Revolutionary War Historical Article

New Jersey and the 1777 Forage War

by Donald N. Moran

We think of the year 1776 with great nostalgia - - it was the year we declared our independence from England and it is the year from which we date the age of our Country. We memorialize that year by using the term "The Spirit of 1776". In reality, it was a disastrous year, with the British devastating our army, and coming within a hair's breath of ending the revolt. We lost every battle! We were driven out of Brooklyn - then New York City. We lost our major defensive position at Forts Washington and Lee, with great losses of men and critical equipment, then were harshly driven across New Jersey. Our Army was reduced from 20,000 to a bit over 2,000!

It was only the genius of George Washington that saved the revolution and our fledging country. He realized that you can not conquer a country by marching through it. You must establish garrisons to control the local population. Destroy those garrisons and the enemy has achieved nothing. Realizing this, Washington fell on the New Jersey town of Trenton on Christmas Day. With only a handful of casualties he was able to kill, wound and/or capture the entire Hessian garrison. The British mounted a serious counter attack, led by their most aggressive general, Charles Lord Cornwallis. Rather than run for the safety of Pennsylvania, Washington doubled back on the pursuing Cornwallis and annihilated the British garrison at Trenton. Washington then made a feint toward New Brunswick, the British main supply base in New Jersey, causing Cornwallis to divert toward that place, while Washington and his Army escaped across the Delaware to Pennsylvania and relative safety.

 Click here to view a map showing where these events took place

These battles changed the course of the war. The British found that a full year of campaigning had accomplished nothing and they were now on the defensive. For the American Patriots, it proved that the British Army was not invincible, it provided hope and a promise that ultimate victory and independence were possible. Thousands of Americans rallied to the cause and the American army once again began to grow. The local New Jersey Militia, no longer thinking they were powerless, went on the offensive. Boy did they ever!

Many of the citizens of New Jersey had been grossly abused by the occupying British army and in particular the Hessians. Looting, burning, murder, rape were common place. All this occurring in spite of written guarantees of safety from Sir William Howe, the British Commander-in-Chief. Hence, the New Jersey Militia was not only taking to the offensive, but were out for revenge.

The militia was anything but organized. On a local level, they simply took advantage of opportunities that came their way. They realized they were not strong enough to duplicate Washington¹s conquest of Trenton or Princeton, by attacking some of the fortified garrison towns, but they could disrupt both the flow of information and supplies. Constantly being intercepted, the British couriers could not carry dispatches between New York City, the headquarters of the British Army, and the numerous New Jersey garrison. This proved very demoralizing. Every British garrison wanted to know, on a daily basis, where Washington and his Army was, for fear they would become the next Trenton. On January 3rd, 1777, Hessian Chaplain Philipp Waldeck wrote home: " . . . one can no longer lie down to sleep without thinking this is the last night, the last night of freedom. Instead of undressing in the evening as usual, one becomes accustomed to dress completely, and to go to bed in this manner."

The captured supplies were sent to General Washington in substantial quantities. So much so that it forced the British to increase the armed escorts for their supply wagons, which proved not to be a deterrent, but just supplying more targets for the militia. Napoleon Bonaparte once said that "an army travels on it¹s stomach" , a truism. But George Washington realized he had been handed an opportunity - forage and fodder. He wrote Congress " . . . if their horses are reduced this winter, it will be impossible for them to take to the field in the Spring." In 18th century an army needed horses to move their supplies, artillery and cavalry. Obtaining the amount of fodder needed for the entire British Army in North America was a supply nightmare. The main source of fodder was collected from local farms, gathered by foraging parties. Washington's orders - - "stop the foraging parties!" Thus started the foraging war!

On January 4th, Captain John Stryker, leading the Somerset Horse Unit intercepted a British supply train near Ten Mile Run and captured it. The wagons were filled with warm woolen winter clothes. These much needed supplies were sent to General Washington.

The next three days, the militia attacked the British and Hessians at Newark, Rahway and Bound Brook. The Militia attacked the Hessian patrols near Elizabethtown, a heavily fortified and garrisoned town. Captain George von Haacke was ordered to take a force of 60 Hessian Infantry and a squadron of British Dragoons and clear the area around the town. They were attacked, and only some of the Dragoons managed to make it back to Elizabethtown. General Howe, safe (and warm) at his New York City headquarters immediately ordered Elizabethtown abandoned. The British left in such a hurry that George Washington notified Congress that the British had: " . . . evacuated Elizabeth Town with so much precipitation that we made 100 prisoners and took the baggage of two regiments, besides a quantity of provisions." This astonishing turn of events all occurred within a fortnight of the taking of Trenton! The tables had been turned!

The British also abandoned the Loyalists, leaving them to fend for themselves. Many of the Loyalist troops changed sides, joining the American Army. Citizens that had taken the oath of allegiance to the Crown swore a new allegiance to Congress. In the January 30th, 1777 edition of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, a correspondent wrote: "Many of the inhabitants of Monmouth County who received written protections, are now determined to return them to his Britannic Majesty¹s Commissioners in cartridges."

By the end of January the New Jersey Militia, now reinforced, by Washington, with units from the Continental Line became more brazen. On the 20th at Van Nest Mill, General Philemon Dickinson led 400 New Jersey Militia and 50 Pennsylvania Riflemen against 600 British regulars. The British prevented Dickinson from attacking over a bridge, so he led his men downstream, forded the ice choked Millstone River, flanked the British and launched a surprise charge. The British suffered 25 killed or wounded and 12 taken prisoner. In addition, they lost 43 supply wagons, 104 irreplaceable horses, 115 head of cattle and 70 sheep.

The British were not slow to react. They realized that they had lost the initiative and had to take action to recover. On February 1st, Sir William Erskine set a trap. He sent out a small foraging party, but just out of sight he hid the 42nd Highlanders, some light grenadiers, Hessians and 8 artillery pieces.

The Patriot force, the 5th Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line took the bait. The ambush of the Americans failed. They fought with so much ferocity that they drove the superior British force back. The British suffered 136 killed or wounded.

Lord Cornwallis decided that he would personally take to the field and stop the carnage. He, with six other generals, led 12 Regiments into the New Jersey countryside. The Americans were smart enough to avoid a general action with such a superior force, but constantly harassed the flanks and rear of Lord Cornwallis' column. It was a repeat of the British retreat from Concord, Massachusetts.

To the North, the British Soldiers of the Sixth, Seventh and Twenty-sixth Regiments of Foot were stationed in Hackensack. The interdiction of the New Jersey Militia had successfully prevented supplies from reaching them, they were literally starving. Additionally, as the northern most British garrison, they were rightfully concerned that the American forces stationed in the Hudson Highlands could attack them from the North. They abandoned Hackensack and marched to the eastern shore of New Jersey, where they could be resupplied and protected by the Royal Navy¹s guns laying at anchor in the Hudson River.

American Brigadier General William Maxwell, Irish born, with a heavy accent, known as 'Scotch Willie' to his men, undertook the coordination of the many militia units. He organized them into a formidable fighting force that met and defeated the British at every turn.

Colonel Charles Mawhood, one of the better British Officers, led the British Third Brigade, which included the famed Forty-Second Highland Regiment (The Black Watch) supported by a Regiment of Grenadiers and a Regiment of Light Infantry into New Jersey in a desperate attempt to gather forage. Like failed attempts before, he intended to trap the Americans attacking his foragers. 'Scotch Willie' Maxwell was waiting for him. At Rahway, Mawhood sprang his trap. But Maxwell had set up a trap too. He had Colonel Edward Hand¹s Pennsylvanians, Colonel George Stricker's Maryland Regiment and Colonel John Broadhead's Eighth Pennsylvania Regiment arrayed around him. The trap sprung, and the British suffered heavy causalities, losing 100 men. Their forage wagons returned not with fodder for their horses but filled with wounded soldiers. The American losses were five killed and nine wounded.

On March 8th, now very desperate for fodder, a force of 2,000 crack troops was dispatched. At Bonhamtown, they had the misfortune of encountering "Scotch Willie". A British officer who survived the engagement wrote that they had marched into "a nest of American hornets." The British lost 60 men, the Americans 20.

Up until January 1777, the British held the American¹s fighting ability in utter contempt. In just a few weeks that all changed. On March 17th, 1777, Colonel William Harcourt, commander of the elite British Sixteenth Light Dragoons wrote his father, The Earl of Harcourt, imparting his opinion of the American soldiers. " . . . they are now become a formidable enemy . . . they seem to be ignorant of the precision and order, and even in principle by which large bodies are moved, but 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."

By April 1777, two years after the start of the war at Lexington/Concord, there was no end in sight. What was viewed as a quick victory at the end of 1776 was now completely reversed. The British Army found itself barricaded in a few coastal cities.

Between the attack on Trenton and the beginning of April, General Howe had lost an estimated 2,887 killed or captured. The victorious year of 1776 saw the total British losses at 1,510. When Howe invaded New York he commanded 31,625 troops of which only 24,464 were considered fit for duty. A report filed by Howe on January 8th, 1777 states that he had 22,957 men of which only about 14,000 were still fit for duty.

Not denoted in the report that the British losses were heaviest in their best Regiments. Howe wrote London asking for an additional 15,000 reinforcements. The British government had stretched its resources to provide the original 32,000 man army.

The shortage of troops hampered the British for the remaining seven years of the war. They never had overwhelming numbers. When Howe and later General Sir Henry Clinton, attempted to divide their forces and attack the Americans in multiple locations, their armies were defeated piecemeal. If you review each of their major undertakings, such as General John Burgoyne's attack from Canada, which ended in defeat at Saratoga, what would have been the results had he had an additional 5,000 troops? Had General Howe had enough troops to have moved a large force up the Hudson River to join with Burgoyne as well as his move to capture Philadelphia, thereby keeping George Washington's forces pinned down in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. what would have been the outcome?

Another result of Trenton/Princeton/Forage War was to create the impression that invading New Jersey was suicidal. Two of those years George Washington and his Continental Army encamped at Morristown, and basically were unmolested. Three years later, in 1780, two major attempts were made on New Jersey and both ended in major defeats.

The New Jersey situation influenced the thinking of the British command so extensively, that when Washington and French General Comte de Rochambeau marched from Newport, Rhode Island and the Hudson Highlands of New York to Yorktown, Virginia, by way of New Jersey, Sir Henry Clinton was reluctant to cross the Hudson and attack their exposed flank.

The winter of 1776/1777 not only saved the Revolution, but had another impact that served our fledgling country well - - the reputation of George Washington. Washington became a national hero when he drove the British out of Boston in March 1776. But then after losing every battle during the New York campaign, his reputation had sunk so badly that many wanted him replaced. The winter campaign changed all that - - George Washington gained international fame.

After defeating Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, effectively winning the war, Washington invited Cornwallis to dine with him. In the tradition of the day, a toast was offered by the vanquished to the victor. Lord Cornwallis rose and gave this toast: "When the illustrious part your Excellency has borne in this long and arduous contest becomes a matter of history, fame will gather your brightest laurels rather from the banks of the Delaware than from those of the Chesapeake".

For further reading we highly recommend David Hackett Fischer's "Washington's Crossing", the most comprehensive study of this important period of our history. It is available in most book stores.

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