In 1780 two British military officers planned a mission that could have changed the course of history.
In February 1780 Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen, the interim commander in chief of British forces in the New York area, and Captain George Beckwith, London’s spymaster in the American colonies, planned and attempted a mission that could have changed the course of the Revolutionary War: the capture of General George Washington, then quartered near Morristown, New Jersey. The audacious idea was the brainchild of Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe, an exceptionally courageous British cavalry officer who only a few weeks earlier had returned from three months as a captive of the Americans.
Simcoe, the commander of the Queen’s Rangers, an elite legionary corps made up of loyalist cavalry and infantry then stationed on Staten Island, aimed to lead a party of his mounted hussars across the iced-over Hudson River and make off with the American commander in chief, who, according to Simcoe, “was quartered at a considerable distance from his army, or any corps of it.” With the assistance of a loyalist sympathizer who’d once lived near where Washington was staying, Simcoe soon had “a very minute and perfect map of the country,” as he described it in his journal. He planned to select 80 of his cavalrymen and “march by secret ways, made the more so by the inclement season, and to arrive near General Washington’s quarters by day-break, to tie up his horses in a swamp, and to storm the quarters, and attack his guard on foot.”
Simcoe likely would not have even considered the idea of a raid to capture Washington but for the fact that the Hudson River had iced over.
It may seem odd that Simcoe would choose to attack on foot, when on horseback his men would have the advantage of speed, but perhaps he thought that the mounted approach would be more likely to create an alarm. He did not plan to kill Washington, though he worried how he could prevent the death of the American commander in chief should he “personally resist.”
Since December 1, 1779, Washington’s headquarters had been outside Morristown, in the area’s finest house. Built by Colonel Jacob Ford Jr., who had died of pneumonia in January 1777, the mansion was occupied by his widow, Theodosia, and their four young children. Lying roughly a half mile east of the main part of Morristown and three miles northeast of the main American encampments at Jockey Hollow, the mansion was vulnerable; all the more so because Washington was spending nights there away from the main body of his troops.
Still, to get there Simcoe’s cavalry would have to ride some 30 miles through the foothills of the Watchung Mountains and then across rough back roads regularly watched by local militia and Continental troops. Moreover, the raiders’ exceedingly long escape route to New York would provide many opportunities for enemy attacks. The weather was also unpredictable and potentially dangerous. That winter more than 20 snowstorms would pound the Morristown area, sometimes blocking roads with six-foot drifts. Simcoe’s plan was indeed a daring one.
In addition, soldiers whose specific job was to protect Washington lurked in the vicinity of the mansion. Unlike British commanders, Washington had established his own security detail, commonly known as Washington’s Life Guard. Its purpose was not only to provide personal security for Washington but also to handle the baggage of his headquarters and the money and official papers of the Continental Army. The unit, led by Major Caleb Gibbs, had 110 men, although not all of them would be available to defend against a raid: six of them worked as servants for Washington and several more as stable hands and messengers.
“Two sentinels paraded in front and two [patrolled] in the rear constantly, day and night,” John W. Barber and Henry Howe wrote in an 1846 history of New Jersey that included veterans’ accounts of the war. “Several times in the course of the winter false alarms were given of the approach of the enemy.…Immediately, the Life Guard would rush from their huts into the [Ford] house, barricade the doors, open the windows, and about five men would place themselves at each window, with their muskets brought to a charge, loaded and cocked ready for defense. There they would remain until the troops from camp were seen marching, with music, at quick-step down towards the mansion.”
“These occasions were annoying to the ladies of the household,” Benson J. Lossing wrote in his 1851 history of the Revolutionary War, “for both Mrs. Washington and Mrs. Ford were obliged to lie in bed, sometimes for hours, with their rooms full of soldiers, and the keen winter air from the open windows piercing through their drawn curtains.” (Martha Washington had arrived to stay at the mansion on December 31.)
Washington and his staff, according to one of his aides, “occupied two rooms below, all the upper floor, the kitchen, cellar and stable.” Nonetheless, the Ford mansion, though spacious, was packed with bodies. On January 22, 1780, Washington complained in a letter to Major General Nathanael Greene that “eighteen belonging to my family [meaning his staff] and all Mrs. Ford’s are crowded together in her kitchen.”
On January 31, Brigadier General Thomas Stirling, the commander of the British 42nd Regiment (the famous “Black Watch”), approved Simcoe’s plan, noting, “Your ideas are great, and would be of importance if fulfilled.”
That same day Silas Condict, a member of New Jersey’s executive council, wrote Washington expressing his concern: “I take the liberty to suggest my apprehension respecting Your Excellency’s situation, which I do not think so secure as I would wish, while the frost [ice] makes firm passing into Jersey from every part of the enemy’s lines.” The prescient councilman advised Washington that the solid ice could make possible a “bold” attempt to surprise him and allow a party of cavalry to reach Morristown undetected. “The importance of the object may induce them to hazard an attempt,” Condict warned, “and it will fully justify every means to be ready to receive them.”
But Washington seemed unconcerned. He told Condict that he had already taken “precautions” that would be “effectual” in preventing a surprise cavalry raid on the mansion.
As he waited for scouts to confirm Washington’s continued presence at the mansion, Simcoe was surprised to learn that the spymaster Beckwith had come up with his own plan to kidnap Washington. Knyphausen agreed that a raid on Morristown was feasible. “General Washington having taken up his quarters at a distance from his army, under the protection of a small corps of infantry,” Knyphausen wrote, “it appeared practicable to surprise that body with cavalry and to penetrate to the neighborhood of Morristown.”
Knyphausen preferred Beckwith’s plan, since it called for the deployment of many more troops, resulting in less risk. Beckwith proposed staging various diversions in New Jersey. This force of mounted men would consist of about 60 cavalrymen each from the British 17th Light Dragoons and from Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers. Beckwith ordered a disappointed Simcoe to send him the mounted troops of the Queen’s Rangers for the operation.
In late January and early February, Knyphausen made his preparations for Beckwith’s planned raids. The German general assigned a regiment of infantry to Paulus Hook to await the return of his mounted men from Morristown.
The core of the mounted attack force poised to ride to Morristown and capture Washington was the British 17th Light Dragoons, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Birch. This regiment had sailed from Ireland in 1775 and landed in Boston just before the Battle of Bunker Hill. Some of them had infamously ridden their mounts inside Boston’s Old South Meeting House. Since then the regiment had participated in most of the significant engagements in the north, including those of Long Island, White Plains, and Monmouth, as well as dozens of small skirmishes in New Jersey and around Philadelphia and New York City. After the British evacuation of Philadelphia in 1778, the 16th Light Dragoons, the only other British regular cavalry regiment used in the Revolutionary War and whose dragoons had captured Major General Charles Lee, transferred many of its men and horses to the 17th and sent its officers back to England. After arriving in the New York City region, its headquarters was usually at Hempstead, on Long Island, but its men constantly patrolled the lines around New York City.
The uniform of the 17th Dragoons included a red jacket with white facings, buckskin breeches, black-top boots, and a leather helmet with a skull-and-crossbones above the words “or glory.” The helmet was topped with a red, flowing crest of dyed horsehair. The dragoons were armed with a single-bladed straight saber and a light carbine. They were trained to fire from the saddle.
The Black Hussars were mostly escaped German prisoners of war who had accompanied Major General John Burgoyne’s army to Saratoga. After they had gathered in New York City and had acquired a reputation for being unruly, they were formed into a hussar outfit in 1779. The men wore a hussar cap and black coat and short boots with blue trousers tucked in—the hussar style. Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers were similarly attired, wearing a hussar-type cap, with the crescent or half-moon insignia of the Rangers on the front, a green wool jacket, green trousers tucked into short boots, and a sword belt over the right shoulder.
It is not known who commanded the expedition, but it was probably Birch, since he was the senior commander of the only regular British Army cavalry regiment in the attack force. Birch had not yet made much of an impression as a military leader. As commander of his dragoons on Long Island and later as a brigadier general and commandant of New York City, he’d gained a reputation for corruption, stealing the houses and possessions of loyalists, allowing his soldiers to plunder the churches of loyalists, and even ordering the tearing down of a Quaker meetinghouse on British-held Long Island and personally selling the wood.
Knyphausen augmented the Elizabethtown-bound force with additional troops and a second senior officer, Brigadier General Cortland Skinner, the former attorney general of New Jersey. Stirling commanded two regiments of British regulars and Skinner probably commanded the 1st and 4th Battalions of New Jersey Volunteers, a loyalist outfit, for a total of about 1,200 men.
The British seized sleds from civilians. At least 86 were used on February 6 to carry munitions, provisions, and other military supplies to British posts at Paulus Hook and Staten Island. The ice on Newark Bay was so firm that 24-pounder cannons hauled across it to Paulus Hook on February 8 and 13 “made no impression” on the frozen surface, “an event unknown in the memory of man,” wrote Major General James Pattison, the commander of the British Army’s New York City garrison.
On February 7 the mounted men of Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers and the Black Hussars rode on the ice from Staten Island to New York City, and by the next day the 17th Regiment of Light Dragoons had joined them, after departing from their base at Jamaica in Queens County (then considered part of Long Island). The British also called on prominent New York City loyalists to make maps detailing the network of roads between Elizabethtown and Washington’s headquarters and the more distant Continental camps at Morristown.
While Knyphausen completed plans for his move against Washington at Morristown, much of the British activity related to efforts to increase New York City’s and Staten Island’s defenses. The American army could just as easily cross the ice to attack them. The Royal Navy, having departed Upper New York Bay for the winter to avoid being iced in, could not protect army outposts. In desperation, Pattison buttressed his force by drafting more than 2,500 loyalist militiamen in a single week.
News of the British preparations was speedily conveyed to Washington and his commander of American outposts in northern New Jersey, Major General Arthur St. Clair. Washington believed he would be safe with Continentals and local militia manning guard posts at various key points. “Our main body cannot be surprised” he wrote to St. Clair on January 30, adding that he thought the main object of a raid would be his army’s “magazines of hay.” He had no idea that he was the primary target of the raid, and that the British planned to have him on his way to Paulus Hook well before Continental troops could interfere.
According to historian Benjamin Huggins, Washington kept two brigades of his main army stationed west of Elizabethtown to guard against raids from Staten Island. Arriving to take command of these brigades on January 27, St. Clair ordered his commanders to post guards at Rahway, Cranes Mills, Connecticut Farms, Elizabethtown, and Newark. In addition, the New Jersey militia could be called into the field on an alarm. Washington also kept a detachment of about 200 infantry at Paramus.
Washington and St. Clair had also put another force in place that would prove critical in deflecting one of the raiding parties. With few Continental cavalry to patrol the areas between his guard posts, St. Clair asked the New Jersey authorities to raise a company of light cavalry at Continental expense to patrol the coast roads between Newark and Amboy. The company numbered 45 light cavalry raised from militia volunteers. St. Clair stationed these light cavalry at Rahway, Newark, and Woodbridge, with 15 at each town. They would prove their worth in the coming fights.
The mission to kidnap Washington was scheduled for February 8 but called off when a fierce snowstorm intervened. Knyphausen, however, was unwilling to wait much longer. On February 10, with no new snowfall, he ordered the Morristown raid and diversionary attacks to begin the next evening. During the night of February 11–12, more than a hundred cavalrymen (accounts range from 120 to 300), all probably commanded by Birch, and an infantry regiment crossed the ice-sheeted Hudson River and Newark Bay to Paulus Hook, on the New Jersey mainland.
Meanwhile, Simcoe and Stirling ventured out to create their diversions. At the head of 200 infantrymen, Simcoe passed over the ice at 1 a.m. on February 11. Stirling’s orders called for Simcoe to send a party to surprise the enemy post at Woodbridge or Rahway “and to give a general alarm.” To cover his return, Simcoe posted Major Richard Armstrong with some of the regiment’s infantry, his remaining cavalry, and some cannons at the heights overlooking the Old Blazing Star Ferry, which connected Staten Island with New Jersey. He then took the rest of the Rangers and headed toward Woodbridge, but he was forced to march “on the beaten road” because of the deep snows around them. When Simcoe and his men arrived at Woodbridge, they found the enemy guard post abandoned. Still, Simcoe was determined to “beat up some of the enemy’s quarters, or fall in with their patrols” to create a diversion that would “give every assistance in his power to his friend” Beckwith.
As they marched on from Perth Amboy to Elizabethtown, Simcoe’s troops were challenged at a crossroads by patriot sentries. All of Simcoe’s men, shielded by the darkness and deep snowdrifts, stood still “in profound silence.” The sentinels, talking among themselves, thought they were mistaken in spotting the enemy. But soon one of the New Jersey militia on horseback rode up on the flanks of Simcoe’s unit and yelled an alarm. The sentries opened fire. Simcoe ordered his men to retreat. As they did, one of them was struck and killed.
The patriots took time to gather and organize their forces. Then they set out after Simcoe and his men, using the same path. Finally, at 8 a.m., after crossing Woodbridge Creek, the Americans caught up with the raiders. But the deep snow prevented the Americans from attacking the British flanks. As Simcoe approached the road to the Old Blazing Star Ferry, he dispatched a man to ride over the ice to alert Armstrong to prepare his cannons, and he ordered Captain David Shank to cover his retreat by manning a ridge with a small detachment. That done, Simcoe suddenly ordered the rest of his men to turn around and charge the pursuing Americans. The surprised Americans immediately fled. As they passed over a hill, Shank’s men rose and fired on them, driving them farther back, and Armstrong opened up his cannons on ferry buildings sheltering some of the other American soldiers. This dispirited the Americans and allowed Simcoe and his men to return over the ice to Long Island.
Simcoe had carried out his mission of skirmishing with local militia and St. Clair’s horse patrols. He later wrote that he had lost just one man and suffered “a few wounded,” adding that he thought the enemy’s loss to have been much greater. St. Clair, though, reported only one man wounded.
The more punishing blow was struck at Elizabethtown. St. Clair informed Washington that his 50 men “were timely apprised” of the enemy’s approach and quickly retreated in the face of Stirling’s and Skinner’s overwhelming force. Skinner’s advance raiders did manage to take some shots at a rear guard, wounding one man. With the town now unprotected, the soldiers resorted to looting—as was sometimes done by victorious loyalists, whose property had often been seized by patriots. There is no indication that Skinner tried to stop it. “A number of houses in the town have been stripped of everything,” St. Clair informed Washington the next day, “and ten or twelve of the inhabitants carried off.” The Pennsylvania Packet reported sarcastically of the raiders, “After terrifying the women and children, they heroically marched off with their plunder and five or six prisoners.”
As Stirling’s and Skinner’s troops began to evacuate Elizabethtown, St. Clair’s guards and the local horse patrols reclaimed it, taking two stragglers, but they turned out to be civilians from Staten Island who’d followed Skinner’s troops in order to plunder. The guards, horse patrols, and some local militia pursued Skinner’s retreating raiders and claimed to have wounded several, but no report of the casualties survives in British or loyalist records.
A small, third force of British or loyalist soldiers (their identity is not known) raided Rahway. The next day St. Clair reported to Washington that enemy troops “landed at Rahway, in a very obscure place, plundered two houses and carried off two men, and seem to have had no other object.”
As for the main object, Birch’s cavalrymen, accompanied by Beckwith, rode north to Hackensack and regrouped there as planned. But after setting out from Hackensack for Morristown, the mounted troops were stymied by the harsh weather. “A body of cavalry passed into Jersey, but was obliged to return after a march of between five and six miles; the snow which fell on the 7th and 8th instant having rendered the roads impassable,” Knyphausen reported. Simcoe wrote that “Beckwith had found it impracticable to carry his attempt into execution, from an uncommon fall of rain, which encrusting the top of the snow, cut the fetlocks of his horses, and rendered it absolutely impossible for him to succeed.” Judge Thomas Jones railed in frustration about the failed attempt: “The guides got frightened, the party bewildered, they lost the road, and after a cold, tedious and fatiguing excursion of twenty-four hours, without ever seeing a Rebel, returned to New York, all frost-bitten.”
Before turning back, the commander of the main body of dragoons had five rockets fired into the night sky to signal Stirling to call off his raid of Elizabethtown. In turn, Stirling had five rockets fired to signal Simcoe to call off his raid and turn back to Staten Island.
Loyalists in New York City quickly learned the true purpose of the raid. “The dragoons went out last night with an intent to take Washington,” newspaper printer Hugh Gaine wrote in his journal, “but the roads were so bad they could not proceed, so returned—ah well.” William Smith, with fair accuracy, wrote in his diary for February 11: “There went over the river last evening a party of 4 or 500 and 200 more from Staten Island, but they all returned on account of the depth of the snow. I suspect Washington was the chief object and the sallies from Staten Island feints.”
The smothering February 7–8 snowstorm had spoiled the British mission to kidnap Washington. While the bitterly cold winter that had iced over the Hudson River made the raid against Morristown possible, it had also ruined Beckwith’s plan. The American commander in chief surely could not have revealed the significance of the following entry in his diary for February 8: “A fall of nine or ten inches of snow in the night from the northeast.” Ironically, the inability of Washington’s Continentals to quickly clear the road of snow between Hackensack and Morristown had prevented the raid.
On February 11 St. Clair sent Washington an account of the unsuccessful British raids. Somehow, St. Clair had planted a spy—the guide for Birch’s dragoons. This man was likely a trader who plied his goods between New Jersey and Manhattan, supplying British-held New York. The spy reported to St. Clair, who explained to Washington:
The party from Paulus Hook consisted of about three hundred horse, and landed at Hackensack.…They proceeded some distance into the country, and from the route they pursued, he [the spy] thinks, intended to have passed the Cedar Swamp, and were very particular in their inquiries about the situation of your quarters, and where I was quartered, and the guards that were posted between Hackensack and Morristown. He says particularly that, after marching some ways into the country, he heard an officer ask the commandant where they were going. He replied he could not tell him, but they had more than thirty miles to march that night. In a short time after this, finding the snow very deep and the roads not broken, they returned, and he [the spy] was dismissed.
St. Clair then laid out a warning. “If their design was an attempt on your Excellency’s quarters,” he told Washington, “I hope you will pardon me for hinting that there is not a sufficient body of troops near enough to render you secure. Had they designed to have fallen upon our rear, which they might have done, they had troops enough to have given us full occupation, and them the opportunity.”
Washington responded to St. Clair the next day, noting that he had just “taken precautions to guard against an attempt, by such a party as might be reasonably supposed to be able to reach [his Morristown headquarters] in the course of a night.” One precaution was to increase his guard around and inside the mansion.
In his response to St. Clair, Washington added, “I hope that a short continuance of this weather will make the ice impassable by horse; from foot there is no danger at this distance.” To increase security against another raid on Morristown, he advised St. Clair to extend his horse patrols north, at least until the ice across remained firm. As temperatures warmed in late February, the ice in the bays melted, and the British shelved any further plans to kidnap Washington.
While the warmer weather melted the ice on the Hudson River, it also made the roads to Morristown passable by British dragoons. But Washington must have doubted that the British would plan a complicated amphibious operation, involving shipping dragoons and their horses across the Hudson, to mount another raid against him at Morristown. He also realized that a raid by infantry was not a true threat to his personal safety. Still, he took no chances.
In March, Beckwith kept himself informed of the American commander’s security precautions through his own intelligence sources in and around Morristown. On March 3 Beckwith received word that “General Washington’s bodyguard” at the mansion was “augmented to 350 men….One-third of them lodge every night in the lower part of the house.” On March 9 the intelligence captain received further information that “General Washington’s guard is augmented to 400 men. The caution against being surprised is sentinels being posted on every road leading to headquarters.”
On March 16 a new storm dumped nine inches of snow in and around Morristown. Three days later, perhaps feeling vulnerable to another raid attempt over the ice on the Hudson River, Washington ordered two soldiers from each regiment and one sergeant from each brigade to join his Life Guard at the mansion.
Though he was frustrated by Washington’s increased vigilance, Beckwith continued to seek and receive reports of Washington’s quarters, hoping to see another opportunity to try to kidnap him. In July and August of 1781, for example, Washington’s headquarters was sometimes at Joseph Appleby’s house, on the crossroad from Dobbs Ferry to White Plains in New York, about three and a half miles from the ferry. On July 28 a Hessian intelligence officer forwarded to Beckwith information obtained from a female spy who had gained access to Washington’s headquarters, probably by performing chores such as laundry or cooking. “The woman is returned from Washington’s quarters,” wrote Lieutenant Carl Levin Marquard. “She saw him herself and says that Washington sleeps in the back bedroom; that there were two French sentries yesterday at his door; that his guard consists of French and Rebels, which she judged to be about 30 or 40 men; that she saw no horsemen there; that there was no camp in the rear of his quarters;…that Appleby’s was about half a mile back of the Rebel camps.” On August 11 Beckwith received information from a Continental Army deserter: “Washington’s house is about a quarter of a mile in the rear of the army at Appleby’s house….He has a guard of eighty men with him constantly.”
Other than Simcoe, none of the major participants on the British side wrote about the attempt to capture the Continental Army’s commander in chief. It may have been that they were too embarrassed to admit their role in kidnapping a man who had become revered in republican circles and elected to two terms as president of the United States.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Washington himself favored the idea of kidnapping the enemy. He twice ordered plans made to abduct his counterpart, British commander in chief Henry Clinton, at his headquarters in New York City, and he even ordered plans made to kidnap 17-year-old Prince William Henry, the first member of the British royal family to visit North America, in 1782, after the great victory at Yorktown. Referring to a bid to capture Clinton in 1778, he wrote, “I think it one of the…most desirable and honorable things imaginable.” MHQ
Christian McBurney is a partner in the law firm Arent Fox in Washington, D.C. He is the author of four books on the Revolutionary War, including Abductions in the American Revolution: Attempts to Kidnap George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and Other Military and Civilian Leaders (McFarland, 2016).
Photo: Peter Newark/Bridgeman Images; Gilgers Stuart Clark Art Institute; Photo Illustration Brian Walker
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