George Washington Papers

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hanson Harrison to John Hancock, 31 October 1776

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hanson Harrison to John Hancock

White plains Octobr 31st 1776

Sir

Since I had the Honor of addressing you on the 29th Instant, no event of importance has occured. The Enemy are throwing up some Lines and Redoubts in our Front with a view of Canonading as soon as they are ready, and at the same time, are extending their Wings farther by our right and left. It is supposed, that one of their Objects is, to advance a part of their Troops and Seize on the Bridge over Croton River that the communication may be cut off with the upper Country. to prevent this, a part of our force is detached with orders to proceed with the utmost expedition and to secure the pass if possible.1 We are trying to remove to guard against their designs, but are greatly impeded by reason of the Scarcity of Waggons in proportion to our baggage and Stores. Every exertion has been employed to obtain a sufficiency, but they cannot be had in this part of the Country. The Quarter Master has sent to Connecticut to get a supply if possible. Our Army is decreasing fast; Several Gentlemen who have come to Camp within a few days, have observed large numbers of Militia returning Home on the different roads—nor are any measures taken as yet to raise the New Army, no Committees having come from the States to appoint or signifye the nomination of their Officers. If this was done, perhaps many who are now here might be induced to engage, but at present there are none authorized to recruit.2

His Excellency would have wrote himself by the person who carries this to the care of Genl Greene, but his attention is totally engaged in ordering the Affairs of the Army and the best mode for its removal.3 I have the Honor to be with the greatest respect Sir Your Most Obedt Servt

Rob: H: Harrison

ALS, DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169. Congress read this letter on 5 Nov. (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 , 6:923).

1Tench Tilghman writes William Duer on this date: “The enemy, from their late movements, seem inclined to cross over to the North River by our rear, and march up the Albany road to Croton’s river. To hinder them from effecting this, if such should be their intention, General Beall, with three good regiments of Maryland troops, has marched to take possession of Croler Bridge [Croton Bridge], and Lord Stirling, who is keeping pace with the enemy’s left flank, has orders to push up also to Croton’s river, should he plainly perceive that the enemy’s route lays that way. I think if we get possession of Croton river and the passes in the Highlands, our army will be safe from further pursuit, will have time to recruit themselves after their amazing fatigue, and will be fresh and able to harass the enemy if they should think fit to winter up the country. The campaign hitherto has been a fair trial of Generalship, in which I flatter myself, we have had the advantage. If we, with our motley army, can keep Mr. Howe and his grand appointment at bay, I think we shall make no contemptible military figure” (Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 2:1311–12).

2“The enemy,” George Clinton writes John McKesson on this date, “are daily increasing their army by new recruits in those parts of the country which they have already acquired, whilst ours are daily decreasing by sickness, deaths and desertions: Add to this, one month more disbands a very considerable part of our army. How a new one will be recruited, God only knows. This I know, many are disgusted with the service; those will not re-enter, and what is worse, will prevent others by representing, on their return home, the hardships they have endured” (Hastings, Clinton Papers description begins Hugh Hastings and J. A. Holden, eds. Public Papers of George Clinton, First Governor of New York, 1777–1795, 1801–1804. 10 vols. 1899–1914. Reprint. New York, 1973. description ends , 1:399–401).

3GW during this night and the early hours of the next day redeployed his army to take advantage of the stronger defensive ground located about a mile and a half north of White Plains that Gen. Charles Lee had pointed out to him on the morning of 28 Oct. (see Harrison to Hancock, 29 Oct., n.3). Implementation of this move had been delayed by the frustratingly slow evacuation of essential military stores and baggage from the village and the necessity of constucting new defensive positions before abandoning the old ones under the noses of the enemy (see Tench Tilghman to William Duer, 2 Nov., in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:486). Those preparations apparently were complete enough by this evening to make a redeployment possible, and intelligence of Howe’s intention to attack the American army in force as soon as the weather permitted undoubtedly convinced GW that the move could no longer be postponed (see General Orders, this date, n.1, and Hadaway, McDonald Papers description begins William S. Hadaway, ed. The McDonald Papers. 2 vols. White Plains, N.Y., 1926-27. In Publications of the Westchester County Historical Society, vols. 4–5. description ends , pt. 1, 56). “Except we can get a vast superiority of ground,” Tench Tilghman had written William Duer from GW’s headquarters two days earlier, “our raw troops are not a match for their disciplined soldiers” (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 redeployment was accomplished without serious problems. “The centre and right wing of our army, having possessed themselves of the heights in their rear,” George Clinton wrote John McKesson from the army’s left wing on 2 Nov., “yesterday morning evacuated that part of our lines which passed through the town . . . and fell back on those heights; firing all the barns, hay and corn stacks in front. This induced the enemy to believe we had again retreated, and determined to take the advantage of our supposed flight, their army instantly moved forward unto the part of our lines which were evacuated” (Hastings, Clinton Papers description begins Hugh Hastings and J. A. Holden, eds. Public Papers of George Clinton, First Governor of New York, 1777–1795, 1801–1804. 10 vols. 1899–1914. Reprint. New York, 1973. description ends , 1:407–8; see also 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; “Trumbull Journal,” 206; Rau, “Smith’s Diary,” description begins Louise Rau, ed. “Sergeant John Smith’s Diary of 1776.” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 20 (1933-34): 247–70. description ends 259–60; 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 , 90–92).

GW did not withdraw the American line uniformly northward, but rather he swung it about ninety degrees to the northeast, pivoting it on Hatfield Hill, so that the new line was nearly perpendicular to the old one. Heath’s division remained on Hatfield Hill, while the center of the line withdrew about a mile and the right wing retired about a mile and a half to positions on the heights behind them. Facing southwest toward the old positions on Purdy Hill, the new line ran northwest about a mile and a half from Hatfield Hill across the Foster and Fisher hills, Mount Misery, and Miller Hill to GW’s headquarters at the Miller house near the Bronx River (see Hadaway, McDonald Papers description begins William S. Hadaway, ed. The McDonald Papers. 2 vols. White Plains, N.Y., 1926-27. In Publications of the Westchester County Historical Society, vols. 4–5. description ends , pt. 1, 56, and Timothy Danielson to the Committee of the Assembly of Massachusetts, 5–6 Nov., in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:521–22). Stirling’s brigade, which had been posted between the Bronx and the Hudson since the night of 28 Oct., guarded the army’s right flank (see note 1 and “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 138). The left flank continued to be protected by a regiment and an artillery battery on Merritt Hill, which lay across a deep ravine southeast of Hatfield Hill.

Heath says in his memoirs that GW arrived on Hatfield Hill on the morning of 1 Nov. to inquire about the situation of Heath’s division, and upon learning that troops remained on Merritt Hill, GW told Heath: “If you do not call them off immediately, . . . you may lose them, if the enemy push a column up the hollow.” Heath replied “that a strong regiment was posted at the head of the hollow, behind the wall,” to cover a retreat from Merritt Hill if one became necessary. GW agreed to leave the troops there, but he warned Heath: “Take care that you do not lose them” (Wilson, Heath’s Memoirs description begins Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. Heath’s Memoirs of the American War. 1798. Reprint. New York, 1904. description ends , 91).

Howe did not attempt to cut off the post on Merritt Hill nor did he make any attack at all. The new American line, in British engineer Archibald Robertson’s opinion, was “an Exceeding Strong Position.” After “a little Cannonading,” Robertson says in his diary entry for 1 Nov., “A Strong Guard was left” in the abandoned American entrenchments, “and the Rest of the Army went back to their Tents” (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 , 107). Howe blames the inaction on the Americans in his letter to Germain of 30 November. “The rebels having intelligence by a deserter of their danger” of being attacked, Howe says, “most prudently evacuated their camp . . . and retired with their main force towards North Castle, leaving a strong rearguard upon the heights and in the woods for one mile back from their entrenchments, the possession of which was immediately taken and the Hessian grenadiers remained upon the ground. All these motions plainly indicating the enemy’s design to avoid coming to action, I did not think the driving their rearguard further back an object of the least consequence” (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 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 , 53; 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 , 1:96, 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 , 66). Howe subsequently suspended his efforts to outflank and trap GW’s main army and turned his attention to Fort Washington.

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