On this day in 1776, George Washington’s army loses the Battle of White Plains, but it was one of those losses that didn’t feel like a defeat: General Sir William Howe had missed his chance to completely crush the American army. And, on a humorous note, he’d perhaps learned a thing or two about the tenacity of the upstart colonists who now took on the powerful British Army.
The Battle of White Plains came not long after Washington’s men had been forced out of first Brooklyn, then Manhattan. The tide seemed to turn on September 16 when Americans won a battle at Harlem Heights.
The British were beaten so badly that one American soldier would declare the British “cursedly thrashed” that day. “[We] drove the dogs near three miles,” another wrote of the British retreat.
Now the British would try again.
On October 12, an armada of 150 ships sailed into Long Island Sound: British 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. Howe's delay gave Washington time to act: He began moving his men from Harlem Heights 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 down, at a time when a quick march was needed 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.
Americans anticipated a renewed British attack the next day, but Howe delayed again. He would wait for more reinforcements. Then it began to rain, delaying him still more. “Every necessary disposition was also made for attacking them on the morning of the 31st,” one British soldier explained, “but we were obliged to abandon the design, owing totally to the violent rain which fell during the preceding night and that morning.”
Washington often wrote of his belief that divine Providence intervened on behalf of Americans during the war. Was the heavy rain on October 31 one of these interventions?
Either way, 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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David McCullough, 1776 (2005)
Don N. Hagist, Top Ten Weather Interventions (Journal of the American Revolution; Aug. 2, 2022)
John Jay, Battle of Harlem Plains: Oration Before the New York Historical Society (Sept. 16, 1876)
Joshua Shepherd, "Cursedly Thrashed": The Battle of Harlem Heights (Journal of the American Revolution; April 15, 2014)
Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (2010)