On October 19, 1776, after being delayed by a clash with Massachusetts Colonel John Glover and his men at Pelham Bay, British General William Howe and his army camped at New Rochelle, New York. Howe was waiting for supplies and 8,000 Hessian reinforcements under the command of General Wilhelm von Knyphausen. The British intended to launch a maneuver that would encircle and defeat General George Washington’s army at Harlem Heights.
Washington was aware of the British advance. He sent General Charles Lee on a scouting mission north. Lee returned with the advice that the army move to White Plains because it was more defensible and contained a supply depot.
Colonel Rufus Putnam (General Israel Putnam’s cousin) was sent on a reconnaissance mission to discover the British position and determine how soon they might reach White Plains.
Putnam returned with disturbing intelligence of Howe’s proximity to White Plains. In response, Washington hasten the American army’s lugubrious retreat north along the west bank of the Bronx River. He dispatched Putnam with orders to Lord Alexander Stirling, whose troops were furthest north, to immediately march to White Plains.
The Continental Army arrived at White Plains ahead of Howe’s army. It provided time for Washington’s men to construct their defenses. Washington established his headquarters at the Elijah Miller House on October 23, and chose a defensive position that he fortified with two lines of entrenchments. The trenches were situated on raised terrain, protected on the right by the swampy ground near the Bronx River, with steeper hills further back as a place of retreat. The American defenses were 3 miles long. Beyond that, across the Bronx River on the right, was Chatterton’s Hill, which commanded the plain over which the British would have to advance.
Washington sent the Maryland and Delaware forces, as well as some Connecticut regimentals and some militia to Chatterton’s Hill to join an isolated outpost held by Colonel Alexander McDougall. There approximately 2,000 men began constructing fortifications.
During this time, General Howe’s army proceeded north to Mamaroneck where they paused for another four days to reconnoiter the roads and terrain around White Plains. On the morning of October 28, Howe ordered his entire force, 13,000 strong, forward to White Plains to attack the American lines. Howe took General Henry Clinton’s advice (which was a rare occurrence) and proceeded in several columns, with Clinton leading the one farthest right whose task would be to outflank the Americans while they fought the British on the left.
When Washington heard the British were advancing he said to his officers, “Gentlemen, you will repair to your respective posts and do the best you can.” His officers holding the lines included generals William Heath, John Sullivan, and Charles Lee. Then, Washington called for a detachment of 1,500 men under General Joseph Spencer to confront the British vanguard. Joseph Plumb Martin and Benjamin Tallmadge were among them.
The detachment crossed the Bronx River and waited behind stone walls for the enemy. They became engaged with the Hessians pouring a destructive fire into the Hessian ranks until they found that they were about to be flanked. The Americans retreated across the river and ascended the hill.
The British advanced and began firing field pieces across the river at the American lines. The Americans returned fire. Smoke from artillery and shot filled the air.
Howe detached several thousand of his men and twelve pieces of artillery to attack Chatterton’s Hill. The British attack was organized with Hessian regiments leading the assault. Colonel Johann Rall was to charge the American right, while a Hessian battalion under Colonel Carl von Donop was to attack the center. When they reached the river, British grenadiers charged across and pressed on up the steep and heavily wooded hill. They became targets of their own artillery which had ignited the dry autumn leaves and branches. The Hessians followed charging through the burning fields. They held their cartridge boxes above their heads to keep them from exploding.
The Americans fired canister and grape into the oncoming enemy. The Royal Artillery responded with solid shot. The Americans repelled the first wave of attack as they poured musket fire into the approaching enemy. Rall’s Hessians rallied and taking heavy casualties, fought up the southern side of the hill. Rall’s charge scattered the militia and they “fled in confusion,” Colonel John Haslet of the Delaware troops reported. This exposed the American right flank.
The British pelted the Marylanders and the Delaware Regiment with a “very heavy fire of their artillery and musquetry for about half an hour.” Reinforcements arrived, but the Marylanders and Delaware men were forced to withdraw. “The Americans overpowered by their numbers, were compelled to save themselves, as best they could,” recalled Marylander Captain Samuel Smith.
Washington ordered a fighting withdrawal with the 1st Delaware Regiment guarding the rear. The Continental Army continued their retreat to North Castle, New York. Both sides suffered significant casualties. The high price (in casualties) the British army paid for the hill was enough to discourage further aggression on General Howe’s part.
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Heath, William. Edited by William Abbatt. Memoirs of Major General William Heath New York: William Abbatt, 1901. Print.