Prior to Battle
General Washington called a council of war on October 16th, 1776, one month after the Battle of Harlem. American troops had stood in line of battle on an open field and driven back the renowned Scotsmen of the 42nd, the legendary Black Watch. Since that time, inactivity was undermining the morale that had peaked after the battle. Discipline was at a low. Colonel Joseph Reed, Washington’s aide-de-camp wrote, “…a spirit of desertion, cowardice, plunder and shrinking from duty, when attended with fatigue or danger, prevailed too generally throughout the whole army.” The army was dwindling away, one or two at a time, sometimes whole companies, were slipping away and heading home. Each day fewer and fewer troops sat behind the strong barricades on Harlem Heights and peered south to New York City, now in the hands of the British.
Four days earlier, on October 12th, Supreme Commander of the British Forces in America General Howe ordered four thousand of his troops to board transports. Lord Percy was to remain facing the Americans with orders to send along the 8,000 Hessian and British soldiers expected to arrive any day from England. Perhaps it was Howe’s experience at the Battle of Bunker Hill that caused him to avoid attacking Washington’s hillside fortifications. As he had on Long Island, he sought a way to get around Washington’s army. His plan was to take a large force north and cut across Westchester County to the Hudson. With Percy to the south and his brother’s fleet in control of the Hudson, East and Harlem Rivers, Clinton hoped to encircle the rebel army. The small fleet slipped through Hell’s Gate and entered the sound, sailing seven miles along the coast to land the next morning at Throng’s Neck, known as Frog’s point. By the time of Washington’s council, the British forces were still on the Throng’s Neck, which was little more than an island of marshes connected to the mainland by a bridge. Colonel Hand’s riflemen, a detachment from General Lee’s division, had pulled the planks from the bridge and began an accurate fire on the Jaeger vanguard. They were shortly joined by Colonel Prescott’s Massachusetts regulars who sealed off the marshes on the other side of the creek. Howe’s forces could not cross the mire against such opposition so dug in and went to camp. They remained five days while waiting for the rest of their supplies and baggage to be transported. On the day Washington’s forces departed York Island for White Plains, October 18th, Howe landed further north along the Westchester County shore at Pell’s Point. Colonel Grover’s reduced brigade was nearby. He lined his men along a series of stone wall and delayed Howe’s movement in what has been called the Battle of Pelham. Glover’s actions played a key role in Howe deciding to move his troops along the coast to Eastchester and then to New Rochelle to wait for General Knyphausen and the expected Hessian troops.
After the council of war, Washington’s orders were clear. Approximately two thousand troops were to remain at Fort Washington and the fortifications on Harlem Heights while the rest of the army, 13,000 strong, paraded north toward White Plains where Washington hoped to set up entrenchments before the British could cut across his rear. The Americans arrived at the tiny hamlet of White Plains on October 22, beating the British by nearly a full week while Howe remained at New Rochelle. Washington immediately ordered fortifications set up along a series of hills behind the small town.
It was the same day that word arrived of Colonel Robert Rogers’ Tory regiment was encamped on the extreme right of Howe’s army near the village of Mamaroneck. This was the same Rogers of Rogers’ Rangers fame, renowned for their wilderness abilities and ruthlessness during the French and Indian War. Denied an American commission and jailed because of his close ties to England, Rogers’ offered his services to the British. He was given free rein to raise a regiment of loyalists that were called ‘The Queen’s American Rangers;’ named for Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George the III. Rogers was provided with an armed sloop to aide in his recruitment and to scan the shores of Long Island Sound for perspective targets. Once ready, his regiment prowled the shores of Westchester County attacking militia companies and capturing large quantities of military stores as well as indiscriminately looting patriot homes. They were five hundred strong and in the short time of their existence, had already garnered the hatred of patriots throughout the New York region.
Mamaroneck, the Native American name meaning the place where the sweet waters fall into the sea, is located just twenty-three miles north of New York City at the mouth of the Mamaroneck River that forms a harbor. John Richbell, a London merchant living in Oyster Bay, Long Island, purchased the land in 1661 from the local Siwanoy Indians for a supply of tools, kettles ,and clothing. The village was small and the surrounding lands were forested, dotted with stretches of tilled fields and pastures that had been cleared by farmers.
A brief council decided to cut off Rogers’ regiment from the bulk of Howe’s army. The task went to “the redoubtable Colonel Haslet,” commander of the “Delaware Blues,” the only regiment in addition to Maryland’s that looked and paraded like real soldiers. They had fought well alongside their southern brethren on Long Island and, though reduced by casualties and sickness, they still formed an imposing force. Reinforced by companies from Virginia and Maryland, the force that stepped out on the road from White Plains to Mamaroneck that Tuesday night, the 22nd numbered seven hundred and fifty men. Maj. John Green of Virginia lead the van with local guides familiar with the country. They were followed by Haslet and the main body. Lord Stirling gave Haslet full information as to the position of Roger’s force, the route to be taken so as to avoid the British Army’s pickets, and the usual disposition of Roger’s troops; the last provided by Queen’s Ranger deserters. He also provided guides familiar with the country.
The distance from White Plains to Mamaroneck was five miles, but it could have been fifty, for the time it took to cross. They crept at a snail’s pace in complete silence, leery of the British camps that were at times only a mile from where they marched. At Cornell’s Fork, they took a cross-road leading to New Rochelle. Soon they reached a point opposite Heathcote Hill. There they took to the fields and advanced toward where Lord Sterling’s information said they’d find Rangers’ camp. Haslet knew there was only one single sentinel posted between them and the camp. Some of the vanguard crept along the ground toward where they believed he’d be stationed. When they came upon him, one man leapt at him and seized him by the throat before he could cry out. The others jumped him and threw him down and tried to secure him, but, as quoted by the historian Ward, “he was a lusty and lithe young Indian, and he struggled so violently that they had to dispatch him with a sword thrust.” The Virginians, minus their guides who had faded into the brush once the sentry was captured, stood in strained silence. There was not a sound to be heard but for the crickets and a distant mule braying. Rogers’ camp had not been alarmed.
Thinking the way open for a surprise attack on the sleeping rangers, the Americans had not counted on Rogers’ keen sense of encampment when near the enemy. Before midnight, Rogers had made the rounds of his pickets and concluded that the side of his camp that would ultimately be approached by Haslet’s men was insufficiently guarded. He posted Captain Eagles with sixty men in a field between the camp and the sentry. They were bivouacked exactly in the American’s line of march.
The Americans sneaked up on the rangers, believing there was a clear and open route to set up their surprise attack. Green’s vanguard was shocked when they literally stumbled over Eagles’ men curled up in their blankets. The rangers leapt up in the darkness and cried the alarm. The rest of Green’s Virginians opened fire and charged the bewildered rangers. A rough and tumble brawl erupted, men kicking and screaming and lashing out at each other. The rebels shouted for the Rangers to give up. To add to the confusion, the Rangers took up the rebel cries of “Surrender, you Tory dogs.” Rogers’ men had yet to receive their uniforms as ordered by their commander and were in similar garb to their patriot foes. Friends grappled with each other as often with their enemy. In the turmoil, Eagles and a third of his men were able to slip away. The rest, over thirty Rangers, were captured.
Dr. James Tilton, the Delaware regimental surgeon who went along with the expedition, wrote that the local guides had abandoned them as soon as they were led towards Rogers’ encampment. Had they not deserted, he was convinced, their forces might have had better results in capturing more of Eagles’ men. This put them “out of our power to pursue them [Eagles’ men] when they fled.”
Haslet secured his captives then pushed his men on toward Rogers’ camp which by now was aroused. The Rangers were already at their alarm posts as Haslet’s men approached. Rogers ordered fire and they gave the rebels a volley that checked their advance. The Tories stood firm under Rogers’ example who proved to be the stout fighter he had always been. Many fought savagely, encouraged by by their leader who rallied them crying, “Steady boys, steady. Fire! Fire!” Haslet’s men held their ground and exchanged fire. There was to be no more advance. Having lost the advantage of surprise, Haslet would have to storm a strong position held by an unknown number of men if he were to achieve his main goal. He wisely decided to withdraw.
Haslet’s forces got 60 stands of arms and many highly prized blankets. They had three killed and twelve wounded. Among the casualties were Major Green, who was wounded in the shoulder, and Delaware soldier Captain Charles Pope, who was wounded in the leg; both later recovered. Haslet also marched thirty-six prisoners of Eagle’s force back to White Plains. Rogers lost Ensign Huston who was killed and twenty privates killed or wounded. Though this happened within two miles of Howe’s camp they, returned to their lines without mishap. History has reported that a pair of regimental colors were taken, but it is more likely that these were small camp colors. However, the most important result of his major skirmish, was the boost to the American moral that flowed among the rank and file.
Afterwards, Haslet wrote Caesar Rodney, his good friend and Delaware legislator, that “…his Lordship was so highly pleased with our success, that he thanked us publically on the parade, ordered all the plunder into my possession, to be sold at auction, and distributed by me among the party… his [Lord Stirling’s] brigade is counted the boast of the army, the post of honor on all occasions, assigned us.” General Heath, upon hearing of the results called it “a pretty affair… conducted with good address.”
Even though Rogers displayed excellent leadership under fire, this action was considered a defeat for the British and proved to be Rogers’ last command under fire. Howe and his subordinates took note of the criticism lobbied against Rogers and no longer tolerated his alcoholism. A few months after the Mamaroneck Battle, a British inspector general who was ordered to examine loyalist units found that the rangers were below standard. By January of 1777, The Queen’s Rangers had a new commander in the person of Colonel Simcoe, who would go on to lead the Rangers through countless raids in New Jersey then later on distinguishing themselves in the southern campaign.
Allen, Thomas B. Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War. 2010: Harper Collins, New York, NY.
Bancroft, George. History of the American Revolution in Three Volumes. 1852: Richard Bentley, New Burlington St., London, UK.
Ward, Christopher. The Delaware Continentals 1776-1783. 1941: Vail-Ballou Press, Inc., Binghamton, NY for The Historical Society of Delaware, Wilmington, Delaware, 1941.
Ward, Christopher. The War of the Revolution. 1952: MacMillan Publ., New York, NY. 2011: Skyhorse Publ., New York, NY.