Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Article by William Abbatt on the Battle of Pelham Published in 1910

In 1901, William Abbatt published a small book about the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776. See Abbatt, William, The Battle of Pell's Point (Or Pelham) October 18, 1776. Being the Story of a Stubborn Fight (New York: Privately Printed, 1901) (entire scanned image of book). The book contained numerous errors in its description of the Battle, misplacing the locations of many of the events that occurred that day.

Nearly nine years later Abbatt published an article on the Battle. In that article he perpetuated many of his earlier mistakes. Below is a little background on the nature of Abbatt's mistakes. After that is a transcription of the 1910 article authored by Abbatt nine years after he released his book on the Battle.

Earlier efforts to place the commencement and progress of the battle by H.B. Dawson (Westchester County, New York, During the Revolution) and William Abbatt (The Battle of Pell's Point) erroneously relied on an inaccurate map published in London by Sauthier in 1777. That map inaccurately showed British and German troops landing by ships at the very end of Pelham Neck (also known as "Pell's Point"). Because contemporary accounts showed that the British marched one and one-half miles from their landing before the battle began, erroneously placing the landing at the lower end of Pelham Neck rather than at the higher end where Shore Road ended at the time meant that scholars who relied on the map measured the marching distance from the wrong place and, therefore, placed the battle at a point far from where it actually occurred.

There was, however, a surprisingly accurate and contemporary manuscript map by Charles Blaskowitz, a British Engineer, entitled "A Survey of Frog's Neck and the Rout [i.e. "Route"] of the British Army to the 24th of October 1776 Under Command of His Excellency The Honorable William Howe General and Commander in Chief of His Majestys Forces &c &c &c" about which Abbatt appears to have been unaware. The Blaskowitz map is incredibly detailed and generally considered to be the best depiction of the location of, and countryside surrounding, the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776. Later scholars of the Battle of Pelham used the Blaskowitz map to establish the true course of the Battle and to correct several of the errors made by Abbatt in his book. For an example, see Hufeland, Otto, Westchester County During the American Revolution 1775 ~ 1783 (Privately Printed 1926) Chapter V "Fighting Begins in the County ~ 1776").

Below is the text of Abbatt's article on the Battle published in 1910. In it he continues to assume the accuracy of the Sauthier map and, thus, perpetuates some of his earlier mistakes.


WM. ABBATT, Editor Magazine of History.


The history of our Revolution (and future historians will probably say the same of the war of the Rebellion) is full, both of incidents and of men whose services were important yet neglected by historians -- sometimes to the magnifying of exemplars of less real value.

Every one is supposed to be familiar with the battles of Saratoga and the surrender at Yorktown, yet how many have heard of the fight at the Crooked Billet, Pennsylvania, or of General John Lacey its hero, or of General Jethro Sumner, of North Carolina?

The former event is not even noticed by Lossing, in his Field Book while the Battle of Pell's Point he dismisses in three lines, in which, as has been justly remarked, he made two serious errors. Other writers treat it no better.

As a matter of fact, it was of the greatest consequence, involving as it did the safety of Washington's Army at a critical juncture, and a loss to the enemy of a greater number than on the first day at Saratoga, or at Monmouth.

To understand the situation, remember that after the defeat on Long Island, the patriot army, after leaving behind the fated garrison of Fort Washington -- too few to fight yet too many to lose -- had retreated as fast as possible toward White Plains. While Howe's troops were comfortably carried by sea, northward to Throgg's Neck in the town of Westchester, there to meet and be stoutly resisted by Prescott of Bunker Hill, in an encounter which the late Mr. Fordham Morris, in Scharf's History of Westchester County has justly termed 'the Lexington of Westchester,' Washington's troops were marching slowly northward. I say slowly because the lack of draught animals obliged them to keep pace [p. 267 / p. 268] with the slow transport of the artillery, the commissary and quartermaster's stores. So few horses had these departments that it was necessary after drawing a cannon or wagon a few miles, to unhitch the team, leave gun or wagon, and return for another, which, in its turn was left for others. As a result the army was strung out along a long route and exposed to the danger of being suddenly and vigorously attacked and beaten in detail. Had any of the really active British officers -- Erskine, Simcoe, Tarleton, or the Tory Oliver DeLancey even, been supreme, instead of the indolent Howe, it had gone hard with our forces during that march of twenty odd miles in the October of one hundred and thirty three years ago.

The rapidly succeeding events of the month were to be signalized by an encounter between the greater part of Howe's force, about seven thousand English and German troops, and a detached brigade of less than a thousand Americans. It began at early dawn within the limits of the town of Pelham, on the morning of October eighteenth, so we are almost celebrating its anniversary -- and after a most obstinate resistance all day, ended at dark with an artillery duel, the American cannon being on a rocky height within the borders of the present Mount Vernon and but a short distance below the point where the electric cars cross the little Hutchinson River at East Union street, less than two miles from our meeting place.

General John Nixon, an old Indian fighter of the 'old French war' had, some time before notified the commander-in-chief that the shore now called Rodman's Neck, but then Pell's Neck or Point, ought to be guarded, as a likely landing place of the enemy.

Colonel Howe's militia regiment had accordingly been stationed there, but at this time seems to have been withdrawn, and the coast above Throgg's Neck was consequently quite undefended. After Howe had spent several days on Throgg's Neck, detained from crossing Westchester Creek by the determined stand made at the present bridge at the foot of Main street, by Prescott as before referred to, he embarked most of his force and passed up the Sound to Pell's Point, where in the small hours of October 18th, [p. 268 / p. 269] they landed (Knyphausen, with part of the Hessians, landed a few days after, on Davenport's Neck, at New Rochelle).

Here they were to be met by an officer who proved his value by ferrying over from Brooklyn the army after its disaster on Long Island. I refer of course, to John Golver, commanding the regiment of Marblehead fishermen and sailors later known as the 'amphibious regiment,' destined that December to play an important part at Trenton, and himself to become one of Washington's best brigadiers.

At just what point he had camped the night before is uncertain but probably some where between the Bronx and Hutchinson's Creek, above St Paul's Church in Eastchester.

His force comprised four small regiments, all Massachusetts men, commanded by himself, Colonels Baldwin, Read and Shepard; in all less than a thousand men, with three cannon. Apparently there were no battery horses and the guns were dragged by hand. Probably for this reason we shall see that they cut no figure that day.

The only authentic story of any extent of the day's fight is a letter from Glover himself four days after, to an unnamed friend in New Hampshire. He says that 'very early in the morning' he saw through his field glass the Sound covered with the boats from the British men of war, landing troops on Pell's Point. Immediately sending a messenger to General Charles Lee, (then ranking next to Washington) who was three miles away (and apparently got no nearer that day) he marched with his whole force to oppose their landing.

Too late to prevent the small boats' landing, he had but reached a point about a quarter mile east of the present Bartow Station on the New Haven railroad, when on the City Island road the scarlet uniforms of the invaders appeared in the distance. Halting the main body, he sent forward one company of Read's regiment -- either that of Captain Peters, Pond or Warren -- to engage them while he should post the rest to the best advantage.

Here crops out the simple, earnest nature of the man, in the [p. 269 / p. 270] passionate declaration born of his feeling overburdened by the responsibility of sole command: 'I would have given a thousand worlds to have had General lee, or some other experienced officer, present, to direct or at least to approve, what I had done.'

But as the sequel shows, Lee could have done no better. Thrown on his own resources Glover, like many another before and since rose to the occasion and came off victorious, though he seems to have been too modest to claim much credit.

Recalling possibly the rail-fence at Bunker Hill, he improved on it by posting his regiments alternately on the right and left of the road at intervals, extending very likely part way up the Split Rock Road. Behind the stone wall they awaited the foe.

While these dispositions were making, the advance company had encountered them, a party of about equal strenght. The huge glacial boulder, ever since called 'Glover's Rock,' on the south side of the City Island road, just west of LeRoy Bay, where the roadway dips to its lowest point, marks the spot where the firing began, at about a hundred and fifty feet distance.

Five rounds were fired, which in flint-lock days required not less than fifteen minutes. Several on either side were killed or wounded and the British pressed forward.

Obeying orders, the captain withdrew his men, retreating on Read's regiment.

The British cheered, and came rapidly on until but thirty yards from the stone wall and Read's three hundred men. Suddenly the wall glistens with a long row of gun barrels, from the five foot small-bore squirrel rifle to the light shot-gun and the heavy 'Tower' musket of fifteen pounds, companion to that of which Lowell sings in 'The Courtin' -'

'Against the chimney crook-necks hung. And
in among 'em rusted
The old 'Queen arm' that Gran'ther Young
Fetched home from Concord busted.'

Three hundred shots ring out and the advancing red coats, [p. 270 / p. 271] smitten as unexpectedly and almost as severely as their descendants by the Boers at Magersfontein, recoil. Like the Americans whom Major André three years later, derided in the Cow Chase, their officers cry:

'Soldiers charge! They hear, they stand --
They turn, and run away!'

But not all -- the narrow road over which now pass daily the many who never heard this story until the D. A. R. a few years ago placed a bronze tablet on the rock to commemorate it, is covered with dead or writhing men in scarlet, some of the same men who have been at Bunker Hill, for the Fourth Foot was at both.

The brief skirmish is over -- for an hour and a half at least. The enemy have retreated to their main body, which is probably still landing from the fleet. But at last the shrill notes of the fife and the roll of drum playing the historic 'British Grenadiers,' herald an advance -- four thousand well-armed, well-drilled Grenadiers, Light Infantry, Infantry of the Line, German Chasseurs, and some dismounted cavalry. Seven cannon, to right and left of them, support them by their fire.

Let us hear once more Colonel Glover's 'plain unvarnished tale.' 'We kept our post under cover of the stone wall till they came within fifty yards of us [when we] rose up and gave them the whole charge of the battalion; they halted , and returned the fire with showers of musketry and cannon-balls.'

Seven rounds are exchange, when the difficult and often -- to inexperienced troops -- disastrous movement of a change of front to the rear, is successfully executed. Read's men retreat, but form again in good order in the rear of Shepard's, which have not yet fired a [shot]. A roar of three cheers from the enemy follows; they doubtless think they have retreated for good.

Dreadfully are they undeceived in another half mile where a stone wall of extra height and thickness shelters the two hundred who make up Shepard's skeleton regiment.

Again the close range of thirty yards, again the musket-lined [p. 271 / p. 272] wall; but this time the Colonel, a veteran of the 'old French war' and the Canada expeditions, and destined, ere the Revolution ends, to have twenty-two battles to his credit, and then to suppress Shays' Rebellion -- ordders 'Fire by file,' (or in succession). Like a pack of huge firecrackers bang the muskets in quick and irregular succession, and at that very short range every shot tells on the compact formation of the British.

They stand firm, and return the fire with a thunderous volley. For nearly an hour the two hundred 'stand off' the four thousand.

Their officers' utmost exertions fail to bring the men up to the fire-fringed wall with a bayonet rush, which must inevitably have cleared it. Several times they retreat, and as often advance. The fallen leaves which dot the road have their counterpart now in many little spots of a dark red, and fallen men lie thick in the dust and on the grassy roadside.

There is one among them whose sword and single belt proclaim him an officer. While his men have fallen back, a daring private of Shepard's leaps the wall and takes hat and canteen from the protrate form, and returns unhurt. The officer is Captain Evelyn, of the Fourth Foot, who sometime before has sent home to England an account of his experience, which, a century later is to see the light in print as 'The Evelyns in America.'

So the day grows apace, a series of intermittent advances on the one hand, sturdy resistance and orderly retreat on the other.

The patriots have now traversed the Split Rock road and the enemy comes on apace. Glover sees that longer resistance will be useless in face of such odds, and orders a retreat, covered by Baldwin's regiment from behind its wall.

The British bring up their artillery, and the higher ground near the head of the present Wolf's Lane gives them an advantageous spot to place it. Rapidly the patriots retreat as far as the old Post Road and turn down it to the bridge (near the old Pell house now occupied by Mr. Rodman). Here they have to ford the Hutchinson, for they took up the planks of the bridge on their advance. Let us hope the tide is out, for they have to flounder [p. 277 / p. 278] through the deep mud to the East Chester (or Mount Vernon) side, dragging their cannon through and placing them on the rocky heights beyond.

Here they open fire, the British replying from their seven guns. It is now late and the short day fades into twilight but until dark they fire away, though as Glover records, 'without doing much damage on either side.' The enemy, fatigued and discouraged by the events of the day, forbear pursuit, and encamp.

'All s quiet on the Potomac' of East Chester. But all along the backward way, burial parties will be busy the next day, and surgeons are now, for nearly a thousand men lie wounded or dead. All of the dead are probably buried at two or three points, where plow and spade may yet turn up their relics. Buttons, buckles, cannonballs, and such have been found, some of which are owned by the Carey family of City Island, Mr. Charles Payer of New Rochelle, the family of the late Rev. C. W. Bolton of Pelham, and an aged chestnut tree, the only thing left there which was a living witness of the battle, is full of bullets. The patriots' loss was small, not over twenty in all, thanks to their stone wall protection.

The results of Glover's all day fight were of the greatest importance, far beyond the loss, heavy though it was, inflicted on the enemy. It secured, first, one day more for Washington's force to reach White Plains, and second, Howe, stunned by the unexpected and heavy loss, encamped for several days after, near New Rochelle. All the while Washington was assembling at White Plains, where he was to fight, October 28th and for the invaluable ten days respite he was entirely indebted to the plain, matter-of-fact, man of Marblehead, who, in the letter I have quoted says: 'However, I did the best I could' -- a phrase which deserves to rank with the historic reply of Colonel Miller at Lundy's Lane, when asked if his regiment, the 21st Infantry, could capture a British battery. 'I'll try, Sire,' and succeeded.

Bunker Hill and Gettysburg, Yorktown and Appomattox, have eclipsed Pell's Point, but to Westchester County people it should be of perpetual interest, as the site of the severe conflict, besides that at White Plains, in the county during our Revolution."

Source: Abbatt, William The Battle of Pell's Point or Pelham, October 18, 1776, in Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association -- The Eleventh Annual Meeting, with Constitution, By-Laws and List of Members, Vol. IX, pp. 267-78 (N.Y. State Historical Association 1910).

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