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.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Another 18th Century Account of the October 1776 British Campaign that Included the Battle of Pelham

"[T]he inferiority of the provincials was most felt. . ."

"[A] slovenliness [is] generally prevalent in America"

"[T]he colonists . . . were little used to any restraint, very ill brooked"

From a 1776 British News Report of the Revolutionary War Shortly
Before, During, and After the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

The Battle of Pelham during the Revolutionary War was fought 241 years ago yesterday on October 18, 1776.  The following day, 241 years ago today, British and Hessian troops were encamped along both sides of what we know today as Colonial Avenue from the Hutchinson River to the boundary with New Rochelle and beyond.  (Pelham homeowners along that entire route, particularly those engaged in any meaningful excavations, always should keep eyes open for interesting and unusual items that might be encampment-related artifacts.)

The significance of the weeks before, during, and after the Battle of Pelham long have been commemorated by local communities as significant, particularly on notable anniversaries.  In 1926, for example, an amazing commemoration of the Battle of Pelham was staged by Pelham.  As one might expect, an even more magnificent commemoration was held fifty years later in connection with the nation's Bicentennial.  

Even as soon as ten years after the Battle of Pelham, Americans clearly understood the significance of the early days of the war and wanted to commemorate it on special anniversaries.  Thus, in 1786, The Connecticut Courant, and Weekly Intelligencer published a series of reprints of articles published ten years before in the British Annual Register describing the progress of the Revolutionary War.  One of those reprinted articles describes the progress of the war so important to Pelham history:  from the British occupation of Throggs Neck beginning October 12, 1876 through the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776, and continuing to the Battle of White Plains that began at the end of the month.

The description of skirmishes and battles between the British Landing on Throggs Neck on October 12, 1776 and Washington's departure from White Plains after the Battle of White Plains and beyond, as late as December 8, 1776, sheds no new light on the Battle of Pelham.  It is, however, interesting in that it treats the battle that is so important to Pelham history as a non-event.  

With hindsight, it is easy to treat the Battle of Pelham, a skirmish known by nearly a dozen different names including the Battle of Pell's Point, as a grand event that saved George Washington's Army early in the Revolutionary War by slowing British General Howe's effort to cut off George Washington's retreat from Manhattan toward White Plains in October, 1776.  General Washington recognized the significance of the delaying action when he commended Colonel John Glover and the troops he led during the Battle of Pelham.

To the British, however, the skirmish at "Pell's Moor" was deemed so inconsequential at the time that it was hardly mentioned in accounts of the movements of British and Hessian troops through Westchester County early in the Revolutionary War.

The 18th century account is well worth a read and is transcribed below.

British Encampment in 1777, Early During the Revolutionary War.
Such an Encampment Stretched Along Both Sides of Colonial
Avenue (the Old Boston Post Road) in the Manor of Pelham 241
Years Ago Today.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

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"From the BRITISH ANNUAL REGISTER, for 1776.
(Continued from our last.)

THE general perceiving that no attempt could be made on the enemy upon the side of New-York, which would not be attended with great danger, without affording any equal prospect of success, determined at length up a plan of operation, which would either oblige them to quit their present strong situation, or render their perseverance in holding it extremely dangerous.

Oct. 12.

For this purpose, the greater part of the army being embarked in flat boat and other small craft proper for the service, passed successfully thro' the dangerous navigation of Hell Gate, which forms a communication between the East river and the Sound, and landed on Frog's Neck [i.e., Throggs Neck], near the town of West Chester, which lies on that part of the continent belonging to New-York, upon the side of Connecticut.

Earl Percy, with two brigades of British troops, and one of Hessian, continued in the lines near Harlem to cover New-York.  Though this movement was highly judicious in the present exact state of things, if seems as if it would have been extremely dangerous if Gen. Washington had commanded a veteran army on whose performance he could rely, and that the corps under Lord Percy would in that case have been in great danger.  It is, however, to be observed, that the powerful fleet which surrounded that narrow island would have afforded shelter and protection in almost any situation to which they could have been reduced.  This fleet was of infinite service in all the operations of the campaign.  In this the inferiority of the provincials was most felt, being totally destitute of any force of that nature.  

The army was detained for some days at Frog's Neck, waiting for the arrival of the provisions and stores, and of a reinforcement which was drawn from Staten Island.  They then proceeded through Pelham's Manor to New Rochelle, which lies on the coast of the Sound, as the channel is called which separates the continent from Long Island.  At this place they were joined by the greater part of a regiment of light horse from Ireland, one of the transports having been taken in the passage.  They were also joined by the second division of Hessians under General Knyphausen, with a regiment of Waldeckers, both of which had arrived at New-York since the departure of the army from thence.

The first object of this expedition was to cut off the communications between Washington and the eastern colonies; and then, if this measure did not bring him to an engagement, to enclose him on all sides in his fortresses on the north end of [New] York Island.  The King's troops were now masters of the lower road to Connecticut and Boston; but to gain the upper, it was necessary to advance to the high grounds called the White Plains; a rough, stoney, and mountainous tract; which, however, is only part of the ascent, to a country hill higher, rougher, and more difficult.  Upon the departure of the army to the higher country, it was deemed necessary to leave the second division of Hessians, with the Waldeck regiment, at New Rochelle, as well to preserve the communications, as to secure the supplies of provisions and necessaries that were to arrive at that port.  Indeed the army was now so powerful, that it was enabled to support every service.  

General Washington was not inattentive to the danger of his situation.  He saw, that if he continued where he was, he would at length be compelled to commit the whole fortune of the war, and the safety of all the colonies to the hazard of a general engagement, a decision, of which he had every cause to apprehend the event, and in which a defeat would be final, as there could scarcely be a possibility of retreat.  His army likewise, which had been disheartened by their late misfortunes, was then much reduced by sickness, which the severity of the services, indifferent quarters, insufficient cloathing, the want of salt and other necessaries, joined to a slovenliness generally prevalent in America, had rendered general, and very fatal in his camp.

A grand movement was accordingly made, by which the army was formed into a line of small, detached, and entrenched camps, which occupied every height and strong ground from Valentine's Hill, nor far from Kingsbridge, on the right, to the White Plains and the upper road to Connecticut, on the left.  In this position they faced the whole line of march of the King's troops at a moderate distance, the deep river Bronx covering their front, and the North river at some distance in their rear, whilst the open ground to the last afforded a secure passage for their stores and baggage to the upper country.  A garrison was left for the protection of fort Washington, the lines of Harlem and Kingsbridge.

In this situation of the enemy, General Howe thought it necessary to proceed with great circumspection.  The progress was slow, the march of the army close, the encampments compact, and well guarded with artillery, and the most soldier-like caution used in every respect.  This did not restrain the enemy from sending parties over the Bronx to impede their march, which occasioned several skirmishes, in which the royal army were generally successful.  Upon the approach of the army to the White Plains, the enemy quitted their detached camps along the Bronx, and joining their left, took a strong ground of encampment before the British on the former.


Every thing being prepared for bringing the enemy to action, the army marched early in the morning in two columns towards the White Plains, the left commanded by General Heister.  Before noon, all the enemies advanced parties being drove back to their works by the light infantry and Hessian Chasseurs, the army formed, with the right upon the road from Mamoroneck, at about a mile's distance from their center, and the left to the Bronx, at about the same distance from the right flank of their entrenchments.

A body of the enemy possessed an advantageous ground, that was separated from their right flank by the Bronx, and which also by its windings, covered that corps in front from the left of our army.  As this post would have been of great consequence in attacking that flank of the entrenchments, Brigadier General Leslie, with the second brigade of British troops, the Hessian grenadiers under Colonel Donop, and a battalion of that corps, were ordered to dislodge the enemy.  Previous to their attack, Colonel Ralle, who commanded a brigade of Hessians on the left, had passed the Bronx and gained a post, which enabled him to annoy the enemies flank, while they were engaged with the other forces in front.

Though the passage of the river was difficult, it was performed with the greatest spirit, and the 28th and 35th regiments, being the first that passed, formed with the greatest steadiness, under the enemies fire on the opposite side; they then ascended a steep hill, in defiance of all opposition, and rushing on the enemy, soon routed, and drove them from their works.  No less alacrity was shewn by the other troops in supporting these two regiments.  The gaining of this important post took up a considerable time, which was prolonged by the enemy's still supporting a broken and scattered engagement, in defence of the adjoining walls and hedges.  In the evening, the Hessian grenadiers were ordered forward upon the heights within cannon shot of the entrenchments, the 2d brigade of British formed in their rear, and the two Hessian brigades, on the left of the second.  The right and center of the army did not remove from the ground upon which they had formed.  In that position the whole army lay upon their arms during the night, with a full indication, and in the highest expectation, of attacking the enemy's camp next morning.

It was perceived in the morning that the enemy had drawn back their encampment in the night and had greatly strengthened their lines by additional works.  Upon this account the attack was deferred, and it was thought necessary to wait for the arrival of the 4th brigade, and of two battalions of the 6th, which had been left with Lord Percy at New York.  Upon the arrival of these troops, the necessary dispositions were made in the evening, for attacking the enemy early on the last of October; but an extreme wet night and morning prevented this design from being carried into execution.

In the mean time, General Washington had not the smallest intention of venturing an engagement, whilst there was a possibility of its being avoided.  He knew that delay was in some sort victory to him.  That small actions, which could not in the least effect the public safety, would more effectually train his men to service, and inure them to danger, than a general action, which might in one day decide their own, and the fate of America.  It must be acknowledged, that in the course of this campaign, and more particularly in this part of it, he fully performed the part of no mean commander.

The American accounts say, that upon our covering four or five batteries with a powerful artillery, preparatory to an attack, together with the General's knowledge that by turning his camp, the British might become possessed of hills at his back which totally commanded it, he found it necessary to change his position.  He accordingly quitted his camp on the night of 1st of November, and took higher ground towards the North Castle district, having first set fire to the town or village of White Plains, as well as to all the houses and forage near the lines.  The British army on the next day took possession of their entrenchment.

General Howe seeing that the enemy could not be enticed to an engagement, and that the nature of the country did not admit of their being forced to it, determined not to lose time in a fruitless pursuit, and to take this opportunity of driving them out of their strong holds in York Island; an operation which their army could not now possibly prevent.  For this purpose, General Knyphausen crossed the country from New Rochelle, and having taken possession of King's Bridge without opposition, entered York Island, and took his station to the north of Fort Washington, to which the enemy had retired at his approach.

Fort Washington lay on the west side of York Island, not far from King's Bridge, near Jeffery's Hook, and almost facing Fort Lee on the Jersey side, from which it was separated by the North River.  This work, though not contemptible, was not sufficient to resist heavy artillery; and it was by no means a sufficient extent for any other purpose than the strengthening of lines.  But the situation was extremely strong, and the approaches difficult.

Nov. 13.

The army having returned slowly by the North River, encamped on the heights of Fordham, at a moderate distance from King's-Bridge, with that river on its right, and the Brunx on the left.  Every thing being prepared for attacking the Fort, and the commander, Colonel Magaw, refusing a summons to surrender, and declaring he would defend it to the last extremity, a general assault was determined upon, as saving the time that would be lost in regular approaches.  The garrison consisted of near 3000 men, and the strong grounds round the Fort were covered with lines and works.


Four attacks were made at the same time.  The first, on the north side, was conducted by General Knyphausen, at the head of two columns of Hessians and Waldeckers.  The second, on the east, was led on by Brigadier General Matthew, at the head of the 1st and 2d battalions of light infantry, and two battalions of guards, supported by Lord Cornwallis with the 1st and 2d battalions of light infantry, and two battalions of guards supported by Lord Cornwallis with the 1st and 2d battalions of grenadiers, and the 33d regiment.  These forces crossed the East River in flat boats, and as the enemies works there extended the breadth of the island, redoubts and batteries were erected on the opposite shore, as well to cover the landing of the troops, as to annoy those works which were near the water.  The third attack, which was principally intended as a feint to distract the enemy, was conducted by Lt. Colonel Sterling, with the 42d regiment, who passed the East River lower down, between the 2d and 4th attacks.  The last attack was made by Lord Percy, with the corps which he commanded on the south of the island.  All the attacks were supported with a numerous, powerful, and well served artillery.

The Hessians under General Knyphausen had a thick wood to pass, where the enemy were very advantageously posted, and a warm engagement was continued for a considerable time, in which the former were much exposed, and behaved with great firmness and bravery.  In the mean time the light infantry landed, and were exposed both before and after to a very brisk and continual fire from the enemy, who were themselves covered by the rocks and trees among which they were posted.  The former, however, with their usual alertness and activity, extricated themselves by clambering up a very steep and rough mountain, when they soon dispersed the enemy, and made way for the landing of the rest of the troops without opposition.  During these transactions, Lord Percy having carried an advanced work on his side, Colonel Sterling was ordered to attempt a landing, and two battalions of the 2d brigade to support him.  This service was effected by the Colonel with great bravery.  He advanced his boats through a very heavy fire, which they bore with the greatest firmness and perseverance, and forcing his way up a steep height, gained the summit, and took 170 prisoners, notwithstanding a bold and good defence made by the enemy.

In the mean time Colonel Ralle, who led the right column of General Knyphausen's attack, having forced the enemy, after a considerable opposition, from their strong posts in his line, pushed forward to their works, and lodged his column within an hundred yards of the Fort; and being soon after joined by the General with the left column, who had at length overcome the impediments which he met with in the wood, the garrison surrendered prisoners of war.  The loss on either side, was not in any degree proportioned to the warmth, length, and variety of the action.  The quantity of gunpowder found in the Fort was utterly inadequate to the purpose of almost the shortest defence.  How so large a body was left with so poor a provision, is extremely unaccountable.  But the narrative of all these transactions is hitherto very imperfect.

Upon this acquisition, a strong body of forces under the command of Lord Cornwallis was passed over the North River, in order to take Fort Lee, ,and make a further impression in the Jerseys.  


The garrison of 2000 men, had a narrow escape, by abandoning the Fort just before his lordship's arrival, leaving their artillery, stores, tents, and every thing behind.  Our troops afterwards overrun the greater part of both the Jerseys without opposition, the enemy flying every where before them; and at length extended their winter cantonments from New Brunswick to the Delaware.  If they had any means of passing that river upon their first arrival in its neighborhood, there seems little doubt, considering the consternation and dismay which then prevailed among the enemy, that they might easily have become matters of the city of Philadelphia; but the former, very prudently, either destroyed the boats, or removed them out of the way.  

Dec. 8th.

During these successes in the Jerseys, Gen. Clinton, with two brigades of British, and two of Hessian troops, with a squadron of ships of war under the command of Sir Peter Parker, were sent to make an attempt upon Rhode Island.  In this enterprize they succeeded beyond expectation.  The rebels having abandoned the island at their approach, they took possession of it without the loss of a man; at the same time they blocked up Hopkins squadron, which was in the harbour of Providence, on the adjoining continent.  The squadron and troops continued here during the winter, where they had better quarters than any other of the King's forces.  Hitherto the royal army had succeeded in every object since their landing at Staten Island.  The Provincial army, besides the loss by sword, by captivity, and by desertion, began to dwindle to very small numbers, from the nature of their military engagement.  They were only enlisted for a year; and the colonists, who were little used to any restraint, very ill brooked, even so long an absence from their families.  At the expiration of the term, but few were prevailed upon to continue in the service.  Every thing seemed to promise a decisive event in favour of the royal arms, and a submission of some of the principal colonies was hourly expected.  (To be continued)"

Source:  From the BRITISH ANNUAL REGISTER, for 1776, The Connecticut Courant, and Weekly Intelligencer, May 1, 1786, No. 1110, p. 1, cols. 1-3 & p. 2, copal colonies l. 1 (Note:  Paid subscription required to access via these links).

Battle of Pelham Insignia Prepared for the Bicentennial
Celebration of the Battle in October, 1976.

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I have written extensively about the Battle of Pelham fought on October 18, 1776.  See, for example, the following 47 previous articles many of which, like today's, document research regarding the battle:  

Bell, Blake A., The Battle of Pelham:  October 18, 1776, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 41, Oct. 15, 2004, p. 10, col. 1.  

Bell, Blake, History of the Village of Pelham:  Revolutionary War, HistoricPelham.com Archive (visited Dec. 18, 2015).  

Fri., Jul. 22, 2016:  Extract of November 1, 1776 Letter Describing the Battle of Pelham.

Mon., Apr. 25, 2016:  Extract of December 3, 1776 Letter Addressing Battle of Pelham Casualties on October 18, 1776.

Fri., Feb. 19, 2016:  The 600-Year Old "Lord Howe Chestnut" Tree that Once Stood in Pelham.

Fri., Dec. 18, 2015:  Brief Report on the Battle of Pelham Fought October 18, 1776 Prepared Five Days Afterward.

Tue., Sep. 08, 2015:  Pelham Manor Resident Makes Revolutionary War Discovery.

Mon., May 18, 2015:  Cannonball Fired in The Battle of Pelham Found on Plymouth Street in Pelham Manor.

Mon., Apr. 27, 2015:  Obituary of British Officer Who Participated in the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776 as a Young Man.

Mon., Feb. 28, 2005:  Glover's Rock on Orchard Beach Road Does Not Mark the Site of the Battle of Pelham.  

Mon., Apr. 18, 2005:  Restored Battle of Pelham Memorial Plaque Is Unveiled at Glover Field.  

Fri., May 27, 2005:  1776, A New Book By Pulitzer Prize Winner David McCullough, Touches on the Battle of Pelham.  

Thu., Jul. 14, 2005:  Pelham's 1926 Pageant Commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Pelham.  

Wed., Oct. 26, 2005:  Remnants of the Battlefield on Which the Battle of Pelham Was Fought on October 18, 1776.  

Fri., May 19, 2006:  Possible Remains of a Soldier Killed in the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776 Found in 1921.  

Fri., Aug. 11, 2006:  Article by William Abbatt on the Battle of Pelham Published in 1910.  

Thu., Sep. 21, 2006:  A Paper Addressing the Battle of Pelham, Among Other Things, Presented in 1903.  

Mon., Oct. 30, 2006:  Brief Biographical Data About Sir Thomas Musgrave, British Lieutenant Colonel Wounded at the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

Wed., Nov. 1, 2006:  Two British Military Unit Histories that Note Participation in the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

Tue., Jan. 16, 2007:  Brief Biography of British Officer Who Served During the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

Fri., Feb. 09, 2007:  Extract of October 23, 1776 Letter Describing British Troops in Eastchester After the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.  

Mon., Feb. 12, 2007:  Saint Paul's Church National Historic Site Opens New Exhibition:  "Overlooked Hero:  John Glover and the American Revolution."  

Thu., Jan. 18, 2007:  Three More British Military Unit Histories that Note Participation in the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

Mon., Jul. 16, 2007:  Mention of the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776 in Revolutionary War Diary of David How.  

Tue., Jul. 17, 2007:  Mention of the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776 in Writings of Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Aide-de-Camp to British General Clinton.  

Wed., Jul. 18, 2007:  Another British Military Unit History that Notes Participation in the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.  

Tue., Aug. 7, 2007:  An Account of the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776 Contained in the McDonald Papers Published in 1926.  

Wed., Aug. 8, 2007:  A Description of an Eyewitness Account of the Interior of St. Paul's Church in Eastchester During the Revolutionary War.  

Thu., Sep. 6, 2007:  Information About St. Paul's Church, the Battle of Pelham and Other Revolutionary War Events Near Pelham Contained in an Account Published in 1940.  

Mon., Oct. 8, 2007:  American Troops Who Guarded Pelham's Shores in October 1776.  

Fri., Oct. 12, 2007:  Images of The Lord Howe Chestnut that Once Stood in the Manor of Pelham.  

Fri., Oct. 27, 2006:  Orders Issued by British Major General The Honourable William Howe While Encamped in Pelham After the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

Thu., Jan. 22, 2009:  Another Brief Biography of Sir Thomas Musgrave, a British Officer Wounded at the Battle of Pelham on October 18 1776.  

Wed., Feb. 17, 2010:  British Report on Killed, Wounded and Missing Soldiers During the Period the Battle of Pelham Was Fought on October 18, 1776.  

Fri., Apr. 23, 2010:  Charles Blaskowitz, Surveyor Who Created Important Map Reflecting the Battle of Pelham.  

Thu., Feb. 06, 2014:  A Description of the Revolutionary War Battle of Pelham Published in 1926 for the Sesquicentennial Celebration.

Mon., May 19, 2014:  Biography of British Officer Who Fought in the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

Wed., Jun. 04, 2014:  An Account of the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776 Presented and Published in 1894.  

Fri., Jun. 27, 2014:  Newly-Published Account Concludes Colonel William Shepard Was Wounded During the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

Mon., Jun. 30, 2014:  A British Lieutenant in the Twelfth Foot Who Fought at the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

Fri., Sep. 19, 2014:  Abel Deveau, An American Skirmisher on Rodman's Neck as British and Germans Landed Before the Battle of Pelham.

Wed., Sep. 17, 2014:  References to the Battle of Pelham in 18th Century Diary of Ezra Stiles, President of Yale College.

Fri., Oct. 17, 2014:  First-Hand Diary Account of Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

Mon., Oct. 20, 2014:  American Diary Account of Events Before, During, and After the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

Tue., Oct. 21, 2014:  November 1, 1776 Letter Describing the Battle of Pelham and Events Before and After the Battle.

Fri., Oct. 24, 2014:  October 21, 1776 Report to the New-York Convention Regarding the Battle of Pelham.

Wed., Feb. 18, 2015:  Young American Hero James Swinnerton, Badly Wounded in the Battle of Pelham.

Wed., Feb. 25, 2015:  Where Were the Stone Walls Used by American Troops During the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776?

Thu., Mar. 24, 2016:  An Account of the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776 Published in The McDonald Papers

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