It has been a lot of fun (and educational!) to have John Ferling featured on the OUPblog this week. Be sure to check out his original essay and his Q and A. Below we have excerpted the beginning of the introduction to Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, entitled “My Country, My Honor, My Life”: Bravery and Death in War.
October 18, 1776. Captain William Glanville Evelyn, resplendent in his British uniform, stood tall in a coal-black landing barge, the first orange rays of daylight streaming over him and glistening on the calm waters of Pelham Bay above Manhattan. Men were all about him, in his craft and in countless others. They were soldiers, part of an operation that had begun hours earlier during the cold, dark night. Evelyn and his comrades could not have been happier to see the sun. Their feet and hands were numbed by a cruel autumn chill that penetrated even into their bones. As it grew lighter with each minute, the men, swaying gently in their landing boats, squinted toward the coast, searching for signs of the enemy. They saw nothing. The beach was deserted, and night still clung to the motionless trees in the interior.
The men were British regulars and their German allies, some four thousand strong. In each amphibious craft several soldiers struggled with long oars, grunting occasionally as they strained to row toward the coastline. In the center of most vessels, between the oarsmen, sat two lines of men facing one another, shivering and thinking anxiously about what might lie ahead. Now and then someone coughed nervously, and every so often muskets jostled together with a clatter, but otherwise all was silent. Officers stood fore and aft. Often one was an ensign, a young man likely still in his teens. Sometimes the other, like Evelyn, was a captain, a company commander. Evelyn, forward in a barge that carried men from the Fourth Foot, the King’s Own Regiment, was a thirty-four-year-old veteran soldier. He had fought in Europe in a previous war, and in Massachusetts and on Long Island in this conflict.
Evelyn and his comrades had been sent to land at Pell’s Point, a jagged, oblong splay of land that jutted toward Long Island Sound. Pell’s Point was not especially important, but behind it lay roads that linked Manhattan Island to the mainland. The Continental army, the army of the new United States, had begun to evacuate Manhattan following a series of military disasters, hoping to find safety in the highlands north of New York City. The objective of Evelyn and his comrades was to advance rapidly and seal off the Continentals’ exit, trapping the rebel soldiery on Manhattan Island. If Evelyn and his comrades succeeded, the American Revolution might be over.
A great crisis in America’s fortunes was at hand. A Continental officer from Delaware thought the very “Fate of the Campaigns, & the American Army” was at stake. Only the “utmost exertions of desperate Valor” could save George Washington’s army and the cause, Colonel John Haslet had written on the eve on the redcoats’ landing.
Though the British could not see them, Continental soldiers were not far from the beach at Pell’s Point. Two days earlier Washington had posted four Massachusetts regiments at Eastchester, near the coast, to guard his flank. Washington had personally reconnoitered the area and concluded that the enemy was likely to land on the west coast of Long Island Sound, somewhere between New Rochelle and Pell’s Point, hoping to cut off his retreat. He had carefully chosen the units that he detached to Eastchester. If any rebels were veterans, these New England men were. Some had fought along the Concord Road on the first day of the war eighteen months earlier. Most had been soldiering for a year or more, and three of the regiments were led by experienced soldiers, men who had fought for Massachusetts in the French and Indian War in the 1750s. Many of the men had worked in the maritime trades before the war. They were tough men, accustomed to facing peril even in their civilian pursuits, and they were led by Colonel John Glover, whom Washington had come to think of as a reliable leader after seeing him in action in the fighting for New York. Glover and his men were not expected to defeat the British who landed. They were to stop them just long enough for the Continentals to make their escape from Manhattan. In wartime, some men, at some times, are seen by their commanders as expendable, to be sacrificed for the greater good. Certain to be heavily outnumbered, Glover may have wondered if that was true of his mission.
As the first pale light of dawn crept over the horizon on this day, Glover had climbed a ridge in Eastchester and, with a spyglass, looked out toward Long Island Sound, nearly three miles away. He saw what he thought must have been two hundred landing barges headed for Pell’s Point. In an instant, he knew that Washington had been correct. He also knew that the British would make landfall before he could get his units to the beach. He would have to make his stand in the interior. Moving urgently, Glover set his men in motion, marching them south along Split Rock Road, knowing that the British would have to advance inland on that same road.
As the Americans hurried toward battle, Captain Evelyn and his men splashed ashore. Although they landed unopposed, each man stole a hurried glance toward the interior. Nothing. No sign of the enemy. Some dared to believe that this day might pass without a battle.
Putting ashore four thousand men and six heavy cannon was time consuming. Immediately after the first men landed, pickets were set out all along the periphery of the beach to guard against a surprise attack. Those not assigned to that duty were put to work unloading supplies, horses, and the unwieldy artillery. Fires were built for the officers, some of whom brewed tea while waiting to go inland. Many of the men, wet from their chores at the beach, stood by idly in the dismaying cold. Around 9:00 a.m. Earl Cornwallis, with a sizeable force of light infantry, set off into the interior to secure the right flank along Split Rock Road. Simultaneously, a small advance force, a few more than one hundred men, was sent to explore the road itself and to determine whether any rebels were nearby.
By then, Glover’s Continentals were in place. Leaving one regiment in reserve in the rear, Glover had posted his own advance unit of forty men on the road about a mile and a half inland from the beach. He stationed the remainder of his brigade, three regiments totaling about 650 men, at staggered intervals several hundred yards apart along both sides of Split Rock Road, each man hidden behind the ubiquitous stone wall property boundaries that dotted the landscape. The Continentals had a long wait for the looming battle. Thirty minutes passed. Then another thirty, more unnerving than the first. For many, the wait was worse than battle itself. As in all wars, when soldiers wait, they are preoccupied with thoughts of what might happen. Would they be captured, or wounded, or killed? Worst of all, perhaps, would they disgrace themselves before their comrades? To pass the time, the men checked their weapons, then anxiously examined them again, and again. They made certain they could easily get to their ammunition. Most said nothing, though a few talked a steady stream of bluster, good for impressing others, they hoped, and for steadying themselves. Not a few men prayed.
The mid-morning sky had turned a bright blue, adorned with filigree clouds, by the time Glover’s “advance guard,” as he called it, glimpsed the first British unit moving up Split Rock Road. Until then, time had crept by. Now the pace quickened. The Americans, in a cuff of trees along the road, braced and strained to see the enemy. Suddenly, they heard the heavy clump of hoof beats behind them. It was Glover. Drawing up, he, too, watched, and waited. He struggled to appear unflappable, though later he admitted that he was nearly overcome with fear. “[O]h! The anxiety of mind I was in,” he recollected, knowing that “my country, my honour, my own life, and everything that was dear” hung in the balance. He wished that a general had been there to take responsibility. Soon, the British were a thousand yards away. Then just 750. When the redcoats were only five hundred yards down the road, Glover, with calm authority, ordered his men to advance.
When merely fifty yards of open, lonely road separated the British from the Continentals, the redcoat commander ordered his men to fire. A crash resounded and a plume of acrid smoke rose from the British line. Not a single American was hit by the volley. The New Englanders immediately answered with fire of their own. They were better shots, or perhaps simply luckier. Four British regulars fell. Neither side moved. The British fired again. This time Continentals fell, but those still standing returned the fire. The Americans were amazingly “Calm & Steady,” according to an American officer, as unperturbed as if shooting “at a flock of Pidgeons or Ducks and not in the least Daunted or Confused.” Each side got off five volleys. Several men were wounded and some, including two Continentals, were killed. Outnumbered, Glover ordered his men to fall back. They did so in an orderly manner, something only veterans were likely to do. Some remained and fired as their comrades drew back, then they hastened to the rear under a covering fire provided by those who had withdrawn first. For an instant, the British remained rooted in place, but thinking the rebels were fleeing in fright they loudly shouted “Huzzah,” then broke into a run, charging after their prey. They charged into a trap. As the redcoats closed on their retreating foe, the most forward regiment of Glover’s men raised up from behind a stone wall and directed a deadly fire at the British. Then the rebels sprang over the wall and charged their startled foe. In a flash, the British advance unit found itself outnumbered. The redcoats broke and fled.
Captain Evelyn and the British still on the beach heard the exchanges of fire in the interior. Now there could be no mistake. This was to be a day of battle. It was not an unwelcome prospect for Evelyn. He was a soldier, a regular, a professional. Fighting was what he did, why he was in America, why he had chosen to remain in America. He believed in this war, thought it had to be, embraced it, and looked forward to combat with a zeal that many would find strange, even repugnant. It was on him now. Within moments of hearing the gunfire, the entire British force started inland. Their comrades needed help. There was a job to do. Rebels must be flushed out.