The Battle of White Plains


General George Washington had, early in his chieftaincy, urged upon the Congress the necessity of the establishment of a permanent army, and with prophetic words had predicted the very evils arising from short enlistments and loose methods of creating officers, which now prevailed. While there was a brief lull in active military operations after the battle on Harlem Heights, he again set forth, in graphic pictures, the sad condition of his army, and the importance of a thorough reform and reorganization of the forces, for he foresaw the natural dissolution of his army, by the expiration of enlistments, only a few weeks later. The Congress had just resolved (September 10th) to form the army anew into eighty-eight battalions, to be “enlisted as soon as possible, and to serve during the war;” but they were so afraid of the “military despotism” implied by a standing army, that much of the efficacy of this longer term of enlistment was neutralized by retaining the old method of levying troops by requisitions upon the several States, and the appointment of officers by local authorities without due regard to their qualifications. Washington was compelled to relinquish all present hope of obtaining an efficient army for the great work before him. Yet he never despaired nor uttered a petulant word of complaint, nor threatened to resign. His duty as a patriot and soldier was plain, and he pursued it.

For almost a month in September, 1776, Washington rested with the main body of his army on Harlem Heights, watching the movements of Howe. He had constructed strong lines of fortifications across the narrow island, between the Harlem and Hudson Rivers, and redoubts were planted at proper places to defend approaches from the waters and the main land. The crest of Mount Washington was crowned with a five-sided earthwork, named Fort Washington. It was two hundred and thirty feet above tide-water, a mile northward of headquarters, with strong ravelins and outworks, and mounting thirty-four great guns. This was the principal fortification within the American lines, and was commanded by General Putnam. General Greene, the best leader in the army excepting Washington, was in command of Fort Lee on the Palisades on the New Jersey shore.

On the 12th of October, Howe embarked a large portion of his army in ninety flat-boats, and landed them on Throgg’s Neck, a low peninsula jutting out from the main of Westchester county. He left a sufficient force under Lord Percy to hold the city and guard the British lines toward Harlem. Washington sent Heath to oppose Howe’s landing, and to occupy lower Westchester. After encountering many difficulties from the opposition, Howe finally took post on the heights of New Rochelle, across the road leading to White Plains, where he was joined by General Knyphausen with a freshly arrived corps of German troops. Meanwhile Washington had sent McDougall, with his brigade, four miles beyond Kingsbridge, and a detachment to White Plains. He wished to evacuate Manhattan Island entirely, but an order had come from Congress to hold Fort Washington to the last extremity. At a council of war held on the 16th of October, he produced such proofs of the intention of the British to surround his army, that it was determined to move them all into Westchester excepting a garrison for Fort Washington. That was commanded by Colonel Magaw of the Pennsylvania line, with troops who came chiefly from that State. The army marched in four divisions, commanded respectively by Generals Lee (who had just arrived), Health, Sullivan and Lincoln, and moving up the valley of the Bronx River, formed entrenched camps from the heights of Fordham to White Plains. On the 21st, Washington made his headquarters near the village of White Plains. General Greene commanded a small force that garrisoned Fort Lee.


After almost daily skirmishing, the two armies, each about thirteen thousand strong, met in battle array at the village of White Plains, on the 28th of October. The Americans were encamped behind hastily thrown up entrenchments just north of the village, with hills in the rear to retreat to, if necessary. About sixteen hundred men from Delaware and Maryland, and militia under Colonel Haslett, had taken post on Chatterton’s Hill, a high eminence on the west side of the Bronx, to which point McDougall was sent with reinforcements on the morning of the 28th, with two pieces of artillery under the charge of Captain Alexander Hamilton. Howe’s army approached in two divisions, the right commanded by Sir Henry Clinton, and the left by Generals De Heister and Erskine. Howe was with the latter. He had moved with very great caution since his landing, and now, as he looked upon the Americans behind their apparently formidable breast-works, he hesitated, and held a council of war on horseback. Then he inclined his army to the left, and on the slopes southeast of the present railway station, he planted almost twenty field-pieces. Under cover of these his troops constructed a rude bridge across the Bronx, over which British and German battalions passed, and attempted to ascend the steep, wooded Chatterton’s Hill to drive the Americans from it. Hamilton’s cannon, which he had placed in battery, annoyed them exceedingly. They recoiled, when they were joined by reinforcements under Leslie, foot and horse, and pushing up more gentle declivities, in the face of a furious tempest of bullets, they drove the Americans from their position. McDougall led his troops to Washington’s camp, leaving the British in possession of Chatterton’s Hill.

Howe dared not attack Washington’s breastworks (composed chiefly of cornstalks covered lightly with earth), but waited for reinforcements. They came, just as a severe storm of wind and rain set in. When it ceased at twilight on the 31st, Washington, perceiving Howe’s advantage, withdrew under the cover of darkness behind entrenchments on the hills of North Castle, toward the Croton River. Howe did not follow, but falling back, encamped on the heights of Fordham.

Washington called a council of war, when it was determined to retreat into New Jersey with a large portion of the army, leaving all the New England troops on the east side of the Hudson to defend the passes in the Highlands. These troops were placed under the command of General Heath. Five thousand soldiers crossed the Hudson, some at Tarrytown and some at King’s Ferry, now Stony Point. Washington, accompanied by Heath, Stirling (who had lately been exchanged), Mifflin, and Generals George and James Clinton, rode to Peekskill, whence they voyaged in a barge on a tour of inspection of the fortified points in the Highlands, as far as Fort Constitution. It was then decided to fortify West Point opposite that fort. Returning to King’s Ferry, the chief hastened southward, gathered his little army near Hackensack in the rear of Fort Lee, and made his headquarters there, on the 14th of November.

On the day of the battle at White Plains, Knyphausen, with six German battalions, crossed the Harlem River at Dyckman’s Bridge (present head of navigation), and encamped on the plain between Fort Washington and Kingsbridge. The Americans in the redoubts near by stood firm till the fort was closely invested by the foe. Washington had left it and Fort Lee in charge of Greene. When he heard of the peril that menaced it, he advised that officer to withdraw the garrison and stores, but left the matter to Greene’s discretion. When, on the 15th, he reached Fort Lee, he was disappointed in not finding his wishes gratified. Greene desired to hold the fort as a protection to the river; Congress had ordered it to be held till the last extremity, and Magaw, its commander, said he could hold out against the whole British army until December. Washington was not satisfied of its safety, but yielded his judgment and returned to Hackensack. There, at sunset, he received a copy of a reply which Magaw had made to a summons of Howe to surrender, accompanied by a threat to put the garrison to the sword in case of a refusal. To this summons Colonel Magaw replied, protesting against the savage menace, and declaring that he would defend the post to the last extremity. Washington immediately rode to Fort Lee. Greene had crossed over to the island. The chief started in a row-boat in the same direction, and met Greene on the river in the star-light returning with Putnam. They told the chief that the garrison were in fine spirits, and confident that they could successfully defend themselves. It was then too late to withdraw them, and Washington returned to Fort Lee, but was not satisfied.

Howe had planted heavy guns on the lofty banks of the Harlem River just above the present High Bridge, and from there he opened a severe cannonade early in the morning of the 16th, upon the northern outworks of Fort Washington, to cover the landing of attacking troops from a flotilla of flat-boats which had passed up the Hudson in the night, and been concealed in Spuyten Duyvel Creek. These outworks were defended on the north-east by Colonel Rawlings, with Maryland riflemen and militia from Mercer’s Flying Camp under Colonel Baxter. The lines toward New York were defended by Pennsylvania commanded by Colonel Lambert Cadwallader. Magaw commanded in the fort. Rawlings and Baxter occupied redoubts on rugged and heavily-wooded hills.

The attack was made by four columns. Knyphausen, with Hessians and Waldeckers, moved from the plain along the rough hills nearest the Hudson River on the north at the same time Lord Percy led a division of English and Hessian troops to attack the lines on the south. General Matthews, supported by Lord Cornwallis, crossed the stream near Kingsbridge, with guards, light-infantry, and grenadiers, under cover of the guns near the High Bridge, while Colonel Sterling, with the 42nd regiment of Highlanders, crossed at a point a little above the High Bridge. Knyphausen divided his forces. One division under Colonel Rall (killed at Trenton a few weeks afterward) drove the Americans from Cock Hill Fort, a small redoubt near Spuyten Duyvel Creek, while Knyphausen, with the remainder, penetrated the woods near Tubby Hook, and after clambering over rocks and felled trees, attacked Rawlings in a redoubt afterward called Fort Tryon. Meanwhile Percy had driven in the American pickets at Harlem Cove (Manhattanville), and attacked Cadwallader at the advanced line of entrenchments. A gallant fight ensued, when Percy yielded and took shelter behind some woods.

While Rawlings and Cadwallader were keeping the assailants at bay, Matthews and Sterling were making important movements. The former pushed up the wooded heights from his landing-place on the Harlem River, drove Baxter from his redoubt (afterward named Fort George), and stood a victor upon the hills overlooking the open fields around Fort Washington. Sterling, with his Highlanders, after making a feigned landing, dropped down to a point within the American lines, and rushing up a sinuous pathway, captured a redoubt on the summit, with two hundred men. Perceiving this, Cadwallader, who was likely to be placed between two fires, retreated along the road nearest the Hudson, battling all the way with Percy, who closely pursued him. When near the upper border of Trinity Cemetery (One Hundred and Fifty-fifth street), he was attacked on the flank by Sterling, who was pursuing across the island to intercept him. He passed on and reached the fort with a loss of a few killed, and about thirty made prisoners. Meanwhile the German and British assailants on the north, who were as four to one of the Americans in number, pressed the latter back to the fort, when Rall sent a summons to Magaw to surrender. This was soon followed by a like summons from Howe. The fight outside had been desperate. The ground was strewn with the mingled bodies of Americans, Germans, and Britons. Resistance to pike, ball, and bayonet, wielded by five thousand veteran soldiers, was now vain, and at noon Magaw yielded. At half-past one o’clock the British flag waved over the fort in triumph, where the American flag had been unfurled in the morning with defiance. The Americans had lost in killed and wounded not more than one hundred men; the British had lost almost a thousand. The garrison that surrendered numbered, with militia, about twenty-five hundred, of whom over two thousand were disciplined regulars. Knyphausen received Magaw’s sword, and to the Germans and Highlanders were justly awarded the honors of the victory. Washington, standing on the brow of the Palisades at Fort Lee, with the author of “Common Sense” by his side, witnessed the disaster with anguish, but could afford no relief. The fort was lost to the Americans forever, and was named Knyphausen. Its unfortunate garrison filled the prisons of New York and crowded the British prison-ships wherein they were dreadful suffers.