On this day in 1776, Americans fight the Battle of Pell’s Point. The battle was later described as a “smart & close Skirmish” in which the “Men behaved with great coolness & Intrepidity . . . .”
The battle did one other thing: It demonstrated, yet again, why our ancestors would have valued the right to bear arms. After all, a technically inferior (but armed) force of colonists quickly taught the larger superior British force a lesson.
Washington’s army was then reeling from a series of demoralizing defeats. A crushing loss at Brooklyn Heights had been followed by a miraculous midnight escape across the East River. Americans were run out of Manhattan, but at least won the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16.
Now, they were on the run again. A British armada of 150 ships had sailed into Long Island Sound on October 12. Those troops disembarked at Throg’s Neck, just to the east of Washington’s position at Harlem Heights.
Well, at least, Howe’s forces tried to disembark. Their landing spot was poorly chosen. It wasn’t really attached to the mainland, making the approach more difficult than Howe anticipated. American riflemen were able to keep the British at bay, and Howe was forced to re-evaluate the situation. The delay gave Washington time to act. He could see that he was about to get trapped, so he began moving toward White Plains.
On October 18, Howe tried again. This time, he landed his troops a little further north, at Pell’s Point. Once there, Howe faced another unpleasant surprise: American John Glover had witnessed the British landing. Glover later recounted that he “went on the hill with my glass, and discovered a number of ships in the Sound, under way; in a short time saw the boats, upwards of two hundred sail, all manned . . . .”
Glover knew that he would be badly outnumbered! He had about 750 men.
He sent a quick message to General Charles Lee, Washington’s second in command, who was only three miles away. Unfortunately, there was no advice forthcoming. The British were getting closer and time was running out. Glover was on his own. He decided to attack.
“I would have given a thousand worlds to have had General Lee, or some other experienced officer present, to direct, or at least approve of what I had done,” Glover would later say.
His force might be small, but perhaps he could outwit the British. The road was lined with low stone walls and trees. Glover used them to set up a series of small ambushes.
The British advance force fell neatly into the trap. As the conflict first began, the Americans exchanged five rounds with the British. Then the Patriot force retreated, luring the British into an ambush. As the British approached, a line of Patriots rose up and fired. The British quickly retreated.
It took them more than an hour to show up again. When they finally came, they had reinforcements. In the battle that ensued, the Americans fought hard. At one point, the British thought they’d won, and they even began cheering! They were wrong, though. The small American force wasn’t done yet and a “long-continued and well-sustained fire was kept on each side.”
Of course, the small Patriot force was eventually compelled to retreat. The Patriots were outnumbered and could only last for so long.
Glover had lost the Battle of Pell’s Point, but he’d managed to delay the British for the better part of a day. Moreover, he’d prompted Howe to rethink his approach: Would there be Americans hiding behind every stone wall along the way? Howe slowed his march down, at a time when a quick march might have enabled him to catch Washington.
The delay gave Washington time to get to White Plains.
Perhaps Glover won the conflict after all?
David McCullough, 1776 (2005)
David Osborn, The Battle of Pell’s Point (National Park Service; St. Paul’s Church National Historic Site)
John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (2007)
Nathan Perkins Sanborn, Gen. John Glover and His Marblehead Regiment in the Revolutionary War: A Paper Read Before the Marblehead Historical Society (May 14, 1903)
Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (2d ed. 2009)
William Abbatt, The Battle of Pell’s Point (or Pelham) October 18, 1776: Being the Story of a Stubborn Fight (1901)
William Abbatt, The Battle of Pell’s Point or Pelham, October 18, 1776 (Proceedings of the N.Y. State Historical Assoc.; 1910) (Vol. 9)