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Thursday, October 25, 2012

White Plains and the Hessians

This month, on October 28, we mark the anniversary of the Battle of White Plains in 1776.

After Harlem Heights, the Americans continued to occupy northern Manhattan, and the British the balance of the island. By mid-October, Washington learned that the British were again on the move, planning to land in what is now Westchester County and surround him. On October 16, 1776 Washington ordered retreat from New York and established a position in the hills of White Plains.

This is the top of Chatterton Hill.  Through the trees we can see across the Bronx River to downtown White Plains.  This was the focus of the principal fight at White Plains, reflecting the British and Hessian attack was on Chatterton Hill.  Hundreds of men died in assaulting this hill.  The Americans abandoned it.  They ultimately made their way out of New York and retreated across New Jersey, to be chased by Cornwallis.  Howe turned back to New York.

I want to focus on the two Hessian commanders, Colonels Johann Rall and Karl von Donop.  They are linked indelibly not just to the Hessians and British in this war, but to New Jersey in particular.  Both were killed in action in New Jersey.  One of the persistent mythologies of the Revolution is that the Hessians were unintelligent, brutal mercenaries; Rall in particular has come down as a kind of drunken buffoon who lost Trenton.  The attack at White Plains was carried out by him with professional dispatch, under challenging circumstances.  Similarly, von Donop has been portrayed as a kind of martinet.  What becomes evident from extensive readings of the contemporary accounts was that, despite their failings and limitations, both von Donop and Rall were respectable commanders, trained soldiers and certainly not lacking in courage.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Saratoga and "Best Measures"

In the last post I commented on the relatively genteel manner in which the commanding officers at Saratoga dined and toasted each other, while many had died or been wounded on the battlefield at Saratoga.  The first  action occurred here, at Freeman's Farm, on September 19, 1777.  It was a scene of frenzied actions, of back and forth across the battlefield, exemplified by Benedict Arnold's wild courage.

But it was also marked by a quieter kind of courage and duty, shown by Hessian commander Baron von Riedesel.  Riedesel's memoirs, apparently describing the action in the third person, note that "About 1 o'clock, a brisk cannonade and fire of musketry was heard, and general Riedesel presumed that general Burgoyne's column was then engaged with the enemy.  The fire again commenced towards 3 o'clock, and became much hotter.  General Riedesel finding himself without any intelligence from general Burgoyne, despatched captain Willoe to him.  This officer returned in about three quarters of an hour, and brought orders to general Riedesel to take the best measures to preserve the artillery, baggage and batteaux, and to repair immediately afterwards to general Burgoyne's relief, with as many troops as he should be able to take along, and to attempt an attack on the right flank of the enemy."

I like this excerpt; written by Riedesel in the third person, it provides an aura of detachment and objectivity.  I particularly like the part about Riedesel not knowing what is going on, and spending forty-five minutes until orders return from Willoe, telling him to take "best measures." One imagines Willoe tearing back and forth along this battlefield, finding Burgoyne, expressing Riedesel's concerns, getting instructions, and racing back.  No cell phones, no radios, no "walkie talkies"--communication the old fashioned way.  And reliance on the human being in the field, in life and death circumstances, to take "best measures."

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Saratoga and the Rhetoric of War

October 7, 1777 saw the battle at Bemis Heights, the second of the two battles at Saratoga, and the retreat of Burgoyne to what is now known as "Victory Woods." A monument commemorates the battle:

On October 16, 1777, following days of negotiation, Burgoyne surrendered to Gates and they dined together at General Schuyler's house.  The entry in Burgoyne's orderly book for that day tells us:

"Gen. Burgoyne and the rest of the Staff Officers were escorted on Horseback.  They all dined at General Schuyler's.  At Table General Gates drank the King of Great Britain's Health.  Gen. Burgoyne in return thanked him, and in the next Glass drank the Continental Congress.  Gen. Burgoyne observed to Gen. Gates, he admired the Number, Dress and Discipline of his Army; but above all, the Decorum and Regularity that was observed; said, Your Funds of Men are inexhaustible, like the Hydra's Head, when cut off, seven more sprang up in its stead."

Today we live in a world where innocents starve to death, are drafted as children soldiers, and are raped and trafficked into prostitution, and still the dinners and the rhetoric flow.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


This month marks the anniversary of the Battle of Germantown, fought on October 4, 1777.

Last year I caught the reenactment; here we see the British at the Chew House.  On September 26, 1777 the British entered the American capital of Philadelphia.  Washington, anxious to engage Howe, ordered a four-pronged attack.  Theoretically sound on paper, the plan might well have succeeded for for a series of mishaps and misjudgments--the literal fog of war causing American units to fire on each other, an obsession with dislodging a small number of British units ensconced in the Chew House, and the drunken command of one of Washington's generals.  The attack on October 4, 1777 centered around Market Square and the Chew House.

This month also marks a year since I started this blog, with the intent of highlighting the places of the Revolution as they appear today.