No moment in American history was more fraught with peril than late summer and early fall 1776. Just as Americans across the continent were celebrating their independence, a massive British expeditionary force arrived off New York City to crush the rebellion. Led by General Sir William Howe, and his brother Admiral Lord Richard Howe, the command assembled on Staten Island before landing on Long Island where the Continental Army waited. Beginning in the last days of August and continuing throughout September, George Washington tried in vain to keep the British out of New York. In every battle, however, his men fled at the sight of the Redcoats and their Hessian mercenaries. At the September 15th Battle of Kip’s Bay on eastern Manhattan, the commander-in-chief was so frustrated he threw his hat on the ground and shouted, “Are these the men with which I am to defend America!” Surprisingly though, several Continental officers gave a good account of themselves. One was a Massachusetts farmer-turned-soldier who served the cause loyally from the Revolution’s very beginning. His name was William Heath. This is the story of his valiant actions during the last days of the New York campaign.
From an early age, William Heath’s fondest dream was to serve Massachusetts in some meaningful way. He was born in Roxbury, a Boston suburb, in March 1737 and grew up on the homestead owned by his family since their arrival in America a century earlier. Heath’s parents groomed him to be a farmer, but Heath wanted more. In 1761, therefore, he became Roxbury’s representative in the Massachusetts General Court. He also developed an abiding interest in military affairs and often visited Henry Knox’s Boston bookstore where he purchased military texts. His studies led to an expertise in tactics, most notably skirmishing. Not content to just read about military life, Heath joined Boston’s Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company and the county’s militia, ultimately rising to command both units. His martial prowess won him the trust and friendship of Royal Governor Francis Bernard, but as Britain adopted more oppressive policies, he enthusiastically embraced the patriot cause — sacrificing his relationships with Bernard and other officials rather than assist in subjugating his countrymen.
By the dawn of the 1770s, William Heath was fully committed to the cause of liberty. In the wake of the March 5, 1770 Boston Massacre, he concluded protesting British oppression was no longer an option. With fiery resolve, Heath penned several articles under the pseudonym of A Military Countryman, in which he argued armed resistance was the only way to preserve colonial rights. Accordingly, he devoted himself to training his militiamen. Simultaneously, he returned to the General Court and served in the legislature until its dissolution in 1774, which came as part of Britain’s harsh response to the 1773 Boston Tea Party. Refusing to submit to tyranny, Heath and his colleagues established the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and almost immediately, he was appointed to the Committee of Safety, which exercised executive authority. During the winter of 1774-75, he supervised collection of military supplies and their disposition at Concord, Massachusetts, and in early February 1775 Congress appointed Heath one of five brigadier generals empowered to lead troops against British forces. Knowing hostilities were imminent, he readied himself for battle.
On the morning of April 19 Heath awoke to hear that a British column was marching on Concord intent on seizing the military supplies. Not wasting any time, he leapt on his horse and, accompanied by Dr. Joseph Warren, a key member of the Sons of Liberty, he raced to Lexington. Arriving on the scene, he saw local militiamen locked in battle with Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith’s Redcoats, just reinforced by a column led by Lord Percy. Taking immediate command, Heath rallied a regiment thrown into confusion by British artillery before ordering the militia to pursue the British as they resumed retreating to Boston. At Menotomy he directed a heavy fire on enemy soldiers and later watched in grim satisfaction as men from Roxbury, Brookline and Dorchester struck the British right flank, with hand-to-hand fighting raging at one point. The pursuit continued until dusk, at which point the British reached Charlestown. Having achieved victory, Heath marched to Cambridge and then to Roxbury, from where he besieged occupied-Boston. He was still there in July when George Washington arrived and assumed command of the Continental Army, passing along word to Heath he was now a Continental brigadier general. In his new capacity, Heath faithfully served Washington throughout the siege of Boston, building defenses at Lechmere’s Point and defending it from a British naval bombardment in December 1775. Then in March 1776 he erected defenses along Dorchester Heights for artillery, notably placing rows of barrels atop the hill which could be rolled down and kill or injure British soldiers. Seeing Dorchester’s strength, General William Howe finally decided to evacuate Boston, but Washington knew it was a matter of where, not if, British forces would strike. On March 20th, therefore, General Heath left Boston for New York City, the most obvious target of a British invasion.
Reaching the city on March 30th, Heath set about constructing defenses on Manhattan and neighboring Long Island in anticipation of the coming onslaught. British troops landed on Staten Island in early July, and by mid-August, their numbers had swelled to over thirty thousand. With an attack expected any day, Heath, newly promoted to major general, realized Manhattan’s upper end was vital to control of the city. He foresaw that by landing there British soldiers could easily trap the Americans — annihilating the Continental Army, and possibly eradicating all hopes for American independence. Taking Heath’s warnings to heart, Washington assigned him command of the region, including the forts built to deter a British attack. Consequently, Heath did not see action in the August 27th Battle of Long Island, but he was instrumental in Washington’s August 29th miraculous escape when he sent his boats to Brooklyn, which Washington used to ferry his men across the East River to Manhattan. Following defeat at Kip’s Bay, however, Washington abandoned New York and fell back towards Heath’s defensive line at Manhattan’s northern tip.
Knowing Howe would press on and seize control of all Manhattan, Washington increased Heath’s command to ten thousand troops and directed him to monitor enemy activity. Heath did so, and on September 22nd he learned of a garrison on Montresor’s Island. He decided to launch an immediate attack. The first wave struck with such ferocity the British were driven back, but, as Heath watched from the opposite bank, his stalwart men had to withdraw when the rest of the force refused to support them. Though disappointed, Heath refused to lose heart and returned to watching British movements. As September came to an end, Heath believed the enemy intended to strike at Frog’s Neck, a narrow spit of land separating the East River from Long Island Sound. Determined to contest the foray, Heath ordered Colonel Edward Hand and twenty-six soldiers to tear up the plank bridge across Westchester Creek and fortify the pass at the end of the causeway linking the neck with Manhattan. His decision proved wise, as the British began landing on the neck on October 12th.
Hearing the roar of battle, which indicated Hand had engaged the enemy, Heath quickly dispatched infantry and artillery support to the riflemen, and he watched in pride as his soldiers checked the British advance, forcing them to remain on the neck six days. Then on October 18th he heard the British were about to sortie, or attack. Without hesitation, Heath galloped to the men nearest the neck and personally took command, leading them straight into the fight. As he approached the causeway, he ordered one regiment to reinforce the troops at the pass while the rest loaded and primed their muskets. Suddenly, Washington himself appeared and shouted for Heath to form up his entire division and combat the British should more troops arrive. Saluting, Heath turned for his own lines. As he did, enemy troops crossed the water to Pell’s Neck where they engaged American forces dug in behind a stone fence. The Continentals fired on the Redcoats who were caught off guard, but the enemy regrouped and surged forward again, compelling the Americans to fall back. In the ensuing days, the British encroached on the American rear, and it became obvious the Continentals could not remain on Manhattan. Consequently, save for Forts Washington and Independence, the Americans withdrew to White Plains, in modern Westchester County. Heath arrived on October 22nd and deployed his men along the high ground north of the courthouse. Surveying his position, he observed a rise from which the British could enfilade his division, and seizing the initiative, he dispatched a New York regiment and battery of artillery to defend the hill.
On the afternoon of October 27th the British arrived at White Plains and attacked. Racing back from Washington’s headquarters, Heath found his men in line of battle, and taking his place beside them, he watched the British storm nearby Chatterton’s Hill. Moments later, his attention was diverted as he glimpsed movement towards the neighboring hillside. The British obviously recognized the hill’s importance, but they were equally ignorant of his men atop the promontory. Heath watched in satisfaction as the infantry and artillery delivered a terrific fire into the enemy ranks. The British were so stunned they fell back. A brief while afterwards, the general spotted them reforming, but they had no intention of striking again. Instead, they turned to Chatterton’s Hill, and despite the Continentals’ valiant efforts, the British took the ground, forcing the army to fall back to new defensive positions. Under covering fire, Heath evacuated those troops charged with defending the neighboring hillside and then marched to rejoin the army. He spent the next few days constructing redoubts and remaining vigilant for another British attack. On November 7th, however, the British retired to New York. In response, General Washington took most of his men into New Jersey while assigning Heath to Peekskill in the Hudson River Valley.
In the weeks that followed, he commanded the troops scattered throughout the Hudson Highlands, and briefly led an expedition into New Jersey in December which resulted in victory over British troops at Bergen. On January 5, 1777 Washington wrote Heath of the two American victories at Trenton and Princeton and ordered him to move on New York. Acting swiftly, Heath struck Fort Independence and successfully overran the outposts, which he communicated to Washington and which led to a belief the fort was about to fall. America’s jubilation was premature, however, as Heath was unable to capitalize on his early achievements and carry the position. He remained in the Highlands until mid-March when he returned to Boston to command the Eastern Department. In that capacity, he recruited troops and dispatched them to New York to combat British General John Burgoyne who was sweeping south from Canada. After Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga in October, Heath’s assignment expanded to include service as commandant of prisoners, and in 1778 he worked extensively with the French Navy under Count D’Estaing. He rejoined the main army in June and assumed command of the forces on the Hudson’s east bank, gaining command of the entire Hudson that November. Heath remained in command until June 1780 when he left for Providence, Rhode Island to again serve as an intermediary between Continental and French forces. In September he learned of Benedict Arnold’s treacherous plot to hand West Point to the British, and at Washington’s request, he raced up the Hudson to command the fortifications. A year later, in August 1781, Washington gave Heath the honor of commanding the army in New York while he attacked British General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. He saw out the rest of the war in New York and had the distinction of being the last American General of the Day, the officer in charge of security and inspecting camp, before hostilities formally ceased in 1783.
Returning to Massachusetts, William Heath continued to pursue a life of public service. He became a major general in the state militia and helped organize the Roxbury Artillery, which assisted in crushing Shay’s Rebellion, an uprising by Massachusetts farmers in 1786 which convinced many of the need for a strong central government. Like Washington, Heath ardently supported federalism and worked to see the Constitution approved, serving as a member of the Massachusetts ratifying convention. He served as a state senator from 1791-1792 and also as a probate court judge. In 1806 he was elected lieutenant governor, but he declined to serve. Even as his political career ended, however, he proudly remembered his wartime experiences, and set about writing his memoirs — one of the few Continental officers to record his career. William Heath died in January 1814, the last American major general of the Revolution to leave the field of honor.
General William Heath truly gave all for the “glorious cause.” Even before war began he devoted himself to preparing his countrymen for the coming struggle. When fighting erupted on April 19, 1775 he committed himself to America’s liberation, and he refused to back down in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Nowhere was his resolve more evident than in the battles on Manhattan. At Frog’s Neck, and again at White Plains, Heath fought to save the Continental Army, and with it the best chance for independence. Without his tenacity and resourceful leadership, the dream of a free and united country may have died before it even began. William Heath’s heroic actions, indeed his entire life, serve as a shining example of the dedication and sacrifice required to attain and to preserve the freedom we, as Americans, enjoy today.