The Battle of Yorktown – May 14, 1781

North County News

January 6, 2010


The Battle of Yorktown…New York, not Virginia

Michael J. Kahn

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.

Most textbooks and classrooms neglect this battle for the clichéd
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 1781. Contrary to this belief,
the war did not end there, but continued for another two years until
the Treaty of Paris.

The “other Yorktown,” in New York, 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, the Battle of White Plains was an
insignificant-significant battle. I say insignificant, in part, because
the numbers of killed and captured there were far surpassed by many
other engagements during the war. What made it significant was that the
soldiers who comprised the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, an integrated
unit, included free, or freed, blacks and Indians.

The 1st Rhode Island Regiment 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
PinesBridge. The Davenport House also doubled as a command post under
the direct orders of Gen. 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 throughout most of the war. 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,
the Continental Army’s lack of manpower and its farming communities
were constantly subjected to raids.

A little known fact to our generation, as well as generations past, is
that the Bronx was part of Westchester during this period of history.
The British soldiers of our story were garrisoned in the Morrisania
section of the Bronx. The entire stretch of land between the Croton and
Morrisania was nefariously referred to as the “neutral zone, 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 of the war.

The two main antagonists of this story are 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 England, 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
noncombatants. 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.

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-in-chief of the Southern Army. Greene
was charged with protecting the Pines Bridge crossing. Greene was also
personally ordered by 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. During the morning of May 14, 1781, De Lancey led a surprise
attack on Greene.

Each night the rebel 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.

Greene possibly underestimated his opponent’s tenacity and assumed that
no one would attempt a daylight crossing, especially by fording the
river, given how high the water level was. De Lancey did ford the
Croton at the Oblenis Ford, but only two-thirds of his troops made
their way over.

To add insult to injury, the Continental Army troops stationed on the
north side of the bridge 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

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 Davenport’s 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. Greene was shot and stabbed several times before
he was taken prisoner. In the end, the battle was over before it really
ever began. Greene was thrown on a horse and was either discarded, or
fell off the horse, and left to die. Regardless, none of the present
enemies made any attempt to help or care for him properly as a prisoner
of war. Two Continental Army 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 who 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 it was then known. 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 achieve either
goal: De Lancey evaded capture throughout the entire war and New York
would remain an impregnable British fortress until after the Treaty of
Paris was signed 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 there in 1779, which was being used as a headquarters for the
Continental Army. Greene, along with other Continental officers and
soldiers, is buried in the church’s cemetery. 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. Washington ordered Gen.
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 intolerable 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.