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.

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