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This Day in History: George Washington’s army miraculously survives (again!)

On this day in 1776, George Washington’s army was forced into a retreat at the Battle of White Plains. Fortunately, it was not a complete loss. General Sir William Howe lost a chance to crush the American army when he had it. Americans lived to fight another day!

The battle came in the wake of a series of demoralizing defeats for Washington. Weeks earlier, Americans had suffered a crushing defeat at Brooklyn Heights. Following the defeat, they’d made a miraculous escape across the East River and into Manhattan, but they had been run out of New York City not too long after that. On a bright note, they won the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16. It was a much-needed morale booster!


On October 12, the British made another move. An armada of 150 ships sailed into Long Island Sound and troops disembarked at Throg’s Neck, to the east of Washington’s position at Harlem Heights.


Or, 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 at Harlem Heights. He began moving his forces to 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, and he decided to attack. His 750 men fought hard, shooting at the British from behind stone walls. These Americans managed to stall the British for a full day before falling back. Glover’s attack caused 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.


The attack at White Plains did not come until October 28. The main attack came at Chatterton’s Hill, on the American right. The hill was defended by militia, plus reinforcements that Washington sent in. The militia fled, but the reinforcements fought gallantly before finally giving way. It was a British victory, but at a high cost: The British suffered twice as many casualties as the Americans.


Howe did not continue his attack the next day, deciding instead to wait for more reinforcements. Then it began to rain, delaying him still more. By November 1, Washington had moved his army back to a stronger position. Yet still the Americans waited, fully expecting Howe to launch another round of attacks. When the morning of November 5 dawned, it brought an odd surprise. Americans saw that the British army was moving—but the army was moving *away* from the American position.


Where was Howe going? Naturally, that is a story for another day. Stay tuned!

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