Friday, May 23, 2014

People: General William Heath

First Patriot

I often use the term "First Patriot" to describe those who served in the American War for Independence or who otherwise played a role in the political thought and action leading to it. Many of my Yankee Doodle Spies Blogs describe these men and women. As I did research for the first few books in the series, a name kept appearing: Heath. More precisely, the name "Heath" was often printed across maps depicting activity
around new York, primarily in the lower Hudson valley, western Connecticut and the area today known as the Bronx (Kings Bridge). William Heath was one of those serious men, a New Englander as so many were, who remained solidly with the cause for beginning to end and served it in whatever way deemed appropriate. To be sure, there were many American officers self-serving and easily out of sorts to slights and second tier work. Not Heath, who in my opinion served professionally and effectively throughout the war.

Citizen Soldier

William Heath
William Heath was born in 1737. He made his home at his farm in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Like many of his generation, he became active in the militia as a young man, by 1770 he was a colonel and leader of the Suffolk County militia. At the beginning of the war Massachusetts named him a brigadier general and he commanded Massachusetts forces during the last stage of the Battle of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. As the siege of Boston began, Heath devoted himself to training the militia involved in the siege. In June of that year, Massachusetts named him a major general in the state troops, and the Continental Congress made him a brigadier general in the new national army, the Continental Army.

Solid Service

Charles Lee

In 1776 Heath participated in the defense of New York City, where he saw action at Long Island and was one of those who urged General Washington not to abandon the city. Heath's role involved managing the defense of the northern approaches to Manhattan. He did a credible job in maintaining a watch on potential British approaches to the island, dispatching intelligence mission,s and gathering supplies. Heath served in commands under Washington at Harlem Heights and White Plains, where he commanded the left flank of the Continental Army. In November he was placed in command of forces in the Hudson River Highlands. When Washington waged a frantic rear guard action across New Jersey to avoid annihilation in the latter months of 1776, he left Major General Charles Lee and Heath to guard the vital communications between the mid-Atlantic and New England. When Lee finally heeded Washington's summons to join him in the Jerseys, William Heath stalwartly defended the Hudson Valley. It was a command that offered no glory, only duty. After the British occupied New York City in 1776 the defenses just north of there became critically important. The continuing presence of British land and naval forces in New York emphasized the importance of the Hudson River, and both sides in the war recognized the importance of controlling that vital waterway. The Americans created fortifications, including West Point with its chain across the river. Washington assigned Continental troops under General Heath to the Highlands on November 12, 1776 and there was a Continental Army garrison in the Highlands from then until the end of the war. Heath's assignment thus created a de facto military department. The British sought to gain control with the Saratoga campaign in 1777, and frequently raided into the southern reaches of the department to interfere with the movement of military goods and personnel. One of the most notable incidents in the history of this department was the defection of Benedict Arnold in September 1780.

British Attack at White Plains

The Dog House?

Robert Rogers
Heath comes under some scrutiny around this time, however. In January 1777, Washington instructed Heath to attack Fort Independence (in the Bronx) in New York in support of General George Washington's actions at Trenton and Princeton.  During ten days in the heart of a bitter winter Heath led a force of  6,000 men in three attack columns south to seize the fort that covered the approaches from Spuyten Duyvel to the Kings Bridge crossing into Manhattan. At first things went well as the British outposts were quickly overrun. But when they closed on the fort they faced 2,000 disciplined Hessians.  Unimpressed by the Americans, they answered Heath's entreaty to surrender with a blistering barrage of artillery. Heath then tried to envelop the position but a sudden thaw made crossing the creek impractical. Several days of skirmishing were followed by an unexpected movement of British troops on the American flank and rear. The weather now worsened as well and at a council of war Heath and his commanders decided to withdraw. Washington censured Heath for his failure, but as Washington himself had demonstrated in his retreat across Jersey, living to fight another day was a wise  strategy. Had Heath's forces been beaten outright, or even captured, New England might have been cut off from the Middle Colonies and the strategic situation made untenable.

American Soldiers in the Highlands
But Heath was never again given  command of troops in action. Still, he remained in  important posts as was common at this time. Heath was a solid commander of this American army of observation (my words) covering the no man's land north of Manhattan. His presence maintained the valuable link between the colonies, protected the Hudson, and served to keep the British in check. Heath's forces helped gather and send intelligence to Washington. Reading his dispatches one realizes he had a good eye for terrain, people and the enemy situation. Heath worked diligently at logistics and overall helped maintain the Patriot presence in a vital state. His handling of the  Daniel Strang Court Martial for espionage is indicative of his wide range of duties as a commander and administrator. He approved the sentence of death and it was duly carried out. Strang was found guilty of spying and recruiting for the notorious Loyalist Colonel Robert Rogers.  Heath was later placed in charge of the Convention Army of John Burgoyne's surrendered troops after the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777. But in 1780 he returned to command the Highland Department after Benedict Arnold's treason.  And in July 1783 he was given command of the Lower Hudson District while George Washington was in Yorktown with Main Army. Again standing watch on the powerful British forces in New York.

Major General Heath commanded the critical Hudson Highlands
during much of the War for Independence

Post War Patriot

After the war, Heath was a member of the Massachusetts Convention that ratified the United States Constitution in 1788. He served in the state Senate 1791-1792, and as a probate court judge. In 1806 he was elected the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, but declined the office. Heath was listed as an original member of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati. Our First patriot, died at home in Roxbury, on January 24, 1814, and was buried nearby in Forest Hills Cemetery. The town of Heath, Massachusetts, is named in his honor.

Heath's Monument at
Forest Hills Cemetery


  1. Very interesting, I knew none of this

  2. Articles like this, which bring to light lesser known but important figures in our history, are both interesting and informative. I look forward to reading "The Patriot Spy."