The Battle of Mamaroneck, known to some as the “Skirmish of Heathcote Hill,” was one of the most obscure military engagements of the Revolution but noteworthy for being the first time in the war that organized infantry units composed entirely of Americans—including Continental Army soldiers—encountered each other. To that extent, it might be regarded as a significant moment in America’s first civil war.
Except for a few independent companies of New York volunteers, the only Loyalist contingent deployed by the Anglo-German army that invaded Long Island, Manhattan, and then Westchester County in the summer and fall of 1776 was a regiment commanded by Robert Rogers—best known for his frontier exploits as a major during the French and Indian War that had made him the most famous colonial fighter of the conflict. This unit was created when Gen. William Howe, commander of the British land forces, authorized Rogers to raise a “Corps of Provincials” on August 16, 1776, and it was known as the “Queen’s American Rangers” in honor of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, consort of George III. These Tory provincials—fresh recruits who were well-armed but not yet wearing uniforms and with little military experience—totaled about five hundred and were largely from Long Island, Connecticut and Westchester, while also including some from as far away as Virginia.
During the prior war, Rogers, a native of Massachusetts now age forty-five, led colonial ranger units who substituted for the Indian allies the British lacked. Although his determined efforts to perfect their capacity for wilderness warfare enjoyed only limited success, Rogers compensated by proving himself an adroit self-publicist. The journals he published in London in 1765 bolstered his reputation as the quintessential frontier guerrilla leader.
Rogers was a retired British officer on half-pay waiting for a royal army commission when he returned to the colonies from England in 1775. As such, he was viewed with mistrust by many Americans despite making repeated attempts to obtain a commission in the Continental army. Rogers was arrested in June 1776 on suspicion (never proven) of being connected with a plot to assassinate George Washington in New York City. He escaped and joined the British army on Staten Island, where he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel and directed to raise a battalion of rangers that could assist the redcoats in their impending campaign.According to a British officer’s journal, Rogers was responsible for apprehending a twenty-one-year-old rebel captain who had volunteered to engage in espionage behind the British lines on Long Island, was captured out of uniform, and hanged as a spy on September 22—although various accounts differ on who exposed Nathan Hale.
By late October, General Washington’s forces had taken up position near White Plains in Westchester County. General Howe was encamped near New Rochelle with his outposts extending up to Mamaroneck, a small village located on Long Island Sound at the mouth of the Mamaroneck River, twenty-three miles north of New York City. On October 21, the Queen’s Rangers entered Mamaroneck, drove away a smattering of rebel militia and captured a large supply of provisions stored in the mills and houses along the Mamaroneck River—mostly flour, molasses, pork and rum. Having taken possession of these supplies as ordered, the rangers camped in a smooth field on Heathcote Hill and Rogers established his headquarters in the local schoolhouse. When darkness fell, he posted guards along the roads and passes leading to Harrison, Rye, and White Plains. The approaches to the rear of their camp from the nearby British encampment on Howe’s right wing were left largely unguarded as no attack was expected from that direction. Lacking tents, the regiment bivouacked around rail fires that were fueled by wood from neighboring fences.
When the Continental Army’s Gen. William Alexander—widely known as Lord Stirling for his claim to a Scottish earldom—was advised of the rangers’ whereabouts, he directed Col. John Haslet to initiate a night attack on Rogers’s unit. The colonel commanded the Delaware Regiment, known as the “Delaware Blues” from the color of their uniforms, who had begun their campaign that year as the largest Continental unit with “nearly 800 under Arms” before their ranks began to thin from battle, disease and exposure to the elements. According to Haslet, “Lord Stirling ordered me, with seven hundred and fifty men, to attack the enemy’s outposts ten miles from this place, at the village of Mamaroneck . . . this was the first effort of the kind, and a plan of his Lordship’s.” Having been previously stationed with his brigade in this area, Stirling knew the terrain and had accurate intelligence regarding the location of the Queen’s Rangers. This and his knowledge of the local roads enabled him to specify the exact route Haslet would take.
The expedition consisted mostly of the Delaware and Maryland regiments, who were regarded as elite units, as well as 150 Virginia Continentals and a few local guides. Led by the widely respected Delaware colonel, these combatants embodied “the cream of the Americans under one of the ablest field commanders.” They set out late at night and marched in total silence, along the road from White Plains to Mamaroneck. Accompanied by their guides, Maj. John Green of Virginia headed up the vanguard, which was followed by Haslet and the main body. They came within two miles of General Howe’s encampment without triggering an alarm that would have compelled them to contend with a much larger British force.
Haslet attacked at four a.m. on October 22. On the outskirts of Rogers’s camp, Major Green’s vanguard dispatched a struggling Indian sentinel with a sword thrust. Matters became complicated when Green stumbled upon an exterior guard of sixty men under Capt. John Eagles. Having thought better of his earlier decision to leave the area unguarded, Rogers had repositioned this group between Heathcote Hill and where the farthest sentinel was stationed. When Green’s band called on Eagles to surrender, some in his squad offered to submit but others resisted. Although Haslet’s main body surrounded the opposing guards, confusion reigned in the dark as the two sides became entangled and in some cases soldiers struggled with their own. In the confusion, Eagles and about a third of his men fell back to their main camp, while the rest were overpowered. By now, the main body of rangers had been alerted and most of Haslet’s guides had deserted or could not be found. The colonel led his troops toward the Loyalist camp on Heathcote Hill, but Rogers was able to rally his regiment and halt the Continentals’ advance. The advantage of surprise gone, Haslet opted to withdraw and settle for an incomplete victory rather than storm a strongly-held position in the dark against an unknown number of men.
Dr. James Tilton, the Delaware Regiment’s medical officer, accompanied the expedition. He reported on its consequences for the rangers and Lord Stirling’s reaction:
The Darkness prevented us from numbering their slain, but learned from the prisoners we had killed an officer and a considerable number of men . . . His Lordship was much pleased with what was done, but wished in common with others that Rogers had been among the prisoners and this might have been the case had not the guides deserted us, as soon as we were led to their encampment, which put it out of our power to pursue when they fled . . . Though we were successful, I must confess this the most terrible instance of War I have seen; so much is the horror of this terrible business increased by darkness.
According to Haslet, his raid “brought in thirty-six prisoners, a pair of colours, sixty stand of arms, and a variety of plunder besides” at a cost of three or four rebel dead and about fifteen wounded, with Major Green of the Virginians and Delaware Captain Charles Pope among the injured. The result was less decisive than hoped for, especially in regard to the failure to capture Rogers. Moreover, the attackers had been repulsed by a smaller force and had done nothing to alter the state of play between the opposing armies. Yet Stirling and Haslet took satisfaction from the fact that the rangers had suffered obvious losses. Word of the event spread at once to the top of command. On October 22, Lt. Col. Robert Harrison, Washington’s military secretary, wrote to Gov. Johnathan Trumbull of Connecticut: “I have the pleasure to inform you that a detachment of our men, under the command of Colonel Hazlet, surprised Major Roberts and his regiment last night, at Marinack.”
General Howe reported on the engagement to Lord George Germain, the British Secretary of State for North America and principal war strategist for His Majesty’s government, seeking to put the outcome in the most favorable light. He explained Rogers’s setback from the fact that “the carelessness of his centries exposed him to a surprise from a large body of ye enemy by w’h he lost a few men killed or taken; nevertheless by a spirited exertion he obliged them to retreat, leaving behind them some prisoners & several killed or wounded.”
In his memoirs one of Washington’s generals, William Heath, favorably recalled Haslet’s undertaking, even if he could not remember who led it: “The enterprise was conducted with good address and if the Americans had known exactly how Rogers corps lay, they would probably have killed or taken the whole . . . This was a pretty affair and if the writer could recollect the name of the commanding officer, with pride and pleasure he would insert it.” Heath reflected his New England perspective when he wrote of the unnamed Delawarean who led the raid: “He belonged to one of the southern lines of the army, and the whole of the party were southern troops.”
When informing his friend and political ally Caesar Rodney of the action at Mamaroneck, Haslet observed derisively and inaccurately of Rogers, “the late worthless Major,” that on “the first fire, he skulked off in the dark. His Lieutenant and a number of others were left dead on the spot. Had not our guards deserted us on the first onset, he and his whole party must have been taken.” Lord Stirling “was so highly pleased with our success,” Haslet wrote, “that he thanked us publicly on the parade, ordered all the plunder into my possession, to be sold at Auction, and distributed by me among the party; have been carressed by his Lordship ever since, more than I shall merit.” The colonel added that Stirling’s brigade “is counted the boast of the army, the Post of honor on all occasions, assigned us.”
The glow from Haslet’s victory—an aberrant and limited one in an otherwise unfortunate New York campaign for Washington’s troops—was quickly dimmed as his regiment made its way back from their overnight skirmish in the early morning of October 22. Sgt. James McMichael was part of a scouting party of one hundred men from Samuel Miles’s Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment, also part of Stirling’s brigade, which had taken thirty-five prisoners—“1 regular the remainder Tories”—and killed fourteen during an overnight reconnaissance mission. They too were returning to camp when they confronted Haslet’s unit. According to McMichael, “unfortunately taking the Delaware Blues for the enemy, we fired on each other, in which six of our riflemen and nine of the Blues were killed.” Perhaps this incident was perversely fitting in that the extent to which it detracted from the Delaware Blues’ transient exhilaration was suited to the dismal outcome of the Continental Army’s New York campaign.
Diary of Captain William Bamford, September 22, 1776, in George Dudley Seymour, Documentary Life of Nathan Hale, Comprising All Available Official and Private Documents Bearing on the Life of The Patriot, Together with an Appendix, showing the background of his life; including his family circle; his college friends; his friends made as a school-master and in the army; with many illustrations, portraits and buildings that knew his footsteps (New Haven, CT: Privately printed, 1941), 446.
McDonald, The McDonald Papers, 1:20-25. This narrative of the battle was relied upon by Christopher Ward in his iconic history of the Delaware Continental Regiment, considered a classic work of Revolutionary War literature. See Christopher Ward, The Delaware Continentals, 1776-1783 (Wilmington, DE: The Historical Society of Delaware, 1941), 559n13, wherein he writes: “The principal facts in this account of the affair at Mamaroneck were derived from McDonald’s narrative.”