Robert Tomes.

Battles of America by sea and land. With biographies of naval and military commanders (Volume 01) online

. (page 46 of 126)
Online LibraryRobert TomesBattles of America by sea and land. With biographies of naval and military commanders (Volume 01) → online text (page 46 of 126)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

in the most jovial humor, as the morn
ing s work so far had been a great suc
cess ; and he was particularly pleasant
when bantering Mrs. Murray, who was a
devoted patriot, upon the conduct of her
American friends.

Hour after hour was passed delight
fully. While Mrs. Murray was thus suc
cessful in entertaining her British guests,
she was saving her American friends; for
while Tryon was joking the hostess, and
Clinton and his officers were drinking her
wine, their troops were resting on their
arms, and giving Putnam and his men
\vho were only a mile from them an
opportunity of escape. It was ever after
the remark in the patriot camp that "Mrs.
Murray saved the American army."

The British now took possession of the
city with a large detachment of troops
under General Kobertson; while the main
body of the army, under General Howe f




encamped on the outskirts of the town.
The line which bounded the British camp
at the north extended from Horen s Hook
on the East river, across the island to
Bloomingdale on the Hudson, and was at
once protected by breastworks and bat
teries. Behind were posted a strong body
of Hessians, under De Heister, and anoth
er of British, under Earl Percy ; while
each flank, on the right and the left of
this large body of troops, was protected by
the English men-of-war, at anchor in both
rivers which bound the island. Harlem
plains spread for more than a mile in
width between the British and the en
campment of Washington s army. The
former numbered nearly twenty-five thou
sand, while the latter had not more than
fourteen thousand fit for duty, so reduced
were the American troops by sickness
and desertion.

The front line of the Americans em
braced the heights of Harlem, which ex
tend from the river of that name to the
Hudson. About a quarter of a mile be
yond, to the north, was another line ; and
about the same distance still beyond was
Washington s headquarters at the Morris
mansion. Again, at the distance of a
mile farther to the north, stood Fort
Washington, on the North river, held by
a strong garrison of Americans. King s
bridge, which crossed the Harlem river
at the most northern part of the island,
some eight miles from the city, and was
the only communication with the main
land, was also defended by a detachment
of Washington s troops.

The Americans, however, had posted
two advanced guards of considerable force

Sept, 16.

between their front and that of the Brit
ish one at M Gowan s pass, and the oth
er at Harlem. The former was command
ed by Putnam and the latter by Spencer.

The enemy were not long in making a
demonstration. Washington was expect
ing an attack, and wrote these
words : " We are now encamped
with the main body of the army on the
heights of Harlem, where I should hope
the enemy would meet with a defeat in
case of an attack, if the generality of our
troops could behave with tolerable brave
ry. But experience, to my extreme af
fliction, has convinced me that this is
rather to be wished for than expected.
However, I trust that there are many
who will act like men, and show them
selves worthy of the blessings of free
dom." The letter which contained this
sentence had just been despatched by the
post, when word was brought that the
enemy had appeared in several large bod
ies upon the plains of Harlem. Washing
ton immediately galloped from his head
quarters to the advanced posts, a distance
of about two and a half miles, and dis
covered that a small company of Con
necticut rangers, under the brave Colonel
Knowlton, were already engaged with an
advanced party of the enemy, who were
reported to be only three hundred strong.

Washington now ordered Major Leitch,
with three companies of Weedon s Vir
ginia regiment, to advance to the aid of
Knowlton ; and directed that they should
try to get in the rear of the enemy, while
they made a feint of attacking them in
front. The last part of the order was
faithfully obeyed ; and the British, seeing



[PART n.

the Americans in considerable force com
ing directly upon them as they supposed,
ran down the hill and took possession of
some fences and bushes, under the cover
of which they stood and began a smart
fire, but with little execution, as they were
at such a distance. The Americans now
made a circuit as they advanced, but com
menced their attack too soon, and thus
made it rather in flank than in rear. A
severe engagememt ensued, and Major
Leitch fell almost immediately, severely
wounded with three balls in his side, and
was carried off the field. He was soon
followed by Colonel Knowlton, who had
been shot through the head.

The men,however, persevered,and con
tinued the engagement with the greatest
resolution. Washington,find ing that they
wanted a support, advanced some of the
Maryland and New-England troops at
hand to their aid. These charged the
enemy with great intrepidity, and drove
them from the wood where they had
sought a cover, into the plain ; and had
succeeded in nearly silencing their fire,
when Washington, expecting that large
reinforcements would be sent to the aid
of the British, withdrew his troops.

Colonel Knowlton died of his wounds
soon after the engagement ; and, " when
gasping in the agonies of death, all his

Sept, 17.

inquiry was whether we had driven in
the enemy." He was "a brave and a
good officer," said Washington in one of
his letters ; and in the order of the day
he did not forget to do public honor to
his gallantry, as well as to that of Major
Leitch and all their brave soldiers : " The
general most heartily thanks the
troops commanded yesterday by
Major Leitch who first advanced upon
the enemy, and the others who so reso
lutely supported them. The behavior of
yesterday was such a contrast to that of
some troops the day before, as must show
what may be done where officers and sol
diers exert themselves. Once more, there
fore, the general calls upon officers and
men to act up to the noble cause in which
they are engaged, and to support the hon
or and liberties of their country. The
gallant and brave Colonel Knowlton, who
would have been an honor to any coun
try, having fallen yesterday while glori
ously fighting, Captain Brown is to take
the command of the party lately led by
Colonel Knowlton."

The name of Leitch was given as the
parole for the next day ;* but the hero
who bore it only lived for a short time
to enjoy the good fame he had acquired
by his gallant conduct.

* Irviug.





New York on Fire. Who were the Incendiaries? The British Accounts. The Ravage. "Our General." His own
Account of the Enterprise against Montressor s Island. A Failure. Reorganization of the American Army. Wash
ington urges the Enactment of more Rigorous Laws. Congress slowly consents. Inactivity of General Howe. The
Abounding Tories. Oliver Delancey. His Life and Character. His Influence. Plans to counteract it. Major
Rogers and his Rangers. His Career. His Cunning. The Americans eager to catch Him.


IN the middle of the night of the
20th of September, the guards on
the advanced pickets of the American
line beheld a great light in the direction
of the city, apparently rising at a distance
of nine miles. Soon it became so intense
and wide spread, that " for a considerable
extent the heavens appeared in flames."*
It was thought that New York was on
fire. This supposition was confirmed on
the arrival in camp next day of one of
the aid-de-camps of General Howe, with
a flag, and a letter to Washington in re
gard to the exchange which was about
being arranged for General Sullivan, Lord
Stirling, and Daniel Morgan, then held
as prisoners by the British. The aid-de
camp spoke of the great extent of the
conflagration in the city, and stated that
several Americans had been punished
with death as incendiaries, some by hang
ing, and others by burning on the spot,
who were caught in the act.

A number of incendiaries, according to
the British accounts, had stayed behind,
on the evacuation of New York by Wash
ington, and concealed themselves in the
houses. Combustibles had been careful
ly prepared ; and, taking advantage of a

* Gray don.

brisk gale of wind, these desperadoes be
gan their work about midnight, when
most of the citizens and troops were bu
ried in sleep. But when the spreading
flames gave the alarm, the soldiers were
beat to quarters, detachments of sailors
from the fleet were landed, and, after a
hard struggle, the fire was stayed, though
not before it had reduced nearly a third
part of the fair city to ruins. It was
then that some of the incendiaries were
"caught in the act," and were either de
spatched by the sword or bayonet, or
thrown into the flames which " they had
kindled" by the " infuriated soldiery." In
furiated soldiers are not apt to be very
calm investigators of a charge of crime,
when the suspected persons chance to be
long to the enemy. Fortunately, there
were other less partial observers, whose
testimony is much more satisfactory and
convincing. They all agree in attribu
ting the conflagration to accident.

C5 O

The fire was discovered about midnight,
first breaking out at the lower end of the
city, near the wharf of Whitehall, in a
small wooden building, a miserable pot
house and brothel, resorted to by sailors.
Most of the houses were either of wood
or of brick covered with shingles; the




weather had been dry for a long time,
and on the night of the fire a brisk south
wind was blowing. Few citizens had been
left in town ; and the fire-engines, pumps,
and leathern buckets, were either out of
order from neglect, or not readily to be
got at or worked from the absence of those
who knew where to find or how to use
them. The flames spread rapidly, licking
up house after house along the narrow
streets, and, stirred by the blast of the
strong southerly wind, went on ravaging
in every direction. Whitehall and Broad
streets were soon in ruins, and then Bea
ver; finally Broadway was swept from
left to right ; the old church of Trinity,*
erected at the beginning of the century,
caught, and was left in a short time a gut
ted ruin from the pinnacle of its tall spire
to the lowest step of its porch ; the fire
raged on, and the "new" church of St.
Paul was in peril. Now, however, the
sailors from Lord Howe s fleet and the
soldiers from the camp, turning out at
beat of drum from their night-quarters,
came to the rescue. The fire at length
was stayed, but not before nearly five
hundred houses were laid in ashes. Wash
ington, in speaking of the fire, says, " By
what means it happened we do not know."
Even if it were the act of American in
cendiaries, it is clear that it was without
authority, for it had been resolved by the
council of war to leave the city unin

The American army had been much

* "Among the buildings consumed," says an English au-
;hority, "was the old English church. When the Ameri
cans stationed at Paulas Hook [now Jersey City] saw the
Ueeple fall, they gave three cheers, probably rejoicing in a
double sense, and more as Presbyterians than as patriots."

Sept, 22

encouraged by the spirited conduct and
partial success of their comrades under
the gallant leadership of Knowlton and
Leitch. The soldiers found it required
only " resolution and good officers to
make an enemy they stood too much in
dread of" give way.

Thus inspirited, the Americans began
to be eager for an opportunity to distin
guish themselves. General Heath, who
boasted himself quite a tactician, found
an occasion for the vent of some of the
abounding martial spirit of his troops.
We shall let " our general," as he calls
himself, describe the occurrence : " Two
seamen, belonging to the La Brune, a
British ship-of-war, which lay near Mon-
tressor s [Randall s] island, deserted and
came to our general s [Heath s]
quarters, and informed him up
on examination that the British had then
but a few men on the island, stating the
number ; that the piece of cannon, which
had been put on the island, was taken
back again on board the La Brune ; that
there were a number of officers at the
house, in which there was a considerable
quantity of baggage deposited, &c.

" Our general [Heath] supposed that
these troops might be easily taken ; and
having called the general officers of his
division together, took their opinion, who
all coincided with him in sentiment. He
then communicated his intention to the
commander-in-chief, who gave it his ap
probation. Two hundred and forty men
were destined for this enterprise. The
command was given to Lieutenant-Colo
nel Michael Jackson, of the Massachu
setts line, with Majors Logan and -




(whose name can not be recollected ),*
of the New- York troops. They were
to embark on board three flat-boats, cov
ered by a fourth with a detachment of
artillery, with a light three-pounder, in
case it should be found necessary in re
treating from the island. The mode of
attack was settled, and every circum
stance seemed to promise success. They
were to fall down Harlem creek with the
ebb. The time was so calculated, that the
young flood was to be so much made at
the break of day as to cover the flats at
the island sufficiently for the boats to float.
" Matters being thus settled, our gen
eral ordered the two sailors to be brought
in. He then told them that, in conse
quence of their information, an enterprise
against the British troops on Montressor s
island was to take place that night ; that
he had ordered them to be kept in safe
custody until the next morning, when, if
their declarations respecting the state of
the British on the island proved to be
true, he would give them a passport to
the back country, whither they wished
to iro : but. in case their information was


false, he would order them hanged imme
diately as spies ; that he gave them the
opportunity, if they had made a wrong
statement to him, then to correct it.
They both answered, with perfect com
posure, that they would cheerfully sub
mit to the condition.

" Major Thomas Henley was now one
of our general s aids-de-camp. He impor
tuned that he might go with the detach
ment. He was refused, and told that he
had no business there ; that he could ex-

* Such is fame !

ercise no command. He grew quite im
patient, returned again to the general s
room, and addressed him : Pray, sir, con
sent to my going with the party ; let me
have the pleasure of introducing the pris
oners to you to-morrow. All his friends
present advised him not to go. The gen
eral finally consented.

" The troops, at the hour assigned, em
barked. Our general informed them that
he, with others, would be spectators of
the scene, from a certain point near Har
lem creek. Notice had been given to the
guards and pickets on the York-island side,
not to hail the party as they went down.
Unfortunately, the lower sentinel had not
been so instructed.* He was nearly oppo
site to the point where our general was
to be ; and just at the instant when he
arrived, had challenged the boats, and or
dered them to come to the shore. From
the boats they answered, Lo ! we are
friends. The challenge was repeated.
The answer was, We tell you we are
friends hold your tongue ! A bounce
into the water was heard ; and instantly
Major Henley came wading to the shore.,
stepped up to our general, catched him
by the hand, and said, Sir, will it do ?
Our general, holding him by the hand,
replied, I see nothing to the contrary ;
to which Henley concluded by saying,
Then it shall do? He waded back to his
boat, and got in. The sentinel called
again: If you don t come to the shore,
I tell you I ll fire ! A voice from some
one in the boats was, Pull away ?

* It is well for history, that an occasional simple-minded
and truthful chronicler like Heath presents himself, who not
onlv tells us what he did, but what he ought to have done.



[PART n.

" The boats went on, and the sentinel
fired his piece. The boats reached the
island almost at the moment intended,
just as the glimmer of the dawn was dis
coverable. The three field-officers were
in the first boat. Their intention, on the
moment of landing, was, for the two sec
onds in command to spring, the one to
the right and the other to the left, and
lead on the troops from the other two
boats, which were to land on each side
of the first boat. The field-officers land
ed, and the men from the boat. The en
emy s guard charged them, but were in
stantly driven back. The men in the
other two boats, instead of landing, lay
upon their oars ! The British, seeing this,
returned warmly to the charge. The
Americans, finding themselves thus de
serted, returned to their boat ; but not un
til Lieutenant-Colonel Jackson received
a musket-ball in his leg, and Major Hen
ley, as he was getting into the boat, one
through his heart, which put an instant
end to his life. The boat joined the oth
ers, and they all returned, having in the
whole about fourteen killed, wounded,
and missing ; Major Henley deeply re

Washington was fully convinced, not
withstanding an occasional spirt of spirit,
that an entire reorganization of the army
was necessary, in order to give it that effi
ciency required to sustain a struggle with
disciplined troops. The term of service
of almost every man was to close in about
three mouths, and Washington believed
that it would be impossible to induce them
to re-enlist without higher pay. " We

* Heath s Memoirs, pp. 63-66.

are now," he writes to Congress,

Sept, 24,

" as it were upon the eve of an
other dissolution of our army. The re
membrance of the difficulties which hap
pened upon the occasion last year, and
the consequences which might have fol
lowed the change if proper advantages
had been taken by the enemy, added to
a knowledge of the present temper and
situation of the troops, afford but a very
gloomy prospect in the appearance of
things now, and satisfy me, beyond the
possibility of doubt, that unless some
speedy and effectual measures are adopt
ed by Congress, our cause will be lost."

It was useless, thought Washington, to
rely upon patriotism for the recruiting of
an army. When men are irritated, and
their passions are inflamed, they hastily
and cheerfully fly to arms ; but when the
first ebullition of feeling has subsided, to
" expect among such people as compose
the bulk of an army, that they are influ
enced by any other principles than those
of interest, is to look for what never did
and I fear never will happen."

The army should be established upon
a permanent footing, and the officers be
well paid, in order to induce gentlemen
and men of character to engage iu the
service. "They ought to have such al
lowances," continues Washington, "as will
enable them to live like and support the
character of gentlemen, and not be driven
by a scanty pittance to the low and dirty
arts which many of them .practise." He
also contends that nothing but a good
bounty (as, for example, a hundred acres
of land, with a suit of clothes, &c., to each
man) can secure permanent soldiers.




The officers, too, should stand by char
acter and social position in such a rela
tion toward the privates as to secure their
respect and obedience. " But while," em
phatically writes Washington, " the only
merit an officer possesses is his ability to
raise men while those men consider and
treat him as an equal, and, in the charac
ter of an officer, regard him no more than
a broomstick, being mixed together as
one common herd no order nor disci
pline can prevail."

As for placing any dependence upon
militia, it is " assuredly resting upon a
broken staff Men just dragged from the
tender scenes of domestic life, unaccus
tomed to the din of arms, totally unac
quainted with every kind of military
skill, are timid, and ready to fly from
their own shadows."

Some more severe laws for the govern
ment of the army are necessary, or else
" but for the name," says Washington, " it
might as well be abandoned The infa
mous practice of plundering" began to pre
vail to the most alarming extent. "Un
der the idea of tory property, or property
that may fall into the hands of the ene
my, no man is secure in his effects, and
scarcely in his person." The lawless sol
diers would frighten quiet citizens out of
their houses, under pretence that it had
been ordered to burn them, and then en
ter and seize the goods ! Washington
strove to stop these horrid practices, but
with " the lust after pi under, and the want
of laws to punish offenders," he might, he
declares, " almost as well attempt to move
Mount Atlas." To illustrate the difficulty
of checking these crimes, he sends to Con

gress the proceedings of a court-martiaJ
which had acquitted an officer who with
a party of men had robbed a house, a lit
tle beyond the American lines, of a quan
tity of valuable property. This consist
ed, among other things, of four large pier
looking-glasses, some women s clothes,
and a variety of articles which could be
of no possible use to officer or soldier,
certainly, in their military capacity. A
major of brigade, meeting the rogues,
loaded down with -their booty, ordered
the officer at the head of the party to re
turn the property ; whereupon that mili
tary vagabond drew up his men for a
fight, and swore that he would defend his
possession of pier-glasses, women s petti
coats, and all, at the hazard of his life !
Though this fellow escaped on his first
trial, Washington, by ordering a recon
sideration of the matter, and obtaining
fresh evidence, made a shift finally to
cashier him.

These views of the command er-in-chief,
when laid before Congress, made a strong
impression. So great, however, was the
dread of a standing army, that it was only
after a long debate, during more than a
fortnight, that the resolution was passed
to reform the army into eighty-eight bat
talions, " to be enlisted as soon as possi
ble, and to serve during the war." Wash
ington s suggestions, too, in regard to the
appointment of officers, their pay, and that
of the soldiers, were, for the most part,

* To encourage enlistments, a bounty of twenty dollars
and of one hundred acres of land was offered to each non
commissioned officer and soldier. The commissioned offi
cers were also to receive bounties of land in the following
proportions : a colonel, five hundred acres ; lieutenant-cold



[PART n.

Washington, thoroughly conscious of
his weakness from the disorganized con
dition of his army, which must be known
to the enemy, was surprised at the inac
tivity of Howe. That general, however,
remained within his lines, without making
a movement for nearly three weeks. The
American commander, in the meantime,
was strengthening his position by means
of redoubts, breastworks, and abattis, and
presented a front which the British evi
dently deemed formidable ; for General
Howe (now Sir William, as he had been
created a knight for his Long-island vic
tory) wrote to the ministry in England :
" The enemy is too strongly posted to be
attacked in front, and immeasurable diffi
culties are in our way of turning him on
either side, though his army is much dis
pirited from the late success of his majes
ty s arms; yet have I not the smallest
prospect of finishing the combat this cam
paign, nor until the rebels see prepara
tions in the spring that may preclude all
thoughts of further resistance. To this
end I would propose eight or ten line-of-
battle ships to be with us in February,
with a number of supernumerary seamen
for manning boats, having fully experi
enced the want of them in every move
ment we have made. We must also have

nel, four hundred and fifty ; major, four hundred ; captain,
three hundred; lieutenant, two hundred; ensign, one hun
dred and fifty. A certain number of the eighty-eight battal
ions voted by Congress was assigned to each state, as its
quota. The states were to appoint all officers as high as
colonels, and to fill up vacancies ; and also to provide arms
and clothing for their respective quotas the expense of
clothing to be deducted, as usual, from the soldiers pay.
All officers were to be commissioned by Congress. Articles
of war were also passed, better suited to the requirements of

Online LibraryRobert TomesBattles of America by sea and land. With biographies of naval and military commanders (Volume 01) → online text (page 46 of 126)