From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol I. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.
November 8. –This day, a few of the common soldiers of the third and fifth Pennsylvania battalions, gave rise to a little skirmish, which, though trifling in itself, we cannot help relating it, as it seems to point out some of the effects of discipline.
The scene of this little rencontre lay on an eminence between the termination of Mount Washington and King’s Bridge,1 in a transverse line with, and under the full command of a height in possession of our Hessian enemy. Near the summit of this eminence, and facing some of our works, is a large rock or natural breastwork, where a small body of their men were posted. Two of our people had the boldness to advance up this hill without the least cover, in order, they said, to have a fairer shot at those planted behind the rocky barrier. These sustained the musketry of the Hessians, and the fire from a field-piece from the neighboring height. Some more of our men went up to their assistance. The fire upon the breastwork was now redoubled, and poured in upon our enemies, in such a close and well-managed succession as entirely silenced them.
The Hessian main guard, who were posted about four hundred yards from this place, seeing the danger of their sentries, turned out and marched to their relief. About fifty of the enemy were in motion. Our little body was now augmented to between fifteen and twenty. They were at but a very small distance from the breastwork, when, perceiving the route of the Hessians, they saw they must either give up the ground they had gained, or intimidate the approaching enemy. At this critical juncture, I could see the brave fellows form with the utmost regularity and order; and then, as if under the command of the best officer, arrange into three divisions. The spectators on both sides, as if by mutual agreement, seemed willing to trust the issue of this little affair to those already in the field and in motion.
Two of our divisions immediately began a circuit around the bend of the hill, in order, as was supposed, to get on the rear of the enemy at the rocks, and oppose the main guard, who were coming on, whilst the centre division advanced towards the rock, keeping up, all the while, a regular fire. This little piece of instinctive, or, rather, mechanical generalship, had a most beautiful effect. The sentries, aware of their danger, precipitately retreated, carrying off two killed or wounded. Our men took possession of their post, burned their huts, and secured a rifle gun, a musket, and blanket, which we suppose belonged to those who were carried off. Upon gaining the contested ground, they gave three cheers for the Congress, which was returned by their flanking parties, and replied to by the Hessian artillery.
The divisions now united, and seemed, notwithstanding the enemy’s field-pieces and superior force, which was advancing against them, resolved on defending the height they had so martially obtained. For this purpose we could see them dispose themselves along a rail fence that commanded the road, by which the Hessian guard must pass before they could make an advantageous attack. They were now reinforced with a few stragglers from other regiments.
Their fire was so very well directed and judiciously managed as to keep the Hessians at bay; and, at length, forced them to take shelter in an orchard, nearly opposite to our little line of adventurers. They held their ground till night, and then came off in good order, and with only one man wounded–a Sergeant Wright, of the third Pennsylvania regiment. He received a ball in advancing to the rocky breastwork.
I have been more particular in the detail of this little affair, as it seems to show, in some measure, the force and advantages of good discipline. Here, a few men, without any preconcerted plan, met together by chance, and without a leader to direct them, exhibited an epitome of generalship that would not have dishonored even Hannibal or Scipio. Examples of this kind show, more than any thing else, the importance and necessity of early and late inculcating the strictest forms of discipline. It is by no means improbable, that the beauty and order of most of the animal motions arise from repetition. This, particularly in the soldiery, begets habits which are often preferable to the greatest courage.2
1 Near New York.
2 Pennsylvania Evening Post, November 21.