Thomas Fleming: Review of Richard Borkow's "George Washington’s Westchester Gamble, The Encampment on the Hudson and the Trapping of Cornwallis" (The History Press, 2011)


Thomas Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians and is on the advisory board of HNN.

New Yorkers—and many other people—are likely to find this brief briskly written book a fascinating read.  It combines the story of Westchester County in the Revolution and its climax—General Washington’s decision to march south from his encampment at Dobbs Ferry and nearby towns to trap Charles, Lord Cornwallis, at Yorktown.

The author does an excellent job of describing the war in Westchester, including the crucial Battle of Stony Point.  But he naturally focuses most of the book on the fighting that accompanied the creation of an encampment for the French and American armies in 1781 as they debated whether to attack British occupied New York.

Not a few people will be surprised by how much gunfire echoed around Dobbs Ferry when the British sent a fleet of warships up the Hudson to destroy American boats that were ferrying supplies to both armies.  The allies had set up a redoubt at Dobbs Ferry, equipped with numerous cannon, and they blasted the British ships coming and going.  One, HMS Savage, took a direct hit on a powder box that exploded, terrifying twenty sailors into jumping overboard.

Next come some graphic pages on the “Grand Reconnaissance,” the probe of the British northern defenses around New York along the Hudson and Harlem Rivers and the realization that the allies lacked the manpower to win a victory.  That led to the decision to march south.  It took four days to get both armies across the Hudson.  One French officer expressed amazement that the British warships had not made another foray up the river. They could have inflicted horrendous damage. But not a shot was fired at the allied army and soon they were marching south. The rest was history in capital letters.

In a final chapter, the author narrates one of the last encounters with the British in Westchester County—a 1783 winter foray by fifty Westchester militia on horseback.  The horsemen penetrated deep inside the British lines in an attempt to capture one of their most courageous enemies, loyalist Colonel James Delancey.  A battle exploded around Delancey’s house in West Farms, in the present-day Bronx.  It rapidly became apparent that Delancey had more than enough men to make capture impossible.

Soon the patriots were in headlong retreat, with the loyalists pursuing them.  On the banks of the Croton River, they were about to be surrounded.  It was every man for himself, and the rebels rode in all directions.  One of them, John Odell, galloped onto the ice-covered river, pursued by two saber swinging loyalists.  In a wild encounter, with the horses slipping and sliding beneath them, Odell managed to knock one man off his horse with a blow to the head, and the other man abandoned the pursuit.  It was a symbolic final clash, dramatizing the bitterness and determination on both loyalist and rebel sides which persisted until the British evacuation of New York several months later.

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