J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Marching Over Twenty Miles through the Snow

On Friday, 2 Feb 1780, the British army holding New York City set out to attack a Continental outpost that had become troublesome.

Charles Stedman described the situation this way in 1794:
The enemy having established a post at [Joseph] Young’s House, in the neighbourhood of the White Plains, which greatly annoyed the provincial loyalists, as well as the British army, by the interception of cattle and provisions intended to be brought to New York, it became an object of importance with the governor [Lord Tryon] and commander of his majesty’s troops [Gen. Henry Clinton], if possible, to dislodge that party, consisting of about three hundred men.
Maj. Gen. Edward Mathew, who was in command at the forward position of King’s Bridge, assigned this mission to Lt. Col. Chapple Norton of the 2nd Foot Guards. Norton was given command of the grenadier and light infantry companies of the Guards’ 1st and 2nd regiments, two Hessian companies, two three-pounder cannon with their crews, a contingent of Jäger scouts, and forty horsemen from Col. James De Lancey’s Loyalist regiment, many of them familiar with the area. In all, the force consisted of well over 500 men.

Young’s house was a little more than twenty miles away across the snowy landscape. Gen. Mathew therefore arranged for sleighs to be brought to his base. Stedman wrote about Norton’s response:
The colonel, though highly gratified by this command, and unwilling to say any thing that might seem to retard the service, or throw difficulties in the way of the intended expedition, yet thought it his duty to point out the improbability of the sleighs answering the purpose
In response, Mathew gave Norton the freedom—and responsibility—to decide how to proceed based on conditions in the field.

According to Mathew’s nineteen-year-old nephew and aide-de-camp, Lt. George Mathew, the raiding party “left Kingsbridge at ten o’clock one night.” They set a course “across the country to avoid giving the alarm, which we should have done by going by the road.”

“The night was dark,” Ens. George Eld wrote in his diary. But as for the sleighs, “these conveyances were immediately quitted, for the cold was too intense to remain inactive, nor was it possible for the horses to get through the snow.”

The snow, up to two feet deep, also blocked the cannon carriages. According to Stedman, Norton “was therefore obliged to leave the guns and with them a guard sufficient to ensure their return.” The colonel estimated his troops ”were yet short of three Miles from Kingsbridge” in a report Todd W. Braisted quoted at the Journal of the American Revolution.

Lt. Mathew described another set of obstacles:
This being a very stony country, and the stones at this time being covered with snow, threw our men down often. Another thing, which tires very much on a long march, is getting over rails, which is the only fence used in this country. The pioneers took them down until they were tired, and were left behind.
The slow progress threw off Norton’s plan. As Lt. Mathew wrote, ”The intention was to have surprised them by night.” But, Stedman stated, “At sun rise they learned from the guides that they were yet seven miles short of the enemy’s post.”

Lt. Col. Norton reviewed the situation. Stedman wrote:
Their situation was, now, not a little embarrassing. As the guns, intended to open the doors of the stone house, were left behind, to surprise the enemy was impossible. To proceed, and not to carry the point, would be to expose the detachment, in their return, already fatigued with a long and toilsome march, to be harassed for the space of twenty miles, by an enemy in force, fresh, and with a perfect knowledge of the country.

In these circumstances, the colonel, unwilling to return without accomplishing some object that might answer the expectation of those who had placed their confidence in him, determined, at all events, to march to the enemy's post, and then act according to circumstances
In sum, the colonel saw all the difficulties and dangers ahead and decided to go forward anyway because it would have been too embarrassing to turn around.

About two miles from Young’s house, Norton ordered his cavalry to advance and surround the site, but the snow was too deep to allow that. The Crown forces arrived within sight of Young’s house “two hours after daybreak,” Mathew recalled. Since there was “a fine, open country about the house,” the Continentals spotted the British coming.

Some of the British, at least. Officers guessed that only about two hundred of the Crown soldiers were on the scene by this point. Almost half the guards and the Hessian companies had fallen behind.

And in front of them, the British saw a stone house, “strongly & advantageously situated,” and more than two hundred Continental soldiers, “judiciously disposed to annoy or prevent the attack.”

TOMORROW: Shots fired.

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