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Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hanson Harrison to John Hancock, 29 October 1776

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hanson Harrison to John Hancock

White plains October 29th 1776

Sir

The situation of our Affairs not permitting his Excellency to write himself, I have it in charge to inform you, that on Yesterday Morning about Ten OClock the Enemy appeared in several large columns in our front, and from their first movements, seemed, as if they meant an Attack there; However halting for a little time, their Main body filed off to our left, and presently began a most severe & incessant Cannonade at a part of our Troops who had taken post1 on a Hill with a view of throwing up some lines. At the same time they advanced in Two divisions,2 and after a smart engagement for about a Quarter of an Hour, obliged our Men to give away. Our loss is not certainly known, but from conjecture is between four & five Hundred in killed wounded & Missing. what their’s was, we have not heard.3 After gaining the Hill (upon which they are entrenching) and leaving a sufficient number of Men & Artillery, to prevent our repossessing it, they proceeded to advance by our left, and as far as I can discover their Posts or Encampments now form nearly a Semi-circle. It is evident their design is to get in our Rear according to their Original plan. Every measure is taking to prevent them, but the removal of our Baggage &c. is attended with infinite difficulty and delays. Our Post from its situation is not so advantageous as could be wished, and was only intended as Temporary & occasional ’till the Stores belonging to the Army which had been deposited here, could be removed.4 The Enemy coming on so suddenly has distressed us much. they are now close at hand,5 and most probably will in a little time commence their second attack—we expect it every Hour—perhaps it is beginning I have just heard the report of some Cannon.6 I have the Honor to be with great respect Sir Yr Most Obedt Servt

Rob. H. Harrison

ALS, DNA:PCC, item 152; ADf, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. The Varick transcript erroneously records GW as the signer. Congress read this letter on 31 Oct. (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 6:914).

1The draft reads: “had just taken post.”

2The draft reads: “Under cover of their Cannon they advanced in Two divisions.”

3The draft reads: “obliged our Men to give away with the loss of 4 or 500 in killed wounded & missing as it is conjectured, their loss is not known.”

The principal action of the Battle of White Plains occurred on Chatterton Hill, a mile-long ridge lying immediately southwest of the main American lines on Purdy and Hatfield hills and separated from them by the Bronx River. The Bronx flanks Chatterton Hill on two sides, flowing south between it and Purdy Hill and then turning sharply to the southwest to run along the base of Chatterton’s steep, heavily wooded southeastern slope, up which British and Hessian troops attacked on the afternoon of 28 October. The Americans did not fortify Chatterton Hill before the battle, and it initially was defended only by a few regiments of militia levies, including Col. Eleazer Brook’s and Col. John Moseley’s Massachusetts levies, Col. Morris Graham’s New York levies, and probably Col. David Forman’s New Jersey levies (see Tench Tilghman to James Tilghman, Sr., 31 Oct., in Tilghman, Memoir description begins Memoir of Lieut. Col. Tench Tilghman, Secretary and Aid to Washington, together with an Appendix, containing Revolutionary Journals and Letters, Hitherto Unpublished. 1876. Reprint. New York, 1971. description ends , 145–47; general court martial proceedings, 2 Nov., in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:488–89; John Haslet to Caesar Rodney, 12–19 Nov., in Ward, Delaware Continentals description begins Christopher L. Ward. The Delaware Continentals, 1776–1783. Wilmington, Del., 1941. description ends , 492–95; Dann, Revolution Remembered description begins John C. Dann, ed. The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence. Chicago and London, 1980. description ends , 53–54; and Wilson, Heath’s Memoirs description begins Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. Heath’s Memoirs of the American War. 1798. Reprint. New York, 1904. description ends , 86).

GW apparently reconnoitered Chatterton Hill with several of his generals on the morning of the battle. Heath, who accompanied GW, blends his account of that reconnaisance with accounts of events of 27 and 28 Oct. under 27 Oct. in his memoirs, but the close connection that he makes between the reconnaissance and the beginning of the battle indicates that the reconnaissance occurred early on 28 October. “From the American camp to the west-south-west,” Heath says, “there appeared to be a very commanding height, worthy of attention. The Commander in Chief ordered the General Officers who were off duty to attend him to reconnoitre this ground, on this morning. When arrived at the ground, although very commanding, it did not appear so much so as other grounds to the north, and almost parallel with the left of the army, as it was then formed. ‘Yonder,’ says Major-Gen. Lee, pointing to the grounds just mentioned, ‘is the ground we ought to occupy.’ ‘Let us then go and view it,’ replied the Commander in Chief. When on the way, a light-horseman came up in full gallop, his horse almost out of breath, and addressed Gen. Washington—‘The British are on the camp, Sir.’ The General observed—‘Gentlemen, we have now other business than reconnoitring,’ putting his horse in full gallop for the camp, and followed by the other officers. When arrived at Head-Quarters, the Adjutant-General [Joseph Reed] who had remained at camp, informed the Commander in Chief that the guards had been all beat in, and the whole American army were now at their respective posts in order of battle. The Commander in Chief turned round to the officers, and only said, ‘Gentlemen, you will repair to your respective posts, and do the best you can’” (ibid., 87–88).

Howe’s army of about thirteen thousand men broke its camp four miles south of White Plains at sunrise on 28 Oct. and marched slowly toward the village in two columns, the right column commanded by Gen. Henry Clinton and the left column commanded by General Heister (see Howe’s general orders, 27 Oct., in Kemble Papers description begins [Stephen Kemble]. The Kemble Papers. 2 vols. New York, 1884-85. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 16–17. description ends , 1:397–98; Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends , 105–6; and Ewald, Diary description begins Johann Ewald. Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin. New Haven and London, 1979. description ends , 11–12). About two miles from the American lines, both columns encountered skirmishers who had been sent out on the first alarm to delay Howe’s advance. Under the command of Gen. Joseph Spencer, this force of about eight hundred men consisted of Col. Gold Selleck Silliman’s and Col. William Douglas’s regiments of Connecticut militia levies who opposed Heister’s column and Lt. Col. Daniel Brodhead’s two battalions of Pennsylvania riflemen who faced Clinton’s column. From the cover of walls or fences the skirmishers fired on the Hessian jägers at the head of each column and held their ground until forced by artillery fire and flanking parties to retreat to another wall or fence (see particularly “Trumbull Journal,” 204–5, and Extract of a Letter from a Gentleman in the Army, 1 Nov., in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:471–74; see also Silliman to his wife, 29 Oct., in Johnston, Campaign of 1776 description begins Henry P. Johnston. The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn. Including a New and Circumstantial Account of the Battle of Long Island and the Loss of New York, with a Review of Events to the Close of the Year. Brooklyn, 1878. In Memoirs of the Long Island Historical Society, vol. 3. description ends , pt. 2, 56–57; Douglas to his wife, 31 Oct., ibid., 72; “McMichael’s Diary,” description begins William P. McMichael. “Diary of Lieutenant James McMichael, of the Pennsylvania Line, 1776–1778.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 16 (1892): 129–59. description ends 137–38; Martin, Private Yankee Doodle description begins Joseph Plumb Martin. Private Yankee Doodle: Being a Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier. Edited by George F. Scheer. 1962. Reprint. New York, 1968. description ends , 53–54; and Ewald, Diary description begins Johann Ewald. Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin. New Haven and London, 1979. description ends , 12).

The American skirmishers were pushed back to their lines “before noon,” and Howe deployed his army on the south side of the village facing north and west. Informed that Col. Johann Gottlieb Rall on his own initiative had taken his brigade of Hessians across the Bronx River and had occupied a height about a quarter mile southwest of Chatterton Hill, Howe ordered a two-pronged attack on that “material post.” Rall’s brigade was directed to attack the American right flank on Chatterton Hill while a frontal assault on the hill was made by Hessians of the Lossberg Regiment supported by Gen. Alexander Leslie’s 2d British Brigade and Col. Carl Emil Kurt von Donop’s Hessian grenadier brigade (William Howe to George Germain, 30 Nov., in Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 12:258–64; see also Kemble Papers description begins [Stephen Kemble]. The Kemble Papers. 2 vols. New York, 1884-85. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 16–17. description ends , 1:95, and Lydenberg, Robertson Diary, 106).

When the Lossbergers had trouble crossing the 14–foot-wide Bronx, the British 28th and 35th regiments bypassed them by fording the river at an easier place, and after taunting the Hessians for their slowness, the redcoats advanced up the hill in column formation. The British experienced a nearly disastrous delay of their own when the officer leading them stopped after a few paces to discharge and reload his fusil while his troops stood exposed to heavy grapeshot and small arms fire. They did not break, however, and soon both the British and Lossbergers were climbing the hill (see Atwood, Hessians description begins Rodney Atwood. The Hessians: Mercenaries from Hessen-Kassel in the American Revolution. Cambridge, England, and New York, 1980. description ends , 74–75; Clinton, American Rebellion description begins William B. Willcox, ed. The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents. New Haven, 1954. description ends , 51–52; and Baurmeister, Revolution in America description begins Carl Leopold Baurmeister. Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776–1784, of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces. Translated and annotated by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf. New Brunswick, N.J., 1957. description ends , 63–65). Rall’s troops executed their flank attack “with the bayonet without firing first” and quickly routed the militia levies posted on the American right wing (Ewald, Diary description begins Johann Ewald. Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin. New Haven and London, 1979. description ends , 12–13).

The attackers, nevertheless, met stiff resistance from the Continental troops whom GW after the first alarm had sent to reinforce the militia levies on Chatterton Hill. Col. John Haslet’s Delaware Regiment arrived there first, and it was followed a short time later by Gen. Alexander McDougall’s brigade, consisting of McDougall’s former regiment the 1st New York, Col. Rudolphus Ritzema’s 3d New York Regiment, Col. Charles Webb’s 19th Continental Regiment, and Col. William Smallwood’s Maryland Regiment. Silliman’s Connecticut levies also joined the troops on Chatterton Hill after skirmishing in front of the lines. Gen. Rezin Beall’s Maryland flying camp brigade was ordered to the hill as a further reinforcement, but it did not arrive before the retreat.

Totaling about two thousand men, the Americans on Chatterton’s Hill were deployed behind rail and stone fences in open fields along its crest. “They were no sooner formed,” a member of Smallwood’s regiment says, “than the enemy began a heavy cannonade from a great number of field-pieces advantageously disposed on several rising grounds [southeast of the Bronx River], which was answered by the only two cannon which attended our brigade, little or no execution being done on either side, till Colonel Smallwood, with the Marylanders, was ordered to march down the hill and attack the enemy, which they did; and a smart contest ensued, in which the enemy gave way, but rallying again, and attacking the right of the brigade, composed of the Militia . . . they got the advantage, and their situation being such, and being drawn up in a heavy column, only our regiment and another (Ritzma’s) could come in for any part of the action. Those two brave regiments stood a very heavy fire of their artillery and musketry for about half an hour, when the whole brigade, being vastly outnumbered, and cramped in respect of ground, was obliged to retreat” (Extract of a Letter to a Gentleman in Annapolis, 29 Oct., in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 2:1284; see also extracts of two letters from White Plains, 28 Oct., ibid., 1271; Silliman to his wife, 29 Oct., in Johnston, Campaign of 1776 description begins Henry P. Johnston. The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn. Including a New and Circumstantial Account of the Battle of Long Island and the Loss of New York, with a Review of Events to the Close of the Year. Brooklyn, 1878. In Memoirs of the Long Island Historical Society, vol. 3. description ends , pt. 2, 56–57; Extract of a Letter from a Gentleman in the Army, 1 Nov., in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:471–74; Haslet to Rodney, 12–19 Nov., in Ward, Delaware Continentals description begins Christopher L. Ward. The Delaware Continentals, 1776–1783. Wilmington, Del., 1941. description ends , 492–95; “Memoirs of the Putnam Family,” OMC, 93; Dann, Revolution Remembered description begins John C. Dann, ed. The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence. Chicago and London, 1980. description ends , 53–54; and Wilson, Heath’s Memoirs description begins Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. Heath’s Memoirs of the American War. 1798. Reprint. New York, 1904. description ends , 88–89).

“In this affair, as in too many more of a similar nature,” Lt. William Harrison of Smallwood’s regiment wrote Daniel of St Thomas Jenifer on 28 Nov., “our Generals show’d not equal judgment to that of the Enemy. We were badly disposed to receive the attack of the Enemy’s small arms, and unfortunately much exposed to their Artillery, which flank’d us so heavily as to render the post tenable but a short time. The matter was ended by a confused and precipitate retreat on our part with the loss of 90 men killed and wounded” (Browne, Md. Council of Safety description begins William Hand Browne, ed. Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, July 7–December 31, 1776. Baltimore, 1893. In Archives of Maryland, vol. 12. description ends , 488–89; see also Tench Tilghman to William Duer, 29 Oct., in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 2:1284–85).

The incomplete American casualty returns for the battle indicate that William Harrison’s casualty figure is too low and Robert Hanson Harrison’s estimate of four to five hundred American casualties is much too high. The return for Wadworth’s brigade of Connecticut militia levies, which included Silliman’s and Douglas’s regiments, reports 8 men killed and 23 officers and men wounded, and the return for McDougall’s brigade shows that its losses, most of which were in Smallwood’s and Ritzema’s regiments, were 21 officers and men killed, 50 officers and men wounded, and 19 men missing (Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:725–26, 729–30). Col. John Haslet indicates in his letter to Caesar Rodney of 12–19 Nov. that his Delaware Regiment had 9 officers and men killed and about 23 officers and men wounded (Ward, Delaware Continentals description begins Christopher L. Ward. The Delaware Continentals, 1776–1783. Wilmington, Del., 1941. description ends , 492–95). The total casualities for these units, which bore a major share of the fighting at White Plains, are 134 officers and men killed and wounded, which is fairly close to the estimate of “a little more than” one hundred and fifty American casualties for the battle that GW gives in his letter to Lund Washington of 6–19 Nov. (see also GW to Hancock, 6 Nov., and James Tilghman, Jr., to the Maryland Council of Safety, 7 Nov., in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:836–37).

The official casualty return for Howe’s army of 1 Dec. 1776 shows that between 19 and 28 Oct. the British forces had 63 officers and men killed, 146 officers and men wounded, and 37 men missing, while the Hessians had 12 men killed, 55 officers and men wounded, and 23 men missing. The total for both forces during that period is 276 officers and men killed and wounded. Nearly all of those casualties occurred on 28 Oct. at White Plains, and they are most numerous in the regiments that attacked the front of Chatterton Hill: the 28th and 35th regiments and the Lossberg Regiment (ibid., 1055–57; see also the casualty return for the 2d British Brigade, 28 Oct., ibid., 2:1270, and George Osborn to George Germain, 29 Oct., in Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 12:242).

4The draft reads: “Every measure is taking to prevent them but the difficulty and delays attending the removal of our Baggage &c. are infinite. The post from it’s situation is not by any means so advantageous as could be wished & was only intended as Temporary & occasional, and that a few Lines should be made till the Stores belonging to the Army which had been deposited here could be removed.”

5The draft reads: “They now lay just by us.”

6No attack occurred on this date. The Americans, Howe wrote Germain on 30 Nov., “drew back their encampment on the night of the 28th [of October], and observing their lines next morning much strengthened by additional works, the designed attack upon them was deferred, and the 4th brigade, left with Lord Percy [on Manhattan Island], with two battalions of the 6th brigade were ordered to join the army” (Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 12:258–64). Although those reinforcements totaling six battalions reached White Plains on the afternoon of 30 Oct., heavy rain forced Howe to cancel the general assault that he planned for the following morning (see ibid.).

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