The Eclectic Pen - The Battle of Yorktown… New York, not Virginia

By: Michael K. (mkahn1977)   + 4 more  
Date Submitted: 9/12/2009
Genre: History
Words: 1,508

  Many have forgotten Westchester County’s role in the American Revolution. For instance, the Battle of White Plains: it was a major battle in 1776, as well as a major strategic defeat for the Patriots’ side. Yet most textbooks and classrooms (even in this area), neglect this battle for the clichĂ©d fables of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, to name a few. When most think of Yorktown, they envision the end of the war on a tiny peninsula on the eastern Virginia coast in October of 1781. Contrary to this belief, the war did not end there, but would continue for another two years until the Treaty of Paris.
The “other Yorktown” did not officially exist yet (as the Town of Yorktown was not yet incorporated). The area was composed of hamlets and villages, which for the purposes of our story consisted of Pines Bridge, Crotonville, Crompond, and Croton Heights. Nonetheless, it was an “insignificant-significant” battle. I say insignificant, in part, because the numbers killed and captured there was far surpassed by many other engagements during the war. What made it significant, in part, was that the soldiers who comprised the 1st Rhode Island Regiment were an integrated unit, including free (or freed) blacks and Indians.
The 1st Rhode Island was quartered both inside the Davenport House (located on what is now Croton Heights Road) and outside around it in tents, as well as at neighboring farmhouses closer to the bridge. The Davenport House also doubled as a command post under the direct orders of General George Washington because the house overlooked Pines Bridge and the Croton River Valley.
Pines Bridge was a unique area for crossing the Croton River, as it was the only bridge over the river for the majority of the war years. The Croton River was also a vital natural barrier protecting this area from lower Westchester County. Needless to say, guarding its crossing was of the utmost importance. Westchester County itself was a nightmare from a defensive point of view: it was nearly impossible to defend due to its geographical size and the Continental Army’s lack of manpower, and its farming communities were constantly subjected to raiding parties.
A little known fact to our generation, as well as to the many generations past, is that the Bronx was part of Westchester during this period of history. The British soldiers of our story were garrisoned in a section of the Bronx known then, and today, as Morrisania. The entire stretch of land between the Croton and Morrisania was nefariously referred to as the “neutral zone”; this was a Godforsaken region to the average God-fearing person, a no-man’s land where the underprivileged inhabitants were frequently raided by robbers from both sides.
The two main antagonists of this story were Lt. Colonel James De Lancey of His Majesty’s Army, and Lt. Colonel Christopher Greene of the Continental Army. De Lancey was in charge of a regiment known as the “Refugees”: American-born volunteers, also known as Loyalists. At the outbreak of the war, about a third of the colonists stayed loyal to the Crown, a situation that made the Revolution a civil war as well. These Refugees engaged in a war of attrition against their fellow colonists, a style of warfare known as both “total” and “unlimited” war. This combat methodology does not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants; in fact, it targets civilians and their respective dwellings, businesses, and infrastructures. De Lancey, and the men under his command, were probably the most notorious British military presence in Westchester. These same Refugees earned the nickname of “cowboys” for their frequent cattle raids in the county.
Colonel Greene, on the other hand, died a hero’s death while fulfilling an officer’s duty. He was a distant cousin of General Nathaniel Greene (who would go on to be Commander-and-Chief of the Southern Army). Christopher Greene was charged with protecting the Pines Bridge crossing. Greene was also personally ordered by George Washington to take De Lancey into custody, a mission not unknown to De Lancey. What was not known to Greene, however, was that De Lancey intended to turn his predator into the prey.
On the morning of May 14, 1781, De Lancey led a surprise attack on Greene. Each night the troops stationed at Pines Bridge would remove the bridge’s floor planks as a strategic precaution to halt an enemy’s advance over the river. A guard was left on duty until daylight, when an enemy was least likely to risk a foolish attempt to ford the flooding river. Or so the Patriots thought.
Hindsight is always 20/20, as it is in this case, and Greene possibly underestimated his opponent’s tenacity. It was assumed that no one would attempt a daylight crossing, especially by fording the river (given how high the water level was). De Lancey did indeed ford the Croton at the Oblenis Ford, but only two-thirds of his troops made their way over. To add insult to injury, the troops stationed on the north side had left their post for breakfast. Loyalist guides who knew every rock, tree, and ditch, aided De Lancey’s troops. They were able to avoid every Patriot patrol from the river’s edge to the Davenport. As was the case in most of the battles, our generals (or lieutenant colonel, in this case) were more often than not, “out-generaled,” an observation made famous by John Adams prior to this event.
There were mitigating circumstances that may make me sound like an apologist for Greene. As previously mentioned, manpower was an ongoing crisis. Another enemy frequently struck down the soldiers who were ready and willing to take up the musket and sword: Smallpox. Had scores of men not been bedridden with this epidemic, more men may have been stationed from the river’s edge up to Davenports, and a better chain of communication may have been maintained, turning the odds into evens.
Triumph, not tragedy, may have been the end result.
The attack happened after sunrise. All archaeological evidence testifies to a westerly advance (including the musket ball holes in the west side of the house). The Patriots were only able to fire a few shots before being overrun. Lt. Colonel Greene was shot and stabbed several times before he was taken prisoner. In the end, the battle was over before it really ever begun. Greene was thrown upon a horse, and was either discarded or fell off the horse and left to die. Regardless, none of the enemy present made any attempt to render aid and care for him properly as a prisoner of war. Two Continental Officers discovered his body the next day. According to the late historian Allison Albee, the Patriots suffered 10 dead, 1 seriously wounded, and 23 captured. The black soldiers that were caught were later sold into slavery in the British West Indies.
De Lancey and his band of Refugees returned to New York City (or York Island as Manhattan was then known as). De Lancey’s attack and subsequent return to New York added more fuel to the burning fire of hatred in Washington’s heart; he wanted De Lancey arrested and New York retaken from the British. Unfortunately, Washington would never either goal accomplished: De Lancey evaded capture throughout the entire war and New York would remain an impregnable British fortress until after the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
Today, the monuments at the First Presbyterian Church (located at 2880 Crompond Road) are some of the very few testaments to the sacrifices of Greene and his troops (the British burned the original church that stood here in 1779, which was being used as a headquarters for the Continentals). Greene, along with others, is also buried here. With the exception of the musket ball holes still in the side of the Davenport House, there is little to show where our Yorktown made its mark in the history of our nation’s birth. The old Pines Bridge is, I’m told, slightly visible whenever the area suffers a drought. Invisible, however, are any indications of its importance from an era so long ago. There are no landmark signs on the Crow Hill entrenchments (or redoubts as they are also known), which were defensive trenches dug into the ground by the Continentals following the Battle of White Plains in 1776; George Washington ordered General Reazin Beall and his Maryland regiments to construct these fortifications to protect the Croton Valley and to guard the critical Pines Bridge crossing below.
This place may not have been Morristown or Valley Forge, but nonetheless, American Soldiers spent many a night here freezing and bearing the unbearable heat of the summer days while manning their posts. Basically, all we Yorktowners have is an oral history. Hopefully, this will one day change. As was the case with many of the battles of the Revolution, Pines Bridge was a defeat for our side. However, we obviously ended up the victors in a war that lasted eight tumultuous years. The real tragedy would be to forget these brave men, their times, and their sacrifices.

The Eclectic Pen » All Stories by Michael K. (mkahn1977)

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Comments 1 to 2 of 2
Jesse (EddyKrueger) - 9/17/2009 4:26 AM ET
You're one of the few nonfiction writers on here. Good job.
Tammie T. (taggteam) - 9/18/2009 4:03 PM ET
Great story, thank you for writing it.
Comments 1 to 2 of 2