American Revolution: Battle of White Plains

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Major General Alexander McDougall. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of White Plains - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of White Plains was fought October 28, 1776, during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Battle of White Plains - Armies & Commanders:

Americans

British

Battle of White Plains - Background:

In the wake of their defeat at the Battle of Long Island (August 27-30, 1776) and victory at the Battle of Harlem Heights (September 16), General George Washington's Continental Army found itself camped at the northern end of Manhattan.

Moving tentatively, General William Howe elected to begin a campaign of maneuver rather than directly attacking the American position. Embarking 4,000 men on October 12, Howe moved them through Hell's Gate and landed at Throg's Neck. Here their advance inland was blocked by swamps and a group of Pennsylvania riflemen led by Colonel Edward Hand.

Not wishing to force his way through, Howe re-embarked and moved up the coast to Pell's Point. Marching inland, they won a sharp engagement over a small Continental force at Eastchester, before pressing on to New Rochelle. Alerted to Howe's movements, Washington realized that Howe was in a position to cut his lines of retreat. Deciding to abandon Manhattan, he began moving the main army north to White Plains where he possessed a supply depot. Due to pressure from Congress, he left around 2,800 men under Colonel Robert Magaw to defend Fort Washington on Manhattan.

Across the river, Major General Nathanael Greene held Fort Lee with 3,500 men.

Battle of White Plains - The Armies Clash:

Marching into White Plains on October 22, Washington established a defensive line between the Bronx and Croton Rivers, near the village. Building breastworks, Washington's right was anchored on Purdy Hill and led by Major General Israel Putnam, while the left was commanded by Brigadier General William Heath and anchored on Hatfield Hill.

Washington personally commanded the center. Across the Bronx River, in line with the American right rose Chatterton's Hill. Possessing wooded sides and fields on the hilltop, Chatterton's Hill was initially protected by a mixed force of militia.

Reinforced at New Rochelle, Howe began moving north with around 14,000 men. Advancing in two columns, they passed through Scarsdale early on October 28, and approached Washington's position at White Plains. As the British neared, Washington dispatched Brigadier General Joseph Spencer's 2nd Connecticut Regiment to delay the British on the plain between Scarsdale and Chatterton's Hill. Arriving on the field, Howe immediately recognized the importance of the hill and decided to make it the focus of his attack. Deploying his army, Howe detached 4,000 men, led by Colonel Johann Rall's Hessians to make the assault.

Battle of White Plains - A Gallant Stand:

Advancing, Rall's men came under fire from Spencer's troops which had taken a position behind a stone wall. Inflicting losses on the enemy, they were forced to pull back towards Chatterton's Hill when a British column led by General Henry Clinton threatened their left flank.  Recognizing the importance of the hill, Washington ordered Colonel John Haslet's 1st Delaware Regiment to reinforce the militia.

  As British intentions became clearer, he also dispatched Brigadier General Alexander McDougall's brigade. The Hessian pursuit of Spencer's men was stopped on the slopes of the hill by determined fire from Haslet's men and the militia. Bringing the hill under intense artillery fire from 20 guns, the British were able to panic the militia leading them to flee from the area.

The American position was quickly stabilized as McDougall's men arrived on the scene and new line formed with the Continentals on the left and center and the rallied militia on the right. Crossing the Bronx River under the protection of their guns, the British and Hessians pressed on towards Chatterton's Hill. While the British attacked directly up the hill, the Hessians moved to envelop the American right flank. Though the British were repulsed, the Hessians' flank attack caused the New York and Massachusetts militia to flee.

This exposed the flank of Haslet's Delaware Continentals. Reforming, the Continental troops were able to beat back several Hessian attacks but were ultimately overwhelmed and forced retreat back to the main American lines.

Battle of White Plains - Aftermath:

With the loss of Chatterton's Hill, Washington concluded that his position was untenable and elected to retreat to the north. While Howe had won a victory, he was unable to immediately follow up his success due to heavy rains the next day few days. When the British advanced on November 1, they found the American lines empty. While a British victory, the Battle of White Plains cost them 42 killed and 182 wounded as opposed to only 28 killed and 126 wounded for the Americans.

While Washington's army began a long retreat which would ultimately see them move north then west across New Jersey, Howe broke off his pursuit and turned south to capture Forts Washington and Lee.  This was accomplished on November 16 and 20 respectively.  Having completed the conquest of the New York City area,  Howe ordered Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis to pursue Washington across northern New Jersey.  Continuing their retreat, the disintegrating American army finally crossed the Delaware in to Pennsylvania in early December. American fortunes would not improve until December 26, when Washington launched a daring attack against Rall's Hessian forces in Trenton, NJ.

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