It was considered a British victory at the time, but has come to be seen as a draw because British casualties equaled or exceeded those of the Americans.
Two-hundred and thirty-five years ago, on October 28, 1776, British forces led by General William Howe met General George Washington’s Continental Army on the field of battle in White Plains, New York.
Following defeat at the Battle of Long Island in August and victory at the Battle of Harlem Heights in September, Washington left a garrison of 1,200 at Fort Washington at the northern tip of Manhattan and moved his main army north into Westchester County. His men had few horses, blankets or warm clothes and had to move their cannon by hand.
Howe, in an effort to outflank the rebellious Americans, landed an advance force at Throg’s Neck. But his troops were repulsed by a small detachment of Pennsylvania riflemen, so he made another landing three miles east at Pell’s Point.
Washington Withdraws to White Plains
Howe moved inland and won a skirmish against a small patriot force in Eastchester before advancing to New Rochelle. To escape encirclement, the main American army withdrew to White Plains, a day-long march, arriving at 9 a.m. on October 21, leaving Colonel John Glover to mount a delaying action against the Redcoats in Pelham.
After securing 8,000 Hessian reinforcements in New Rochelle, Howe moved to confront Washington, who had set a three-mile-long defensive line between the Bronx and Croton rivers in the hills near White Plains, a village that had a courthouse, a few homes and an army supply depot. The American general personally commanded the center of the line.
His left was directed by Brigadier General William Heath and based on Hatfield Hill, while his right was led by Major General Israel Putnam and anchored on Purdy Hill. In line with the American right, across the Bronx River, rose the wooded Chatterton’s Hill, which overlooked the plain on which the British would have to advance.
The hill was occupied by several hundred rebel militia companies. Washington fortified his position with two lines of trenches situated on raised terrain and protected on the right by swampy ground near the river, with steeper hills as a site of retreat to the rear.
British March to White Plains
Howe’s army moved slowly along the road from New Rochelle to White Plains, while a unit of Loyalists occupied Mamaroneck, which was attacked by a detachment of patriot troops, who took over 30 prisoners and supplies, but saw several killed and 15 wounded. Howe moved sections of his right wing to occupy the town.
Then, the British general continued to march north with about 14,000 soldiers, advancing in two columns to Scarsdale, where they made camp. Howe remained there until the morning of October 28, when his forces marched to White Plains, with British troops on the right under General Henry Clinton and Hessians on the left.
Washington sent 1,600 men under Brigadier General Joseph Spencer to block the enemy on the plains between Scarsdale and Chatterton’s Hill. Howe ordered 4,000 men, led by Colonel Johann Rall’s Hessians, to attack. Rall’s soldiers threatened Spencer’s left flank, and, though they fought hard, the American militiamen were routed and scattered.
McDougall at Chatterton’s Hill
Washington dispatched more troops, including Continental soldiers from Delaware and Maryland, to Chatterton’s Hill under the command of Major General Alexander McDougall. Howe moved onto the field in front of the American line and led eight regiments along with 20 guns toward the hill.
The British and Hessians crossed the Bronx River under the protection of their artillery toward McDougall. The British attacked up the hill but were rebuffed, while the Hessians enveloped his right flank, causing McDougall’s New York and Massachusetts militia to commence a fighting retreat, exposing the flank of Colonel John Haslet’s Delaware Continentals and forcing the remainder of the American line to give way.
Captain Alexander Hamilton directed the fire of two light artillery pieces and Haslet’s troops blocked several Hessian charges, but they were forced to fall back to the main American line. Washington then decided to retreat from the hill because he had failed to establish full control over the local high ground. But his defensive action brought the Redcoats, who were maneuvering to attack the entire American line, to a halt.
While Howe was held up in the next few days by a heavy rainstorm, Washington pulled his forces five miles further back to another hilltop location near North Castle on October 31, preserving the main American army. Howe lost his chance to defeat Washington and win the war when he delayed to await reinforcements instead of pursuing his opponents.
Casualties and Aftermath
The Battle of White Plains was considered a British victory, but was actually a draw because it cost them at least 42 killed and 182 wounded, compared to 28 patriots killed and 126 wounded. Other estimates of casualties range from 313 British and Hessians killed, wounded or missing to 300 Americans killed, 150 wounded and 17 missing.
The patriots met disaster in November, when the British seized Fort Washington as well as Fort Lee across the Hudson River in New Jersey in one of the great battles of the Revolutionary War that left them in control of the most strategically located harbor on the Atlantic coast, completing the British conquest of the entire New York City area.
Washington crossed the Hudson River farther north at Peekskill, New York. With the arrival of winter, one British observer said that “many of the rebels were without shoes or stockings. They must suffer extremely.” But Tom Paine, who was with the 3,000 hungry Americans, reported that they bore their suffering “with a manly and martial spirit.”
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Paine wrote on December 23, 1776. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
- Dawson, Henry Barton, Westchester County, New York in the American Revolution. 1886.
- Merrill, Arthur A., The Battle of White Plains. 1976.