The spring campaign, 1777
After the battles of Trenton and Princeton, the British were restricted to a strip of land from New Brunswick to Amboy. Washington had the militia, supported by small detachments of Continentals, constantly harass the British when they left the security of their lines. Soon the British could not forage or patrol the surrounding country unless they had a strong force of two regiments, or more, men.
Washington was encamped securely in Morristown. The enlistments of his Continentals were running out. In January his men could be counted by the hundreds, not thousands. Congress was creating and raising the 2nd Establishment of the army, but recruiting was slow- and would always be slow through the war. Slowly over the winter his strength rose until in May he had over 8000 men.
Writing to General Heath on February 14th, Washington said: "This would Oblige them to forage, with such large coving parties, that it would in a manner harass their Troops to death." And added," we not only oblige them to forage with parties of 1500 and 2000 to cover, but every now and then, give them a sharp Brush."
Indeed, many small skirmishes occured during the winter of 1777, all around the British occupied territories. See the Battle of Millstone as an example.
The British felt the pressure. The Colonel of the 16th Light Horse, wrote this letter:
From "The Spirit of Seventy-Six", edited by Henry Steele Commanger and Richard B. Morris, page 524;
Colonel William Harcourt to his father Earl Harcourt
Brunswick, March 17th, 1777
The public papers have hitherto given you a fair account
of our operations; in what light they may state the affairs of
Trenton and PrinceTown I cannot so easily guess, for, however
we may blame the scandalous negligence and cowardice of the Hessian
brigade, there certainly was a fault in the original arrangement
of the winter quarters, which were much to extensive for an army
of our numbers, and the position of Trenton in itself extremely
However Government may have been flattered by the representations of a few interested individuals, you may depend upon it, as a fact, that we have not yet met with ten, I believe I have said two, disinterested friends to the supremacy of Great Britain; that from the want of intelligence we frequently nay generally, lose the favorable opportunity for striking a decisive stroke, that in general we ought to avoid attacking any considerable body of them (suppose two or three hundred), unless we can pursue our advantage, or at least take post; for though we may carry our point, nevertheless, whenever we attempt to return to our quarters we may be assured of their harassing us upon our retreat; that detached corps should never march without artillery, of which the rebels are extremely apprehensive, lastly, that, though they seem to be ignorant of the precision and order, and even of the principles, by which large bodies are moved, yet they possess some of the requisites for making good troops, such as extreme cunning, great industry in moving ground and felling of wood, activity and a spirit of enterprise upon any advantage.
Having said thus much, I have no occasion to add that, though it was once the fashion of this army to treat them in the most contemptible light, they are now become a formidable enemy. Formidable, however, as they may be, I flatter myself we are a good deal more so, and I have therefore little doubt that, provided affairs continue quite in Europe, and the expected reinforcements arrive in good time, we shall soon bring this business to a happy conclusion.
Harcourt, ed. Harcourt Papers, II, 207-209
On April 14th, General Cornwallis lead 4000 men to attack General Benjamin Lincoln's force stationed at Bound Brook in advance of the army. Taken by surprise, Lincoln was able to retreat into the mountains after loosing 2 cannon and 60 killed, wounded or captured. Reportedly, Lincoln had to flee so quickly he was not able to finish dressing first. Greene advanced his division from Vealtown (Basking Ridge) but arrived after the 12 mile march too late to assist. The British returned to New Brunswick with 100 head of sheep and cattle and various captured stores.
On May 26th, British General Grant lead an advance on Bound Brook again. Sharp skirmishing stopped him there. Grant had his horse shot by a cannon from under him, and he was bruised by the fall. He returned to New Brunswick.
General Howe planned to abandon the Jersey's to invade Philadelphia. Before he left he tried to bring Washington into battle. Washington had moved from Morristown to Middlebrook on the 28th, after receiving reports that the British had shipped their sick, wounded and camp followers to New York. At Middlebrook, he had the protection of the Watchung Mountains, yet was within easy striking distance of the British.
Washington explained to B. Arnold in Philadelphia on June 17th, 1777, "I intend by light bodies of Militia, countenanced by a few Continental Troops, to harass them and weaken their numbers by continual skirmishes."
Howe advanced toward Somerset Court House (now Millstone) from New Brunswick on June 11th, arriving there on the 13th, his presence inviting a general engagement. Washington reacted by moving the advance troops back, in turn inviting the British to attack him in his strong position, or to try to advance even farther, thus leaving their flanks and supply lines open to attack in turn. His forward detachments harassed the outlining British units on their flanks and rear lines. On the 19th Howe marched his army back to New Brunswick, along the way burning and plundering. On the 22nd his men marched to Perth Amboy, strongly harassed in flank and rear by Washington's forward detachments of Continentals and Militia. Washington moved the main army to Quibbletown, in Piscataway. Greene drove the Hessian rear guard out of New Brunswick, and Lord Stirling advanced on the left of the army towards Woodbridge.
Howe, realizing that he could not embark his troops while threatened with an attack, now reversed tactics on Washington. Washington had denied the British the Jerseys by attacking detached units, stopping the British from spreading out to control the country. On the 22nd , Howe moved a strong force back north to attack Lord Stirling, who had been stationed on the army's left. Moving forward in two columns, the British were able to get close before being detected. Lord Stirling's men fought back hard and made a successful retreat before they could be surrounded, in a fight called the Battle of Short Hills or the Battle of Ash Swamp. He then retreated to Westfield and the base of the mountains. Washington also pulled his men back, and Howe then made a easy withdrawl to Staten Island.
Here is an acccount of that period by Nicholas Cresswell, a British civilian who had come to American in 1774- and was thereafter unhappy, being a loyal subject of the king.
The journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 1774--1777.
Brumswick, New Jersey--Friday, June 20th, 1777.
This morning left New York in company with Colonel Cotton and Colnl. Reid, on board a suttling sloop for this place. When we got through the Narrows we were entertained with one of the most pleasing and delightful scenes I ever saw before. Four hundred sail of ships, brigs, schooners and sloops with five sail of the Line all under-way and upon a Wind at once, in the compass of two miles. A gentle breeze and fine clear day added greatly to the beauty of this delightful view. They are all bound to Perth Amboy, it is said, to take the Troops on board. About noon we got to the mouth of the Rareaton River with flood tide. This River is very crooked and very narrow. We often saw scouting parties of the Rebels and just as we passed a Row Galley that lay in the River, some of the Rebel Rifle men fired upon her from amongst the Weeds, who returned it with two or three great Guns which soon drove the Rascals out of their lurking places and made them seek for safety in their heels.
A little before we got up to the Town we met several sloops loaded with provisions, household furniture, and camp equipage which informed us that the Royal Army was defeated by the Rebels and most part of them cut to pieces. We had heard a heavy cannonade all day and at that instant heard them very busy with small arms, which served to put us in a very great panic. The two Colonels and two of the Boat's hands were for returning immediately, but the Master of the Boat and myself absolutely refused to return till we had been at Brunswick, which we saw then in sight. I don't know whether we should have been able to have prevailed with the two Warlike Colonels to have come up to town, had it not happened that, while we were disputing about it, a party of the Rebels and a party of our Army begun to fire upon each other across the River about two miles below us. This was a weighty reason for us to get these two heroic Colonels up to town, where we arrived about 8 o'clock and to our great joy found the report we had heard to be false. The man we heard it from was a Sutler and had a sloop coming up the River with Calves and Sheep. The one we were in was loaded with those articles and was the only one that was expected to arrive for some time with fresh stock. Could he have frightened us back again, he would have engrossed the whole Market to himself. This I believe was his only motive for telling us the abominable lie. Colonel Cotton soon found some of his old acquaintance, a Captn. Beaumont Waggon, Master General, at whose Tent we were very kindly entertained and lodged. This gentleman informs us that the Army intends to evacuate this place to-morrow and march to Amboy. He does not know what is the meaning of the Cannonade to-day or where it has been. I am convinced both my Colonels are rank cowards from the great trepidation so visible when we heard the false report, but now they have got a glass of wine in their heads, and are as bold and courageous as Mars himself.
Bonum Town, New Jersey--Saturday, June 21st, 1777.
Spent the forenoon with my old Friend Lieut. Keir in viewing the different encampments which is certainly one of the finest sights in the world, everything is conducted with so much order and regularity. I wish much to be a soldier, more particularly at this time, that I might have an opportunity of revenging myself upon these ungrateful Scoundrels.
Mr. Keir resents the ungrateful and dishonest behaviour of Parker and his companion, they refuse to pay him for the arms he purchased for their use. About 4 o'clock this afternoon the advance Guard of the Army with about 500 Waggons loaded with ammunition and baggage, marched from Brunswick and camped at this place. Colnls. Reid and Cotton and me rode in a Baggage Waggon and made ourselves very merry with the different scenes that we saw amongst the soldiery and their ladies. Our Camp is within a quarter of a mile of the enemy's Picket guard. We have a good force with us. I don't care if they pay us a visit.
Staten Island--Sunday, June 22nd, 1777.
Last night I had most uncomfortable lodgings along with Colonel Reid upon a Tent only spread upon the ground in which we wrapped ourselves. Almost bit to death with Mosquitoes and poisoned with the stink of some Rebels, who have been buried about three weeks in such a slight manner that waggons have cut up parts of the half corrupted carcases and made them stink most horribly. By 5 o'clock this morning all the Tents were struck and the Army ready to march.
About 8 the main body of the Army came up. At that instant some of the Rebels' Scouting parties fired upon our Sentinels, which brought on a smart skirmish. I happened to see them in the bushes before they fired, but mistook them for some of our rangers. They were about 300 yards from me. When the engagement began I got upon a little hillock to see the better, but an honest Highlander advised me to retire into a small breastwork just by, without I had a mind to stick up myself as a mark for the Rebels to shoot at. I thought proper to take his advice and retired to the place he directed me to, where I had a very good view of their proceedings. I observed a party of our men going through a rye field, I suppose with an intent to get into the rear of the Rebels and by that means surround them, but they were met as soon as they got out of the field by about the same number of the Rebels. When they were about 100 yards from each other both parties fired, but I did not observe any fall. They still advanced to the distance of 40 yards or less, and fired again, I then saw a good number fall on both sides. Our people then rushed upon them with their bayonets and the others took to their heels, I heard one of them call out murder lustily. This is laughable if the consequence was not serious. A fresh party immediately fired upon our people, but were dispersed and pursued into the Woods by a company of the 15th. Regmt. A brisk fire then began from six field pieces the Rebels had secreted in the Woods, which did some mischief to our men, the engagement lasted about thirty-five minutes. Our people took the Field pieces about 40 prisoners and killed about 150 of the Scoundrels with the loss of 39 killed and 27 wounded.
I went to the place where I saw the two parties fire upon each other first before the wounded were removed but I never before saw such a shocking scene, some dead others dying, death in different shapes some of the wounded making the most pitiful lamentations, others that were of different parties cursing each other as the author of their misfortunes. One old Veteran I observed (that was shot through both legs and not able to walk) very coolly and deliberately loading his piece and cleaning it from blood. I was surprised at the sight and asked him his reasons for it. He, with a look of contempt, said, "To be ready in case any of the Yankees come that way again." About 10 o'clock the whole Army was in motion. It is said our Army burnt Brunswick when they left, others contradict the report and say it was left without damage, but all the County houses were in flames as far as we could see. The Soldiers are so much enraged they will set them on fire, in spite of all the Officers can do to prevent it. They seem to leave the Jerseys with reluctance, the train of Artillery and Waggons extends about nine miles and is upwards of 1000 in number. Some people say there are 20,000 men, but I am afraid there is not so many, the real numbers are for very good reasons kept secret. About 2 o'clock the Van arrived at the City of Perth Amboy 14 miles from Brunswick, the road is through plantations, but pretty good. The Rebels kept skirmishing with our rear all the way, but little loss on either side.
This City (for it is called a City), tho' it does not contain more than 200 Houses mostly built of wood, is the capital of East New Jersey and was called Perth Amboy from its first founder, the Earl of Perth, who was once proprietor of East New Jersey, but surrendered his right to the Crown in 1737. I believe it never was a place of any trade, tho' very conveniently situated for it. There is a fine safe and commodious harbour and within sight of the Sea, but very few Rivers of any consequence empty themselves into it, which perhaps may be the reason why they have no trade here. The City is very handsomely laid out in Hundred acres of land and contains 150 Lots or squares for building upon. There is one Church, a Meeting House. The Courthouse is a good brick building and the Governor's house is an elegant stone building, said to have cost £4000.
Here we found some of the Hessian Light-horse who have just
arrived, that is the Men and Horses, but the wise conductors of
these matters sent the saddles in another Ship which has not arrived,
so that they are of no use at present. These troops are clothed
in Green and armed with most enormous long crooked swords. There
are good barracks in this town for about 2000 men. We crossed
the sound to Staten Island and dined at a public house with Colonel
Rodgers, the famous Major Rodgers last War. He is a New Englander
by birth, but a mere savage from his education. Then we walked
about 4 miles and lodged at a farm house, an acquaintance of Colonel
Cotton's. Everyone is surprised at our Army quitting the Jerseys,
where they are bound to is a profound secret. The people on this
Island begin to be very uneasy, they apprehend a visit from the
Rebels very soon. I am confoundedly tired with scribbling.
The situation of the Americans is well said by Alexander Hamilton below.
Letter from Alexander Hamilton, aide to General Washington,
to Robert R. Livingston, taken from:
"A Salute to Courage" edited by Dennis P. Ryan, 1979, Columbia Univ. Press
Head Quarters Camp, at Middlebrook June 28th, 1777
Yours of the 25th came to hand last night. Since my last addressed to Mr. Morris, the enemy have been trying a second experiment to tempt us to an engagement, on equal terms of ground. Under the supposition of their intending to evacuate the Jerseys immediately. In order to keep up the idea of a persuit [sic], and to be in a posture to take advantage of any critical moment that might present itself to give them a blow, the chief part of our army, after their retreat from Brunswick, was marched down to Quibbletown, and parties detached thence further towards the enemy. Finding this disposition take place, and expecting that elated by what had passed, we might be willing to venture upon a general engagement, which is Howe's only hope, he came out with his whole army from Amboy early on Thursday morning and made a forced march towards our left, with design, if possible, to cutoff some of our detachments, particularly one under Lord Stirling: and propably [sic], if we were not expeditious in regaining the heights, to get there before us, by rapidly entering the passes on our left. Lord Stirlings party was near being surrounded: but after a smart skirmish with the enemy's main body, made their retreat good to Westfield, and ascended the pass of the mountains back of Scotch Plains. The other parties after skirmish on their flanks came off to join the main body and take possession of the heights. The enemy continued their march towards our left as far as Westfield, and there halted. In the mean time, it was judged prudent to return with the army to the mountains, lest it should be their intention to get into them and force us to fight them on their own terms. They remained at Westfield till the next day, and perceiving their views disappointed have again returned to Amboy, plundering and burning as usual. We had parties hanging about them in their return; but they were so much on their guard no favourable opportunity could be found of giving them any material annoyance. Their loss we cannot ascertain; and our own, in men, is inconsiderable, though we have as yet received no returns of the missing. I have no doubt they have lost more men than we; but unfortunately, I won't say from what cause, they got three field pieces from us, which will give them room for vapouring, and embellish their excursion, in the eyes of those, who make every trifle a matter of importance. It is not unlikely they will soon be out of the Jersies; but where they will go to next is mere matter of conjecture, for as you observe, their conduct is so eccentric, as to leave no certain grounds on which to form a judgement of their intentions.
I know the comments that some people will make on our Fabian conduct. It will be imputed either to cowardice or weakness: But the more discerning, I trust, will not find it difficult to conceive that it proceeds from the truest policy, and is an argument neither of the one nor the other. The liberties of America are an infinite stake: We should not play a desperate game for it or put it upon the issue of a single cast of the die. The loss of one general engagement may effectively ruin us, and it would certainly be folly to hazard it, unless our resources for keeping up an army were to end, and some decisive blow was absolutely necessary; or unless our strength was so great as to give certainty of success. Neither is the case: America can in all probability maintain its army for years, and our numbers though such as would give a reasonable hope of success are not such as should make us intirely [sic] sanguine. A third consideration did it exist might make it expedient to risk such an event-the prospect of very great reinforcements to the enemy; but every appearance contradicts this, and affords all reason to believe, they will get very inconsiderable accessions of strength this campaign. All the European maritime powers, are interested for the defeat of the British arms in America, and will never assist them. A small part of Germany is disposed to make a market of its troops, and even this seems not over-fond of being drained any further. Many springs may be put in motion even to put a stop to this. The King of Prussia may perhaps without much difficulty be engaged to espouse views unfriendly to the Court of Britain, and a nod of his would be sufficient to prevent all future German succours. [sic] He as well as most other powers of Europe feels the necessity of Commerce and a large maritime force to be generally respectable. His situation, 'till lately, had been unfavourable to this; but the reduction of Poland and the acquisition of Danzig in the Baltic, have put it very much in his power to pursue commercial schemes; and may tempt him to be propitious to American independence. Russian assistance is still infinitely more precarious; for besides that it cannot be the true interest of that ambitious empire to put its troops to gate, it is, at present, embroiled with the turks [sic] and will want all its men to employ in its own wars. England herself, from the nature of her polity can furnish few soldiers and even these few can ill be spared, to come to America in the present hostile appearance of affairs in Europe. On whatever side it is considered, no great reinforcements are to be expected to the British army in America. It is therefore Howe's business to make the most of his present strength, and as he is not numerous enough to conquer and garrison as he goes, his only hope lies in fighting us and giving a general defeat in one blow.
On our part: we are continually strengthening our political springs in Europe, and may everyday look for more effectual aids than we have yet received. Our own army is continually growing stronger in men arms and discipline. We shall soon have an important addition of Artillery, now in its way to join us. We can maintain our present numbers good at least by inlistments [sic], while the enemy must dwindle away; and at the end of summer the disparity between us will be infinitely great, and facilitate any exertions that may be make to settle the business with them. It will serve to perplex and fret them, and precipitate them into measures, that we can turn to good account. Out business then is to avoid a General engagement and waste the enemy away by constantly goading their sides, in a desultory way.
In the mean time it is painful to leave a part of the inhabitants a prey to their depredations; and it is wounding to the feelings of a soldier, to see an enemy parading before him and daring him to a fight which he is obliged to decline. But a part must be sacrificed to the whole, and passion must give way to reason. You will be sensible that it will not be advisable to publish the sentiments contained in this letter as coming from me; because this will make the enemy more fully acquainted with our views; but it might not be amiss to have them circulated, as those which ought to govern the conduct of the army, in order to prepare the minds of the people for what may happen and take off the disagreeable impression our catition [sic] may make. I am Dr. Sir Your most Obed servant
[signed] A. Hamilton
June 8th, 1780
You will march with all the force you can muster be as active as possible in annoying the enemy this day.
Upon their left flank, endeavoring to put you parties as much covered by woods as the situation of the country will admit as you will thereby be the better defended from the attempts of their horse, altho you are reauired to harass the enemy as much as in your power, at the same time you are requested to be careful not to expend ammunition unnecessarily, only when the object is sure. Please to send by the bearer your number as near as can be ascertained.
I am your humble servant,
Stirling, M.G. Proceedings of the NJ historical Society, Vol. 60, 1942. Letters of William Alexander Lord Stirling,p.178
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