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Soldier In A Longboat
Three times John Glover’s Marblehead fishermen saved Washington’s army; in a final battle, the “amphibious regiment” rowed him to victory across the Delaware
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
Pounded by heavy shelling and threatened by enemy landing parties, the American troops at Kip’s Bay broke and ran, with the result that by the time Washington arrived at the battlefield, a frightened, disorganized horde was streaming to the rear.
Washington tried to halt them and to form a defensive line along the Post Road, near the present site of Grand Central Terminal. “Take the walls!” he cried, “Take the corn-field!”—but the panic-stricken troops bolted again at the sight of a small British advance party. Outraged by this display of cowardice, the commander in chief courted death by riding well out in front of his troops to rally the men, but in spite of him the soldiers continued their headlong flight.
At the height of the intense shelling, with the raking fire from British warships on the East River supported by enemy vessels on the Hudson, so that grapeshot and langrage whistled clear across the island, Glover’s regiment arrived on the scene, seemingly cool and calm in the face of the hot fire. Encountering the panic-stricken, broken militiamen, they stood firmly in the line, refusing to bolt for the rear.
Indeed, the men of Marblehead seem to have succeeded in checking the rout. What happened next was graphically described by an eyewitness: The officers of Glover’s regiment, one of the best corps in the service … immediately obliged the fugitive officers and men, equally, to turn into the ranks with the soldiers of Glover’s regiment, and obliged the trembling wretches to march back to the ground they had quitted.
This courageous act helped stave off what might have been a more serious disaster. If Howe had met with no resistance and marched due west to the Hudson, he could have cut off all the American troops under Israel Putnam, who were still in New York City. The action of Glover’s men at Kip’s Bay gave Putnam’s troops just enough time to escape the trap and join the main army at Harlem Heights.
It was on the receiving end of another British amphibious operation that Glover next encountered the enemy. After fighting his way up Manhattan, General Howe took a position on the northern part of the island in mid-September, but for nearly a month made no attempt to assault the American lines on Harlem Heights. Instead, he launched a series of amphibious landings in mid-October, leapfrogging up the Westehester County coast to outflank Washington’s army.
Glover had been given command of a small brigade of four Massachusetts regiments and sent to the vicinity of Eastchester, to guard against a possible enemy landing. When Howe’s force appeared off Pelham Bay on the morning of October 18, the future of the patriot cause rested for a time on Glover’s shoulders, for at the very hour Howe made ready to land, Washington’s main army was evacuating the Harlem lines to withdraw to White Plains. If Howe were able to brush Glover aside, he could plant the British army squarely in front of the retreating Americans. What Washington desperately needed on October 18 was enough time to extricate his forces.
When he arose on that fateful morning, Glover climbed a hill with his spyglass in hand to scan the horizon for some sign of the enemy. What he saw must have made him gasp. There in front of him stretched Howe’s amphibious force with boats—“upwards of two hundred sails”—carrying an estimated 4,000 British and German soldiers. Glover’s first reaction was to request orders from General Lee, his immediate superior. That such instructions never arrived is evident from Glover’s comment: “I would have given a thousand worlds to have had General Lee or some other experienced officer present, to direct or at least to approve of what I had done. …”
To oppose the invaders, Glover had 750 men and three fieldpieces. The odds against him were roughly five to one, yet as things turned out he did not even use his entire force. His own regiment he placed in reserve and never committed it to action, nor was he able to employ his artillery, since the rough terrain compelled him to leave his guns well to the rear.
Without delay, Glover turned out the brigade, and hurried down from his encampment to check the British. About halfway to their destination, thirty enemy skirmishers were encountered; coolly, the Marbleheader sent out an advance patrol to delay them while he deployed the rest of his brigade.
Glover’s battle plan was simple but effective. Stationing three regiments of his small command at staggered intervals, he covered both sides of Split Rock Road, which ran into the interior. The stone fences running along this lane and in the adjacent fields would, of necessity, force the enemy to advance down the narrow roadway, so Glover hid his men behind these ready-made fortifications. To break out into the open country to the west, the British and Germans would have to pass through a funnel of musketry.
To give his outnumbered units some measure of relief during the battle, Glover instructed each regimental commander to hold the enemy in check as long as possible, and then to fall back to a new position in the rear while the next unit in reserve took up the brunt of the fighting. The first regiment to contact the invaders was on the left side of the road, and it was expected that these troops would be able to retire unmolested because the next reserve unit was located on the right and thus would distract the attention of the enemy away from the retreat.