Pruning the Parks: White Plains National Battlefield Site (1933-1956) Was a Stillborn National Park

The Jacob Purdy House, which served as Washington's headquarters during the Battle of White Plains. Wikipedia Commons photo.

The Revolutionary War Battle of White Plains receives scant attention, not least because the Continental Army did not win the battle and the battlefield is not a National Park System property. Although the National Park Service administered the White Plains National Battlefield Site for 23 years, no national park materialized there and the property was eventually delisted.

Few Americans know much about the Revolutionary War, and what they do know (or think they know) is linked to certain iconic events and hallowed places like the Boston Tea Party, Old North Bridge, Valley Forge, and American victories at places like Trenton, Saratoga, Kings Mountain, Cowpens, and of course, Yorktown. These are true cultural icons. All trigger thoughts and feelings of patriotic fervor, determination, bravery, and triumph over injustice. All make us proud.

Our cultural memory is very selective, however. While we have proudly commemorated victories, we have shown little enthusiasm for stoking memories of draws, defeats, and retreats. Truth be told, the Continental Army was pretty incompetent in the early stages of the war, being not just small, poorly trained, inexperienced, and resource poor, but also lacking in skilled leadership. The latter deficiency included George Washington, whose field command worksheet leading up to the 1776-1777 winter encampment pretty much consisted of beginner's blunders, stinging defeats, and a long, humiliating retreat.

The Continental Army's failures in New York during 1776 very nearly brought the Revolutionary War to an early and unhappy end. Washington's army, about 9,000 strong at the time, was so thoroughly whipped in the Battle of Long Island (August 27, 1776) that only an improbable fog-masked evacuation to Manhattan saved it from annihilation. Unable to maintain control of Manhattan (then called York Island), Washington had to retreat northward into Westchester County.

Sir William Howe's British force was in hot pursuit. Howe had every reason to believe that he could destroy the Continental Army if he could quickly catch it, pin it down, and force a climactic battle. Washington, for his part, had to avoid being forced into a back-against-the wall, all-or-nothing fight that his troops could not hope to win.

Howe dispatched a waterborne force to Westchester County with orders to block Washington's escape route and bring the Continentals to bay. When Washington caught wind of this, he moved his army to White Plains, a village less than ten miles northeast of Yonkers. White Plains had a Continental army supply depot, but no strong fortifications. Washington readied for the British attack by having his Continentals and supporting militia establish a defensive line that stretched three miles and used swampy and hilly land to advantage.

On the morning of October 28, Howe's troops advanced from Scarsdale for the main assault and the Battle of White Plains was underway. The patriots put up a spirited fight -- both sides suffered serious casualties -- but could not prevent the British from seizing Chatterton Hill, vital high ground on the patriot right flank. This exposed flank put Washington's army in mortal danger.

Once again at imminent risk of having his army overwhelmed, Washington once again got lucky. Howe spent the next two days getting ready for the final assault, but on October 31, the day that Howe had chosen for his attack, there was an all-day heavy rain that drowned out any chance of a fight. That very night, Washington moved his troops northward into the hills behind his original lines and encamped them at North Castle.

The Battle of White Plains yielded no clear victor, and is generally considered to have been a draw. Howe, who was frustrated to distraction, soon headed back to New York where he captured Fort Washington, the last remaining Continental stronghold on Manhattan. Washington, who saw no reasonable prospect of retaking Manhattan (nor of even safely remaining in the vicinity much longer), retreated out of New York and into New Jersey, where he established a winter camp at Morristown. It was from there that Washington famously led his troops in a foray across the Delaware River to his first notable victory of the war, the stunning defeat of the Hessians at Trenton on December 26, 1776. And the rest, as they say, is history.

What place the Battle of White Plains may deserve in that history remains a subject of debate among historians, but there's no question that the White Plains battlefield is a nationally significant historic site. In fact, it was once a national park -- at least in the broad sense of the term. It's an interesting story, if an obscure one.

White Plains National Battlefield Site was proclaimed in 1926 and placed under War Department administration. The site was then transferred to the National Park Service for administration under terms of the Federal Reorganization of 1933. Being listed as a National Park System property, it was authorized for development as a national park.

This never happened. During the next two decades, the National Park Service didn't buy or acquire any battlefield land and didn't build any facilities. No development at all occurred, unless you count the placement of three descriptive markers. In 1956, the National Park Service quietly dropped the White Plains National Battlefield Site from its list of National Park System properties.

Local residents then took over. In 1958, the Battle of White Plains Monument Committee was organized to identify, preserve, and protect sites associated with the battle. With the cooperation of Westchester Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation, the City of White Plains, and the Towns of Harrison and North Castle, the Committee created a 9-mile long Heritage Trail that starts in White Plains, continues through Harrison and North Castle, and connects the principal points of interest. Each year the White Plains Historical Society hosts an anniversary commemoration of the battle at the Jacob Purdy House, a National Historic Site-designated building that served as Washington's headquarters at the time of the battle. As in previous years, the recently staged 235th anniversary commemoration featured a battle reenactment.

Postscript: Two U.S. Navy vessels were named for the Battle of White Plains -- the WW II escort carrier CVE-66 and the combat stores ship AFS-4 (decommissioned in 1995).

Comments

I appreciate this article and the effort to highlight the reasons why White Plains was a stillborn park. You erred, however, in assigning the Valley Forge encampment to the Winter of 1776-1777, instead of the following year, and thereby shortchanged Washington his victories at Trenton and Princeton in their proper year. Washington's depleted army overwintered in 1776-1777 in Morristown, NJ, not Valley Forge.

Tim, you are absolutely, unequivocally right about the 1776-1777 winter encampment being at Morristown, not Valley Forge (which was the winter of 1777-1778). OMG, I don't know how I managed to let that one slip by. For crying out loud, I've been working with that Revolutionary War timeline in one context or another for over 30 years! OK; enough with the weaselspeak and back to the humble pie. I've made the correction, with thanks to you for bringing this careless slip to my attention.

Happens to the best of us! ;-)