the prisoners, calling them rebels who deserved to be hanged. Once, an English officer displayed a parcel of halters, and ordered each prisoner present to "choose his halter." Probably, some had reached that dejected state in which death on the gallows seemed a merciful way out of their misery. Their life was horrible. One writer to the "New London Gazette" put into print some of the stories told by prisoners themselves. By this account, it seems that prisoners, as soon as captured, were stripped of their baggage, money, and clothes. Some went to the prison-ships, where the over-crowding in the holds was so great "that they were in a constant perspiration." When no more could be packed into the holds of the "Jersey," the churches of New York City were used as prisons. There, in the depth of winter, they were allowed no fires or bed covering. Pneumonia took the lives from many, and starvation reduced the resistance of all to disease. They were more than half-starved; in some instances, "they went for three days without a single mouthful off food of any kind." What they did have was not fit for human consumption; bread made from bran which had been intended for cavalry horses; pork that was "so damnified, being soaked in bilge-water in the transportation from Europe," that I made well men sick. The sick and the well were crowded together, and "many lay down at night to rest (when their bones ached) on the hard oak planks, and they wished to turn, it was, altogether, by word of command: 'right'; 'left'; being so wedged as to form almost a solid mass of human bodies."

Of course, such inhuman treatment grew out of the fiendishness of the monster, Cunningham, the Provost Marshal, and others of his type, rather than out of premeditated cruelty by the British government, or of military commanders. The treatment of prisoners who fell into Cunningham's clutches and of those who experienced captivity in Canada proves that the prison warden is generally the instigator of inhumanities or the ameliorator of prison conditions; so upon Cunningham and his kind, not upon the British in general, should be heaped the execration that Americans have ample reason for manifesting when they read of the miseries endured by their unfortunate soldiers during the winter of 1776-77 in New York prisons. There is some satisfaction in knowing that Cunningham eventually was hanged on a British Gibbet by his own people. Still, his death could not atone for the 2,000 or more precious lives lost by his devilish practices. That he continued to have the power of life and death in New York for so long is another indication of the supineness, or callousness, of General Howe, #23, who it would seem must have been cognizant of the cruelties practiced by his provost marshal. The Hessians captured by Washington were accorded far different treatment in the quaint city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The hospitable German inhabitants of that place were ready, almost, to receive the Hessians with open arms. Certainly, many of the Hessian prisoners found captivity not irksome.

The battles fought in New York during the next year, 1777, were most important. Indeed, they decided the issue, for had not Burgoyne's expedition ended in dire disaster, Franklin would have had great difficulty in convincing France that the American had any chance of inning. And there is so much to write of Burgoyne's invasion and its results that we will pass over, with few words, Washington's New Jersey and Pennsylvania campaign of that year. Washington had been tempted again to cross the Delaware River before the old year ended; and on the second day of 1777, he seemed in imminent danger of losing both his army and the war in a clash with Cornwallis at Annanpink Creek; but by a night march to Princeton, Cornwallis was outgeneraled. Once more Washington had brought the American army out of what seemed to be the end of the struggle. Cornwallis's men came into Princeton an hour after the Americans had left. The British came on, it is said, "in a most infernal sweat--running, puffing, and blowing, and swearing at being outwitted." Washington was out of reach, however, and the campaign was to all intents over for that winter, even though Howe had clearly hoped to end it, and the war, before calling another halt for the winter.

Although the year 1777 was to bring almost crashing calamity and intense suffering to Washington's army in Pennsylvania, it was also to witness a New York campaign which ultimately proved to be the most decisive of the war for independence--decisive in America's favor. The year was also to establish American diplomatically, partly through the astute persistence of Benjamin Franklin in France, but mainly through the crushing defeat of Burgoyne's army near Saratoga. Franklin, and the political leaders generally, exulted over the diplomatic triumph and were cheered by the coming of a few French volunteers, including the Marquis de la Fayette, but Washington was one of those stalwart Americans who "looked for America's salvation to only America herself." Washington was oftener pessimistic than optimistic in thought; he was a chronic writer of gloomy reports to Congress-- to prod it to greater efforts; but never once did e show an inclination to lay down his arms or neglect his military responsibility.

However, as Washington does not come directly into the New York war story of 1777, the fortunes of Washington's army through that sensational year need not be referred to at length. During the first months of 777, the American commander-in-chief made his headquarters at Morristown, New Jersey, and handled his "mere handful" of men so skillfully that several unpleasant surprises came to Howe, though they may not have been the reasons why the English general drew in most of his posts to the New York area. Howe was perhaps thinking of next season's campaign in New York when, in March 1777, he remembered that Peekskill, was an enemy supply depot. General McDougall, at that time, held Peekskill with less than 300 men, but had been handling considerable quantities of cattle, provisions, and other supplies. On the 22d of March a fleet of ten enemy ships appeared off Peekskill. Five hundred English regulars were landed, but they were to late. McDougall had been informed of their approach, and had destroyed most of the stores that he had not been able to transfer. There was little need of British torches.

An American detachment retaliated by pouncing upon an army supply depot on Long Island in May. On May 21, colonel Meigs, then at new Haven, took a detachment across the sound in thirteen whale-boats. Landing was made at Southold on the 23d. With 130 men Meigs crossed the island. They carried their boats with them over the narrow strip of land to the broad bay on the other shore. By midnight, they were within four miles of Sag Harbor. Concealing the boats in the woods, Meigs led his men, with bayonets fixed, to Sag harbor. They attacked suddenly, but fighting continued for an hour, an armed schooner in the harbor using its twelve guns and its seventy men to aid the garrison. Nevertheless, Meigs destroyed everything, stores, houses, the armed sloop, and eleven other ships; and he return to New Haven safely, without the lose of even one man.

Washington had a force of 7,000 Continentals under his command on May 28, when he broke camp at Morristown, New Jersey, and came nearer to New Brunswick. After an attempt by the enemy to turn him out of his strong position at Middlebrook, the British drew back toward Staten Island, Washington following. One more attempt to outflank the Americans was made on the 26th of June; but this failed, and again the British drew back to New York. Then followed a baffling game of hide-and-seek, with the Americans so mystified by the movements of Howe's forces during the next six weeks that Washington was completely at a loss to fathom the intentions of his adversary. As Greene wrote, Howe's movements were so strange that they "exceeded all conjecture." Leaving Clinton with 6,000 men to garrison New York, Howe, with 18,000, set sail from New York on July 23. A week later the British fleet appeared in the Delaware, whither Washington hurried. During the next ten days no news came of the fleet, and the American generals then conjectured that a descent upon Charleston must be Howe's plan. But on August 21 100 enemy ships anchored off the River Patapsco, and, as their number steadily increased, Washington and his generals saw that Howe intended to operate against Philadelphia after all.

Then followed military movements which profited the British little,. But finally brought Washington's unkempt and threadbare army into waiter quarters at Valley Forge. How unbearable would have been the lot of these half-starved shivering patriots during that intensely cold winter had there not been glowing within their breasts a hope that no winter blot could chill. Only a few months before, another American Army, farther north, had won a victory so glorious and complete that it seemed that Liberty's fight was already won. Burgoyne, who had said that the British never retreated, had had to accept the alternative--surrender. The setting sun at Saratoga had thrown out such gorgeous colors that a dark to-morrow seemed most unlikely.

England had pinned great faith upon Burgoyne. Carleton might have had command of the northern campaign of 1777, had he been in favor with Germain, the English minister; rather, he night have continued in command, and the result might have been very different for America. But Carleton had no views in common with Germain, disliking him personally and having no confidence in his judgment.

That there us great prejudice [wrote King George to Lord North in December, 1776], perhaps not accompanied with rancor In a certain breast against Governor Carleton, is so manifest to whoever has heard the subject mentioned, that it would be idle to say any more than that it is a fact. Perhaps Carleton may be too cold, and not so active as might be wished, which may make it advisable to have the part of the Canadian Army which must attempt to join General Howe by a more enterprising commander. . . . .Burgoyne may command the corps to be sent from Canada to Albany.

 

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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