The Battle of White Plains

United States - Scott #629 (1926)
United States – Scott #629 (1926)

On October 28, 1776. the Battle of White Plains was fought during the New York and New Jersey campaign of the American Revolutionary War near White Plains, New York. Following the retreat of George Washington’s Continental Army northward from New York City, British General William Howe landed troops in Westchester County, intending to cut off Washington’s escape route. Alerted to this move, Washington retreated farther, establishing a position in the village of White Plains but failed to establish firm control over local high ground. Howe’s troops drove Washington’s troops from a hill near the village; following this loss, Washington ordered the Americans to retreat farther north. Later British movements chased Washington across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. Washington then crossed the Delaware and surprised a brigade of Hessian troops in the December 26 Battle of Trenton.

Map of the New York Campaign of the American Revolutionary War, August to November 1776
Map of the New York Campaign of the American Revolutionary War, August to November 1776
Color mezzotint of General Sir William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe, created by Richard Purcell aka Charles Corbutt in November 1777. From the Anne S.K. Brown Military History Collection at Brown University.
Color mezzotint of General Sir William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe, created by Richard Purcell aka Charles Corbutt in November 1777. From the Anne S.K. Brown Military History Collection at Brown University.

British General William Howe, after evacuating Boston in March 1776, regrouped in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and embarked in June on a campaign to gain control of New York City. The campaign began with an unopposed landing on Staten Island in early July. British troops made another unopposed landing on Long Island on August 22, south of the areas where General George Washington’s Continental Army had organized significant defenses around Brooklyn Heights.

After losing the Battle of Long Island on August 27, General Washington and his army of 9,000 troops escaped on the night of August 29–30 to York Island (as Manhattan was then called). General Howe followed up with a landing on Manhattan on September 15, but his advance was checked the next day at Harlem Heights. After an abortive landing at Throg’s Neck, he landed troops with some resistance at Pell’s Point on October 18 to begin an encircling maneuver that was intended to trap Washington’s army between that force, his troops in Manhattan, and the Hudson River, which was dominated by warships of the Royal Navy. Howe established a camp at New Rochelle, but advance elements of his army were near Mamaroneck, only 7 miles (11 km) from White Plains, where there was a lightly defended Continental Army supply depot.

Oil on canvas painting of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale. White House copy of the original 1776 painting.
Oil on canvas painting of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale. White House copy of the original 1776 painting.

On October 20, General Washington sent Colonel Rufus Putnam out on a reconnaissance mission from his camp at Harlem Heights. Putnam discovered the general placement of the British troop locations and recognized the danger to the army and its supplies. When he reported this to Washington that evening, Washington immediately dispatched Putnam with orders to Lord Stirling, whose troops were furthest north, to immediately march to White Plains. They arrived at White Plains at 9 am on October 21, and were followed by other units of the army as the day progressed. Washington decided to withdraw most of the army to White Plains, leaving a garrison of 1,200 men under Nathanael Greene to defend Fort Washington on Manhattan. General Howe’s army advanced slowly, with troops from his center and right moving along the road from New Rochelle to White Plains, while a unit of Loyalists occupied Mamaroneck. The latter was attacked that night by a detachment of Lord Stirling’s troops under John Haslet, who took more than thirty prisoners as well as supplies, but suffered several killed and 15 wounded. As a result, Howe moved elements of his right wing to occupy Mamaroneck. On October 22, Howe was reinforced by the landing at New Rochelle of an additional 8,000 troops under the command of Wilhelm von Knyphausen.

The Elijah Miller House, which served as George Washington's headquarters in White Plains, New York, in October 1776. Photo taken on November 11, 2009.
The Elijah Miller House, which served as George Washington’s headquarters in White Plains, New York, in October 1776. Photo taken on November 11, 2009.

Washington established his headquarters at the Elijah Miller House in North White Plains on October 23, and chose a defensive position that he fortified with two lines of entrenchments. The trenches were situated on raised terrain, protected on the right by the swampy ground near the Bronx River, with steeper hills further back as a place of retreat. The American defenses were three miles (4.8 km) long. Beyond that, on the right, was Chatterton’s Hill, which commanded the plain over which the British would have to advance. The hill was initially occupied by militia companies numbering several hundred, probably including John Brooks’ Massachusetts militia company.

On October 24 and 25, Howe’s army moved from New Rochelle to Scarsdale, where they established a camp covering the eastern bank of the Bronx River. This move was apparently made in the hopes of catching Charles Lee’s column, which had to alter its route toward White Plains and execute a forced march at night to avoid them. Howe remained at Scarsdale until the morning of October 28, when his forces marched toward White Plains, with British troops on the right under General Henry Clinton, and primarily Hessian troops on the left under General von Heister.

A 1796 map depicting the military positions of the Battle of White Plains, October 1776. From the NYC Public Library Digital Collection: http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?434803
A 1796 map depicting the military positions of the Battle of White Plains, October 1776. From the NYC Public Library Digital Collection.

While Washington was inspecting the terrain to determine where it was best to station his troops, messengers alerted him that the British were advancing. Returning to his headquarters, he ordered the 2nd Connecticut Regiment under Joseph Spencer out to slow the British advance, and sent Haslet and the 1st Delaware Regiment, along with Alexander McDougall’s brigade (Rudolphus Ritzema’s 3rd New York Regiment, Charles Webb’s 19th Continental Regiment, William Smallwood’s 1st Maryland Regiment, and the 1st New York Regiment and 2nd New York Regiments) to reinforce Chatterton Hill.

Spencer’s force advanced to a position on the old York road at Hart’s corners (Hartsdale, New York) and there exchanged fire with the Hessians led by Colonel Johann Rall that were at the head of the British left column. When Clinton’s column threatened their flank, these companies were forced into a retreat across the Bronx River that was initially orderly with pauses to fire from behind stone walls while fire from the troops on Chatterton Hill covered their move, but turned into a rout with the appearance of dragoons. Rall’s troops attempted to gain the hill, but were repelled by fire from Haslet’s troops and the militia,[21] and retreated to a nearby hilltop on the same side of the river. This concerted defense brought the entire British Army, which was maneuvering as if to attack the entire American line, to a stop.

While Howe and his command conferred, the Hessian artillery on the left opened fire on the hilltop position, where they succeeded in driving the militia into a panicked retreat. The arrival of McDougall and his brigade helped to rally them, and a defensive line was established, with the militia on the right and the Continentals arrayed along the top of the hill. Howe finally issued orders, and while most of his army waited, a detachment of British and Hessian troops was sent to take the hill.

The British attack was organized with Hessian regiments leading the assault. Rall was to charge the American right, while a Hessian battalion under Colonel Carl von Donop (consisting of the Linsing, Mingerode, Lengereck, and Kochler grenadiers, and Donop’s own chasseur regiment) was to attack the center. A British column under General Alexander Leslie (consisting of the 5th, 28th, 35th, and 49th Foot) was to attack the right. Donop’s force either had difficulty crossing the river, or was reluctant to do so, and elements of the British force were the first to cross the river. Rall’s charge scattered the militia on the American right, leaving the flank of the Maryland and New York regiments exposed as they poured musket fire onto the British attackers, which temporarily halted the British advance. The exposure of their flank caused them to begin a fighting retreat, which progressively forced the remainder of the American line, which had engaged with the other segments of the British force, to give way and retreat. Haslet’s Delaware regiment, which anchored the American left, provided covering fire while the remaining troops retreated to the north, and were the last to leave the hill. The fighting was intense, and both sides suffered significant casualties before the Continentals made a disciplined retreat.

Map of the Battle of White Plains, New York, October 28, 1776
Map of the Battle of White Plains, New York, October 28, 1776

John Fortescue’s History of the British Army says that Howe’s casualties numbered 214 British and 99 Hessians. However, Rodney Atwood points out that Fortescue’s figure for the Hessians includes the entire Hessian casualties from October 19-28 and that in fact only 53 of these casualties were incurred at the Battle of White Plains. This revised figure would give a total of 267 British and Hessians killed, wounded or missing at White Plains. Henry Dawson, on the other hand, gives Howe’s loss as 47 killed, 182 wounded and 4 missing. The American loss is uncertain. Theodore Savas and J. David Dameron give a range of 150-500 killed, wounded and captured. Samuel Roads numbers the casualties of 47 killed and 70 wounded. Henry Dawson estimates 50 killed, 150 wounded and 17 missing for McDougall’s and Spencer’s commands but has no information on the losses in Haslet’s regiment.

The two generals remained where they were for two days, while Howe reinforced the position on Chatterton Hill, and Washington organized his army for retreat into the hills. With the arrival of additional Hessian and Waldeck troops under Lord Percy on October 30, Howe planned to act against the Americans the following day. However, a heavy rain fell the whole next day, and when Howe was finally prepared to act, he awoke to find that Washington had again eluded his grasp.

Washington withdrew his army into the hills to the north on the night of October 31, establishing a camp near North Castle. Howe chose not to follow, instead attempting without success to draw Washington out. On November 5, he turned his army south to finish evicting Continental Army troops from Manhattan, a task he accomplished with the November 16 Battle of Fort Washington.

Battle of White Plains Park, White Plains, New York
Battle of White Plains Park, White Plains, New York

Washington eventually crossed the Hudson River at Peekskill with most of his army, leaving New England regiments behind to guard supply stores and important river crossings. Later, British movements chased him across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania, and the British established a chain of outposts across New Jersey. Washington, seeing an opportunity for a victory to boost the nation’s morale, crossed the Delaware and surprised Rall’s troops in the December 26 Battle of Trenton.

Each year on or near the anniversary date, the White Plains Historical Society hosts a commemoration of the event at the Jacob Purdy House in White Plains, New York. Two ships in the United States Navy were later named for the Battle of White Plains. CVE-66 was an escort carrier in World War II while AFS-4 was a combat stores ship that was decommissioned in 1995.

USS White Plains (CVE-66) - image courtesy of NavSource
USS White Plains (CVE-66) – image courtesy of NavSource
USS White Plains (AFS-4)
USS White Plains (AFS-4)

According to some historians, the Headless Horseman depicted in Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (the subject of this year’s Halloween article on A Stamp A Day) was inspired by a real-life Hessian soldier who lost his head by cannon fire during this battle. During the height of the American Revolutionary War, Irving wrote that the country surrounding the Westchester County village of Tarry Town “was one of those highly-favored places which abound with chronicle and great men. The British and American line had run near it during the war; it had, therefore, been the scene of marauding, and infested with refugees, cow-boys, and all kinds of border chivalry.”

After the Battle of White Plains, the country south of the Bronx River was abandoned by the Continental Army and occupied by the British. Westchester County was then a 30-mile stretch of scorched and desolated no-man’s land, vulnerable to outlaws, raiders, and vigilantes. The discovery a Jäger’s decapitated corpse found in Sleepy Hollow and later buried by the Van Tassel family in an unmarked grave in the Old Dutch Burying Ground is said to have been one of Irving’s inspirations for his story.

Cannon and monument at Battle of White Plains Historic Site near the White Plains Railroad Station right across Bronx River. This positiion was used by the British to attack the right wing of the Continental Army on the Chatterson Hill. Photo taken by Hidenori Inagaki on July 31, 2005.
Cannon and monument at Battle of White Plains Historic Site near the White Plains Railroad Station right across Bronx River. This positiion was used by the British to attack the right wing of the Continental Army on the Chatterson Hill. Photo taken by Hidenori Inagaki on July 31, 2005.
United States - Scott #629 (1926) - first day cover on pre-stamped Sesquicentennial Exhibition envelope; with New York machine postmark (International Philatelic Exhibition slogan) and hand-stamped Exhibition cancellation.
United States – Scott #629 (1926) – first day cover on pre-stamped Sesquicentennial Exhibition envelope; with New York machine postmark (International Philatelic Exhibition slogan) and hand-stamped Exhibition cancellation.

Scott #629 was red 2-cent stamp that commemorated the Battle of White Plains, issued by the United States Post Office Department on October 18, 1926, with official first day of issue locations at White Plains, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Its design was inspired by E.L. Ward’s painting ‘Alexander Hamilton’s Battery’. The artwork shows a four-man Continental gun crew with cannon and ammunition. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing printed 40,639,485 copies. In addition to the usual sheets of four hundred, cut into panes of one hundred for post office sales, the stamp was also issued in sheets of twenty-five inscribed in the selvage for the International Philatelic Exhibition in New York (Scott #630). These souvenir sheets were actually printed on site at the exhibition on a flat plate press set up for the occasion.

The Chamber of Commerce of White Plains, New York, passed a resolution in the spring of 1926 to petition the United States Post Office Department to issue a stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of White Plains that fall. Two rough sketches were prepared using a painting by George Harker as a vignette. The authorization to issue such a stamp came in early July but the Harker painting was  deemed unsuitable. A third drawing was created by Jennie L. Clark, an art teacher at White Plains High School, using Washington’s headquarters during the battle as a model. Around this time, another artist residing in White Plains — Edmund L. Ward — was contacted and he prepared a rough sketch using the 30-cent stamp from the 1869 pictorial series as a model but replacing the shield on that stamp with an image of Hamilton’s battery. This was accepted by the Post Office Department in early August.

Ward then prepared a painting of the subject, including crossed United States and White Plains flags. The latter was captured by Hessian soldiers from a New York Militia unit in the fall of 1776 and is emblazoned with a Liberty cap and staff as well as the sword of Justice. The Liberty cap was a tight-fitting hat that became a popular symbol for the fight for independence and freedom. It would often be carried on a staff during a parade or rally, and later became a common feature on early American coins. While the actual flag bore the wording LIBERTY OR DEATH, Ward decided not to include “Death” on the stamp and so draped the flags in such a way as to conceal the word.

The final sketch was submitted by Dr. Jason Parker, a philatelist member of the White Plains Chamber of Commerce and the design was prepared by C. A. Huston of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing using some of the recommendations made by Edmund Ward. The engraving was done by L. S. Schofield, J. Eissler, and E. M. Hall, all of the BEP. The White Plains committee had desired to have the stamp issued printed in two colors but this was regarded by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing as too expensive. At the time, bi-colored stamps cost 83 cents per thousand to print while single colored stamps could be made for just .08½ cents per thousand.

The design for the White Plains commemorative was certified on September 30, 1926, and an official announcement was made to postmasters and other USPOD employees:

The new stamp is a horizontal rectangle, seventy-five one-hundredths by eighty-seven one-hundredths inches in size, and will be printed in red ink. The center vignette shows a gun crew in action, consisting of four men dressed in continental uniform, with cannon and ammunition. Over the vignette, in ribbon form, are the words “United States Postage” in Roman letters.  In the upper left corner appears the year “1776” and in the upper right corner the year “1926.”  Below the vignette in the center of the stamp is a circle containing the large numeral “2” with the word “Cents” on both sides, and above the circle are the words “Battle of White Plains.” In the lower left corner is the Continental flag and in the lower right corner the historical “Liberty or Death” flag, first used in the Battle of White Plains, both appearing in oblique position.

The new stamp commemorating the Battle of White Plains will first be placed on sale October 18, 1926, at the post office at White Plains, N.Y., and for the benefit of philatelists, it will also be placed on sale the same date at the branch of the department’s philatelic agency that will be temporarily established for the International Philatelic Exhibition at New York, N.Y. On and after October 28, 1926, the anniversary of the Battle of White Plains, the new stamp will be offered for sale at the philatelic agency in Washington. This stamp will not be offered for sale in Washington on October 18.

United States - 630 (1926) souvenir sheet with
United States – Scott #630 (1926) souvenir sheet with “F” in right margin [NIMC2018] image sourced from active eBay auction.

The International Stamp Exhibition in 1926 was to be held at the Grand Central Palace during October and the Post Office Department was persuaded not only to install a special branch post office but also to set up a flat plate printing press to print stamps. It was decided to make special plates of the White Plains stamp for this purpose. These were made up of four 25-subject miniature panes with wide gutters and horizontal and vertical guide lines between them Across the top of each pane was the inscription INTERNATIONAL PHILATELIC EXHIBITION, OCT. 16th to 23rd, 1926 and across the bottom NEW YORK, N. Y.  U. S. A.  Each of the panes of 25 had four marginal plate numbers, opposite the middle or third stamp on each side. The upper right pane had an “F” in the right margin. There were five plates made, No. 18770-71-72-73 and 74. Plate No. 18772 was used for printing stamps at the show but none of these stamps were sold to the pubic and the printed sheets were returned to Washington, D.C. where they were destroyed. Panes from the other plates, printed at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, were sold in a quantity of 100,000.

The regular issue stamps (Scott #629) were printed from 400-subject flat bed plates with two-way arrow lines, along which the sheets were cut into 100-subject panes. There were two plate numbers on each pane, opposite the fifth stamp from each corner on the marginal sides. The stamps proved to be very popular and a second printing was ordered. The supply at the White Plains post office was exhausted by February 17, 1927, at which time a third printing was requested but denied as a total of 40,639,485 regular-issue stamps and 2,684,950 exhibition version stamps had already been issued.

United States - Scott #629 (1926) first day cover with White Plains cancellation; Roessler cachet featuring one of the rejected designs; Roessler came under scrutiny by the USPOD around this time for such stamp-like cachets.
United States – Scott #629 (1926) first day cover with White Plains cancellation; Roessler cachet featuring one of the rejected designs; Roessler came under scrutiny by the USPOD around this time for such stamp-like cachets.
United States - Scott #629 (1926) first day cover with New York cancellation and beautiful poster stamp created for the 1926 International Philatelic Exhibition.
United States – Scott #629 (1926) first day cover with New York cancellation and beautiful poster stamp created for the 1926 International Philatelic Exhibition.
Battle of White Plains flag, captured from a New York militia unit by Hessians in the fall of 1776
Battle of White Plains flag, captured from a New York militia unit by Hessians in the fall of 1776
Betsy Ross flag of the United States
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