In New Jersey, ominous lessons for the British emerge from a little-known campaign in the bitter winter of 1777.
George Washington’s defeat of the Hessians at Trenton on December 26, 1776, had been a masterstroke. His follow-up victory at Princeton just nine days later, in some ways as audacious as his Trenton victory, brought the Americans out of the depths of despair and rekindled a confidence that would serve them well over the opening of the spring campaign of 1777. Yet the winter of 1777 in New Jersey would prove to be anything but a quiet encampment at Morristown: Between January 4 and March 21, 1777, the hinterland of New Jersey was the setting for a series of skirmishes that became known collectively as “the Forage War.” Since the victory at New York, the British had created outposts throughout New Jersey. The troops and horses there required food and forage, so stripping the countryside of supplies would be their winter work. After the glorious conclusion of 1776, Washington’s Continental Army was again shrinking. His one-year regiments were leaving. With reinforcements coming in slowly, any offensive action against British garrisons was out of the question. But the militia, often the bane of Washington’s existence, would catalyze a change of fortune for the American cause. Washington reported the events of early January in a letter to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress: “Since I wrote to you last, the Enemy have withdrawn all their out Garrisons, and centered their whole force at and near Brunswic[k], but whether with an Intention to make a stand there or make another push towards Philadelphia I cannot yet determine. Upon the evacuation of Elizabeth Town Genl Maxwell fell upon the Enemys Rear and made seventy prisoners and took a parcel of Baggage.”
The British system of outposts in New Jersey was vulnerable and Washington meant to make the redcoats’ winter experience eventful. He would stymie their expeditions into the countryside for food by preemptively collecting livestock and other supplies, attacking and harassing their foraging parties with his remaining regular army and the Jersey militia, and cutting their lines of communication.
By the middle of January, Washington had determined his next move. “I would have no time lost in drawing the Flour from the Mills on Millstone,” he wrote Colonel Joseph Reed on January 14, “least the enemy should attempt & avail themselves of it. I would also have Genl Putnam draw his Forage as much as possible from the Vicinity of Brunswick, that the Enemy may thereby be distressed. The Inhabitants of that district should be compelled to bring it in.” Clearly, Washington hoped to prevent British stockpiling of supplies and in so doing, delay the onset of their spring campaign.
Conditions within the British camps were grim during this period. Hessian chaplain Philipp Waldeck described the scene at Amboy after his arrival there:
It was a very cold day, and we arrived at Amboy at dusk. There were no quarters, no shelter. The barracks, which was the English hospital, were quickly evacuated. The rooms were so filled, that the troops could hardly lie down….Here was neither bed nor space, also no fire, also no wood with which to make one. I went with some others to the best restaurant in the city. And in this establishment there was not a single piece of bread and butter to be had. Finally, after a four-hour wait, we got a bone from which all the meat had been scraped four days earlier. We returned to our barracks and fully clothed, laid down on the cold, dirty floor.
The next day, January 8, he noted that “nothing was available here. Everything had to come from New York….As soon as one would lie down, he would be turned out by shots fired near the outposts. And this happened repeatedly.”
Captain Johann Ewald, a Hessian officer, noted the poor conditions as well. He complained that “the soldier could not even get straw for his bedding….The whole region had been completely sacked during the army’s march in the past autumn, and had been abandoned by all the inhabitants.”
In a letter to American major general John Sullivan dated several days after Waldeck’s diary entries, Colonel Reed summarized tips from a British informant who described the British situation in New Jersey as a desperate struggle to survive the winter without some intervention from New York. “There is a great scarcity of Fuel at Amboy burning the Fences for a considerable Distance round….A great many men lay out in the open Air there not being sufficient Covering….Their horses both Baggage & Artillery—they are very poor in no Condition for a Journey.” Reed said his informant also found the British “in great confusion & apprehension of an Attack from us which they say will be a sudden one. This person thinks they mean to stand their Ground at Brunswick & Amboy but not proceed farther till spring when they said they would have Reinforcements.” As the cold weather settled on New Jersey, the British momentum that had started in New York and forced Washington to the west bank of the Delaware petered out, handing the Americans an opportunity to regain the upper hand against the British outposts in New Jersey.
January 24, American brigadier general Philemon Dickinson mounted a devastating attack on the British. With 400 New Jersey militia and 50 Pennsylvania riflemen, Dickinson hit a British position at Somerset Courthouse in Millstone. Crashing through the frozen Millstone River, Dickinson led his band to the opposite bank and inflicted significant damage on the British foragers. The British lost about 25 killed and wounded, while the Americans captured 43 baggage wagons, 115 head of cattle, and 60 to 70 sheep.
Accounts of the clash at Quibbletown (now New Market in Piscataway Township) just a fortnight later, give a sense of the foraging expeditions and the fighting during this period. Quibble- town was an inviting target to the British and Hessians. American forces, scattered on the east side of the Raritan River north to Bound Brook, had left an exposed flank that the British in sufficient strength could overwhelm. Lord Charles Cornwallis, likely still smarting from his defeat at Princeton the prior month, set out at first light. Captain Ewald recorded that Cornwallis “formed the advanced guard with fifty jagers, supported by four hundred light infantry. Behind them followed four hundred Scots, one hundred dragoons, a number of light 6 pounders, four hundred English grenadiers, two Hessian grenadier battalions, the foragers and the wagons, and four hundred Englishmen drawn from several regiments.” Although Ewald’s account of the numbers of men in the operation may not be entirely accurate, it is clear that a significant British force was advancing on the American position. Ewald described their approach: “The road leading from Raritan Landing to Quibbletown ran continuously through the woods in which three devastated plantations were situated.” At the first clearing, Ewald “ran into an enemy post of riflemen who withdrew after stubborn resistance, of whom several were killed and captured on their retreat.” In Quibbletown, the British were met by American riflemen positioned in houses and behind stone walls. But then the Americans “retreated into the nearest wood…and skirmished steadily with the enemy as long as the foraging continued.” This was the pattern of engagement during the forage war: A large British force advanced and encountered sharp hit-and-run attacks by the Jersey militias.
While the British probed the countryside for supplies during the winter of 1777, newspapers in Britain and America were rife with stories about plundering and ransacking and atrocities committed by both sides. On January 27, the loyalist New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury reported:
Some others of the [American] Fraternity robbed the House of Capt. John Richards of Second River and carried of seven young Slaves with his sheep, oxen, cows, Horses, &c to a very considerable Value….Tus, whole Families, once in Affluence, are reduced to wretchedness and Beggary without even the usual consolation of the common Pity; for such is the brutal Fury of these Rebels, that no Extremity of Vengence [sic] is thought severe enough for those, whom they know or suspect to have any Attachment to the King and Constitution.
The paper declared on February 3 that “all Agriculture is stopt, and every Prospect is opened to an approaching Famine. The Rebels have also forced away almost all their Cattle, and left many Scores of Families in the most melancholy Situation of Poverty and Distress.”
General Washington, in a letter to John Hancock dated February 5, took note of such events and wrote that the British “line of march is marked with devastation, and is a thing of such public notoriety, that it demands no further proof.” He also related that “Lieut. Kelly of the 5th Virginia Regiment was slightly wounded in the thigh, but before he could get of the feild [sic], he was overtaken and murthered in a most cruel manner.”
Governor William Livingston of New Jersey, in a February 25 speech to the state legislature, addressed the issues of British barbarity in no uncertain terms:
They have butchered the wounded asking for Quarter; mangled the dying weltering in their blood; refused to the Dead the Rites of Sepulture; suffered Prisoners to perish for Want of Sustenance; violated the Chastity of Women; disfigured private Dwellings of Taste and Elegance; and in the Rage of Impiety and Barbarism, profaned Edifices dedicated to Almighty God.
Sergeant Tomas McCarty reported on a skirmish between a British foraging party and American infantry near Brunswick in February. After the battle, inspection of the field revealed that the British had killed the American wounded. “The men that was wounded in the thigh or leg, they dashed out their brains with their muskets and run them through with their bayonets, made them like sieves. Tis was barbarity to the utmost.”
Hessian lieutenant general Leopold Philip von Heister expressed his frustration with the character of the conflict in mid-February when he wrote: “The present condition of affairs here is such, that if we do not very soon win some territory, we shall be without food, which now is most exhorbitant in price. In view of the present conditions of things, the uniforms as well as everything else, have suffered equally through the sea voyage and by the campaign in this country and every little thing has to be paid in cash.” Conscious of the Hessians’ reputation in war, he added the next day that “the changing fortunes of war have been demonstrated here in a most marked manner, but such an unheard-of misfortune as has befallen the otherwise brave Hessians makes me very sorrowful. Our name was already a terror; I hope if God will, that it will become so again.”
Among all the topics that crossed Washington’s desk that winter, the issue of an oath of allegiance was explored. During Washington’s retreat across New Jersey more than a month earlier, General William Howe, then commander of the British forces in America, had capitalized on his gains by issuing a proclamation on November 30 offering pardon to any American citizens who would pledge allegiance to the king. This political strategy had been quite successful, with thousands turning out to declare their loyalty to the Crown.
Washington was keenly aware of these defections. Even with the recent American victories at Trenton and Princeton, uniting the people was a key component of the war effort, especially in New Jersey. He felt that each state ought to “engage its members to the discharge of their public duty by the obligation of some oath.” Trying to avoid neutrality among New Jersey residents, Washington did not mince words when he wrote that “the more united the Inhabitants appear, the greater Difficulty general Howe will have in reconciling them to regal government, and consequently the less hope of conquering them.” Not wanting to “give the enemy an opportunity to make the first tender of the oath of allegiance to the King,” he advised Hancock that every state should “fix upon some Oath of Affirmation of Allegiance to be tendered to all the Inhabitants without exception, and to out law those who refuse it.” Washington was still working to secure the political allegiance of the colonists as the British and American forces clashed repeatedly during the cold New Jersey winter.
The irregular warfare of the winter of 1777 was an effective fusion of military tactics and the political motivations of a people increasingly desirous of resolving what amounted to a bitter civil war. Washington’s handling of the situation was def. Captain Ewald, for one, felt that the Americans had done a much better job than the British of winning the hearts and minds of the local population during the forage war and believed the British must obtain better backcountry intelligence for successful forage expeditions. He also related that “during the first campaign in New Jersey in 1777 the Americans used such tactics with resounding success, which not only led to constant loss of life and personnel by the taking of British prisoners, but also dried up local support [for the British] and foraging opportunities as well.” Ewald praised the Americans yet revealed his own bafflement in responding to the American style of warfare: “What can you do to those small bands who have learned to fight separate, who know how to use any molehill for their protection, and who when attacked, run back as fast as they will approach you again, who continuously find space to hide. Never have I seen these maneuvers carried out better than by the American militia, especially by that of the province of Jersey.”
With New Jersey militia forces gaining strength and Pennsylvania militiamen joining the fray, the Americans not only increased their numbers but improved their tactics: When their intelligence indicated the likely target of a British foraging party, the Americans would arrive the night before the raid. Occasionally, soldiers disguised as local farmers would drive cattle near British lines, and their compatriots hidden nearby would strike when the meat-deprived British and Hessian troops attempted to capture the herd.
Scottish grenadier John Peebles described the aftermath of one foraging encounter in his diary, suggesting the success of the American effort and the poor handling of the expedition by British superiors: “Went ashore in Eveng. & saw the wounded men several of them in a very dangerous way poor fellows, what pity it is to throw away such men as these on such shabby ill managed occasions.”
The first turbulent months of 1777 thus eroded the British war effort in New Jersey. The Americans had become a formidable enemy, more skilled than in the previous years. The many engagements in the countryside had produced a constant stream of British prisoners to Philadelphia. Between January 4 and March 21, 1777, approximately 950 British and Hessian soldiers were killed, wounded, captured, or missing, and this figure does not represent all the many forage war skirmishes. From the beginning of the New York campaign in July 1776 through early spring 1777, total British and German casualties topped 4,000 men. Pessimism began to seep into the British command structure as it appeared that men lost were not to be replaced.
Washington, on the other hand, emerged from this winter episode as the indispensable leader. Winning the hearts and minds of the people became an important part of the war effort. Washington was meticulous in pursuing his goal to respect private property, thus avoiding the British reputation for plundering and looting and contributing to the erosion of the once strong loyalist base in New Jersey. Equally important, the loss of the state as a food source eventually forced the British to import foodstuffs from Ireland—an expensive and time-consuming operation. American soldiers, moreover, had gained valuable field experience in the numerous engagements. Washington had conducted a successful partisan campaign with limited forces consisting mostly of local militia and a remnant core of the Continental army. In addition, the troops the British lost during the forage war caused irreparable damage to their war effort. Howe’s request for 20,000 more troops in the middle of the winter could not be fulfilled; only 7,800 reinforcements would be coming to America. British difficulties with manpower and supplies were a portent of their future struggles to hold the American colonies.
Jeffrey A. Denman has published articles on topics ranging from the Revolutionary War to World War II. He teaches history and world geography in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.