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George Washington’s Westchester Gamble: The Encampment on the Hudson & the Trapping of Cornwallis

For six weeks in July and August 1781, the center of gravity in America’s bid for independence from Great Britain was in Philipsburg (present-day Greenburgh) in Westchester County, New York. Here General George Washington and the Main Continental Army and General Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, and his French Expeditionary Corps—the Expédition Particulière—encamped while contemplating besieging General Sir Henry Clinton’s British army in New York City and awaiting news of the strategic intentions of French Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse, and his Caribbean fleet. In his book, George Washington’s Westchester Gamble: The Encampment on the Hudson & the Trapping of Cornwallis , Dr. Richard Borkow has demonstrated the significance of this part of the Hudson River Valley in the decisions by these generals and admirals (including Admiral Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent, Comte de Barras, who delivered the critical siege guns from Rhode Island) to meet in Virginia.

For Dr. Borkow, the true center is his beloved Dobbs Ferry, for which he is village historian. His account demonstrates the tug he felt between the Dobbs family’s ferry and its few associated buildings and the present-day village of Dobbs Ferry. To give the village added weight within the Philipse patent, he even coined a new name, the “Lower Hudson Encampment.” It is unfortunate that Borkow chose to abandon the use of the historical Philipsburg for his own ahistorical label, since Frederick Philipse’s patent extended from Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx to the Croton River, and encompassed the camps of both armies up to the Bronx River. While the focus of Borkow’s interest is Dobbs Ferry and its vicinity, the bulk of his book is the military history of the American Revolution through the lens of America’s longest ally, France. Interspersed in this macro-narrative of events from 1776to 1783are vignettes relating to happenings and personalities in Westchester from the submarine Turtle to Westchester Guide John Odell’s miraculous escape from DeLancey’s Refugees on the ice of the Hudson.

Since Borkow’s study is for the general reader, he chose to rely on secondary sources for his building blocks. His narrative flow unfortunately is disrupted by the sub-chapter headings and the Westchester vignettes. Only Chapters 7 and 8 focus on the “Encampment by the Hudson.” Since Borkow poses no overarching historical question nor argues a thesis, in a sense the majority of the book is the context for these penultimate chapters. The reader is led to wonder if this survey of the entire war in so much detail is necessary to the Westchester story, since even it slights the details of the French presence. Borkow’s failure to flesh out the French march may simply be because Rochambeau’s four regiments neither camped in nor crossed at Dobbs Ferry. Borkow also missed some nuances of the military campaigns. For example, Lieutenant General John Burgoyne was the architect of the Saratoga campaign of 1777, and two battles were fought near Stillwater—Freeman’s Farm on 19 September and Bemis Heights on 7 October. General Washington did not lose the battle of White Plains but checked Lieutenant General William Howe, forcing him to abandon an aggressive strategy that might have destroyed Washington’s army and led him into New England and the upper reaches of New York. Stony Point was in Orange County at the time of the battle there in 1779 and the crossing of both armies in August 1781.

For Dr. Borkow, the parading and routes of march of the American regiments encamped at or near Ardsley are critical to Dobbs Ferry’s role in the American Revolution. While it is clear that Brigadier General Moses Hazen’s Canadians and the New Jersey Line crossed the Hudson at Dobbs Ferry, the author chose to portray the entire Main Army as marching down Dobbs Ferry’s Broadway. Until someone discovers Washington’s detailed order of march for the American army comparable to that for Rochambeau’s army given on 17August, scholars are forced to piece it together from the commander in chief’s diary—“Passed Singsing with the American column”—and the actual commanders who executed the movements. The maps of the period offer their own insights, as the road networks would have dictated which regiments marched where. In fact, the map opposite page 126 in Dr. Robert Selig’s

The Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route in the State of New York, 1781-1782, shows the axes of advance for elements of Washington’s army. French Colonel Louis-Alexander Berthier’s map of the encampments indicates that a number of the regiments would have moved in formation (paraded) right onto the Tarrytown Road. This would have jibed with Washington’s desire for operational security and lessened the exposure of his force of some 2,500soldiers to observation and a possible attack by British naval forces. It also would have made the forces from Dobbs Ferry sent across the Hudson early on 19August a flank guard. Major General William Heath, the commander of the Hudson Highlands for the operation, would have been a more reliable source upon which to anchor his account than Surgeon James Thacher, whose description of the route he traveled is a bit ambiguous. In his journal, Heath reported that on 21August, “a little after noon, our General ordered off the baggage to the strong ground near Young’s, which at about 6 o’clock was followed by the army, marching by the left in one column, which took a strong position during the night.” On the 21st, according to Heath, “Col. [Rufus] Putnam, with 320infantry, Col. Sheldon’s horse, and two companies of the New York levies, were ordered to form an advance for the army....About 12o’clock at noon, the army took up its line of march, and halted at night on the lower parts of North Castle. Two regiments had been detached on the march to Sing-Sing church, to cover a quantity of baggage belonging to the French army....” On the 22nd, “the army marched from North Castle, and encamped at Crom Pond....” Because of his deception plan and the roads available, Washington sent his units on multiple routes to cross at Kings Ferry.

Dr. Richard Borkow has given readers interested in the American Revolution another short survey of its major events and the French role in them. Westchester County rightfully deserves the central role that he gives it because Generals Washington and Rochambeau made a decision at Philipsburg that ultimately led to the capture of the main Southern army under General Charles Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. The allies’ successful siege there was the last decisive battle of the war, which changed the political and military landscape forever. The new Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail will benefit from the attention this study will bring to it. As is the case with history, readers will have to wait for a more balanced and detailed published work of the experiences of the two armies that met in Philipsburg that summer 230 years ago. I applaud Dr. Borkow for continuing the historical debate with his Westchester gamble.

-- COL (Ret.) James M. Johnson, Military Historian, Hudson River Valley Institute

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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