The Battle of Millstone

A Revolutionary War militia action near Somerset Court House,

Sometimes called the battle of Van Nest's Mills, Jan. 20th 1777.


The small village of Somerset Court House in central New Jersey saw an extraordinary amount of Revolutionary war military activity, being on the road between north Jersey and Princeton, and between Princeton and New Brunswick. Not unexpectedly the militia around Somerset Court House, now Millstone, New Jersey, saw action several times, since they were in an area frequented by British troops foraging from New Brunswick.

After Washington fought the Battle of Princeton, he moved north along the Millstone River to Somerset Court House. Captain Thomas Rodney of the Delaware Line, commanding the van of the army on the march towards Somerset Court House, said: "We then marched on to a little village called Stone Brook or Summerset Court House about 15 miles from Princeton where we arrived just at dusk. About an hour before we arrived here 150 of the enemy from Princeton and 50 which were stationed in this town went off with 20 wagons laden with clothing and Linen, and 400 of the Jersey Militia were afraid to fire on them and let them go off unmolested, and there were no troops in our army fresh enough to pursue them, or the whole might have been taken in a few hours." ("Diary", Delaware Historical Society Papers, Viii, Wilmington, 1888, 32-38)

An inauspicious start, but later that month they were able, under the head of the New Jersey Militia, General Philemon Dickinson, to do much better. Washington had ordered his Continentals and the NJ Militia to engage the enemy outposts and seperate parties, in order to contain, harass and tire them them with constant patrols, so that they would not be able to leave their bases in New Brunswick and Amboy with less than 1500 or 2000 men. The Militia responded to this call with enthusiasm.

A British foraging party out of New Brunswick moved west to Somerset Court House, then north to Van Nest's Mill, which stood near Weston Canal Road in what is today Manville. Taking a large amount of flour from the mill, and gathering stock along the way, the British foragers set up a defense with 3 or more small cannon guarding the crossing of the Millstone. In the ice cold of January, the militia, assisted by some Continentals, crossed the river waist deep at some distance away, taking the British by surprise and recapturing many wagons of supplies and livestock.

One member of a local militia company, a slave named Samuel Sutphen, who was sent by his master as a replacement, said this in 1834 when he was 87, about the battle:

In the spring following, probably March [Sutphin had his chronology confused, this date should be January], a party of the enemy from N[ew] B[runswick] came out to Van Ess 40 mills on the Millstone. A party of militia under Lieut. Davis was stationed near the two bridges , when an express rider on a black horse from Col. Frelinghuysen gave tidings of the enemy at V. Ess mills. I piloted Davis' Co[mpany] and as many others as we could assemble to a fording place over the S[ outh] branch , and hurried on to the mills. They had plundered the mill of grain and flour, and were on their way back to Brunswick, but had not got out of the lane leading from the mill to the great road. We headed them in the lane. The team laden with the flour was the first we fell in with; the lane, 100 yards, was filled with 4-horse teams. Davis ordered us to fire, and then we shot part of the 1st team, which stopped the whole drove. The drivers left their teams and run. A guard escorting the teams made their escape. We took, as was said, about 40 horses, and all the waggons, about 10, which were all sent off under an escort to Morristown.

A party of Hessians, about 1 company (70), an escort for these teams from Brunswick, was discovered secreted behind a hedge with some 4 or 5 field pieces. They fired upon us and retreated. We followed on a piece, but Lt. Davis ordr'd us to retreat. Davis' Capt. Westcott from Cumberland had heen left sick at Guysbert Bogert's, where he died, and was taken back to Cumberland Co[unty]. There was a large body of militia out, and Gen'l Dickinson commanded. The firing was principally across the river at the bridge. I was out on this alarm but one day. We mounted guard along the branch above the 2-bridges almost every night; nearly all this winter and spring on guard duty.(1)

an other militia man, probably William Churchill Houston, wrote in his journal:

Staid here in peace till Monday morning [January 20] we then received an Alarm and were ordered to march to Boundbrook, we arrived there between 11 and 12, then hearing that the Enemy was plundering at Millstone, we immediately marched for that place, being joined by a considerable body at Boundbrook we marched on till we passed Raritan Bridge , hearing several Cannon fired, while on the way. After crossing the Bridge, the Battallion I was in was taken off for the left wing, I crossed Millstone, some distance below the Bridge*, wading through the water, more than knee deep. We immediately marched towards the road, and fired upon the Baggage Guard, who were retreated that way. They immediately left horses wagons and plunder, and returned with the greatest precipitation. The main body of the Enemy lay just over south of the Bridge . Before we crossed the River below, our main Body began the Attack at the Bridge with one Field piece and made the Enemy give way. They continued their fire upon the Enemy some time. Our wing, after driving the Baggage Guard, pursued on and flanked the Enemy. After a short engagement, finding ourselves greatly overpowered with numbers, we receivecl General Orders to retreat, having had 1 man killed and 2 wounded. and we had taken 2 of the Enemy prisoners. We then retreated back to the River, lest our retreat should be cut off. But finding the Enemy did not pursue, we rallied again, with as many of our men as we could collect, and marched on towards the Enemy the second time; but when we came in sight of them, they got possession of an eminence in the End of a clear Field, with one or more Field pieces and poured down theil Grape shot upon us briskly. Then finding it in vain to attack them with our little Body, under so great a disadvantage, we immediately retreated back and most of our men went over the River up into a clear field, to where our main Body had bv this time collected....(2)

General Dickinson wrote a very brief account of the experience in a letter to Colonel John Nielson dated Raritan, New Jersey, January 23: "I have the pleasure to inform you that on Monday last with about 450 men chiefly our militia I attacked a foraging party near V. Nest Mills consisting of 500 men with 2 field pieces, which we routed after an engagement of 20 minutes and brought off 107 horses, 49 wagons, 115 cattle, 70 sheep, 40 barrels of flour - 106 bags and many other things, 49 prisoners"(3) General George Washington went into more detail in his letter to John Hancock written on 22 January 1777: My last to you was on the 20th instant. Since that, I have the pleasure to inform you, that General Dickinson, with about 400 Militia, has defeated a foraging Party of the Enemy of an equal number, and has taken forty Waggons and upwards of an hundred Horses, most of them of the English draft Breed, and a number of Sheep and Cattle which they had collected. The Enemy retreated with so much precipitation, that General Dickinson had only an opportunity of making nine prisoners, they were observed to carry off a good many dead and wounded in light Waggons. This Action happened near Somerset Court House on Millstone River. Genl Dickinsons behaviour reflects the highest honour upon him, for tho' his Troops were all raw, he lead them thro' the River, middle deep, and gave the Enemy so severe a charge, that, altho' supported by three field pieces, they gave way and left their Convoy.(5)

British engineer Archibald Robertson's diary entry for 20 January 1777 agrees with Washington's account of the skirmish on that date: Lieutenant Colonel Abercromby with 500 men went on a foraging party towards Hillsborough. Part of this Corps was attacked by the Rebels, which occasion'd such disorder Amongst the Waggon Drivers that 42 Waggons were left behind. An anonymous letter published in the Pennsylvania Journal; and the Weekly Advertiser (Philadelphia) on 29 January 1777 gives a slightly different but more detailed account: Last Monday a party of Jersey Militia, consisting of about 400, and about 50 of the Pennsylvania Rifle-Men, marched to attack a body of the enemy, consisting of about 600, who were posted at a bridge at Millstone river, near Abraham Vannest's mill, which is two miles from Somerset Court House. In order more effectually to prevent our men from crossing, the enemy had placed three field pieces on a hill, about 50 yards from the bridge; when our men found it impossible to cross there, they went down the river, broke through the ice, waded across the river up to their middles, flanked the enemy, routed them, and took 43 baggage waggons, 104 horses, 115 head of cattle, and about 60 or 70 sheep. We lost 4 or 5 men. - We took 12 prisoners, and from the best accounts the enemy had about 24 or 25 killed and wounded. A man who came from Brunswick this afternoon says, the enemy allow that they lost 35 or 36 men, but say the rebels lost 300. There were not more than 400 of our men crossed the river: The enemy report, that they were attacked by 3000 of General Washington's troops there, and were absolutely certain they were not Militia, they were sure that no Militia would fight in that way.

It is unclear to me whether the Americans waded the either the Millstone or Raritan rivers, but I suspect they waded both, in seperate parties, as the junction of the rivers is downstream of the site of the Van Veighton or Raritan bridge. By moving in from differant directions, they would have a better chance of outflanking the enemy, as they did. The British and Hessian troops evidently did not expect them to cross except at the bridge, over the Millstone near Van Nests Mills.

The Millstone is a small river, averaging a couple of feet deep, and 50 feet across (the Raritan , into which the Millstone flows, is much larger). For the water to be up to their middles the rivers would have to be running deep; even so, a crossing on foot in the middle of Winter followed by a sharp skirmish is a testimony to the determination of the troops involved. The aggressive behavior shown by the militia shows the change that had occurred after the battles of Trenton and Princeton. The belief in the invincibility of the British regulars had been shown false, and the inhabitants were not going to be robbed of their sustenance lightly. It became a strain on the British resources to send units large enough to protect themselves during foraging trips.

The Pennsylvania Continental "riflemen" were the men of Captain Durkee from the Wyoming Valley.




1 The account of Samuel Sutphen, slave and militia man, quoted from New Jersey in the Revolution, a documentary History edited by Larry Gerlach, NJ Historical Commission, 1975, page 354 to 360

2 Journal of a Militia man (William Churchill Houston?) the Princeton Standard, May 1, 8, 15, 1863, quoted from New Jersey in the Revolution, a Documentary History, page 334-336

3. Dickensen letter, Rutgers library

4. Letter, George Washington to John Hancock. A transcript of this letter , the Robertson diary account and the Penns. Journal article, were provided to me by Frank E. Grizzard, Jr. Assistant Editor, Papers of George Washington, University of Virginia; it has since been published in Volume 8 of the Revolutionary War Series of the Papers of George Washington. Some of the Papers of George Washington are available on the World-Wide Web at:

5. Lydenberg, Harry, ed. Archibald Robertson, His Diaries and Sketches in America, New York, 1930; reprinted 1971, p. 122.





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I recommend also Captain John Outwater's Co. of Bergen county Militia web page.


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