Sunday, December 15, 2019

Episode 127 The Forage War

Last week, Washington reversed the course of the war with his victory at Princeton, effectively retaking New Jersey.  General William Howe ordered General Cornwallis back to New York, and pulled all British and Hessian forces back to Brunswick and Amboy, two New Jersey towns just across the river from New York City.  Today we call these towns New Brunswick and Perth Amboy, in case you want to look them up on a map.

Forage War

New Jersey civilians who had taken General Howe’s oath of allegiance, in order to protect themselves and their property, now found themselves branded traitors by the patriots who once again controlled almost the entire state.  Patriot militia in New Jersey came out from hiding and began attacking British soldiers.  What became known as the “forage war” began.

Now that the British and Hessian forces were concentrated in large garrisons, the Americans could not attack them directly without great risk.  However, armies had to send out supply trains, reconnaissance parties, and messengers.  They also had to send out foraging parties to find food and forage for themselves and their horses.

When they left the safety of their entrenched bases, the militia had the chance to attack.  Today we would call this a guerrilla war, a term that would not come into use for a few more decades.  Some, at the time, referred to this as the petit guerre, French for “little war.” It consisted of groups of loosely organized and irregular troops without uniforms attacking the enemy and then fading back into the civilian population.

Mounted Soldiers
These attacks began spontaneously, without any orders from General Washington or anyone else.  Local militia simply picked up their guns and used the opportunity caused by the fighting to take advantage of any opportunity they saw.  On January 4, 1777, the day after the battle of Princeton, a small group of militia, about 20 men on horseback, attacked a British supply convoy near Brunswick.  They captured wagons full of winter clothing, which they sent to the Continentals still heading to winter quarters at Morristown.

In another attack that same day, militia shot two cavalrymen on patrol near Elizabethtown (modern day Elizabeth, NJ). The next day, British reported minor attacks near Newark and Rahway, and another at Bound Brook a day later.

At first, the British thought they could squash these raids with a show of force.  But they did not anticipate how numerous and aggressive the militia had become.  After the attack on the patrol near Elizabethtown, the commander sent out about sixty Hessians, accompanied by British cavalry, to clear out any militia nearby.  Technically they were not Hessians, because they were from another German State, Waldeck.  I am calling them Hessians for the sake of simplicity and will tend to use the term generically to refer to any German speaking soldiers hired by Britain, just as most English did at the time.

The show of force, instead of scattering the militia, found the Hessians and British in a pitched battle.  All of the Hessians were killed or captured.  Only a few of the British cavalry escaped on horseback to report the loss.  General Howe then ordered the garrison out of Elizabethtown and back to the larger encampment at Amboy.

The militia, however, were in no mood to let the enemy retreat.  They attacked the retreating column which was two regiments strong.  They took over 100 prisoners and captured most of the enemy’s baggage.

Even the well defended town of Amboy with over 5000 soldiers did not deter attacks.  Militia attempted at least two attacks on the town in the weeks following.  They could not breach the British defenses there, but they unnerved the garrison and made clear that the occupying British could not rest easy.

These initial raids inspired even more militia to take up arms and join the fight.  By January 7, one militia colonel thought that recent events led to more than 12,000 men in New Jersey actively fighting in the patriot cause.  I think that was an overestimate.  But militia throughout the state began to take to the field.  Many may have felt guilty for not opposing the occupation when the British first invaded.  Now that it was clear that they at least had a chance, every patriot sought to vindicate himself.

This spontaneous militia activation came at a critical time.  Remember back in late December, when Washington begged his soldiers to stay on for just a few more weeks to get through the critical battles at Trenton and Princeton?  Well, by late January, the critical part of the campaign was over and the Continental army was settled into its winter quarters at Morristown.  The soldiers, who had kepth their promise and remained for those crucial few weeks, were ready to go home.  Some were motivated by the victories to reenlist.  But even many of them wanted to get home for the winter and rest up for the coming spring campaign.  Washington also sent many of his best officers home to recruit new regiments.  He would need these regiments for the spring, but in the meantime, his Continental army shrank to below 2500 men, even fewer than he had during the dark days of December.

Washington had to rely on militia, not only to prop up his numbers around Morristown, but to keep the British occupied and on the defensive.  He did not want a surprise winter attack to threaten his own exhausted and weakened army.

William Maxwell

To fight the forage war, Washington turned to General William Maxwell.  Although Maxwell had only been commissioned a general in October 1776, he was an experienced officer.  Maxwell had moved to America from Ireland in the 1740’s.  While he was still a child his family settled in northern New Jersey.  He always retained his accent though, giving him the nickname “Scotch Willy.”

In 1755, Maxwell signed on for Braddock campaign (see Episode 6) where he probably met Washington for the first time.  During the French and Indian War, he served as a lieutenant in the New Jersey Blues, giving him combat experience.  As the war came to an end, Maxwell served as a British commissary officer at several frontier forts, where he survived Pontiac’s war.
William Maxwell (from Alchetron)

Maxwell eventually returned to New Jersey where he continued to serve as a militia officer.  He backed the patriot cause from the start.  When the Continental Army formed in 1775, Maxwell became colonel of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment.

He led his regiment as part of the relief column in early 1776, after the capture of most of the Northern Army at Quebec.  He saw combat during the American retreat at the Battle of Trois-Riviere, or Three Rivers.  Maxwell proved himself a capable combat officer as the Continentals retreated back to Fort Ticonderoga.

During the summer of 1776, Maxwell almost resigned his commission, after a younger officer, Arthur St. Clair, received promotion to general ahead of him.  St. Clair was not only younger, but seen as more of a brown noser to Congress rather than one who had accomplished anything in combat as Maxwell had done.  The promotion may have been political, but few officers from the Quebec campaign, which Congress saw as a failure, received promotion.  Maxwell also had a reputation as a hard drinker, which may have held him back.

In the end though, Maxwell put his ego aside and remain in the field to support the cause. Maxwell finally received his promotion to general in October 1776, but always had to contend with St. Clair having seniority over him.

General Maxwell had an independent command in northern New Jersey in December 1776.  Washington ordered him to organize the militia around Morristown to harass the enemy and also to secure boats along the Delaware River for use in transporting General Lee’s army over to Pennsylvania whenever they arrived.

After the battles at Trenton and Princeton, Maxwell helped to coordinate, organize, and supply militia actions to harass the British anywhere in New Jersey.  Many of the militia operated independently.  Maxwell, however, was able to organize many of the militia into larger fighting forces, able to take on British regiments and battalions.

In the weeks following the battle of Princeton, the British attempted to regroup and assert some control.  When smaller groups of British soldiers came  under attack, they responded by sending out even larger parties.  Instead of sending out a foraging party of several dozen men, they sent out several hundred, assuming more safety in numbers.  But that did not work either.

Battle of Millstone and others

On January 20, a British force of 500 to 600 soldiers attempted to move some supplies out near Somerset Courthouse and came under attack.  This turned out to be a pretty large battle.  General Philemon Dickinson, the younger brother of Congressman John Dickinson, led an army of 450 New Jersey militiamen and about fifty Pennsylvania riflemen to attack the British.  Dickinson had settled in New Jersey a decade earlier.  Like his brother, he was a lawyer but was also a competent militia officer who proved that militia could fight on their own.

Philemon Dickinson
(from Wikimedia)
The British not only had superior numbers, but also had several field cannon that they put into use.  They set up a defensive perimeter along the Millstone Creek to challenge the Americans.  The militia moved down river.  The ice was too thin to cross, but they broke through the ice and crossed the waste high creek.  There, they formed up on the other side and charged the British position.  Actual fighting only lasted about twenty minutes, as the British force gave way, abandoned their supply wagons and retreated from the field.

The British lost an estimated 25 killed or wounded, and another 12 taken prisoner.  The Americans lost four or five men, but captured most of the enemy’s wagons and supplies.  The British commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercromby, who had led the advance brigade on the road to Trenton the day before the second battle of Trenton, reported that he had been attacked by Continental soldiers, because he was convinced that no militia would ever fight so aggressively on their own.  Colonel Abercromby, by the way, would go on to become a general, a member of Parliament and Commander in Chief of India.

A few days later, January 23, another group of militia attacked two British regiments on the march near Brunswick.  Although the British regiments totaled over 700 officers and men, a group of 350 militia attacked them as they marched down the road.  Caught off guard, the British took an estimated 30 or 40 killed and a larger number wounded.

The next day the British attempted to take the offensive by sending 600 Regulars to attack a militia force near Quibbletown.  Although the British forced a retreat, the militia put up a defensive fire that led to significant British casualties.

The next week, British General William Erskine attempted to set a trap for the troublesome Americans, by sending out a small group of British soldiers on a foraging party.  When a group of fifty continentals attacked the foraging party, Erskine sprung a full battalion, including eight artillery pieces, against the fifty attackers.  But the Americans ignored the numbers and charged the British lines, throwing the surprised British into a panic.  The artillery eventually stopped the charge, but the British ended up retreating from the field, having lost another 36 dead and roughly 100 wounded

The British then tried to up their game again.  On February 8, Cornwallis himself led twelve battalions out into the field, daring the Americans to engage them.  The Continentals and militia were not sufficiently organized to confront such a large force directly, but continually fired on the enemy’s flanks with hit and run tactics similar to what the British experienced in the retreat from Concord.  The constant hit and run enemy fire eventually forced the army to retreat back to Brunswick.

Battle of Spanktown and others

A few weeks later, Colonel Charles Mawhood, the same officer who had fought the Americans at Princeton, led several brigades out to capture or destroy the militia that had been harassing them.  They found a small group of militia driving some cattle and sheep, and attempted to pursue them.  The fleeing militia ran over a hill.  As the British attempted to chase them down, a line of soldiers rose up from a hidden position behind the hill and fired a deadly volley into the British line.

It turns out, the Americans had set a trap of their own, as the 2000 British soldiers under Mawhood, hit General Maxwell’s NJ militia army.  The Americans devastated the British lines forcing them to retreat from the field.  The British suffered nearly 100 killed or wounded, while the Americans took only 14 casualties.

The battle took place near Spanktown, which is why it is sometimes called the battle of Spanktown.  Years, later, for some reason, the town decided to change its name from Spanktown to Rahway, which is why some historians refer to it as the battle of Rahway.  Regardless of the name, the Americans definitely spanked the regulars that day.

A few weeks later, on March 8, Mawhood tried to lead another expedition with two thousand troops, only to run into another American ambush commanded by Maxwell.  The ensuing battle led to another 20 American casualties and 60 British. Once again the British had to retreat from the field.

By April, Maxwell’s militia were engaging in regular raids on the pickets around Amboy, threatening one of the last major British position in New Jersey.  General Howe brought in reinforcements that had been deployed to Rhode Island to ensure the Americans would not take the British outpost at Amboy.

Britain on Defense

The continual attacks on British outposts took their toll.  The British abandoned Hackensack, soon occupied by General George Clinton, the Continental general, not to be confused with British General Henry Clinton.  As the Americans captured territory, they began to deal with the Tories who had backed the British during the occupation.  Many were arrested or saw the confiscation of their property.  Many others fled to New York or hid in the Pine Barrens.  Many who had signed the British oath of allegiance, now tore them up, as it was proof of their treason to the patriot cause.

Forage War (from Wikimedia)
The harassment of supply lines and foraging parties proved highly effective.  British regulars and Hessians remained hunkered down in Brunswick and Amboy.  Brunswick had been a village with a population of 400 people, now supported over 5000 soldiers.  Conditions were cramped and dirty, with little food or supplies.  Uniforms turned to rags over the winter.

General Cornwallis took command in Brunswick where he had to fight to get supplies from New York for his men.  He even paid for new uniforms for some of the Hessians out of his own pocket.  After a few weeks, food and supplies began to flow to the New Jersey outposts.  But the army remained cooped up in the towns along the river in miserable conditions.  Soon disease began to drain the army of even more soldiers.

Meanwhile, just across the river in New York City, General Howe remained in relative comfort.  Howe threw a big party to celebrate his investiture in the Order of the Bath, as well as the Queen’s birthday.  His officers celebrated with feasts, fireworks, and entertainment, even while is own army in New Jersey suffered from constant enemy attack.  Howe enjoyed the company of his mistress, Elizabeth Loring.  Her husband looked the other way as he grew rich on military prison contracts that led to the deaths of more Americans on British prison ships than all the battle deaths of the war combined.

General Howe’s attempt to end the war without a great deal of bloodshed was a failure.  Officers and men openly questioned his competence, and some even his dedication to the British cause.  Many grumbled that Howe was intentionally trying to lose the war because he supported independence.  There is no good evidence to support these accusations, but Howe’s loss of New Jersey led many to believe it was time for a replacement.  The Ministry, however, continued to support Howe.  They gave him another year to vindicate his leadership of the army.


The series of battles and engagements in northern New Jersey during the winter of 1777 are collectively known as the Forage War.  Because they did not involve famous general and because most of the battles were rather small, it is a commonly overlooked part of the Revolutionary War.  But the collective results were devastating.  The British and Hessians lost nearly 2000 killed, wounded, or captured during the various battles and skirmishes.  The fact that the remainder of soldiers were forced into crowded and dirty conditions without sufficient supplies, let disease take its toll on the army as well.

The numbers speak for themselves.  In August 1776, Howe had about 32,000 soldiers in his army.  He lost about 1500 in the battles over Long Island and New York.  He lost another 1000 or so at Trenton.  But by late winter, as Howe began requesting reinforcements for the spring campaign, he reported having only 23,000 soldiers, 14,000 of whom were healthy enough to fight.  Many of those killed had been from his best units, which he kept in the front lines during the winter fighting.  Those surviving, were demoralized and uninspired by their leadership.

In Britain, support for the war began to fail.  The war had been sold as a major offensive that would crush colonial resistance quickly, shock and awe.  Now, with huge expenditures and little results, the army wanted even more soldiers for another campaign which still did not guarantee any quick success. The Americans had proven themselves neither shocked nor awed.

Howe requested 15,000 German reinforcements for the 1777 campaign.  The request shocked officials in London who had thought his campaign had been largely a success and relatively bloodless, until the winter setbacks began to show just how much the war was costing the army.

When Howe learned he would only receive 7800 reinforcements for the spring campaign, he had to scale back on his war plans.  In only six months, the British invading force had gone from invincible and overwhelming armies prepared to pacify the continent, to the defensive occupiers of the greater New York City area only.

By contrast, the Continental Army grew over the winter.  Not only did they receive new recruits, but the officers and men fighting in New Jersey grew more experienced and confident of their fighting ability.  Also, the new recruits signed on for three year enlistments.  This meant that Washington would not have to replace his army each year, and would have a professional core of soldiers whose training and experience would remain with the army.

Of course, the Forage War was only one effort to challenge the British during the winter and spring of 1777.  Next week, we will look at Continental attempts during this same time period to retake Fort Independence in New York.

- - -

Next Episode 128 Fort Independence

Previous Episode 126 Battle of Princeton

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Further Reading


Sobel, Thomas Thorleifur "William Maxwell, New Jersey’s Hard Fighting General" Journal of the American Revolution, Aug. 15, 2016:

Richman Steven M. "The Battle of Millstone" Journal of the American Revolution, Oct. 22, 2014:

Robert Abercromby, Biography:

Battles and Skirmishes in New Jersey of the American Revolution, by David Munn (PDF):

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The Parliamentary Register: Or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons, Vol. 10 (1802).

The Detail and Conduct of the American War, under Generals Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, and Vice Admiral Lord Howe, (original reports and letters) The Royal Exchange, 1780.

Carrington, Henry Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781, A.S. Barnes & Co. 1876.

Drake, Samuel A. The Campaign of Trenton 1776-77, Lee and Shepard, 1899.

Johnston, Henry The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn, Long Island Historical Society, 1878.

Martin, Joseph Plumb The Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier, 1830 (This is a copy of the original print, but in poor quality.  You can borrow a better quality copy or listen to a free audio copy of the book) or see below in the "books worth buying" section.

Reed, William B. (ed) Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, Vol. 1, Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847.

Ross, Charles Derek (ed) Correspondence of Charles, first Marquis Cornwallis, Vol. 1 J. Murray, 1859.

Stryker, William S. et. al. Documents Relating to the Revolutionary History of the State of New Jersey: Extracts from American Newspapers, Vol 1, John L. Murphy Publishing, 1901.

Wilkinson, James Memoirs of my own times, Abraham Small, 1816.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Atkinson, Richard The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, Henry Holt & Co. 2019.

Dwyer, William The Day Is Ours: How a Ragged Rebel Army Stood the Storm and Saved the Revolution,  Viking, 1983.

Fischer, David Hackett Washington’s Crossing, Oxford Univ. Press, 2004.

Ketchum, Richard The Winter Soldiers, Garden City: Anchor Books, 1973.

Kidder, William L. Ten Crucial Days: Washington's Vision for Victory Unfolds, Knox Press, 2019.

McCullough, David 1776, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Price, David The Road to Assunpink Creek: Liberty's Desperate Hour and the Ten Crucial Days of the American Revolution, Knox Press, 2019.

Schecter, Barnet The Battle for New York, New York: Walker Publishing, 2002.

Thompson, Ray Washington Along the Delaware: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton as told by the men who were there and through Washington's own official dispatches, Fort Washington, Pa: Bicentennial Press, 1970.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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