Many of the rebels… were without shoes or Stockings, & Several were observed to have only linen drawers… without any proper shirt or Waistcoat… also in great want of blankets… they must suffer extremely.
–a British officer at White Plains
By 12 October the Howes were once more in motion, pushing warships and 5,000 troops up the East River, through the treacherous waters of Hell Gate, and on to Throgs’ Neck on Long Island Sound. The neck, however, was virtually an island, separated from the mainland by an unfordable stream and impassable marshes, and even a tiny detachment of Pennsylvania rifles under Colonel Edward Hand was enough to make Howe pause once more. Six days later he pushed up the Sound to Pell’s Point, determined now to force a landing that would put him on Washington’s flank. But Pell’s Point would be no Kip’s Bay. A command there under tough old John Glover (whose Marblehead salts had helped row the army to safety after Long Island) now fought an agile and effective delaying action against 4,000 Regulars before they won a narrow beachhead. Four days later a column of Loyalists pushed on up the coast to Mamaronek and collided, to their sorrow, with John Haslet’s Delaware regiment, which drove them in disorder back on the main body of the British advance. It must have been pleasant for Washington to see what American Regulars could do against British militia for a change.
But Washington was already resigned to retreat from Manhattan and to fall back on White Plains well up the Bronx River. On 16 October the main body began sullenly and silently trudging north, painfully dragging their gear for want of horsepower and leaking a steady stream of deserters. The British hounds were in full cry and the fox would not stop running until he was south of the Delaware River on a dark December night. As Washington pushed north, though, he left behind two large commands: nearly 3,000 under Colonel Robert Magaw in Fort Washington on the Manhattan side of the Hudson and 3,500 under Nathanael Greene in Fort Lee opposite on the Jersey shore. The defense of these posts on the vital Hudson was the express will of Congress, and both Magaw and Greene at any rate believed they could be held. Such luck as Washington would enjoy was once more a gift from William Howe: the pursuit of the British was as leisurely as his own retreat was laborious. It was 22 October before Washington reached the relative safety of the hills around White Plains, and Howe was not ready to press the issue until the 28th. For Americans still of hopeful mind, there was much to like about the White Plains position. Americans held the high ground, and the British, after posting a large garrison at New Rochelle, would actually be slightly outnumbered on the battlefield: Washington still had 14,500 men with the colors at this point and Howe 14,000. But whatever advantage Washington had on the eve of battle he was about to squander. The American line ran in an arc on three hills. The highest and rightmost of these was Chatterton’s Hill. Unfortunately, as Howe was quick to see, it was also the most vulnerable.
Barely more than 1,500 Americans held this hill, some battle-tested Delaware and Maryland Continentals, the rest battle-broken New York and Connecticut militiamen, survivors of the Long Island disaster. Then, too, Sir William Howe had moments when he demonstrated precisely why many held him to be the king’s ablest soldier. He opened the contest for Chatterton’s Hill with a smashing bombardment of its crest, then sent a combined force of 4,000 Hessian and British Regulars splashing across the Bronx River and driving up the slope. Beaten back in the first assault, they reformed and returned to the attack. This time the attack drove home. The Hessians, reaching around to their left, began to turn the American flank there. At about the same time Howe sent the 17th Dragoons galloping up the hill in the first real cavalry charge of the American Revolution. The militiamen had seen enough and more than enough. Their lines wavered and broke and soon their fugitives were headed for the woods. Whatever hope the Maryland and Delaware regiments had of making another Breed’s Hill here disappeared with the militiamen, but they left the field in good order–leaving on it some 300 British and Hessian casualties, a hundred more than their own. Regardless of their steadfast stand and disciplined withdrawal, the plain fact was that British possession of Chatterton’s Hill exposed the main body of Americans, center and left, to destruction.
Then or after, Howe never satisfactorily explained why he did not coordinate his attack on the American right with attacks all along their front (which was in fact his original plan), or, even more mystifying, why he did not follow up a wounded adversary with aggressive pursuit. Again, having won half a victory, he stood down. One subordinate wondered whether “incapacity or design” was the source of Howe’s inertia and frankly suspected it was design. Regardless of his politics, from a purely military viewpoint, Howe had achieved precious little for his casualties: he held a hill of no particular value (there were nothing but hills from here to the St. Lawrence River), while the opportunity to destroy Washington’s army had come and gone again. If he was waiting for Sir Guy Carleton’s column from Canada to show up in Washington’s rear, he would have to keep waiting. Benedict Arnold’s doomed fight off Valcour Island (two weeks before White Plains) had been delay enough to make Carleton reconsider a drive south with winter drawing on. Howe finally gave orders for Sir Henry Clinton to attack the White Plains line on the morning of 1 November. But on the last night of October Washington lead his men out of the lines and fell back northward in a dismal rain to the high ground of nearby North Castle. His army was on the run, but it was still intact, and that counted for a great deal. But it was also true that his own inexperience and errors in judgment had put the army in mortal danger again. Much of his difficulty arose from the simple fact that he was bearing a responsibility no man could bear alone. Howe was an experienced hand with a responsive staff and able, aggressive field commanders. Washington, with no staff worthy of the name or field commanders on whom he could rely, was terribly alone. Indeed, in the weeks ahead his own subordinates would put him in as much peril as Sir William Howe.
For his part, General Howe was not quite sure what his next move ought to be. With its flanks secure, Washington’s Castle Hill line would be a tough nut to crack by frontal assault. On the night of 4 November in the first snows of winter Howe turned his army back south. Washington was quick to see that the British intended “to bend their force against Fort Washington.” General Charles Lee, who would cause Washington no end of mischief, at least began this phase of the campaign with perfectly good counsel: Forts Washington and Lee could not be held and their garrisons and gear ought to be promptly withdrawn. Nor did it take an eccentric military genius to come to this conclusion. The purpose of the forts in the first place was to deny the British control of the lower Hudson, but the nearly unhindered passage of three warships up the river in the first week of November already demonstrated the futility of that effort. In command on the Hudson was Major General Nathanael Greene, the Connecticut Quaker turned soldier. In time to come he would prove the ablest of Washington’s lieutenants, but right now inexperience and overconfidence were leading him to disaster. Greene, sure that he could hold the posts, prevailed on Washington to let him try–much contrary to the commander’s own better judgment. “I am… inclined to think that it will not be prudent to hazard the men and stores at Mount Washington,” he wrote to Greene, “but as you are on the spot leave it to you to give such orders as to evacuating… as you judge best.” If this was fatal indecision on Washington’s part, it coincided with a nearly fatal division of his army. While Greene and Magaw prepared for the defense of the lower Hudson, Charles Lee and William Heath would remain in Westchester roughly on the line of the Croton River to defend the approaches to New England. Washington himself would cross to the west bank of the Hudson to bar the way to the Hudson highlands through New Jersey.
But the fate of the Hudson forts weighed heavily on his mind. He had ridden from Hackensack to inspect them on 12 November and should perhaps have seen the particular vulnerability of his namesake fort. It was roughly a five-pointed star 230 feet above the Hudson but still unfinished, and the outlying works encompassed more ground than Magaw’s garrison could hope to defend against a really determined British assault. Certainly William Howe saw its weakness, aided in large part by scrupulously detailed information provided by an American turncoat. While Washington rode anxiously back to his Hackensack headquarters, Howe sent out orders to seize the fort. On 14 November an attacking force of 8,000 British and Hessians in four divisions began marching under cover of darkness to their jumping-off points. The next morning Howe called on Magaw to surrender. Magaw, at the close of a rather fulsome speech, vowed to fight to the “last extremity.” They were brave words, and indeed Greene continued to assure Washington that the men were in high spirits and ready to give the British a bloody repulse. Washington was not so sure. At dawn of the 16th he mounted once more to ride to the forts for an inspection tour. He dismounted at Fort Lee just in time to hear the opening gunfire of Howe’s assault closing in on the fort from north, east, and south. Unlike Howe’s attack at White Plains, this effort was precisely coordinated and effectively supported by artillery from both high ground nearby and the river. Despite a steadfast effort by the Continentals in the outer works, they were too thinly manned to hold. When, after fierce fighting, a German regiment under Colonel Johann Rall broke through on the northern approach to the fort, the arc of the outer lines collapsed. But if the outer works were too thin, the fort proper was now too crowded for effective defense–3,000 increasingly panicky men mobbed together with the British navy at their backs and four divisions on their front. The dark day was drawing to a close when a German officer under a flag of truce demanded Magaw’s surrender. His comrades had suffered the heaviest casualties in the day’s fighting: if Magaw refused, they would storm the place and give no quarter. Magaw rightly supposed that this was the “last extremity” and surrendered. The loss was staggering. Although Magaw counted only 59 dead and 96 wounded in his rolls, some 2,800 were taken in the capitulation–along with irreplaceable guns, gear, ammunition. Howe’s losses were not inconsiderable–78 dead and nearly 400 wounded. But this time they did not deter him from continuing the offensive. He now sent Cornwallis with a force of 4,000 to seize Fort Lee. The column crossed upriver under the guns of British warships at dawn of the 20th and marched in hot haste down the west bank. Cornwallis came within an ace of snatching the unfortunate General Greene himself, but Greene pulled his garrison out in time and drove them westward to join Washington, losing just a hundred-odd laggards. With Fort Lee in British hands Washington’s disaster on the Hudson was complete. As Washington wrote to his brother Jack, “I am wearied almost to death with the retrograde motion of things.”
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And American fortunes could not have been much darker. Losing Manhattan and the Hudson forts was not even the worst of it. Since the clash on Long Island three months earlier, more than 300 officers and 4,000 men had been captured by the British, and, owing largely to the loss of Fort Washington, many of these were Washington’s ablest and best-trained. Dead and wounded were reckoned at something like 600, and it was not possible to count with precision the number of deaths by disease, though that sum was certainly larger than all other casualties combined. (An eighteenth-century soldier got roughly the same level of medical care he would have received in the Middle Ages.) Desertions increased apace as fought-out, marched-out, just plain disheartened men went home. In any case, many enlistments were up on 1 December and virtually all the rest by year’s end. Washington was watching his army fall apart in his hands. Congress had approved the recruitment of 80,000 men for the Continental Line after the Battle of Long Island, but the measure would not produce a single soldier in 1776. Since it gave power to the states to commission officers who would in turn recruit the enlisted men, long, laborious, wrangling delay was inevitable. As for the quality of the officers being commissioned, Washington snorted, most were “not fit to be shoeblacks.” Indeed, the social composition of the Revolution was already beginning to change. Americans are much enamored of the myth of a homogenous, classless Continental Army inspired by liberty and devoted to republican virtue. But, after the initial rage militaire passed and the brutal business of war dragged on, the ranks of the Continental Line were increasingly filled out by the landless, the unskilled, and the disenfranchised. They did not so much represent their communities as they lived precariously at their edges. Those who had most to gain from independence were in fact most reluctant to serve. The hardship of service and the terror of battle fell largely on those who had nothing to lose but their lives.
Those still in the ranks with Washington toward the end of November, some five thousand, were on the run with Lord Cornwallis dogging their retreat. Cornwallis had youth, ambition, and a column of redcoats and Hessians ten thousand strong, and these professionals showed the kind of marching they could do when a real driver put them to it. Washington slipped out of Hackensack, crossed to the west bank of the Passaic River, and fled south into New Jersey. He reached Newark by 28 November, but there was neither safety nor respite here. Cornwallis’ van was just tramping in as Washington’s rearguard was trudging out. On they went in the sleet and slop, headed now for New Brunswick and the chance to put the Raritan River between them and Cornwallis’ hounds. Precious few Americans would reach the Raritan: on the first of December, their enlistments up, 2,000 decided they had had enough of soldiering and went home. And well they might, for even the British pitied Washington’s gaunt, staggering column. As one officer remembered, “many of the rebels… were without shoes or Stockings, & Several were observed to have only linen drawers… without any proper shirt or Waistcoat… also in great want of blankets… they must suffer extremely.”
Washington’s little band got a few days rest behind the river, while Howe caught up to the pursuing column and paused to issue yet another proclamation offering pardons and protection. It must have seemed the briefest reprieve to Washington. Although New Jersey had some 16,000 militiamen on its rolls and Washington had been calling for them since he first reached White Plains, almost no one was willing to join a doomed army in what seemed a hopeless cause. (In the end barely a thousand turned out in New Jersey.) Worse yet–if American affairs could get worse–Washington had been calling on his second in command, Charles Lee, to march to him at once with the rest of the army still at Peekskill and North Castle. These repeated dispatches Lee treated as interesting suggestions at best and at worst with insolent insubordination. Indeed, having done little to injure the British, Lee was even now campaigning to overthrow Washington. Correspondence with Joseph Reed condemned what he believed to be Washington’s “fatal indecision of mind.” To friends in Congress he wrote openly that the crisis required a man of genius–himself–with dictatorial powers. He even opened a correspondence with Massachusetts officials. If they would create an independent army, he was willing to “answer for their sucess.” He forbore to mention that 5,000 Massachusetts men had already deserted his ranks on the Croton River. It was nearly the middle of December before Lee led what was left of his command into New Jersey to join Washington. He was far from his own column on the 13th when a detachment of the 16th Dragoons caught up to him in a little tavern in Basking Ridge and, after a brief scuffle, took him and his staff prisoners. Washington, a self-taught provincial, had hoped for much from the professional Lee. What he got were base betrayal and blind folly. By the time Lee was taken, Washington was already on the south bank of the Delaware River opposite Trenton, having made good his escape from New Brunswick while General Howe was proclaiming peace and pardons. He possessed everything that could float on the Delaware River, keeping the British at bay for a time anyway, but little else. Lee’s column came in at last–without Lee of course–in addition to a detachment of 500 down from Ticonderoga and another thousand-odd militiamen up from Pennsylvania. Of the 20,000 with him in New York in high summer, he now counted barely 6,000, many of them, he reported, “entirely naked and most so thinly clad as to be unfit for service.” For all his outward calm, Washington admitted privately that unless he were reinforced and resupplied and soon, “the game will be pretty well up.”
In this game, Sir William Howe appeared to hold all the trump cards, though he was not yet certain how he wanted to play the hand out. Sir Henry Clinton had already argued for a bold move. He wanted to lead a strong column to the Chesapeake Bay. From the head of the bay he would march for Philadephia while Howe with the rest of the army marched on the American capital from New Jersey. Washington would be caught between two fires, and Clinton was sure the Rebels would lose their army and their capital. (Panicky congressmen thought so too: they fled the capital for Baltimore in mid-December before a single redcoat appeared.) Indeed, it is hard to see how Washington could have parried two strokes, north and south. As it was, the only thing that stood between him and destruction now was the ice-choked Delaware River. If Washington had been privy to Howe’s councils, he might well have been grateful, for Howe refused to approve both this Clinton proposal and another that called for a landing in force on Washington’s flank at Elizabeth or Amboy in New Jersey. The one move Howe was willing to make came at the insistence of his brother the admiral who wanted Newport, Rhode Island, as the winter haven for his fleet in the north. Accordingly, Clinton marched off to Newport with four brigades and, in cooperation with the fleet, took the place without undue difficulty in the first part of December. With that, Sir Henry Clinton, one-third of the original “triumverate of reputation” who sailed on the Cerberus, returned to London to fight the battles of political intrigue.