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.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

An Account of the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776 Contained in The McDonald Papers Published in 1926

In 1926, the Westchester County Historical Society published a two-volume set of "The McDonald Papers". The papers were based on 19th century interviews of American Revolutionary War veterans who fought in and around Westchester County. The first volume includes and account of the Battle of Pelham. That account appears immediately below, followed by a citation to its source.

"Finding it a difficult and uncertain game, to lead his army against the Americans by land, General, now Sir William Howe, determined to make a virtue of necessity, by turning a bad position to the best account. Works were thrown up at several places, along the creek and marsh between Throg's Neck, and the mainland of Westchester, as though he intended to force his way across. These feints were continued for five successive days. During this time, he was concentrating his troops upon Throg's Neck. Three brigades, three battalions of Hessians, and other forces were drawn from Flushing, Staten Island and Harlem, and great quantities of provisions and military stores were brought to the Point. On the sixth day after landing, the preparations of the British general for a movement were complete.

Before the approach of day on the morning of the 18th, Sir William reemberked several corps in flat boats, which passed around Throg's Neck, and landed at Pelham Point, below the mouth of Hutchinson's River. The royal guide, for a while suspected of treason, had found means to reassure the British commander of his fidelity. He accompanied the advance guard upon the present occasion.

Among the first of the King's officers that trod the shores [Page 14 / age 15] of Pelham, was Captain George Harris of the grenadiers, who in after days became General Lord Harris, and was celebrated as the conqueror of Seringapatam. In a letter to his uncle, written about this time, he says: 'On the 18th of October at one o'clock in the morning, the van of the army, consisting of the light infantry and grenadiers, embarked at Frog's Neck for the continent, and landed without opposition.'

Soon after daylight, the Americans who were at the Westchester causeway, found that the main body of the British army at Throg's Neck, was under arms, and seemed to be moving toward the pass at the head of the creek. Heath and Washington were soon upon the spot. The division commanded by the former, got ready for action and took up a position which appeared well suited for opposing the enemy. Presently, however, it was found that the Royal forces were marching to the east side of Throg's Neck, where they embarked on board their flat boats, crossing Eastchester Bay, and landing at Pelham Point, with their artillery and baggage, a few hours subsequently.

Colonel Glover of General Lee's division, with a brigade, which he temporarily commanded, lay at this time at Milesquare to watch the enemy's movements. The brigade consisted of four regiments, commanded by Colonels Read, Shepherd, Baldwin and by Glover himself, and numbered in all, less than eight hundred men. Early in the morning, Colonel Glover ascended an eminence that commanded a view of the Sound, and from which he was in the habit of reconnoitring the hostile forces with a telescope. He discovered at once that the King's fleet in the East River, was under way. In a short time upward of two hundred boats filled with troops, and formed into four grand divisions, embarked from the upper part of Throg's Neck and stood across Eastchester Bay in the direction of Pelham Point. Although a young and inexperienced soldier, Glover saw the urgency of the case and acted promptly. He made his drums beat to arms, and sent an express with intelligence of the movement to General Lee, who was three miles off. He then put himself at the head of his brigade, and with about seven hundred [Page 15 / Page 16] and fifty men, and three field pieces, hastened toward Pelham, to oppose the landing of the enemy.

A detachment of British light infantry, preceded by a small vanguard, was upon Pelham Heights before the American colonel had reached Hutchinson's River. He instantly detached a captain's guard of forty men, with directions to march rapidly and stop the enemy's advance. These orders were executed with celerity and skill, the men running the whole distance. When they approached the enemy, the latter halted. Having by this movement brought the British forces to a stand, Glover left his field pieces behind, upon a hill, crossed the river near Pell's bridge, already dismantled, and ascended the Heights of Pelham. He then made the most advantageous disposition of his followers. Colonel Read's regiment was posted on the left of the road leading to Pelham Point, with Shepherd's and Baldwin's in the rear upon his right. These troops for the most part, were well covered by stone walls. They were supported by Glover's regiment, which was stationed as a body of reserve, under the command of Captain Curtis.

With a modest appreciation of his own ability and a deep sense of the responsibilities about to be encountered, Glover watched in vain for the approach of General Lee or some superior of more experience than himself. The colonel was left to his own resources, and prompt action was requisite. He then rode forward to his advance guard, and led it against the enemy's detachment. When within fifty yards, he received the hostile fire, without the loss of a man, returned it instantly, brought down four of the British and maintained his ground till they had exchanged five rounds. By this time the Americans had two killed and several wounded, while they were much outnumbered by the British, whose two detachments having united, advanced to the charge with bayonets. Glover now ordered a retreat, and his bold captain led the men back without further loss. The enemy pursued with loud huzzas. In great excitement and some disorder, they ran forward to overtake the captain's guard, and in this state approached within thirty yards of the spot where Read's [Page 16 / Page 17] regiment lay undiscovered behind a stonewall. His men then rose up and fired a volley which sent the King's light infantry back to their main army at the Point.

The Americans remained in nearly the same position for about two hours. At the end of this time, a strong force approached, under Brigadier-general Leslie and Sir William Erskine, with seven pieces of artillery. Colonel Read was posted under cover as before. When the King's troops were about forty yards from him, the whole battalion again rose up and fired. The enemy halted, and returned the fire until seven rounds had been exchanged, when Read retreated and formed again, in the rear and on the left of Colonel Shepherd. The Royal forces shouted and pushed on, until they reached the post occupied by the latter, behind a thick double stone wall. Shepherd now ordered his men to rise and discharge their muuskets by grand divisions. By this means he kept up an incessant fire, and maintained his ground for a long while; causing his assailants to retreat several times a short distance off, where they formed again and returned to the combat. 'Once,' says Colonel Glover, 'they retured so far, that a soldier of Colonel Shepherd's leaped over the wall and took a hat and canteen off a captain, that lay dead on the ground they had retreated from.'

The officer thus despoiled, was Captain Evelyn of the light infantry belonging to the Fourth regiment, a gallant youth, not then dead but mortally wounded, who at the head of his company, was foremost of the enemy, when first they attacked Colonel Shepherd.

It was not long before the superior numbers of the enemy enabled them to dislodge Shepherd from his position. After their last repulse, they returned in greater force, brought forward their field pieces and completely outflanked the Americans, who were compelled to retreat and form in the rear of Baldwin's regiment. But they had now retired beyond the old Pell house upon the Heights, where the descending ground gave the enemy an advantage, and Colonel Glover found it necessary to retreat down the hill. He then forded Hutchinson's River and ascended the opposite height where he [Page 17 / Page 18] had left his artillery. The enemy halted upon the commanding eminence they had gained, placed their artillery in battery and commenced a cannonade which was answered, and was maintained by both sides until the approach of night. At dark, Glover received orders to take a new position in advance of the enemy. Here the weary soldiers of his brigade, after a hard day's fight, lay all night long as a picket guard in the open air by the roadside, without food or refreshment. The next morning they were relieved, and marched back to their encampment, where they broke a fast of more than twenty-four hours. Colonel Glover says, he had eight men killed, and thirteen wounded in the action. Some letters from officers of his brigade make the loss greater. From returns made to the British War Office, it would seem, that the King's troops had about eleven men killed, and forty-four wounded, the loss falling principally upon the First battalion of light infantry and on the Seventy-first regiment, the former belonging to Leslie's brigade, and the latter to that under Sir William Erskine.

The only American officer dangerously wounded, was the brave Colonel Shepherd, who received a musket ball in the throat, and underwent a long and painful confinement at Northcastle near Whiteplains, where he was immediately sent, for surgical treatment. Of the British officers, Captain Evelyn of the light infantry, belonging to the Fourth regiment was killed, and Lieutenant-colonel Musgrove and Lieutenant Rutherford were wounded.

General Lee reviewed Glover's brigade the next day, and returned thanks to both officers and soldiers for their adroit and daring conduct throughout the action. General Washington at the same time bestowed high praise upon them in his general orders.

The affair of Pelham Heights was in fact a stand made by Glover's small brigade, against the main body of the British army, and was conducted throughout by the Americans with the greatest skill, coolness and intrepidity. As the story of the skirmish spread abroad, fame exaggerated its importance, and when the news reached the headquarters of the Northern [Page 18 / Page 19] army, General Gates on the 27th, in the general orders of the day, dictated as follows, viz.: 'All the troops off duty to be under arms at one o'clock at their respective alarm posts, when, upon a signal given by the firing a cannon from the northeast angle of the covert way of the old fort, the whole will give three cheers for the glorious success with which it has pleased Providence to bless the arms of the United States on the 18th instant, in defeating the Army of the enemy near Eastchester.'

After this action, the British army marched across the Manor of Pelham, and encamped with the right wing near the village of New Rochelle, while the left extended to Hutchinson's River.

On the next day, the Americans extended their left, in order to keep in advance of the King's forces, and Washington with the main body of his army commenced moving up along the west side of the Bronx. He determined, if the enemy persisted in their attempt upon his rear, to concentrate his troops at once, in a fortified camp at Whiteplains. The retention of Fort Washington having been determined upon in the council of war, it now becamse necessary to occupy it with a strong garrison. General Heath was directed to leave behind one of his regiments for the defense of Fort Independence.

Stores to a large amount, intended for the American army, were at this time deposited in and near the Church in the village of Eastchester. General Lee was anxious to secure them before they fell into the hands of the enemy, and accordingly, sent for Colonel Glover on Sunday the 20th, communicated the fact to him, and requested him to devise some plan for bringing them off. Glover found that the enemy had not yet taken possession of them. He sent out to the neighboring farmhouses, pressed fifteen wagons, and when night came, went to the village with his whole brigade, and carried off two hundred barrels of pork and flour. They had to approach so near the British camp upon the occasion, that Glover's advance parties heard distinctly the conversation of the enemy and the music of their bands. The [Page 19 / Page 20] Royal forces received information, unfortunately, of Glover's exploit, and early the next morning, secured the residue of the stores.

About this time the King's army was joined by a strong force of light dragoons, consisting of the greater part of the Sixteenth regiment under Lieutenant-colonel Harcourt, and the whole of the Seventeenth, under Lieutenant-colonel Burch.

On the 21st, the right and centre of the Royal army moved to a position upon the high grounds, about a mile and a half to the northward of New Rochelle village, where they encamped for four days, on both sides of the road leading to Whiteplains. The British commander-in-chief left Lieutenant-general De Heister to occuy the former encampment for the present with three brigades, two of which were Hessians."

Source: Hadaway, William S., ed., The McDonald Papers Part I, pp. 14-20 (White Plains, NY: Westchester County Historical Society 1926) (Publications of the Westchester County Historical Society Volume IV).

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