Stand-off At White Plains

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Mid-October of 1776 found a badly beaten American army in full retreat from Manhattan Island into the forests and farmlands of Westchester County. It was by no means a rout; units of Washington’s army fought skillful and rugged rearguard actions every step of the way. William Howe, in command of the king’s forces, followed the Americans in a pursuit sluggish enough to allow Washington ample time to settle his troops in the hills surrounding the village of White Plains. The Americans dug in well, established a long, curving line, and waited for the inevitable attack. It came on the morning of October 28.

Brigadier General Joseph Spencer had posted himself and fifteen hundred men behind a low stone wall a mile and a half below the main body of the American army. As the forward units of the British army advanced up along the Bronx River, Spencer’s men let loose a volley that stopped them in their tracks. When a Hessian unit moved around to outflank the Americans, Spencer pulled his troops back uphill to another stone wall, where once again they gave their attackers a mauling. Spencer fought a slow, dogged retreat, selling his ground dearly, until finally his units joined some militiamen who were fortifying Chatterton’s Hill on the extreme right of the American line.

The hill was now held by green militia and Connecticut and New York troops still shaken by the beating they had recently taken on Long Island. Behind these units, however, were tough, battle-wise Maryland and Delaware regiments. While the main body of the British army was assembling on the plain below the Americans, gunners of the Royal Artillery opened up on Chatterton’s Hill, and the troops there replied to the heavy fire as best they could with two small fieldpieces. When the cannonading eventually lifted, long lines of Hessian and British troops splashed across the Bronx River and moved up the hill with fixed bayonets. They met unexpectedly strong resistance from the militia, and the battle seesawed back and forth, the Americans giving as good as they got.

But while the king’s troops were wavering, trumpets sounded a charge, and the 17th Dragoons galloped into view, terrible with plumed brass helmets and cavalry sabres. It was more than most of the Americans could stand, and their line dissolved. They fled the field, covered by the steadfast Delaware regiment, which brought up the rear and held off the British attack until their fellow soldiers had reached safety.

The British consolidated their position on the hill they had taken but did little else. Howe had won the field but allowed Washington’s army to escape destruction. Spirits in the American camp were high, the men feeling, quite justly, that they had fought well.

—R.F.S.

 

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