Saturday, January 12, 2013

New Jersey and the Black Times 1776

Affliction is the good man’s shining time.
Edward Young

Even before the New York Campaign ended, the Howe brothers-- the younger the commander of the British Army, the older the Navy-- were pondering their next move. General Sir Henry Clinton, General William Howe's aggressive second in command, had ideas: destroy the Continental Army, capture Philadelphia and Congress, or both preferably; and he wanted Henry Clinton to lead the campaign. Neither of the Howes took his advice, though. How can we continue to quell the rebellious spirit in the American colonies? they asked. How can we sustain our commands 3,000 miles from home?

Even victorious military forces get worn out after months of hard campaigning, and the British forces in North America that autumn of 1776 were no exception. Admiral Richard Howe's ships were showing some wear, and so were William's infantry: their red and, for the Royal Artillery and the Hessian mercenaries, blue uniforms were in rags and torn up in places, a shadow of their former selves; some had to go barefoot because they had worn their shoes out. The hard-working quartermasters couldn't sufficiently replace these losses. Provisions were thinning. An unforgiving North American winter was imminent. Thus, William needed to not only replenish his supplies but to find shelter for his troops. True, the British had New York City, but since the fire that broke out there on September 21 took out 50 percent of the buildings, it could only house a few of them. Also, the city's surrounding countryside, having already been bled white by troops from both sides, provided insufficient forage, if anything. As for Richard, New York harbor was far from the ideal winter refuge for his warships; the waters encompassing Manhattan tended to freeze solid back then.

So the brothers decided to begin two campaigns simultaneously.

Richard would occupy Rhode Island-- only the island-- and the town of Newport. The climate was milder there, and the town's harbor was closer to the Gulf Stream; consequently it had less ice and therefore less of a chance of Black Dick's ships being harmed. The province's farms and plantations could feed a huge portion of the army through the winter, and its capture would provide a stepping-stone for the Crown to reclaim all of New England. Then there was the Clinton factor: He was a thorn in William's side, and what better way to remove that thorn than to send it to Rhode Island? Thus, Clinton was given command of this expedition. Contentious Clinton didn't like, but he obeyed. Although he openly criticized Howe, disobeying orders was below him: "The admiral wanted a winter station for his large ships and every other consideration must give way," he grumbled.

William would occupy eastern New Jersey. Forage was bountiful in her lush countryside. His men could spend the winter in her towns. British intelligence sources indicated that the Continental Army was somewhere north of New York City, so it was expected that there wouldn't be much in the way of resistance. The British were to take that part of New Jersey without a major battle, and before the Rebels could turn that lush countryside into a desolate wasteland. More importantly, the Crown would have retaken a third colony.

The brothers' plan was tactically and strategically sound. It put both the army and the navy into consideration; would put more space between General Washington and New York; would involve the reclamation of two more colonies; would allow Loyalists in areas where they were thought to be the majority to receive direct support from the Crown; and, most significantly, would ensure that the Howes still had the initiative and continue to pressure the enemy. Also, it was a perfect stepping stone for next year's campaign... if that was needed at all. To the British commanders, it was starting to look doubtful that the American bid for Independence would go into 1777. Indeed, some of them predicted that the war would end sometime during the coming winter. Hoping for that prediction to become a reality, William and Richard speedily and determinedly implemented their plans.

For the other side, the more land the British held, the more patriot ears were able to hear the Howes' deliberations. Soon, word of the brothers' intentions reached one of the most important ears of all: General George Washington, commander of the Continental Army. On November 7, he wrote New Jersey Governor William Livingston that the enemy would soon launch "an expedition to the Jerseys." The next day, he wrote one of his trusted subordinates, Major General Nathaniel Greene, that he had learned from "various sources of intelligence" that the enemy would soon make a "penetration into Jersey." Washington continued: move your provisions from Fort Lee as soon as possible, and request that the locals "drive off their stock, and remove the Hay, Grain, etc." Should they refuse, destroy it. On the 9th, the Americans captured some British deserters. Flat-bottomed boats are going up the Harlem to prepare to cross the Hudson River, the captors were told. We were ordered to be "ready dressed" with supplies for five days.

Washington took action. Also on November 9, he had ordered the army to cross the Hudson at Peekskill, and the Americans began to move in accordance to this directive. On the 12th, his new headquarters became the house of Judge Peter Zabriskie in Hackensack. "In his mind, this movement was not a retreat but a shift of front," notes historian David Hackett Fischer. "Washington went into New Jersey to protect the state from attack."

On the 18th, the Royal Navy sailed up the Hudson, "passing the enemy's posts undiscovered," and delivered droves of landing barges and double-ended bateaux, which were then hidden north of Manhattan at Spuyten Duyvil.

Orders came from General Howe late the next day. Receiving them were a total of around 5,000 men under Major General Charles Cornwallis, the first time he had an independent command: two battalions each of Grenadiers, Guards, Light Infantry, and the 42nd Foot, the Royal Highland Regiment; three battalions of Hessian Grenadiers; two companies of Hessian Jägers; the 33rd Foot; and detachments of Royal Engineers, Royal Artillerymen with eight cannons, and 100 men of Robert Roger's corps of Loyalists.

Those units, Howe commanded, were to be all packed and ready to march at 9:00 that evening. The men did not disappoint him. When it came to secrecy, no stone was left unturned. When darkness came, Cornwallis led the light infantry, grenadiers, 33rd Foot, and 42nd Foot-- the first division of troops to land in New Jersey-- to Sputyen Duvil. There, they boarded the boats.

In 1766, then-Colonel Cornwallis took command of the 33rd Foot. The men of that regiment enlisted because they were impoverished and starving. Recruitment being handled by each British regiment, the 33rd had its recruiters raise oatcakes on their swords to get volunteers, and it worked. Thus the regiment's nickname: "the Havercake lads." (Later, as the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, they would be known as the Dukes.)

The 42nd, which would gain the famous sobriquet the Black Watch in 1861, contained men from the glens and lochs of the central Highlands, particularly Perthshire. Reflecting their clannish society huge portions of the men had the last names Campbell, Stewart, or Stirling, and they regarded "any disgrace which he might bring on his clan or district as the most cruel misfortune." In addition to the British red coat and equipment, the Highlanders hung a plaid (blanket) behind their left shoulder and wore a regimental kilt, stockings of bright red and white caddis stockings, a sporran made of either leather or badger skin, and a bonnet with black bearskin or eagle, vulture, or black cock feathers. Their commander was Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Stirling, a bilingual (English and Gaelic) veteran of fighting in the New World. He equipped his men with Highland broadswords and braces of pistols and taught them how to fight in open order. Fiercely loyal to regiment, kin, clan, and king, the Highlanders tended to function as light infantry in North America.

How did the light infantry function exactly? An innovation of the French and Indian War, their criteria for selection was intelligence, vitality, and marksmanship. The "Light Bobs," as they were called in the British Army, were well-trained in the art of "leaping, running, climbing precipices, swimming, skirmishing through woods, loading and firing in different attitudes, and marching with remarkable rapidity." Arguably, these troops help to refute the myth that the British were unaccustomed to fighting in the North American wilderness and failed to adapt accordingly. At the time of the American Revolution, each British regiment on paper had one light infantry company, but on campaign they were formed into battalions of nine companies each. Although they wore the regimental uniform, instead of a cocked hat like the typical British soldier, the Light Bobs wore caps, some companies adding green feathers to them. Consequently, the Light Bobs were also referred to as the "Green Feathers"-- the ancestors of the Green Jackets of the 19th and the Green Berets of the 20th Centuries.

Another elite were the grenadiers. Every regiment had a company of them as well, and like the light infantrymen they were formed into composite battalions during active service. They had prerequisites, too: they had to be really tall and strong. To add another foot to their already immense height, they also wore caps, only bigger ones. In war, the grenadiers were always the ones who were the first to land on enemy beaches, who led attacks on fortifications, and who the British commanders expected to punch through the enemy line-- and they always suffered some of the heaviest casualties not surprisingly.

These men-- the Havercake Lads, the Highlanders, the light infantry, the grenadiers-- would soon be the first British troops to set foot in New Jersey.

The crossing of the Hudson began at 11:00 P.M. On the river, a cold downpour started to fall, soaking the men and causing their teeth to chatter and their bodies to shiver. A thick fog arose from the water. Still the British pressed on, guided by three loyalists-- William Bayard, manager of the Hoboken ferry; farmer John Ackerson of Closter; and possibly John Adlington, a brewer in the English Neighborhood (present-day Leonia). All three were well-acquainted with the Hudson and the patriot positions.

Approaching the shore of New Jersey, Lieutenant Henry Stirke, who led the 10th Foot's light infantry company, tried to make out what was before him through the mist. The sight filled him with awe: gigantic cliffs towering vertically and seemingly stretching endlessly to his left and right-- the New Jersey Palisades. The Tories pointed: Do you see that long diagonal fracture on the rock? It's barely visible. Lieutenant, Stirke's superior ordered him, have your men "push up the hill, with as much expedition as possible," then command them "to take post; and maintain it, till sustained." Up that trail, about four feet wide and angling at 50 degrees at places, the light infantry climbed in the misty atmosphere, rain continuing to pour down and snaking its way down the rocky cliffs.
Reaching the top, the Green Feathers were prepared to be opposed... but not a single Rebel was there to greet them. General Greene was apparently unaware of this part of the Palisades. Anyway, the Light Bobs rapidly made a perimeter and sent out patrols. So far, Providence was smiling upon His Majesty's troops.

More light infantry, the Highlanders, the Havercake Lads, and the grenadiers followed Stirke and his men, climbing that same treacherous trail. Most of that night was spent shuttling men and supplies across the Hudson, the boats going from one shore to the other...

With the arrival of dawn, it was time for the second wave, the second division to cross. At the Philipse Farm on the Philipseberg Manor, located on the east bank and spanning from Spuyten Duyvil to the Croton River, Guards and Hessians boarded the landing craft, embarking for the other side at 8:00 A.M. While their crossing was much easier than the initial wave, the Palisades posed more of an obstacle: With the second wave were eight field guns, four three-pounders, two six-pounders, and two howitzers, weighing 2,000 pounds when their carriages are added to the total. How could one possibly get this artillery over such steep cliffs? Suffice it to say that the gunners, sappers, soldiers, and seamen pulled them-- not just the cannons, but the ammunition boxes and limbers too-- up with drag ropes. No doubt the men hoisting these guns up the Palisades became waterfalls of perspiration.

Daybreak became morning, and still the Americans were unaware that the British had landed.

The landing of the British forces in the Jerseys on Nov. 20, 1776, under the command of Rt. Hon. Lt. Gen. Earl Cornwallis by British officer Thomas Davies, 1776
Polly Wyckoff was in the kitchen of the farm of Matthew Bogert-- "Master Bogert" to her, for she was his slave. She was doing the normal things people did in the 18th Century in that room. At one point she looked up from her work and into the window. Across her owner's fields were men... dressed in red... carrying guns... coming towards the farm. She knew exactly who these men were. Dropping what she was doing, she ran into the parlor and shouted, "Bogert's fields are full of red coats."

In Hackensack, an American officer on horseback came galloping up to Washington's headquarters. It was 10:00 A.M. The enemy has crossed the Hudson! he told General Washington. In an instant, the general was bustling with activity. I must get troops out of Fort Lee before it is too late, he thought. I do not desire that it have the same fate as Fort Washington; I can't lose those boys to the British. To the garrison at Fort Lee, Washington ordered that they abandon the fort immediately and cross the Hackensack River to the west.

Greene had failed to promptly obey Washington's orders of more than a week ago. The Rhode Islander had complained that he possessed insufficient transport for the evacuation of the fort.
Thus, the men and supplies were still in Fort Lee that morning of November 20, 1776. Upon hearing that the British had landed, what discipline the garrison had vanished. Men ate breakfast with no sense of urgency. Droves of them ran for the woods, while others broke into the rum supply, inebriating themselves. Nonetheless, when Washington and Greene arrived on horseback, they managed to form the majority of the men into a column and have them march on New-Bridge on the Hackensack River. Although the Americans took with them all the ammunition and field artillery, due to time constraints, they had to leave 900 tents, all the entrenching tools, and vast quantities of heavy artillery and provisions.

Back on the Palisades, the British forces, having been formed into two columns by Cornwallis, commenced their march toward Fort Lee. Covering the right flank was a Hessian Jäger company commanded by Captain Johann Ewald. (Jägers, usually recruited from gamekeepers' and foresters' sons, were the Hessian army's light infantry.) Before him was "a great glitter of bayonets and a cloud of dust in the distance." It was the American garrison heading for New-Bridge. Ewald ordered his men to pursue them. Contact was made with enemy stragglers, and shots were exchanged between the Americans and Hessians. Ewald requested reinforcements of light infantry. Unfortunately for him, he would record, "Instead of the Jägers, I received an order from Lord Cornwallis to return at once." Ewald obeyed.

Sir, Ewald told Cornwallis upon his return, I have found a multitude of the enemy heading westwards.

"Let them go, my dear Ewald, and stay here," responded Cornwallis. "We do not want to lose any men. One jäger is worth more than ten rebels." Ewald was astonished.

Still, when he returned to his men, he made them advance once more "in hopes of catching some baggage." They did, taking a coach full of enemy fugitives. Again, Cornwallis called for Ewald again, telling him to not stray too far from the column. The captain started to realize what was going on: "Now I perceived what was afoot. We wanted to spare the King's subjects and hoped to terminate the war amicably, in which assumption I was strengthened the next day by several English officers."

Once the retreating Americans were sufficiently distant, Cornwallis' men entered Fort Lee. Actually, "fort" wasn't an appropriate name for it. Rather, it was, in Thomas Paine's words, a "field fort"-- predominantly an "armed camp, with separate batteries on the cliffs overlooking the Hudson," according to Fischer. Whatever Fort Lee technically was, it was a mess on the 20th. To the west, the road was littered with the Continental Army's rubbish. In the fort itself, the British found it abandoned, save for a small number of intoxicated Americans... and the supplies, oh the supplies, the immensity of which caused British and Hessian eyebrows to be raised. Leave the booty for the troops that will follow, Cornwallis ordered. He had to continue putting pressure on the enemy... a task that entailed no engagement, of course.

That dark, cold, and rainy night, the Americans crossed New-Bridge, entering the village of Hackensack. From the window light, one of the residents "had a fair view of them": "They marched two abreast, looked ragged, some without a shoe to their feet, and most of them wrapped in their blankets." For those who had enlisted in July and August, their summer clothes were now in rags. A contemptuous British officer encountered a few of them along the road to Hackensack: "No nation ever saw such a set of tatterdemalions." These tatterdemalions represented one of the darkest times in their nation's history.

Pickets were placed along the Hackensack River's crossing points. While Washington enjoyed the comfort of the Zabriskie home, his men-- approximately 4,000 Continentals and militia-- camped outside in the village. Having left all of their tents and tools at Fort Lee, they did their best to find some sort of refuge from the cold rain... but misery never completely left them.

Hessian Jägers and British Light Bobs approached New-Bridge, around two miles north of Hackensack village, the following morning. Among them was Captain Ewald. The American rear guard, positioned in houses on both sides of the Hackensack, obstinately resisted them. Muskets cracked. A Jäger fell here; a Light Bob fell there. Apparently no one had bothered to tell these Rebels that the Continental Army had been beaten yesterday. Ewald stated that the Rebeller "defended themselves very well." Nevertheless, he added, "in spite of this the post was forced, and the greater part were killed, wounded, or captured."

Beyond New-Bridge, the determined yet hopeless opposition continued. Jäger and Light Bob alike were beginning to grasp that these ragamuffins were not to be taken lightly. "At British headquarters," writes Fischer, "attitudes of 'featherbed soldiers' toward American troops were very different from those of British and Hessian infantry on the sharp edge."

Again, those men didn't stray too far from the bridge, where Cornwallis paused to receive reinforcements: the 2nd and 4th brigades, a battalion of the 71st Foot, and men of the 16th Light Dragoons, who were heavily armed (they carried two pistols, a carbine, and a sword) yet highly mobile troopers. Now, Cornwallis had around 10,000 men.

The British cavalry did stray far from New-Bridge, though. They pursued the Rebels from afar, ultimately reaching the east bank of the Passaic; but they had to turn around.

On the 22nd, the British crossed New-Bridge, moving southwards to Hackensack, where they were warmly welcomed by the Loyalist residents. They were surprised, however, to find the hungry British and Hessians, unable to distinguish between friend and foe and with no interest in limited war or winning hearts and minds, sacking their houses as well as the patriots'.

Meanwhile, the Continental Army was leaving Hackensack. Its destination was Acquackanonk Landing on the Passaic River, five miles to the south. Rivers, Washington understood, were the only defensible terrain feature in "dead flat" country devoid of stone walls. Once across the wooden bridge there, the patriots demolished it; they didn't want to leave it intact for the British. They camped on the west bank, enduring another night of cold rain.

Washington's retreat continued down the resulting muddy road. The Virginian wasn't in front of his army: "I saw him... at the head of a small band, or rather in its rear, for he was always near the enemy," wrote Lieutenant James Monroe, then 18 years old, "and his countenance and manner made an impression on me that which I can never efface."

On November 22, the Americans reached Newark-- a town with a population of approximately 3,000, mostly Whigs-- in a downpour. At the time of their arrival, the roads out of Newark were crowded with refugees fleeing from the mighty British host, transporting their belongings in wagons and herding livestock.

It kept raining in the night... then there was a brief respite... and then it would rain again on the 23rd. One man recalled, "The suffering we endured are beyond description-- no tent to cover us at night-- exposed to cold and rains day and night." Yet in spite of these sufferings, optimism lingered. Twenty-three year old Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Blachley Webb of Connecticut, aide-de-camp to General Washington, wrote, "I can only say that no lads ever showed greater activity in retreating than we have... Our soldiers are the best fellows in the world at this business."

As the army was crossing the Passaic in a downpour on November 22, Thomas Paine, aide-de-camp to General Greene, had made a significant decision: The same English radical who wrote Common Sense would write another pamphlet. Paine deemed it a necessity that in these black times "the country should be strongly animated."

That rainy night of the 22nd, Thomas Paine, slumbering soldiers all around him, commenced writing a rough draft by the light of a fire. He "continued writing it at every place we stopt," always by firelight and surrounded by a sleeping army...

It stopped raining on the 25th. Cornwallis—having been ordered by Howe to move as far as Brunswick (modern-day New Brunswick), and nothing more—exploited this weather, leaving Hackensack with his army. However, while the rain had stopped, the roads were still muddy. The mud as deep as their ankles or more, the British moved at a snail's pace compared to the Americans.

"All the army marched in two columns towards Newark, where it was said the rebels would stand," Captain Archibald Robertson of the Royal Engineers wrote in his diary. It was 9:00 A.M., November 28. At one in the afternoon, the British entered the town, but there were no Rebels making a stand. Newark was abandoned. Colonel Carl von Donop, the commander of the Hessian Jäger Corps, would tell his superior some weeks later that "the greater part of the inhabitants have carried away their beds."

The Continental Army had departed Newark earlier that day. Lieutenant Monroe, a part of the rear guard, counted the troops as they left: According to him, Washington's command "amounted to less than 3,000 men." The sick and wounded headed northwest for the refuge of Morristown on the other side of the Watchtung Mountains; the remainder, with Washington, headed southwest for Brunswick, Trenton, Princeton-- heavily populated central New Jersey. Washington could not protect the civilians as effectively if the whole army went to Morristown, and he hoped that in central New Jersey he could augment his thinned ranks with middle state troops, of which there were plenty. The Americans reached Brunswick at 12:00 P.M. on the 29th.

On November 30, 1776, flushed with success, the Howe brothers issued a proclamation. It granted amnesty to anyone who swore an oath of allegiance to George III. For those who complied within 60 days and promised "a peaceful obedience to his Majesty," they would be rewarded with "full and free pardon" as well as

reap the benefit of his Majesty's paternal goodness, in the preservation of their property, the restoration of their commerce, and the security of their most valuable rights, under the just and most moderate authority of the crown and Parliament of Britain.

Many of the Howes' subordinates didn't like it. Neither did the Tories, who hungered for retaliation; the fact that radical Whigs had the opportunity to avoid punishment angered them. When word of the Howes' proclamation reached London, the Tories there joined in the chorus of criticism, calling it "lenient" and "liberal." Among them was George Sackville Germain, First Viscount Sackville, Secretary of the American colonies and a proponent of Shrecklichkeit-- the German term for total war. Yet in spite of these condemnations, the Howes put their feet down.

In response to this measure, the patriots proclaimed that they would give a free pardon to those who renounced their oath. That move, other than the fact that the war wasn't going well for the Whigs, probably made the British proclamation even more of a success.

It was partly sunny and a little above freezing the morning of December 1—a date Washington had been dreading, for it marked the expiration of enlistments for 2,000 of his men; they could go home now. Captain William Beatty of the Maryland Line was one of them:

Two or three days after our arrival at Brunswick, being the first of December, and the Expiration of the flying Camp troop's time, Our Brigade march'd to Philadelphia leaving our Brave Genl with a very weak army.

Washington requested they continue serving, but to no avail. "Two brigades left us at Brunswick," Nathanael Greene attested, "notwithstanding the enemy are within two hours march and coming on."
This time Washington decided to let them come. He would stand his ground on the southern bank of the Raritan River... for a time. The river, which in some areas was only knee-deep, could be forded, and his army was "totally inadequate" to do anything but buy time.

Light dragoons were spotted at the Brunswick ferry at that river's northern bank in the early afternoon. At that moment, Washington was writing a letter to John Hancock: "1/2 after 1. O'Clock P.M. The Enemy are fast advancing, some of 'em are now in sight," he hurriedly added to it. Also in a rush were the Americans trying to destroy the bridge over the Raritan, but it was only damaged when they were driven from it by Light Bobs and Jägers. American riflemen in houses started firing, inflicting heavy casualties on the Hessians. Cornwallis, greatly desiring that bridge, summoned his artillery to get the Rebels off the bank.

One of the units Washington had selected to cover the army's withdrawal across the river was the Independent Company of New York State Artillery, numbering 68 officers and enlisted ranks and commanded by a 20 year-old captain named Alexander Hamilton. These men and their guns, pulled by teams of horses being urged onward by teamsters, came up to the modern-day campus of Rutgers University, from where they contested the enemy artillery on the other side of the Raritan. Lieutenant Enoch Anderson of Colonel John Haslet's Delaware Continentals recorded that "in the afternoon... a severe cannonading took place on both sides, and several were killed and wounded on our side." Now it was partly cloudy at intervals. Hamilton managed to keep the British at arm's length while the Americans withdrew. The exchange of fire, noted Anderson, ceased "near Sundown," at which time "orders were given to retreat."

The Delaware Continentals could obey that order... but their equipment, none of which had been lost yet, couldn't, for the regiment had no wagons to transport it. Anderson was approached by the colonel: Lieutenant, Haslet ordered, "take as many men as" you think "proper, and go back and burn all the tents. 'We have no wagons,' said he 'to carry them off, and it is better to burn them than they should fall into the hands of the enemy.' Then I went and burned them-- about one hundred tents," wrote Anderson.

When we saw them reduced to ashes, it was night and the army far ahead. We made a double quick-step and came up with the army about eight o'clock. We encamped in the woods, with no victuals, no tents, no blankets. The night was cold and we all suffered much, especially those who had no shoes.

Anderson and his comrades were camping outside at Kingston.

Thirteen miles to the north, the British for the most part remained on the northern side of the Raritan, camping there for the night. The bulk of Cornwallis' force didn't cross the river until the following fair morning, repairing the bridge that had been damaged by the Rebels and entering Brunswick. The men, unable to turn the flour they had into bread, were hungry, their horses tired. Several of the Hessians had worn out their shoes and therefore were barefoot. Fortunately, Captain Ewald told his diary, this problem was addressed when they took two coastal sloops in the Raritan River containing "a large quantity of shoes and long trousers on board, which came at just the right time, because our men could no longer proceed in their boots." In accordance with Howe's orders, Cornwallis halted at Brunswick.

His decision proved to be a controversial one. Many of his subordinates and Tories, perplexed and furious, thought that his failure to press on was absolute folly. Taking into consideration Howe's orders, Captain Charles Stedman, then serving under Cornwallis, writes in The History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War that had Howe left him "to act at his own discretion... he would have pursued the weakened and alarmed enemy to the Delaware, over which, without falling into his hands, they never could have passed." That seems unlikely, for the Continental Army had demonstrated in their evacuation from Long Island earlier in the year that it was capable of crossing rivers. Captain Ewald suspected that the British commanders were in favor "of ending the war amicably, without shedding the blood of the King's subjects in a needless way." Others claimed it was due to the latest peace initiative that Cornwallis failed to pursue Washington, a belief that has yet to be substantiated... and would be made even more improbable the next few days.

In his own defense, Cornwallis did have a point: "I could not have pursued the enemy from Brunswick with any prospect of material advantage, or without greatly distressing the troops under my command." Not only was he following orders, he was exercising prudence.

"When we left Brunswick we had not 3,000 men," Nathanael Greene would tell Rhode Island Governor Nicholas Cooke, "a very pitiful army to trust the liberties of America upon." The Continental Army, taking King's Highway, kept getting smaller and smaller as it did a forced march in a south westerly direction to Princeton, arriving there on December 2. Lieutenant Anderson recalled that "here we had comfortable lodgings in the College [it had been closed since November 29]. The whole army was now about twenty-five hundred men, and as their enlistments expired, they went off by the hundreds."

Washington intended to take that dwindling army even further, across the Delaware and into Pennsylvania. "It being impossible to oppose them with our present force with the least possible prospect of success," he had explained to Hancock on the first, "we shall retreat to the west bank of the Delaware." He divided his army into two halves: one-- two brigades of 1,400 men under General William Alexander-- stayed at Princeton in the hope that it would hold off the enemy for awhile, preferably five days; the remainder continued on to Trenton. Also on December 1, he had secretly written an order to Colonel Richard Humpton:

You are to proceed to the two ferry's near Trentown and to see all the boats there put in the best Order, with a sufficiency of Oars and poles, and at the same time to Collect all the Additional boats you [can] from both above and below and have them brought to those ferry's and Secured for the purpose of Carrying over the Troops and Baggage.

You must, Washington added, "particularly attend to the Durham Boats which are very proper for the purpose."

From Princeton, wrote Enoch Anderson,

we continued on our retreat;-- our Regiment in the rear, and I, with thirty men, in the rear of the Regiment, and General Washington in my rear with pioneers-- tearing up bridges and cutting down trees, to impede the march of the enemy. I was to go no faster than General Washington and his pioneers.

The Americans entered Trenton at about noon. Boats were waiting for them in abundance, and they started using them to carry their cannons, provisions, wagons, and, of course, themselves across the Delaware.

Aiding Washington were the Philadelphia Associators, a Pennsylvania volunteer militia founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1747. They snaked their way up the Delaware in boats, the sails of which were their tents. Observing the army from the Pennsylvania side, artist Charles Willson Peale, who commanded a company in the Associators, witnessed

the most hellish scene I ever beheld. All the shores were lighted up with large fires, boats continually passing and repassing, full of men, horses, artillery and camp equipage... The Hollowing of hundreds of men in their difficulties of getting Horses and artillery out of the boats, made it rather the appearance of Hell than any earthly scene.

Something called the Pennsylvania Navy also lent a hand. Commodore Thomas Seymour had nine of his gallies transfer men and supplies from Jersey to his home state, while four others kept watch on the river like hawks.

The evacuation of New Jersey would last for five days, never stopping till it was complete, the camp fires piercing the darkness of the night as boats kept going from one side of the river to the other...

Washington was waiting for the British to continue their advance, but so far they hadn't. So he, perhaps foolishly, decided to seize the initiative from them. He turned the men under his immediate command around to give the enemy the engagement he did not want. Washington imparted his logic to Hancock on December 5:

Nothing but necessity obliged me to retire before the Enemy & leave so much of the Jerseys unprotected.  I conceive it my duty, and it corresponds with my Inclination to make head against them so soon as there shall be the least probability of doing it with propriety. I shall now... face about with such Troops as are here fit for service, and march back to Princeton and there govern myself by circumstances and the movements of Genl Lee.

But halfway to Princeton, the British began marching once more.

General Howe, with General James Grant and his brigade, rode into Brunswick on December 6. Now having taken the reins of command, Howe ordered his men to resume the advance and take the western half of New Jersey too. "The possession of Trenton was extremely desirable," he would state.

The British and Hessians, in three columns, departed Brunswick the next day, entering Princeton at 4:00 P.M.—precisely an hour after the American rear guard, upon hearing of their approach, had left it. "Princeton is a nice little town," observed Captain Friederich Münchausen, Howe's Hessian aide, "and has a fine college... A remarkably excellent library has till now been spared by the war." "Our army when we lay there spoiled and plundered a good library that was in it," Sergeant Thomas Sullivan of the 64th Foot would tell his journal. The campus of the College of New Jersey would be virtually turned into a fort, and Nassau Hall would become a storehouse and barracks.

When Washington heard of their approach on December 7, he was several miles to the east of Trenton. He immediately ordered his men to go back… again. However, his column retreated slowly for a considerable amount of time. The British could have annihilated them if they tried, but they didn’t; they followed at a slow pace, too. Münchausen wrote in his diary, “The rebels were always barely ahead of us. Since General Howe was with the vanguard, we advanced very slowly, and the rebels had time to withdraw step by step without being engaged.”
Washington’s troops that were “fit for service” began withdrawing across the Delaware that night.

Under an overcast sky on the foggy morning of December 8, Continental troops marched past Captain Peale. Then,

a man staggered out of line and came toward me. He had lost all his clothes. He was in an old dirty blanket jacket, his beard long and his face full of sores... which so disfigured him that he was not known by me on first sight. Only when he spoke did I recognize my brother James.

Ensign James Peale had joined Colonel William Smallwood's Maryland Continentals when it had more than 1,000 men. Now the regiment was down to 100 battle-hardened veterans, including him.

Nonetheless, despite the Maryland Continental’s size, it was positioned along with the other American regiments to guard significant crossing points on the west bank of the river. “Here we remained in the woods, having neither blankets nor tents,” Lieutenant James McMichael of the Pennsylvania Line recorded in his diary. The regiments stretched for 25 miles, depriving Washington of the concentration of force necessary for defense. Many of the Virginian’s subordinates recognized this problem. “The river is not and I believe cannot be sufficiently guarded,” Colonel Joseph Reed, Adjutant of the Continental Army, wrote Washington on the 12th. “We must depend upon intelligence of their motions.”

At two in the afternoon on the 8th, Howe, his aides at his side, rode into to Trenton. Now the weather was fair, with wind blowing briskly. To his diary, Münchausen confided, “Some of the inhabitants came running towards us, urging us to march through the town in a hurry so we could capture many of the enemy who were just embarking in boats and were about to cross.”

Along with three aides and Cornwallis, Howe rode down to the Delaware. Once out in the open, defiant American artillery—Münchausen counted 37—from the Pennsylvanian shores “opened a terrific fire”: Boom... Boom… Boom! As cannonballs fell all around them, throwing up dirt and leaves, the Jägers and light infantry scattered to find any kind of refuge from this hail of death. Howe refused to do likewise, though, subjecting himself to the most intense of the barrage with “the greatest coolness and calm for at least an hour.” The Hessian recalled that “wherever we turned the cannon balls hit the ground, and I can hardly understand, even now, why all five of us were not killed.” One landed so near to him that the soil from the impact spattered his entire figure—countenance, legs, neck, torso, all of it. Another cut the leg off his horse. Crying in pain, the creature fell, resulting for its rider in “a small contusion on my knee.” The American bombardment killed and wounded 13 men.

What made Howe, Cornwallis, and the other officers foolishly expose themselves to such punishment? It was that honor—Dienst to the Germans— that the European aristocracy wanted to uphold, and honor could not be maintained by finding a safe place; that was the manner of the coward. It could only be maintained by displaying bravery in battle.

Back at Trenton, officers were sending troops up-river and down-river in search of boats, but their findings were almost nil. Washington’s orders been carried out very successfully. Actually, it wasn’t just those orders that were the reason behind the rarity of boats on the east bank of the Delaware. The Pennsylvania Council of Safety had ordered Captain Thomas Houston of the Pennsylvania Navy to take his ship the Warren—a small but heavily armed black galley with one 32 pounder, four 24 pounders, eight 18 pounders, and a crew of 30—up the river, extricate all water-going vessels from the eastern to the western shores. Above the Trenton falls, New Jersey Captains Jacob Gearhart, Daniel Bray, and Thomas Jones of the 2nd Regiment, Hunterdon County militia hunted for “boats of every kind” at the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers, hiding what they found in creeks and behind the small wooded islands on the Pennsylvania shore. The Americans did their work so well that Tory Joseph Galloway, looking for any sort of water transportation, discovered only a scow, four bateaux, and two boats in a millpond.

Could you find materials to construct boats, rafts, or pontoons? One of the engineers requested of Galloway. This time the loyalist was more successful: “48,000 feet of boards, a quantity of wire, and there was timber enough about Trenton for that purpose.”

Howe, however, had other plans, and they did not include crossing the Delaware into Pennsylvania. The forces he had were stretched to the limit, maybe even above it. With occasional snow gusts and “hard frost”—as he put it—“the weather” in his opinion was “too severe to keep the field.” Besides, unless there was a great sense of urgency, armies of the 18th Century didn’t usually campaign in the winter due to the adversities it entailed. To Howe, having victory almost within his grasp wasn’t under the category of dire circumstances.

So he ended the campaign, sending his army into winter quarters… and astonishing his subordinates not surprisingly. “It became clearly evident that the march took place so slowly for no other reason than to permit Washington to cross the Delaware safely and peacefully,” Ewald assessed in his diary. Captain Stedman would muse, “General Howe appeared to have calculated with the greatest accuracy the exact time necessary for the enemy to make his escape.”

Indeed, it wouldn’t even have taken the British an entire day to reach Philadelphia, the patriot capital.

Thomas Paine, having crossed the Delaware with the rest of the Continental Army, arrived in that city with his rough draft for his pamphlet, which was now essentially finished and would become The American Crisis. Philadelphia was a shadow of it former prosperous self. Paine was alone, the streets having been abandoned… Everywhere he looked there were closed windows… He noted that “the public presses stopped, and nothing in circulation but fears and falsehoods.” All of these sights shocked him.

What happened was that as word spread of the approaching British, panic followed in its wake. “The black times of Seventy-six,” Paine would observe to Samuel Adams on New Year’s Day 1803, “were no other than the natural consequence of the military blunders of the campaign.” It was said that the British were “at least 12,000 strong, determined for Philadelphia.” Margaret Morris was told by “a person from Philada” that the city was “in great commotion, that the English fleet was in the River & hourly expected to sail up to the city; that the inhabitants were removing to the Country.”

Panic was accompanied by suspicion in many cases. Morris wrote in her journal of

several persons of considerable repute had been discovered to have formed a design of setting fire to the City & were summoned before the Congress and strictly enjoined to drop the horrid purpose. My heart almost died within me, & I cried surely the Lord will not punish the innocent with the guilty, and I wished there might be found some interceding Lots and Abrahams amongst our People.

Such threats resulted, on December 8, in martial law being declared in the city and Israel Putnam, the commander of all American forces in Philadelphia, being given extraordinary powers. The following day, Putnam ordered all shops to close, and militiamen began patrolling the streets.

Then news arrived of British forces in Princeton, and on the east bank of Delaware. People started to flee. “Where shall we go; how shall we get out of town? was the universal cry,” one lady recollected. “Few families had the means to leave town. Coaches were few and mostly owned by Loyalists who were happy to stay. Happy was he who could press a market-wagon, or a milk-cart to bear off his little ones.” Once in the countryside, refugees were “thankful if they could find a hut or barn, in any region of security.”

Some Whigs became Tories, as some of the signatures to the Howes Proclamation attest. One who complied with the brothers’ merciful gesture was Richard Stockton. Having been captured by Loyalists in Monmouth County, New Jersey and imprisoned by the British, Stockton gave “his word of honor that he would not meddle in the least in American affairs” and put his signature on a declaration of allegiance to King George—the only signature that is also on the Declaration of Independence. Washington wrote that “the late treachery and defection of those who stood foremost in the opposition, whilst fortune smiled upon us, make me fearful that many more will follow their example.”

This defeatism spread beyond Pennsylvania and New Jersey to all of the 13 states. In Leesburg, Virginia in early December, Nicholas Cresswell wrote in his journal, many a patriot “had given up the cause for lost… Their recruiting parties could not get a man (except they bought him from his master).”

With this dire situation, Paine knew he had must act: “I sat down, and in what I may call a passion of patriotism, wrote the first number” in a final draft of his pamphlet, which he title The American Crisis. The power of its opening has not ebbed in more than 230 years:

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

The anxious atmosphere of Philadelphia prevented its publication for ten days. At last, the first number made its way into the Pennsylvania Journal on December 19, 1776. On the 23rd, The American Crisis started to be printed as a pamphlet, which on Paine’s insistence was sold for two pennies—an amount that sufficed to cover the printer’s expenditures. As for its author, he wanted, and received, nothing, and allowed printers from across the 13 states to copy his work.
On the, “December Crisis,” as he referred to it, Paine possessed great insight on human nature in his essay:

Tis surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country… Yet panics in some cases have their uses; they produce as much good as hurt. Their duration is always short; the mind soon grows through them, and acquires a firmer habit than before.

 As Fischer notes, Paine had a “unique gift for expressing a popular feeling that was already stirring in other hearts.” It wasn’t, as he later told Sam Adams, that his fellow countrymen saw the many disasters that befell the Continental Army “as proceeding from a natural inability to support its cause against the enemy, and might have sunk under the despondency of that misconceived idea.” Rather, a revival was under way among the patriots, and The Crisis contributed greatly to it.

James Cheetham, a political opponent of Paine’s who would write a biography of his rival after his death, recorded that in his native state

the convention of New York, reduced by dispersion, occasioned by alarm, to nine members, was rallied and reanimated. Militiamen who already tired of the war, and straggling from the army, returned. Hope succeeded to despair, cheerfulness to gloom, and firmness to irresolution.

Before the Congress left Philadelphia on December 12, it reformed its conduct of the war. Previously, they meddled in the American generals’ affairs. Now it resolved that “until Congress shall otherwise order, General Washington be possessed of full power to order and direct all things relative to the department, and the operation of war.”

The states came to the rescue of the Continental Army, which was abundant in guns, ammunition, and powder but deficient in clothing, shoes, blankets, and stockings. Having learned of that army’s supply situation, the Virginia Legislature, on December 6, requested Governor Patrick Henry to procure blankets all over the state. Thirteen days later, he composed and dispatched letters to all the county militia heads:

In Pursuance of a Resolution of the Legislature, I am to appoint a fit Person in every County to collect from the Inhabitants of this Commonwealth all the BLANKETS and RUGS they are willing to spare for the Use of the Soldiery. I have to beg of you, Sir, to accept of that Appointment for Your county, and to draw upon me for the Amount of the Purchase. When it is considered that those who are defending their Country are in the extremest Want of Blankets, and that our Army cannot take the Field without a supply of that article, I have Hopes that our worthy Countrymen will spare from their Beds a part of that Covering which the exposed Situation of the Soldier teaches him to expect from the Humanity of those for whom he is to fight.

All of them would fulfill Henry’s wishes.

As for the army to which those blankets and rugs would be sent, wrote Cheetham, Paine’s pamphlet was “read in the camp, to every corporal’s guard, and in the army, and out of it had more than the intended effect.” Reforms were made in the brigade, in the artillery. Capable officers were promoted, rising quickly in the ranks. Washington’s command was augmented by militiamen and the other commands of the Continental Army. More importantly, as the number of men rose, so did the army’s morale. A Connecticut officer conveyed this sanguine sentiment in a letter home:

As for what few troops we have, you would be amazed to see what fine spirits they are in, and the continental troops really well disciplined, and you may depend will fight bravely, and doubt not before one week you will hear of an attack somewhere, when I trust we shall do honour to ourselves.

Colonel Webb, writing to Joseph Trumbull, commissary general of the Continental Army, on December 16, expressed the same feelings:

You ask me our Situation. It has been the Devil, but is to appearance better. About 2,000 of us have been obliged to run damn’d hard before about 10,000 of the enemy. Never was finer lads at a retreat than we are… No fun for us that I can see; however, I cannot but think we shall drub the dogs.

Paine told his readers in The American Crisis, “By perseverance and fortitude we have the prospect of a glorious issue.” The revival would soon make that glorious issue possible… at a little town named Trenton…


Bonk, David. Trenton and Princeton, 1776-77: Washington Crosses the Delaware. Oxford; New York: Osprey, 2009. Print. 
Fischer, David Hackett. Washington’s Crossing. Oxford, England; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print. 
Lengel, Edward G. General George Washington: a Military Life. Random House Trade Pbk. ed. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2007. Print.
McCullough, David G. 1776. 1st Simon & Schuster pbk. ed. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2006. Print.