Battle of Pelham (or Pells Point) Oct. 18, 1776. American Loss that Saved Washington’s Army from Annihilation

October 18, 1776 Westchester County NY. Colonel John Glover Commanded American Forces. General William Howe commanded British and Hessian troops.

Though considered a defeat for the Americans, scholars attribute the Battle of Pelham (or Pells Point) for saving the Continental Army. British ships sailed up the Long Island Sound and landed troops in the rear of Washington’s retreating army. Supreme commander General Howe hoped to race across Westchester County and entrap the Americans between this force and other British troops pushing up from the south. The least he hoped for was to disrupt Washington’s supply line and cut his army off from New England. Colonel John Glover, whose Massachusetts seamen ferried a third of Washington’s army from Brooklyn to Manhattan after the Battle of Long Island, initiated a hit and run delaying tactic that effectively forestalled General Howe’s plans; once more coming to the army’s rescue. Washington was given the precious time to slip by Howe’s forces and man the fortifications around White Plains, thereby thwarting Howe’s plans to ensnare the American army.

Battle of Point Pelham or Pell’s Point

The action took place outside the Village of Pelham in a portion of Westchester County that was considered neutral ground. For seven years the region became a no-man’s land between American and British forces. The British army, headquartered in New York City, had outposts along what today is the Bronx-Westchester border. The American forces were located north of the Croton River and stretched from Peekskill to Connecticut and down to the Long Island Sound. For the duration of the war, those living between the opposing lines were subject to constant raiding and pillaging by both sides, claiming the rights over loyalist and patriots alike. The outlaw bands became known as ‘cowboys’ (patriots) and ‘skinners’ (loyalists).

Map of the Battle of Pelham

The battle was fought along the Split Rock Road on October 18, 1776. At first light, Colonel John Glover stood upon a hill overlooking the Long Island Sound. He requested a glass. What he saw shocked him. It appeared that the entire British fleet was sitting off Pell’s Point. As he watched, over two hundred sail of flatboats, overflowing with over four thousand British and German troops and seven field cannon, were formed in four grand divisions and plying for shore. To face these daunting odds he had a brigade of only four reduced regiments under his command; seven hundred and fifty men in all with three small field pieces. While the enemy embarked at a landing near where Pelham Road crosses the Hutchinson River, Colonel Glover sent word by way of Major Lee to General Lee who was three miles distant. Not waiting for orders from General Lee, Glover left his own unit in reserve along with the three field pieces. With just under five hundred men, he raced down the hill along Split Rock Road to meet the enemy head on. His quick and decisive actions that morning saved the day for the Americans.

Illustration depicting the Continental Army moving from Manhattan to White Plains, Oct., 1776.

Colonel Glover’s men had gone about half the distance towards his enemy when they met an advanced guard of about thirty men. Glover detached a captain’s guard of forty men to counter the British pickets and set about deploying his men along the road. He set Colonel Read’s regiment on the left of the road, with Colonel Shepherd’s in the rear and to the right of Colonel Read. Colonel Baldwin’s men were set to the rear and to the right of Shepherd’s. He sent word to Captain Courtes commanding his own unit (Colonel Johnson being sick and Major Lee on route to General Lee), to advance with field cannon to their rear.  Seeing the regiments thusly deployed, Glover rode ahead and personally commanded the advance guard.

The battle began with Colonel Glover ordering his guard to advance. Within forty yards of the enemy, they received a volley without injury. They returned the fire and four of their men fell. Five more rounds were exchanged without the Americans giving ground. During this time, more British forces arrived and joined the fray. By now, with two men killed and several wounded, and the enemy pushing forward to within thirty yards, Colonel Glover ordered a retreat. The enemy, sensing a rout, gave a shout and advanced.

Colonel John Glover

During this time, Colonel Read’s regiment remained undetected, lying under cover of a stone wall. When the enemy came within thirty yards, they rose as one and charged. The enemy, stunned by the sudden and vicious attack, broke and quickly retreated until the main body of British and Hessian forces came up. For an hour Colonel Read’s men exchanged fire with the British, who continued to bring their forces onto the field. After the seven field pieces were unlimbered, the British maintained a constant fire of artillery. At that point they advanced with nearly four thousand strong. When they came within fifty yards of the stone wall, Colonel Glover ordered all to rise from behind their barricades. The British received the full charge of the American battalion.  The enemy halted and returned fire with musketry and cannon.

Seven volleys were exchanged before Colonel Glover ordered Read’s men to retreat and form in the rear of Colonel Shepherd, who was posted behind a sturdy double wall. Once more, seeing the Americans retreating and assuming they were being driven from the field, the British gave a shout and pushed on. They did so until they came to the double wall. Shepherd’s regiment rose and fired at near point blank range. The effect was devastating. The Americans continued to fire by grand divisions which kept up a constant fire. Seventeen rounds were exchanged, causing the British to retreat several times. At one point, a soldier of Colonel Shepherd’s regiment leaped the wall and took a hat and canteen off a captain who lay dead on the ground just vacated by the enemy.

General Sir William Howe Supreme Commander of His Majesty’s Forces in North America

However, the sheer size of the British forces became too much for the Americans. Colonel Glover knew he could not maintain his position any longer. Forced to retreat once again, he formed in the rear of Colonel Baldwin’s regiment. At this stage in the battle, the ground proved to be in favor of the charging British. The American forces made a hasty retreat to the bottom of the hill and ran through the Hutchinson River before marching back up the hill on the opposite side of the creek where the artillery was left. The enemy, seeing the posted artillery, halted. For several hours until dark, the artillery played at each other with little damage to either side. As darkness fell, Colonel Glover marched his men about three miles toward Dobb’s Ferry. They had fought all day without food or water and were forced to lay the night as pickets without cover, their baggage and equipment left along the road that morning, and it was now in enemy hands. The next morning, they marched to Mile Square. Incredibly, the Americans only suffered eight men killed and thirteen wounded. Among them was Colonel Shepherd who stood fearlessly within harm’s way throughout every British charge.

British Encampment

The British army encamped the night around present day Pelham. General Howe is said to have made his camp beneath an enormous chestnut tree, later called General Howe’s Chestnut that stood for many years near the Hutchinson River. The next day, the British and German soldiers marched along the Boston Post Road to New Rochelle. Days later, they moved toward White Plains where they met General Washington’s main forces in the Battle of White Plains.

The 600 year old massive Chestnut Tree that once stood in Pelham. There are many legends surrounding the tree and the battle including that General Howe encamped beneath its branches after the battle.

General Howe listed three British dead and twenty wounded. But true to practice, he never gave German casualties.The bulk of the attacking forces were Hessians and their casualties were substantial. By collaborating reports of British deserters, over two hundred men were killed with more than double wounded. Once more General Howe was reminded of the severe damage that can be inflicted upon his men by American forces from behind barricades. One can argue that the consequences of Bunker Hill, and later Pelham, added to the cautious nature of one being labeled ‘Granny Howe’ by both sides of the conflict.

Statue of General John Glover on the Commonwealth Ave. Mall in Boston.

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RESOURCES:

Abbatt, William. “The Battle of Pell’s Point (Pelham) October 18, 1776.”  1901.  Published by author, NY.

Glover, Colonel John. “Letter from Mile Square, Oct. 24, 1776.  The battle description in Colonel Glover’s own words. First Printed in the Freeman Journal and New Hampshire Gazette on Nov. 26, 1776.

Hufeland, Otto. “Westchester County Duringthe American Revolution, 1775-1783.”  1926. Westchester County (NY).

Swanson, Susan Cochran. “Between the Lines: Stories of Westchester County, New York During the American Revolution.” 1975. The Junior League of Pelham, p. 2.

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