Weeks after the British evacuated Philadelphia, the French fleet arrived in the Delaware Bay. On July 6, 1778, Charles Henri Hector, the comte d’Estaing dropped anchor of his flagship, the Languedoc. The massive ship was armed with 90 cannons and had a crew of 900 sailors. Passengers aboard the ship included Conrad Alexandre Gérard, the new French minister to America, as well as returning American minister Silas Deane.
Following Deane’s recall, the French government had offered Deane accommodation with the French fleet. Congress had demanded Deane return to Philadelphia to answer questions about suspicious financial transactions, mostly the results of lies propagated by his fellow commissioner Arthur Lee. French foreign minister Vergennes hoped that Deane’s return to America aboard a massive French military vessel, along with a fleet, and at the side of the new French Minister to America, would underscore just how well the French government thought of Deane’s diplomatic work and that it would help to impress the members of Congress.
Upon arrival, the French commander, d’Estaing, received word that the British fleet had evacuated to New York. The British ships in New York Harbor were inferior to his fleet of seventeen massive ships of war, armed with over 1000 cannons and supported by nearly 10,000 sailors. Rather than allowing Dean and Gérard to make an impressive entry into Philadelphia aboard the French fleet, d’Estaing dropped off his passengers at the shore in the Delaware Bay, and then set sail for New York to do battle. Deane and Gérard had to make their way to Philadelphia aboard far less impressive local transport ships. Despite a quiet entry, the arrival of the first foreign ambassador in the newly-recaptured seat of Congress was cause for celebration.
Conrad Alexandre Gérard
The new French Minister, Conrad Alexandre Gérard de Rayneval, was a lifelong diplomat. He did not come from nobility. He was the eldest son of the secretary to a French noble family. Gérard attended college and studied law at the University of Strasbourg. By 1754, at the age of 24, he had entered the diplomatic service.
Conrad Alexandre Gérard
His duties sent him throughout Europe and introduced him to much of the political leadership on the continent. The life of a career diplomat can be delicate and tricky, if not terribly exciting. Gérard developed a good reputation within the diplomatic corps. His career grew, along with his responsibilities. During and after the Seven Years War, he served in the French Embassy at Vienna. Among his duties was ensuring proper protocol during the engagement and marriage of the Austrian Archduchess Marie Antoinette to the Dauphin of France, the future King Louis XVI.
After Louis XVI ascended to the throne in 1774, the comte de Vergennes took over French foreign affairs. Vergennes appointed Gérard to increasingly important positions within the ministry. The two men developed a close friendship and mutual trust. When Vergennes entered into treaty negotiations with the American delegation, it was Gérard who conducted those negotiations. When it came time to send a diplomatic delegation to America, Gérard received the appointment as Minister Plenipotentiary to America.
French Strategy in America
With France having committed to an alliance with America and war with Britain, the diplomatic tables between France and America had somewhat turned. For the past few years, America had done everything it could to bring France into the war. At the same time, France was comfortable watching events from the sidelines, taking its time to decide whether war was in its best interests.
Once it entered the war, France became much more dependent on America to stay in the war. If Britain managed to establish a peace with its colonies, it could then turn its full wrath against France and likely capture more French colonies. It would drive France deeper into debt, fighting a losing war that it could not well afford.
When French officials learned that Britain had repealed many of the laws that had started the rebellion in the first place, and had sent a peace commission with real negotiating power to end the hostilities, France knew that it would have to make sure the Continental Congress did not back out of the new treaty of alliance and leave France to face the British alone. Americans were already exhausted from fighting several years of war. They had age-old social, political, and cultural ties to Britain, and a long history of hostility with France. It would not be hard to imagine the Americans accepting the generous terms offered by London and throwing their new ally under the bus.
Gérard’s mission was to cement the Franco-American alliance. He needed to make sure the US remained independent and at war with Britain. Despite Gérard’s decades of diplomatic experience, navigating the political waters of a republic required a different set of skills from those used in Europe. There was no foreign sovereign, nor any individual who could set policy for the United States. The Continental Congress was an unstable mix of state representatives who came and went. It was not even clear if all of the states would adhere to the same policies and remain united.
A diplomat usually focuses on establishing some personal relations with leaders of the foreign power. There was no prior relationship of French nobility who had intermarried with Americans in order to establish some sort of connection. The US itself had never received a diplomatic party before. Differences of language, religion, and customs all created potential hazards for France in making this relationship work.
Despite these potential problems, Gérard arrived in Philadelphia on July 12, 1778 to find the alliance strong. Delegates showed no interest in any peace that would return them to colonial status. Gerard found that the Americans were still very much willing to fight, and needed France’s active support if they had any hope of keeping the war going.
When the new minister entered Philadelphia, Congress had only just returned to the city days earlier. It was still cleaning up the mess left by the British less than a month prior. Even so, Philadelphia received the new minister with great enthusiasm. A committee of members of Congress rode to Chester, to escort Gérard into the city. An honorary guard of Continental dragoons accompanied them. They honored him with a 15-gun salute, one for each state, plus the King of France and the King of Spain.
In a report written a week later, Gérard told Vergennes that people had cheered him from the banks of the Delaware River as he made his way to the city. Once there, members of Congress paid him calls, even before he had presented his credentials to Congress. They invited him to a banquet and celebrated the new alliance between France and the Americans.
French Cartoon d'Estaing bringing supplies to America
While receiving a warm welcome, Gérard had his concerns about the new alliance. His traditional European view was that there was no way these people could govern themselves. At some point, they would either return to British rule, or permit French rule over them. Perhaps it would not be a blatant colonial relationship, but the Americans would need the continuing support, guidance, and protection of a European power. The notion of a truly independent United States that could remain neutral in European affairs simply did not seem possible to Gérard.
Gérard sent a series of candid reports back to France. He reported his enthusiastic welcome and the apparent resolve of Americans to remain independent at all costs. At the same time, he noted that some of Congress’ best delegates from its first years had left for various reasons, and that their replacements were not really of the same caliber. Gérard also made note of the divisions between supporters of George Washington and Horatio Gates, observing that northerners generally preferred Gates, while southerners backed Washington. This, he noted, was a possible source of future rupture between the new union of states.
Gérard also mentioned, with regret, that several French officers had taken sides in this dispute. Although his report did not name names, we know that General Conway was a key backer of Gates, while General Lafayette outspokenly supported Washington. As a diplomat, this concerned Gérard as he did not want France supporting one American faction over another. Backing the wrong faction could prematurely end the alliance.
Throughout his tenure in America, Gérard remained focused on maintaining the alliance at all costs. He simply could not allow a pro-British faction or peace faction to seek a negotiated settlement between American and Britain, leaving France to fight a dangerous and undistracted British military. Gérard had to make sure that the war in America continued. Even an American victory with independence at this time went against French interests.
During his first few months in Philadelphia, the Carlisle Commission, which I discussed a few weeks ago, was still trying to negotiate an acceptable peace, one that would permit Britain to focus on France. The Commission had retreated to New York, along with the British Army, but remained hopeful in its mission to end hostilities.
Gérard worked to ensure that the Americans did not settle with Britain. He strongly advocated that Congress should settle for nothing less than full independence, something he was pretty sure Britain would not accept. Most members of Congress did not need much convincing on that point, but Gérard had to make sure the situation did not change. If Britain won a few military victories, American hopes might falter. Assuring the Americans of French military support to help continue the war effort kept American morale high and away from talk of political compromise with Britain.
Beyond that, Gérard hoped to forge a more durable political alliance between France and the United States. This proved more frustrating. A great many Americans still distrusted France. While they needed France’s assistance in the war effort, France was the traditional enemy of the former British colonists. They viewed the absolute monarchy in France as worse than the constitutional monarchy of Britain.
Just because the Americans did not want a closer military alliance with France than they already had, that did not mean they wanted to submit to Britain again either. They wanted no political entanglements. Gérard, however, took their reluctance to form a closer political alliance with France as an indication that some faction in Congress wanted to return to a relationship with Britain.
Privately, Gérard viewed the American experiment in republicanism as doomed. Without a unifying leadership of a monarch, he did not see how the government could remain united. Legislators who were regularly replaced in office, offered no consistency of policy or alliance. Gérard was confident that the American states would eventually fall under either the political control of Britain or France. He wanted to make sure that it was the latter.
Gérard would remain in Philadelphia as the French minister for about 15 months, helping to establish the new alliance and doing what he could to create more political connections between the two countries. He returned to France in October 1779.
Even before France had signed the treaties of alliance and commerce, Paris had been planning its own military strategy. One reason France had delayed any sort of alliance was that they had needed a few years to build up the French navy to a point where it could compete with the British. By 1778, France had a new fleet of warships that it thought was ready to compete with the British.
As early as January, French leaders had been organizing a fleet under the comte d’Estaing to send to America. Admiral d’Estaing, who brought Gérard to America, was an accomplished officer with connections to the highest offices of French government. He had only joined the navy sixteen years earlier in 1762.
d’Estaing’s father had been a lieutenant general in the French Army. The wealthy and powerful family was close to the crown. d’Estaing and the future King Louis XVI were about the same age and attended school together. They became lifelong friends.
At age nine, d’Estaing joined the army as a musketeer. Influential families often helped their young children receive commissions so that they would have some seniority by the time they were actually old enough to do any real military work. By age 16, he was a lieutenant. That same year, he married the daughter of a French field marshal. During the War of Austrian Succession, he served as an aide to Field Marshal Maurice de Saxe. d’Estaing did see combat and was wounded in battle. By the war’s end, he had risen to colonel.
After the war, the twenty year old colonel oversaw a military reform commission that the King had wanted. The commission’s goal was to emulate some of the successes of the Prussian Army.
During the Seven Years War, d’Estaing wanted to go to serve in Canada under General Montcalm. However, his family discouraged that. Instead, they helped him receive a promotion to general with service in India. During the siege of Madras in 1758, a British attack wounded d’Estaing and left him a prisoner. As a captured general, d’Estaing was held by British Governor George Pigot, brother of British General Robert Pigot, who I have discussed in earlier episodes. As was common for captured officers, d’Estaing received parole and returned to France.
While still on parole, d’Estaing took up service as the captain of a privateer ship working for the French East India Company. He spent nearly a year attacking British ships and outposts in India. As he was returning to France, the British captured his ship and imprisoned him in London for violating the terms of his parole. He eventually returned to France near the end of the war.
In 1762 d’Estaing received promotion to lieutenant general. He also took a commission as rear admiral in the French navy that same year. If it seems strange today that one person could hold commands in both the army and navy, it did at that time too. The king eventually had to remove him from office in the army, leading to his career exclusively in the navy, starting at the rank of admiral.
Admiral d'Estaing then spent several years as governor general of the French Leeward Islands in the Caribbean. By 1772, he was naval inspector of France, living in Brest, and by 1777 he was the Vice Admiral of the Asian and American seas.
French Fleet in America
In 1778, even before the treaties with the Americans were made public, d’Estang organized his fleet at Toulon in preparation for a voyage to America. In April, the fleet departed France.
When d’Estaing led the first French fleet to America, he received pretty broad discretion to take advantage of whatever opportunities he found. The general plan was to attack British ships and bases in North America during the summer and fall. Later in the year, after hurricane season had passed, d’Estaing had orders to sail down to the West Indies and look for targets among the British island colonies there.
As I said, the French fleet landed in Delaware Bay where the Admiral learned that the British fleet was in New York Harbor. After dropping off his VIP charges, d’Estaing sailed his fleet to New York to confront the British.
New York Harbor
On July 11, 1778, d’Estaing’s fleet of twelve ships of the line and five frigates arrived just off of Sandy Hook at the southern end of New York Harbor. The remainder of Admiral Howe’s fleet in the harbor found itself vastly outgunned and was in no mood for a fight.
French Map of NY Harbor, 1778
Howe’s fleet had arrived in New York Harbor only about two weeks prior. They had returned with the last of the ships from the evacuation of Philadelphia. As soon as Admiral Howe arrived, he received notice from General Clinton that the army had just fought the battle of Monmouth and then retreated to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The navy then had to ferry the entire army and all of its baggage across the harbor to Manhattan Island, as well as Staten Island and Long Island. They completed all that by July 5, only six days before the arrival of the French fleet.
While sailing from Philadelphia to New York, Admiral Howe had received intelligence that a French fleet under d’Estaing was on its way to America, but did not have much more details. He did not even know if d’Estaing was headed for Philadelphia, New York, Newport, or Halifax. A few days before the arrival of the French fleet, Howe received word that it had been spotted off the coast of Virginia and then sailed up to the Delaware Bay. Howe had only twelve small frigates and six ships of the line in New York, including his flagship, the Eagle.
The outnumbered British scrambled to put their ships into a defensive line off of Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The army deployed 1400 men with artillery at Sandy Hook as well. They feared the French might capture the hook, then force the fleet to withdraw. If they did that, the French would have time to work their way over the sandbar and take New York Harbor. If the French took the harbor, and if the Continentals continued their advance from Monmouth, the British might have to abandon New York entirely and escape to Halifax. If escape was impossible, and British Naval reinforcements could not arrive in time, General Clinton might be looking at the need to surrender his army.
This worst case scenario for the British, of course, never happened. The depth of the water over the sandbar at Sandy Hook would have prevented the two largest French ships from entering the harbor at low tide. The others would have had to enter one at a time, and be subject to attack from shore, and from the British ships of the line in place to oppose them. You might ask, why not enter at high tide? The concern there was you could not know how long the battle would last. The French might find their fleet stuck and unable to withdraw. The risk of losing the fleet for this fight was just not worth it.
The French fleet remained just outside the harbor for eleven days. During that time, d’Estaing evaluated the situation in the harbor and the British defenses. He also conferred with General Washington via messenger about other options. In the end, they decided the British had a much better defensive position and that they would look for a battle elsewhere. On July 22, the French Navy hoisted its sails and moved north toward Newport, Rhode Island. The potential battle for New York was averted and the British breathed a sigh of relief.
I’ll take up the story with the attack on Newport in a future episode.
In the meantime, next week we head south to Florida for the Battle of Alligator Bridge.
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Kite, Elizabeth S. “CONRAD ALEXANDRE GERARD AND AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE.” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, vol. 32, no. 4, 1921, pp. 274–294. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44208561
Last week I covered British efforts to march across New Jersey after evacuating Philadelphia. They were marching to New York City. General Clinton had sent his heavy equipment, civilians, prisoners, and the sick via the British fleet. The bulk of his army marched overland.
The Continentals under Washington sent only a token force to reclaim Philadelphia. Leaving behind his sick and invalids, Washington moved the entire army under his command out of Valley Forge and into New Jersey, toward the retreating British column.
As the Continental Army began its first major campaign of 1778, it did so with a new second in command of the army. Charles Lee had been a British prisoner of war since late 1776. When the British had captured him a few weeks before the battle of Trenton, the Continental Army was on the ropes. Many expected it to fail at any time. Many were also calling for Lee to replace Washington as commander of the army. Lee, at that time, had refused to join his army with Washington’s for a final showdown. Instead, he found one excuse after another to remain in Northern New Jersey. It was only after his capture that his army merged with Washington’s, providing enough soldiers for the attack on Trenton.
During his captivity in New York, Lee’s opinion of the Continental Army and Washington’s leadership did not improve. Lee had worked on a military strategy, which he shared with General Howe, to help the British win the war. Fortunately the British leadership kept the news of this treasonous activity a secret from the Continentals.
As he neared his exchange, Lee began to think again about how the Americans might win the war. He had not altered his view that the Americans could never stand up directly against British regulars in the field.
Lee proposed that the Americans move most of their civilians and supplies further west, possibly moving Congress to Pittsburgh. Civilians might move further downriver where they would be under Spanish protection. The Continentals could then begin a total guerilla war with the British, or what he called “Indian-style” fighting. Americans would use hit and run tactics to keep the British from returning to normal rule, but would avoid a major field battle.
Lee had never had a particularly optimistic view of Continental soldiers. Upon first joining the Continental Army, Lee had to restrain Washington from attacking the British in Boston. Lee won his first independent command in Charleston, South Carolina only because the officers under his command refused to abandon Sullivan’s Island as he had suggested. When he returned to New York City in late 1776, he very forcefully insisted to Washington that they abandon the city before they became trapped there.
In many of these strategic choices, Lee was not wrong. His attempts to avoid a major engagement possibly saved the Continental Army from ruin during those early years. Washington’s attempts at major battles during Lee’s imprisonment, Brandywine and Germantown, did not go particularly well and put the entire Continental Army at risk.
Lee, however, did not appreciate that he returned to a very different army in the spring of 1778. Continental officers and soldiers had gained battle experience at Brandywine and Germantown. General von Steuben’s training at Valley Forge had professionalized the army and made them more prepared for a European-style battlefield.
The army and Congress had come to the consensus following the Conway Cabal, that Washington was the right man for the job. They were no longer interested in looking for a replacement. Many of the top generals from the beginning of the war were no longer in positions of influence and power. They had been replaced by newer men, many of whom had been promoted while Lee was a prisoner. Some of the top major generals, including Lafayette, DeKalb, and von Steuben, had not even been in the Continental army before Lee’s captivity. These newer officers had developed a fierce loyalty and trust in Washington as their commander.
When Lee rode into Valley Forge in April 1778, he did not seem much interested in these changes. After meeting with General Washington and the military leadership, Lee rode to York, Pennsylvania to consult with Henry Laurens and the Continental Congress. Lee said that he found the army in a worse situation than he expected, and commented that he did not think General Washington was fit to command a sergeant’s guard. His behavior indicated that he was still positioning himself to replace Washington as commander of the army. Lee then returned home for a few weeks and only rejoined the Continental Army in late May, only weeks before this campaign began.
Maintaining his view that the Americans should not face a major encounter with the British, Lee spoke rather forcefully at Washington’s councils of war against such an engagement. Lee also seemed dismissive of young General Lafayette and went out of his way to question General Von Steuben’s credentials. Lafayette, from his first encounters with Lee, observed that the general hated Washington.
At one meeting to discuss an attack on the British column, Lee commented “To risk an action in our present circumstances would be to the last degree criminal.” At a later meeting, Lee agreed to a compromise to deploy 1500 soldiers to harass the British but not to commit to an all-out battle between the two armies. Washington deployed those soldiers, but the next day deployed another 1500 soldiers under General Charles Scott. With Dickinson’s militia, Washington had over 4000 soldiers actively attacking the column.
Command of the Advance Corps
Washington had suggested that Lee take command of this advance detachment. Lee, however, demurred, saying that such a command should go to a young volunteer general, not to the second in command of the army. In response, Washington gave command of the advance force to Lafayette. In giving commands to Lafayette and to General Anthony Wayne over more senior generals, Washington was putting in command those who favored the most aggressive action against the British.
After General Lafayette had already deployed, Lee returned to Washington and said that he had changed his mind and that he wanted to lead the advance corps. Rather than disgrace Lafayette by switching commanders already in the field, Washington assigned another thousand troops under Lee’s command and ordered Lee to join his force with Lafayette’s. As the senior major general, Lee would take command of the overall force. Washington’s decision also added to the size of the advance corps, now at around 5000.
On June 27, Lee caught up with Lafayette at Englishtown, NJ. Washington brought the remaining army to Cranbury, about three miles away. He then rode to Englishtown to confer again with his generals. He ordered Lee to attack the following morning, but left it to Lee to work out the specifics. Washington then returned to the main army.
That afternoon, Lee held his own council of war with Lafayette and other top officers. Lafayette asked about the plan of attack, to which Lee responded that they would just act according to circumstances. Lee had prepared no strategy, nor had he bothered to scout out the terrain.
Lee has asked General Philemon Dickinson, whose militia were already in the field, to provide intelligence on enemy movements. He also ordered Colonel Daniel Morgan’s riflemen to assist with the attack. However, Lee’s written orders to Morgan were vague as to the time and date of the attack. When Morgan received the orders at around 2:00 AM on June 28th, he assumed the attack was scheduled for the morning of June 29th.
As the Americans prepared their attack, the British column under General Henry Clinton was trying to find a good defensive position to defend against such an attack. On June 24, while still in Allentown, NJ, Clinton rearranged the marching order of his column. He moved the Hessians, who had been the rearguard, to the front of the column. Behind them, he put his 1500 supply wagons.
Clinton believed that the Americans were probably most interested in capturing the British supplies. He wanted his best combat troops between his wagons and the enemy. He also ordered British and Hessian grenadier companies to march nearest to the wagons. General Cornwallis took command of a division including most of the light infantry, to defend the column’s left flank. This would likely be where the enemy would strike. Clinton also deployed Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe to use his provincial Queen’s Rangers to scout enemy positions.
As the British marched, they faced continual harassment. Morgan’s riflemen took potshots at the column from the British right flank. Dickinson’s New Jersey militia continually raided the column’s left flank as it marched. This forced the British to deploy skirmishers, thus slowing down the column’s overall movement. Even worse than enemy fire was the unbearable heat. A Hessian commander reported that nearly one-third of his soldiers had fallen out of line due to heat exhaustion. Carrying 100 pound packs and wool uniforms did not agree well with the soldiers suffering under the blazing summer sun. Many days of rain leading up to this time also resulted in a boom of mosquitos, which also attacked the column without mercy.
Two days after leaving Allentown, on the afternoon of June 26, the British had reached Monmouth Courthouse. Cornwallis’ best troops set up camp several miles north of Monmouth, while the large Hessian division camped several miles to the east of Monmouth.
Clinton opted to rest the men in camp the next day, June 27th. Many were in danger of dying from heat stroke and a brutal thunderstorm overnight had made conditions even more miserable. Instead of trying to move his army forward, Clinton scouted the terrain to make sure he had a good defensive position in case of attack. Swampy areas and ravines protected their flanks and made anything but a direct attack difficult. It was as good a position as the British would find.
At around 2:00 a.m. on the morning of June 28th, Lee received orders from Washington to deploy several regiments to advance on the enemy camp. If the enemy had begun its retreat, the force should attack them. Lee organized a brigade, but could not find a local guide to help his army make the march in the dark. A nighttime thunderstorm also made travel difficult. Lee did not force them to march, but decided he could rely on Dickinson’s militia to provide intelligence.
Around dawn, Lee received word that the enemy was retreating eastward toward Sandy Hook. Most of Lee’s 4500 man army needed time to form up. So, most did not leave Englishtown until 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. to begin the four mile march to Monmouth.
Although Lee had not sent out scouts, Washington had. General von Steuben and Washington’s aide Colonel John Laurens spotted the enemy leaving Monmouth that morning. They got so close that the British spotted them. Mistaking Laurens for Lafayette, they sent troops on horseback to capture the officers. The Americans were able to escape, but only after a daring chase through the woods. Von Steuben sent a messenger to inform Lee that the British had broken camp and were moving east. Having been up all night, von Steuben then caught a short nap in a house near Englishtown.
Acting on the intelligence that the British were retreating, Lee hoped to march to Monmouth and capture any rearguard left there to delay an enemy attack. As he marched, Lee received further intelligence that the British had not actually marched off. Rather, they were forming into a line of battle and preparing to engage the American attackers. If this was correct, Lee would be facing possibly the entire 12,000 man army against his advance force of 4500. Lee halted his march while he tried to get better intelligence. Instead, he received contradictory reports. Some said the British were retreating. Some said that they had formed a defensive line of battle just outside of Monmouth. Some said the British were attacking and preparing to hit the American flanks as Lee advanced.
Lee was understandably irritated by the contradictory intelligence. The terrain over which he was marching was flanked by several ravines and marshy areas. The only way in or out was through a narrow road and bridge. If the British really were preparing to attack, his entire division could be trapped and taken prisoner before they could retreat through this narrow route. Around this same time, Lee received written orders from Washington expressing a desire that Lee attack the enemy as soon as possible and that Washington was bringing up reinforcements.
With that news, Lee pressed forward, ordering General Wayne to take the lead position, supported by field artillery. As the force emerged from the ravines into a broader field, The American cavalry spotted Simcoe’s rangers, who were mostly mounted on horseback. The Queen’s Rangers charged, chasing the American cavalry. When they realized they were also charging into American lines of infantry, the British troops withdrew.
Wayne ordered his advance guard to pursue the retreating British dragoons. Finding the British rearguard in disorder and confusion, Wayne sent a message to Lee asking him to bring up his entire force to capture the rearguard. Lee sent a few hundred reinforcements, but did not want to commit his army. As Lee advanced, he discovered Simcoe’s Rangers had taken a defensive position on a hill. He ordered Wayne to advance on them slowly while he sent another force around their left flank to get behind them. Lee hoped that he could capture the loyalists rather than simply chase them away.
British Push Back
The British had mostly pulled up and marched away before dawn. The leading division of about 6000 Hessians and the 1500 supply wagons had already gotten miles away from the battlefield before the Americans arrived. General Clinton remained with a 4000 man force near Monmouth. General Cornwallis commanded another 2000 men nearby.
Clinton knew that Lee’s advance force was close, and that Washington’s main force was still several miles away. If the British turned, they might be able defeat Lee’s division in detail before Washington could arrive. At worst, his stand would buy time for his supply wagons to put more distance between them and the enemy.
At around 10:00 AM Clinton ordered Cornwallis’ division to about face and go at a fast march to attack Lee. Clinton’s division would back them up. As the summer sun grew close to mid-day, large numbers of British soldiers dropped from heat exhaustion and passed out. The march, however, did arrive in time. Around noon, Lee’s attempt to capture Simcoe’s rangers fell apart as the Americans saw Cornwallis’ division advancing on them.
Lee ordered Lafayette to take a small division to outflank the new attackers. Lafayette, concerned about the idea of attacking Cornwallis’ division with an inferior force wrote back to confirm these orders. Lee confirmed and claimed that victory was at hand. Lee then abandoned his attempt to encircle the rangers and sent more troops to back up Lafayette. While all this was happening in confusion, the center of the American lines, commanded by Generals Scott and Maxwell, began to retreat back to the ravines.
Molly Pitcher at Monmouth
One of Lee’s aides, Captain John Mercer, spotted the American center in retreat and saw Cornwallis’ division advancing on the Americans. He also saw Clinton’s division, which he took to be the entire British Army also advancing behind Cornwallis. Mercer reported to Lee. Although General Lee had advanced to Monmouth Courthouse. He realized that with Scott’s and Maxwell’s divisions missing, he was facing a much larger army on his own. He opted to pull back himself, later claiming that he was looking for good defensive ground one which to make a stand. That left General Lafayette with about 1000 men facing Cornwallis’ division of 2000, backed up by Clinton’s division of 4000. When Lafayette realized that all the other Americans were in retreat, he called off his own attack and joined the retreat as well.
Lee ordered the Rhode Island regiments to cover the American retreat. However, when the British brought up field artillery, the Rhode Island soldiers turned and retreated with the rest of the army. The entire advance corps, pushed by Cornwallis’ division, retraced their steps back through the middle ravine toward the west ravine, where they had marched earlier that morning.
Washington Confronts Lee
As Washington’s main force approached the battlefield that morning, the commander began to receive reports that the American lines were in confusion. He came across the first retreating soldiers who told him the army was, in fact, in full retreat. At first, he thought they must be lying and ordered them detained. Then as he encountered more soldiers in retreat, he realized the terrible truth. The Continental army was, in fact, in full retreat.
Washington spotted Lee on a nearby hill and galloped there to demand answers. When Washington angrily confronted Lee, the general responded in surprise. He stammered that several of his divisions had left the field and contradictory intelligence had created the problems. Besides, Lee continued, he had never thought this attack was a good idea in the first place.
Washington had long had a reputation for being nearly imperturbable. He never let his emotions show, except on very rare occasions. This was one of those rare occasions. Washington exploded in fury at his second in command. One officer later recounted that the stream of curses and invectives that flowed from Washington’s mouth caused the leaves on nearby trees to shake.
Washington left behind a dazed and flustered Lee and immediately assumed command of the field. He ordered retreating regiments turn around. He found Wayne and ordered him to take 600 men to form a line against the British vanguard, now estimated to be about fifteen minutes away.
At the same time, Lee had regained his composure and began forming defensive lines. The chagrined officer assured Washington he would be the last man to leave the field. The advancing British approached Lee’s lines. They also took fire on their right flank from Wayne’s force in the woods. The British immediately launched a bayonet charge into the woods to disperse Wayne’s division. Wayne’s men held their position, leading to some of the most brutal hand to hand combat of the day. Eventually the Americans withdrew before the superior force.
By this time Clinton’s main force had joined the battle. Lee’s defensive line held off a cavalry charge. Seeing that, Clinton personally drew his sword and ordered two battalions of grenadiers to charge the enemy line. The battle descended into chaos as the troops engaged. General Knox brought up several field cannons and devastated the British lines with grapeshot. Colonel Hamilton, Colonel Laurens, and Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Burr all had their horses shot out from under him. Washington, who was riding all over the field, issuing orders and commanding movements had his own horse collapse and die from heat exhaustion.
As more British reinforcements joined the fray, Lee found his line threatened on both the right and left flanks. He ordered a slow and orderly withdrawal from the position. As the Americans withdrew, Lee, true to his word, was the last American to cross the bridge.
Clinton, however, was not finished yet. He ordered a division under General William Erskine to push into the west ravine and attack the Americans as they pulled back. Erskine ran into a larger enemy under General Lord Stirling and the two sides fired from their lines. Knox brought up artillery to support Stirling, while Clinton brought up more reinforcements and British artillery to reply. The result was one of the fiercest field artillery duels of the war, lasting for several hours.
Around 4:00 PM, General Clinton ordered a British withdrawal. Several regiments, however, did not get the orders and tried to hold their ground. Washington attacked these divisions, leading to another bloody confrontation as the British finally pulled back. General Wayne then took about 400 men in pursuit of the retreating British, resulting in more fighting until the British received reinforcements and the Americans had to call off their counter-attack against a superior force.
As dark fell across the field of battle, both sides settled into camps. Clinton had had enough fighting. Leaving his campfires burning, he marched his men off around midnight and fled the scene. The brutal night march which continued into following day allowed Clinton to catch up with the Hessian division and wagons.
From there, the Army moved unmolested to Sandy Hook, arriving on July 2. The British navy transported the army and equipment across the bay to New York City.
The British reported 123 killed, about half of those from enemy fire, the other half from heat exhaustion. They also reported 170 wounded and 64 missing. This was likely an undercount. The Americans reported burying four enemy officers and 245 soldiers. The Americans reported 106 killed, about one-third of them from heat, as well as 161 wounded and 132 missing.
The most important outcome though, was that the Americans held the field having faced down the British in a traditional European-style battlefield. Both sides seemed to find a new respect for the Continental Army as a result.
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Hamilton, Alexander, and William Irvine. “The Battle of Monmouth. Letters of Alexander Hamilton and General William Irvine, Describing the Engagement.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 2, no. 2, 1878, pp. 139–148. JSTOR: www.jstor.org/stable/20084337
Larry Kidder spent 40 years as a high school history teacher, including 32 years at the Hun School of Princeton. He also served in the US Navy during the Vietnam Conflict. In addition to teaching, Mr. Kidder has served as a long time volunteer at the Howell Living History Farm in Hopewell, New Jersey. He is also involved in a variety of other volunteer activities involving the American Revolution. He sits on the board of the Princeton Battlefield Society and on the board of TenCrucialDays.org.
His most recent book about Princeton during the Revolutionary War is only one of many books he has written about New Jersey during this era. You can find a list of his books if you go to the blog articles for this episode. Go to blog.amrevpodcast.com for more details.
I spoke with Mr. Kidder over a remote call to discuss Princeton during the Revolutionary War.
Michael Troy (MJT) Larry Kidder, welcome to the American Revolution Podcast.
Larry Kidder (LK) Thank you.
MJT We're here today to talk about your book, your latest book, Revolutionary Princeton 1774 to 1783. I know you've been quite busy. I think this is your seventh book published in the last eight years.
All of your books seem to be related to New Jersey history. And most of them deal with the American Revolution. What specifically did you hope to accomplish with this most recent book?
LK In many ways, the same kind of things that I have been dealing with in my other books. As an historian, as a history teacher, when I did that, I was always interested in looking at history, from the point of view of the average person, the real person, not just the people who made it into the history textbooks. I've always felt that studying history is a way for us to learn more about what it is to be a human, not just about a bunch of events to memorize, and, you know, that kind of thing.
So what I wanted to look at for Princeton, was essentially similar to what I tried to do for Trenton in an earlier book, and look at life in a town in New Jersey during the Revolution, and how the Revolution affected individual lives, and how those individual lives contributed to the Revolution for that matter, even though those people don't make it into the history books. So it's part of that overall effort that I have to humanize a lot of history, and make it appreciative to people who can identify with people's lives being somewhat similar to theirs, and they're living through history also, and being part of history.
MJT Right, I think it makes it more relatable when we understand that wars don't just happen in a vacuum. And people don't just descend down from heavens and nobly join the armies.
LK We all have to deal with things that we have no control over. And we have to figure out how we're going to deal with it.
MJT These are all people raising kids trying to make a buck, trying to find their way through life. And all of a sudden, they've got a war thrust upon them.
LK Exactly, exactly. And also, I take a look at events like a battle, like the Battle of Princeton. And that becomes a focal point of people's understanding about a place. But yet the story is so much bigger than that, for those people.
MJT Yeah, and especially the aftermath of battle, the armies and the people are left to clean up.
LK Right, right. And in this particular case, in Princeton, also the preliminaries to the battle, British occupation and whatnot. It just wasn't January 3. It was a month-long experience for the people of Princeton.
MJT Before all that, at the outset of the actual war, what was life like living in Princeton, New Jersey?
LK Well, Princeton was probably a relatively quiet town. It wasn't too big. But it was on a main road between New York and Philadelphia, between New England and the southern colonies, for that matter.
Because it was almost halfway between New York and Philadelphia. It was a very convenient stagecoach stop, an overnight stop in some cases. And so you had a lot of people traveling through town. You had several taverns to accommodate travelers.
And then it also had the college. The college attracted visitors, as well, as students coming and going and all of that. It was nowhere near as big a university as Princeton University is today. But it was right in the center of town, and was a key point in the town. Nassau Hall was the landmark of the village of Princeton, on a hill and was very visible from a long way away.
Which is the other element of Princeton, it's farm country. The little village was surrounded by farmland. So there's a lot of cleared land. Visibility was a lot more distant than we think of today.
The people in Princeton were not all of a homogeneous background. There was diversity and religion between Presbyterians and Quakers, for example. Most of the people who had settled in Princeton were of English ancestry, but there were a few French Huguenots and Dutch and Germans, things like that. And then there's also, of course, an African American population. There was slavery in Princeton, generally, no more than one or two slaves per household. But still slavery, for sure. So, I think that is a little bit of an introduction to the town.
MJT Princeton was, I guess what we would today call central Jersey. It was somewhat close. the dividing line between East and West Jersey. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
LK Yeah, it was right on the line between East and West Jersey. There had been two colonies, East Jersey and West Jersey. There was somewhat of a land dispute between the proprietors. They were proprietary colonies, and there was some land disputes. So several attempts were made to draw a line on the map between the two, basically to settle land disputes.
Keith Line separating East & West NJ
So there's this province line separating them. The Keith Line is one of those a very prominent one. When the two colonies came together as one colony of New Jersey, Princeton was right on that Keith Line, East Jersey, and West Jersey had developed a little bit differently from each other. Both are English background, but there was also a major Dutch influence in East Jersey, particularly up in the northeast part, near New York City, West Jersey was more influenced by Philadelphia, and the Quaker population there.
Princeton was right smack in the middle, which was not bad. Because economically, it was a pretty good spot. But it did mean that there was a fair amount of diversity in the town, which, for many of the people like John Witherspoon, president of the college and things like that, made it kind of a vibrant place and a thought-provoking place. And so it was, was an intellectual place as well as a laboring place, you know, of crafts and farming and all of that.
MJT Yeah, I guess we're still suffering from that a little bit today. I mean, we don't call it east and west jersey, but we have North Jersey and South Jersey. South Jersey tends to be Philadelphia-oriented, and North Jersey tends to be New York-oriented.
LK And in Princeton, and in the area. I live near Princeton. It's both.
MJT Right on the battleground between both.
LK One neighbor will be Philadelphia-oriented, the next neighbor will be New York-oriented.
MJT Are you a Giants fan or an Eagles fan?
LK I am definitely New York oriented. But that's because I haven't always lived in Central Jersey. I used to live in North Jersey. So when I was in high school, and all that, so I really developed that viewpoint.
MJT Not only was Princeton right on the line between East Jersey and West Jersey, they had a county line running right through the middle of town. Can you talk about some of the issues related to that?
LK Yes, that really made it an interesting place to try to deal with politically, economically, and government, everything The county line between Somerset County and Middlesex County ran right down the main street of Princeton. So if you lived on the north side of the Main Street, you were in Somerset County. If you lived on the south side, you were in Middlesex County. Outside the village, it's the same thing with the farmland. You could have land on both sides.
In terms of county life, in the 18th century, counties were perhaps even more significant than they are today, in terms of their governmental influence on life. When you paid your taxes, it was my county. So you might owe two different tax bills. Instead of one state tax bill, you have maybe two different county taxes. If you wanted to be elected, representatives, that was done by county. So you had a situation where you might live for a while on one side of the road, and develop a reputation there and then move to the other side of the road. And now you can't serve the way you did before in that legislature. You have to get a whole new constituency to support you.
In terms of the Revolution, the militia system was done by counties. Princeton would have several militia companies based on where you lived in town. If you liked the captain of the company from the other side of the street, you couldn't necessarily join that company. You were stuck with where you work, unless you got special dispensation from the government. So there was just a lot of ramifications to that county split that way. Fortunately, it isn't that way anymore. There was a county reorganization.
MJT In terms of commitment to the patriot cause, how divided was Princeton? Did they have a loyalist population at the outset of the war?
LK Princeton was very strongly on the patriot side, if you will, but that doesn't mean that there weren't loyalists. There were very clearly loyalists. Talk about you know, families being split. For example, the Stockton family, Richard Stockton, who signed the Declaration of Independence, had a fairly close relative who was a loyalist and actually raised loyalist troops for the British.
You had in town, a doctor named Absalom Bainbridge who, in the early months really tried to straddle things and didn't come out strongly as a loyalist. But then when the British occupied the town in December of 1776, he actually helped the British and really came out as a loyalist. On the other hand, he warned one of his friends who was a patriot, a woman to get out of town, the night before the British Army actually arrived in Princeton, to save her situation from being molested by the British and plundered by the British.
You had several farmers, south of Princeton, who were strong loyalists, one of which really helped out the British during their occupation. And the other one who was actually of French Huguenot descent, left the area early on, couldn't be there living among his patriot friends. So there were a number of situations like that. But by and large, it was a very strongly patriot-centered place.
MJT This is a question I often get asked, and I don't always know the answer, probably it’s different in many cases. But what happened to the loyalists? Were they basically accepted back after the war, or were most of them expelled from the colony never to return?
LK Yeah, that's a great, interesting question. And it varies a lot dependent on, quite honestly, the individual's personality and how they got along with people. Could they disagree and still get along like Absalom Bainbridge did you know to help out one of his patriot neighbors? Absalom Bainbridge did not leave the United States. He left Princeton, he went to New York, once the British lost at the Battle of Princeton. But he stayed in the colonies and his son became very well known, Commodore William Bainbridge in the War of 1812. That's one story.
Then you've got people like the Cochrans and the Millets, the two farmers that I was mentioning earlier, who did not come back. There were several other people like that. What happened was that their land became confiscated, as loyalists, and resold. And they were just kind of disinherited from their own property. Loyalism was really looked down upon and really harshly in a lot of ways.
MJT Sure. New Jersey, faced almost a unique situation during the war in that, other than New York City, they became one of the very few areas that actually becomes occupied by the British in 1776. General Howe famously lends a very large shock and awe army at New York, pushes the Continentals out of New York entirely, and then across New Jersey, and we find George Washington across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania at the end of the year.
The point of all that was for the British to prove to the population at large that the British Army could not be resisted when it got serious, and that you really had to support the king, or there would be very serious consequences.
He also took that stick and gave them a carrot in that they said, Well, if said some things against the King or against London at some earlier time, if you're willing to say alright now, I support the King and am willing to be a loyal subject all will be forgiven, and we can all go back to normal. That was his hope to establish New Jersey as a once-again loyal colony to the King of England and to Parliament.
So New Jerseyans really had to make a decision when the British army came through in late 1776. Do we take advantage of this offer of forgiveness? Or do we continue our resistance and perhaps bear some very strong consequences?
LK Yeah, that British occupation was extremely significant, and how it affected New Jersey in the short term as well as the long term. And it also sheds a lot of light on why the battles of Trenton and Princeton, and the ten crucial days in general were so important.
By the first week of December 1776, the British had essentially reconquered, New Jersey. They controlled the whole central swath of New Jersey, both sides of that main road that I was talking about, you know, between New York and Philadelphia.
The New Jersey government, which had been formed at the time of the Declaration of Independence, just about six months earlier, had pretty much dissolved because of the British occupation. Literally, for a couple of weeks, nobody knew where the governor was. The members of the legislature had either gone home or had left the state to get away from the British. Patriotic New Jerseyans felt abandoned by the Continental Army when Washington went across to Pennsylvania, that was very symbolic to people in New Jersey. He's out of here. He's left us alone.
The British are here now. They're the ones in charge. If we're going to survive on a day-to-day basis, we can't be wild patriots anymore. We've got to at least go along with what the British are telling us to do.
It enlivened the loyalists. The loyalists now felt supported by the British government. Maybe they can take over the government again of the new state of New Jersey, and bring back loyalty to the king. They can get back at the patriots for any problems that they cause. Individuals earlier in the war. They can get revenge, if you will. So everybody was affected, no matter which side they were on, they were either feeling empowered or feeling abandoned.
MJT A lot of people, I think, just kind of wanted to keep their head down. And whoever was in charge, they were willing to say, okay, you're in charge. Let me continue to grow my crops and get them to market.
LK And many people, many people took advantage of that offer of amnesty that you mentioned, thousands of people did. The question was, were these people now loyalists, because they had pledged loyalty to the king again for amnesty? Or had they done it just to survive, until things went the other direction?
Most of the people who signed those amnesty notes actually disavowed them after the Battle of Princeton, after the British were kicked out of New Jersey. Some very important people actually did that.
However, if they had had any political office before that, it pretty much cut them out. Even if they put aside the loyalty oath to the king again, they weren't necessarily trusted. And a major person involved with this, I think that we don't often think about is Richard Stockton. Richard Stockton was captured by the British when they occupied the town of Princeton. He wasn't captured in Princeton. He had gone out of town. But he hadn't been smart enough to go over to Pennsylvania,
MJT He hadn't gone far enough.
LK Yes he had not gone far enough. He had left the state. And he was captured by loyalists who got him to the British, and then he was imprisoned in New York. This is all going on, while the British are occupying the state and offering amnesty.
And I think it's interesting to note that although Richard Stockton signed the Declaration of Independence, was a very strong Patriot, he also was one of those people early on, who kept hoping for reconciliation with Great Britain, that Great Britain would wake up and see what was right. So even though he signed the Declaration of Independence, he was still a little reluctant. That wasn't the direction he had hoped that things were going to go in.
So when he gets captured, and was talking with Howe in New York, and Howe was talking about this amnesty program, and Howe himself was more in line with helping the colonists politically, not militarily, but you know, politically back home, did he put into Stockton’s mind that things were going to be settled. And therefore Stockton signing a loyalty oath under that condition, was kind of moving in the direction he had been hoping for all along. He saw that the British were basically winning militarily at that point, and was hoping for the good solution that the colonists would like and all of that. But of course, he got terribly beaten up for signing that loyalty oath, and never really had the respect that he had before that.
MJT I know there was some debate about whether he actually signed the oath or not. But you're right. It essentially ended his career in politics after the British released him from imprisonment. It was a tough decision for a lot of people and it wasn't really as black and white as we may think of it today.
General Howe, in addition to being commander of the British Army in North America was a peace Commissioner. Along with his brother, Admiral Richard Howe. Both of them were considered to be fans of the colonies that they actually were strong supporters of colonial rights and basic Whig rights and the things that the Americans were fighting for.
William Howe had actually vowed to his constituents, he was also a member of Parliament, he would never go fight in America. He broke that promise. When the king says, I need you to go, you go.
So these were people that were not only trying to win a war militarily, they were trying to win back the hearts and minds of the people and actually empathized with a lot of the things that those people wanted.
So it made a convincing argument to many people of New Jersey and elsewhere. It had more of an impact in New Jersey because the soldiers were here. Wouldn't you like to be friends again? Or do we have to shoot you?
LK Yeah, yeah
MJT So the British are occupying most of New Jersey by the end of 1776, at least all the important parts, including Princeton. Do you want to talk a little about what occupied Princeton was like at that time?
LK You wouldn't have wanted to be here. The British soldiers were not nice to the people of Princeton. Farms were torn up. Fences were torn down for firewood, for both warmth and cooking. Buildings were destroyed for the same reason. Those farmers that lived around Princeton, lost their storage of crops. They had animals taken and butchered to feed the British soldiers. In many ways, they were virtually impoverished because of the British occupation. And it was going to be hard for them to reestablish afterwards.
The British found out who had been active patriots from those loyalists that I mentioned that we're helping them, people like Bainbridge and Cochran. And a lot of them suffered more because they were singled out for it. And even the Quakers who were theoretically neutral, because of their religion, the British just did very nasty things to them as individuals, taunting them, and humiliating them and that sort of thing. So it was on many different levels that the British caused the people of the town to be very, down and out.
They also pretty much plundered the university. The churches were used for barracks, and in some cases, virtually like stables for horses in the basement of Nassau Hall at the university was used as a stable for a while. So the town was just wrecked, I think is the simplest way to put it. And the people were humiliated, and very often stripped of necessities through plunder, so that surviving the winter was going to be very difficult.
MJT It's hard to remember in our modern world. If somebody comes in and steals all the food in your house today, it's an annoyance, but you can go back to the grocery store and get some more. Even if you don't have the money, you can go to a food bank and get some more.
LK They burn up all your firewood that you collected for the winter.
MJT You're not going to have food. You're not going to have heat for the winter. I mean, you have a very real risk of dying unless you can rely on the charity of others who can come in from some other location to help you.
LK If they steal the blankets from your bed. Particularly if you get sick or you have older people in the house. How are you going to keep them warm?
MJT Right, and the soldiers, the professional soldiers of the time. Well, all the soldiers of the time, were paid very poorly, and tended to see plunder as a way to supplement their their lifestyles, I guess. So if they needed food, or blankets, or a coat or firewood or whatever, the civilians were a likely target of that.
And to some extent, the army. They tried to discourage it in this case, because they were trying to win back hearts and minds. But on the other hand, when the army planters in areas kind of a message saying, This is what happens when you reject the king's peace.
LK Right, General Howe definitely put out orders not to ponder. He was very concerned about winning the hearts and minds. They knew that soldiers plundering were destroying his ability to bring a peaceful solution to the war.
But the officers under him were not necessarily that way. Particularly when you get down to the lower levels, the company level, you know, as opposed to the regimental level and that sort of thing. A lot of these soldiers were just angry at the patriots because the militia, you know, the people they were firing back, and they didn't necessarily know who was on their side and who wasn't when they were in the town.
I can somewhat identify with that. I spent a year in Saigon during the Vietnam War, walking down the street as the only white European type person and wondering if I took a cab or whatever is this guy Vietcong or is he on our side? And British were kind of that way too, except that they had the power to exert comfort or discomfort, on the people that they ran into.
MJT Well, the people did seem to be relatively cowed initially. Of course, Washington wanted one or two little things to change all that. That's, of course, the subject of the ten crucial days. Washington comes back across the river, retakes. Trenton. The British sent a very large army down to dissuade him of his new ambitions. And he turns it all around and ends up in Princeton in the very beginning of January 1777.
LK Basically, the reason he was attacking Princeton, on January 3, the morning of January 3, people look at that as an odd time for an army to be fighting in the 18th century, winter quarters. And he had just won a battle. He had just gotten some glory for himself and turned things around. And people ask, Why couldn't you just sit there, finish the winter out and then go do something? Why did he have to do something so quickly? at Princeton?
And the point that I tried to make about that month is that Washington didn't need just a military victory. He didn't just need something for people to talk about. He needed to actually get the British out of New Jersey, if he could. He needed to reverse that occupation and restore fear to the loyalists and faith to the patriots. So he had to do something.
I know Washington gets a lot of criticism for various things as a military leader. But in the case of Princeton, he really was looking for another victory, where he outnumbered the enemy significantly. He knew. He was expecting at Princeton to meet up with about 1500 regulars. And the other 8000 or so regulars in New Jersey, were down at Trenton, where they had tried to attack him the day before and he had done that made the night march around them to avoid a major onslaught where he was a little outnumbered and get to a point where he was the outnumberer.
MJT Defeat the enemy in detail.
LK Yeah. And he had kind of looked at the British, Howe had split his troops up across New Jersey into winter quarter cantonments. Any one of those cantonments, at the beginning of December, Washington would have outnumbered, even though he had a small diminished army, He outnumbered at Trenton two to one. Here he was going out number three or four to one, at Princeton. He almost looked at those cantonments across New Jersey like a row of dominoes. And if he could knock them off in succession, he could get the British out of New Jersey.
Now, of course, after Trenton, the British demolished their own line of dominoes and put everybody in Princeton. Washington got him out of Princeton by fortifying Trenton and making that look like an attractive place to finish him off. But then did his end run and wound up at Princeton.
He was trying to knock off that small encampment, possibly then go on to New Brunswick, where he knew there were a lot of British supplies that he could get ahold of. And he was really planning to go to Morristown and spend the winter there rather than Pennsylvania. That's why he was in Princeton, arrived in Princeton, the morning of January 3.
The British course didn't know about that. They hadn't been in on the planning and whatnot. And so the British Army, those 1500 men, about 1000 of them, were actually leaving Princeton at the time that Washington got there, in order to reinforce Cornwallis down at Trenton. And they left very few men behind, basically one regiment.
So when Washington makes his plan to attack Princeton from three sides, he starts that maneuver. But it's obsolete from the moment it starts because the British are moving down the main road towards Princeton. Even though I made a comment before about the visibility, the wide range of visibility, because of hills and that sort of thing. They weren't inside of each other. So the British were essentially paralleling in the opposite direction, Washington's approach to Princeton. And it was only by some luck that people from both sides spotted each other. And they had to decide whether to fight or not there.
Washington thought the British that he saw was just as a morning patrol, and that the main British were still in Princeton. The head of the British Army units moving south, when he saw Washington didn't know what he was up against, didn't know how many he was up against. He decided to check it out at least. And it was him checking out and then Washington, sending a small group under General Mercer out to intercept this morning patrol that started the whole battle at Princeton.
And one thing led to another and of course, the British, ultimately, were so outnumbered, even though they had the advantage of bayonets and training and everything else, the Americans just overpowered them. That's how it all got going there at Princeton and a little idea of how it developed. It's gonna wind up in the town of Princeton, but the main battle took place outside of Princeton.
MJT The main battle was out to the south of the city.
LK On farmland.
MJT In the end the Continentals were shooting cannonballs into Princeton University's main building. That's where the British made their last stand.
MJT After the Americans take Princeton, they still have to worry, of course, about the main British Army that is now turned around from Trenton and said, Hey, wait a minute. Now this guy's behind us. They've go to go deal with, so they're running off.
As you said, Washington's other main goal that day was Brunswick, where he hoped to capture actually a big payroll. But yeah, fortunately, his men were completely exhausted by that time. They’d been on their feet for like two or three days straight.
LK Officers said that some of them and we're asleep on their feet, you know, they were just really bad.
MJT So they move up further to the north. And Cornwallis's army follows them, but they don't engage again. The British kind of give up on holding most of New Jersey they're just holding a little bit around New York City for the rest of the year. So Princeton is kind of behind continental lines again.
LK Yes, it was almost just as bad as the British occupation. American troops. also needed firewood, also needed the same types of things that the British soldiers needed. And I think it's important to keep in mind that the Continental Army was rebuilding that winter. And there were new recruits coming from the southern colonies. And they're going to come up through Princeton, on their way to Morristown, during the winter.
I think it's important to keep in mind that the colonies were not united as Americans think of themselves today, New Jerseyans thought of themselves first as New Jerseyans, Virginians as Virginians, Massachusetts’ from their state. And there were some misunderstandings about, and stereotypes of, people from other parts of the country and that sort of thing. And some of the American soldiers were not real happy about having to be in the army anyway, traveling in the winter to from the south to the north. And so the mood of the soldiers was not always that great.
They kind of took it out on the population. There are accounts that the Americans caused more damage to the college than the British did. Whether the army plundered and that sort of thing, just their being there was an issue. They needed food. They needed quarters, goods, etc. And to supply those, the people of Princeton, we're going to have to play a major role, we're going to either have to give up their own stuff, or they're going to have to volunteer to go out and buy things in other parts of New Jersey, for the army and get them to the troops.
Princeton is going to be actively involved not only in quartering troops either for a day or two on their march north, or for a week or two on their march north, but also to have troops stationed there permanently to keep an eye on the British troops that were wintering at New Brunswick. So you had a garrison at Princeton, in addition to the mobile troops. That's going to keep the people on a day to day basis involved in the military activity.
Princeton is going to become a hospital for the military for the rest of the war. They're going to be taking wounded soldiers from the engagements, not only at Princeton, and Trenton, and from the forage wars during the winter. But then in the Philadelphia campaign, Brandywine and Germantown, wounded are going to be coming to Princeton, to the hospital there. After the Battle of Monmouth, wounded are going to be coming to Princeton. It's going to be a hospital site for the Continental Army through the rest of the war.
It's also going to become a supply depot, particularly early on, and we're talking early in the war in 1776, and 1777. The supply department was so fragmented and somewhat disorganized, that actual people in Princeton are going to volunteer to be in charge of this supply depot. And they're going to be bringing in particularly clothing, because the army always was looking for clothing, almost as much as they were always looking for gunpowder and munitions.
But that's the other thing that's going to be accumulating at Princeton. There's no military base there with buildings to house all these supplies as a depot. So guess who's going to keep them? These guys are going to keep them in their house or their barn or whatever. And so you have somebody like Kelsey, who lives right on the main street in Princeton, who's going to have gunpowder and munitions stored in his house, on their way to the Continental Army. It puts everybody in Princeton in a little bit of Jeopardy, but that's what the nature of the town is going to be. They're going to be constantly concerned about helping to supply that army.
One thing about the war in New Jersey is the Continental Army spent so much time in New Jersey. Anytime they're in New Jersey, they're affecting life in Princeton, because the supplies are going to be filtering through Princeton to get to the other parts of the state particularly in the north.
MJT Even after the war moves to the south for the fighting in ‘79, ‘80, ‘81. There's still a huge British army in New York City. The Continentals had to stand facing them to make sure they didn't move out of New York City again. So that kind of left New Jersey under a military occupation for that entire time.
LK And also, it meant the militia was active throughout the war. Men were being called up on militia duty, very frequently, almost on an every other month basis for part of the time. People in Princeton, even though they're in the central part of New Jersey, and almost to the west central part of New Jersey, were called up so that they could go to the east part of New Jersey to guard against any crossovers from Staten Island, British soldiers looking for supplies, foraging and that kind of thing, and also to prevent New Jerseyans from trading with the enemy and getting New Jersey goods to Staten Island to support the British Army rather than to support the American army. So the militia was constantly in service. And that's going to affect the people in Princeton also, because it's going to be those men and their families that are going to be called out on duty.
MJT I think another important weapon for the British Army was gold and silver, they could pay for food and supplies and whatever else you could get to them. Hard money was in short supply, and people needed it to live. They needed it for survival.
LK Am I going to give supplies to the Continental Army for an IOU? or am I going to give it to the British for hard cash? Yeah.
MJT I mean, we think about Continental paper dollars, we think about dollars today as being just as good as anything else. But essentially, at the time, they were promissory notes that you might get real money in the future someday, if we win.
LK And that affected people in Princeton very significantly, not only because of the inflation, and that sort of thing that went along with the Continental currency in the IOU's, but simply, you know, these men that I mentioned, who took on the role of supply officials. They're the ones handing out the IOU's, not for themselves, but for the Continental Congress, or the New Jersey government.
When people want to collect on their IOU, they want to get it from these officials in Princeton. These guys are saying, I don't have any money to give you. It's the guy at the bottom of the chain there who suffers the stain of the people who say, You're not worth anything. The reputations of these men who worked in the supply department just went south. And in their own communities, they had to struggle sometimes. And in some cases, were forced to resign from those positions. I don't think anybody got wealthy often by any means. But they did suffer from it. So part of their contribution to the cause was suffering their own reputation while trying to keep the army supplied.
MJT It was a horrible situation, even if you supported the patriot cause, you're essentially accepting worthless paper for everything.
One of the things I found most fascinating in reading about the American Revolution, you may understand it on an intellectual level. But life before the industrial revolution, people were so much poorer, and live so much more hand to mouth than they do today. They had so fewer extras in life that even a few dollars was a matter of life and death, in some cases. It was a matter of survival.
So for people to be deprived of an income, it's not just they were being greedy and wanted British gold. It was they wanted their children to live through the winter. And they could not do that getting worthless paper money that the Americans required them to take at face value, even though it might be worth 1/1,000th of that at some point. And so they were essentially getting nothing for all their goods and services and labor. It was a very difficult situation for the civilians to live through.
LK Mm hmm. Absolutely.
MJT Yeah, we talked a little bit about the British in New York, of course, in 1777, I'm getting my years right here. Then they move to Philadelphia, but they don't come through New Jersey, this time. They go by sea to arrive in Philadelphia. But Princeton, once again finds itself essentially surrounded by British to the north and British to the south. Did that present any unique issues for them?
LK Well, it even steps up the needs for the militia. You know, some more men more often are going to be dealing with militia duty. There's always going to be concern that the British are going to re-attack and try to re-occupy New Jersey. So there's that in people's minds all the time. For the battles that took place around Philadelphia, it's going to mean more people coming to the hospitals.
It's going to affect them. It's not going to be a battle there like there was earlier but men are going to be coming and going on military duty, as well as helping to support the men in the army as a hospital, and as a supply depot.
MJT And when the British did evacuate Philadelphia the following year, they did march across New Jersey, again, I guess Princeton was largely avoided in that, but obviously, there were more consequences from the Battle of Monmouth that took place and casualties and all the things that went along with that.
LK There was fear that the British were going to come through Trenton and Princeton on their march across. That, of course, didn't happen. They went south of that. The American Army came close to Princeton. They had gone from Valley Forge, into areas north of Princeton, into Hopewell, for example. And then came down to the Monmouth area, but they kind of went around Princeton for the most part.
People in Princeton again, this was a time of anxiety, certainly, as to what would happen. The militia did participate in the Battle of Monmouth. Some militia from Princeton itself actually stayed in Princeton, as a kind of a rearguard, a safety valve in case something happened. And there's some patriots that did go to Monmouth, and participate in the battle there.
MJT Once the British had retreated to New York, again, I guess things got a little better, at least as far as military threats. Most of the fighting, as you mentioned before, move south to Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia for the next few years. But the economic situation got even worse. Continental money became even more worthless. We have armies on the verge of mutiny, there still is a large army in northern Jersey, watching the British in New York City. And they are becoming more and more bereft of food, clothing and shelter, and not particularly happy about it.
LK Remember that the army had been formed in 1777, based on three year enlistments, or the end of the war. January 1, 1781 was the time when a lot of those men who signed on for three years would have been discharged. They hadn't been paid. Yes, the food was, yes, they hadn't gotten all the supplies. Yes, they were in a bad mood anyway.
But then when they were told, no, you can't get out. You've got to stay to the end of the war. They said, Wait a minute, that's not what I signed my contract for. And so it was a combination of these things that caused that mutiny in the Morristown-Middlebrook area. And those soldiers, they're basically Pennsylvania soldiers, that mutinied. And they wanted to go to Philadelphia to take on the Continental Congress and their own state government to get the pay. And also to settle this issue, get my discharge.
To get to Philadelphia, they came through Princeton. So here's another occupying army, if you will, coming through Princeton, and it's an army that's not in a good mood. And the people at Princeton were pretty upset about that, pretty concerned.
Actually, those Pennsylvania troops treated the people around Princeton much better than any of the other armies that had been through either American or British. As they said, Our fight is not with you. Our fight is with the Continental Congress and our government. The problem was resolved at Trenton, but they had camped at Princeton for a while.
Some people in Princeton benefited from the army camping out there, because they supplied firewood, not being plundered, but you know, they collected it and sold it to the military. Same thing with some food and that sort of thing. So there are records of people getting actually paid for helping out to supply this army rather than the army plundering. Of course, the value of the money that they got, you know, as you say, you know, was questionable, but it wasn't pure plunder by any means.
So that turned out to be not such a bad thing, although the people were terrified that this group of mutineers was coming to their town. So there was a lot of relief when they actually got there, and they found out they weren't going to tear him apart.
Another time, that the situation that you're talking about was important was at the end of the war in 1783. In June of 1783, Pennsylvania soldiers were again, not happy. The army was breaking up at this point, or at least being furloughed, going off active duty, and the men were not getting paid. Well, there were a lot of grievances that they had. So some of the men actually did get to Philadelphia, and threatened the Continental Congress, as well as their state government, to the point where the Continental Congress decided to leave town. They felt that badly threatened.
Well, they found a friend in Princeton, found a bunch of friends in Princeton. Princeton, literally invited them with the idea that we not only would like you to come here, but we promised to defend you. Three militia regiments, the colonels of three militia regiments, the two counties that the line split between, for example, both Middlesex and Somerset County, as well as Hunterdon County, which was right next to Princeton. Those three colonels sent a note saying our men will defend you against those Pennsylvanians or anybody else that threatens you. So the Continental Congress decided to come to Princeton, and were there for several months.
MJT Did they meet in Nassau Hall?
LK They did a lot of meetings in Nassau Hall. They also met in some other places, too. They had committee meetings and taverns, and different places like that. And they were quartered throughout the town. But they did a lot of their meetings at Nassau Hall. Yes.
One would ask, why the heck would Princetonians invite the Continental Congress to come to Princeton? It put a strain on Princeton. They didn't have enough buildings to quarter all these men, they're going to have to rent rooms, you know, in people's houses and things like that. And they actually got the people of Princeton to write up a list of what they were willing to donate. In terms of space, desks, you know, whatever it might be for the Continental Congress delegates to work at. The Congress didn't really like being in Princeton. It wasn't big enough. There wasn't enough space. So one might ask, Why the heck did Princeton go out on a limb here and try to invite them?
Well, it's important to recognize that Princeton had been the headquarters for the New Jersey government on a number of occasions. It was never the state capitol. Princeton had acted as the state capitol for the meetings of the legislature on a number of occasions. So Princetonians were used to quartering politicians, and putting up with all of this, and also recognizing these guys go to taverns, and they buy a lot of stuff, they go to a lot of merchants in town and buy a lot of stuff. You know, it's economically beneficial to the town. So I don't want to sell out Princeton's patriotism and all of that. But there was a certain economic element to, an advantage to putting up the Continental Congress.
MJT Right, members of Congress were generally speaking wealthy men, comparatively. They paid rent when they stayed somewhere, and they paid their bills. Money was hard to come by at this time.
MJT That kind of brings us to the end of the war. Anything interesting in the post-war era you want to talk about?
LK Well, I think one of the key things to understand is that even at the end of the war, which is six and a half years after the Battle of Princeton, the town had not recovered. The university was not back to full tilt, yet. There was still a lot of damage that had to be repaired, private buildings, as well as the college and whatnot. Some progress had been made, but there was still a ways to go. So it's a great day, to celebrate the peace treaty and all of that. But economically and and just physically, the town still had a ways to go in order to get back to normal.
That's going to happen and Princeton. I think it's a great place today. But it did take a while and probably more than people would realize, and perhaps more time than a lot of places in the new United States took to get normalized after the war, because so much had happened in Princeton in those ten years.
And so many armies had gone through. I mean, we didn't talk about the French army going through, you know, on the way to Yorktown, and whatnot. But virtually every, almost every army unit on both sides that participated in the war went through Princeton at some point, Princetonian said, suffered and benefited at different times.
MJT So yeah, this is been a really fascinating look at the town of Princeton. I'm curious what kind of resources you use for your research.
LK In terms of repositories as resources. The Firestone Library, the special collections at Princeton University has a wide collection of manuscript type stuff that was very, very helpful. The Historical Society of Princeton has a good archives, and they were very helpful to me. The state archives in Trenton had a lot of stuff, particularly dealing with the militia, and also dealing with some of the political aspects of things that happened in, New Jersey political aspects that happened in Princeton. The David library, which I sorely missed. I was one of the last people to use it on the day that it closed.
And then just a lot of sources like diaries, memoirs, letters of people who spent time in Princeton, politically and militarily, as well as people who lived in Princeton collections of family letters and that sort of thing. So, it was a wide-ranging experience to get to know and get into the lives of some of these people.
MJT I mean, that's always great, when you can get into a lot of primary sources that haven't been covered in a thousand other books or something. This is really something that people just haven't looked at for decades or centuries. That kind of gives us a refreshing new look at the world of Princeton in the 18th century.
So having wrapped up this book, are you working on any new projects yet?
LK I am deeply into a book Yes.
MJT Oh, great!
LK When I talked about wanting to look at things from a personal level, you know, an individual level, I'm going to write a biography of a man that probably only a few deep aficionados of the revolution have ever heard of, and the general public, probably never. His name is Jacob Francis. And Jacob Francis was a free black man. Born in New Jersey - Amwell Township near Flemington. He was born to a free black woman, whom we know virtually nothing about, except that she had a baby, as a very young boy, she indentured him to a local farmer, until he was 21. So he had a long adventure, you know, from maybe nine or 10 years old to age 21.
However, that farmer didn't really need him that long a period of time. So he sold part of his time to another farmer, who then sold part of his time to another farmer, who then sold his remaining time to a man who was a merchant, who took Jacob to the West Indies. Not to be a slave or anything like that. But you know, as his manservant, and then after spending a summer in the West Indies, took him to Salem, Massachusetts, and then sold the remainder of his time through a merchant in Salem. The rest of his time at that point was six years. This was 1768 when he sold his time for the last six years.
So Jacob became a free man, January 15 1775 in Salem, Massachusetts. As a free black man in Massachusetts with no roots, other than what he had established, in those six years, Jacob decides to join the Continental Army. He joins on October 31, about nine months after he got his freedom, virtually the same day that George Washington gave out orders to his officers not to enlist any blacks. Somehow he got in, and he served 14 months, basically a one year enlistment, but then also November and December.
He fought the battles around the siege of Boston. Then he was in the New York campaign, directly involved in the Battle of Harlem Heights and White Plains. He was with General Lee, so he didn't get across New Jersey until just before the Battle of Trenton. But then he was at the Battle of Trenton. And then he was one of those men on December 31, that Washington was trying to convince to extend his enlistments for six weeks.
Well, here he is. He’d been an indentured servant. Then he'd had a taste of freedom. Then he had essentially had a second indentured servitude in the Continental Army. Now he had freedom again. And he hadn't been to New Jersey to see his mother for over ten years. He didn't write. So he hadn't been in communication at all. But he was at Trenton. He was fifteen miles from home. So he did not extend his enlistment. He went home, found his mother who was still alive, but not well.
He also found out his last name. He didn't know his name was Jacob Francis. He just was Jacob. He had used an anonymous, used a name of one of the men who owned a couple years of his time when he enlisted in the Continental Army. So we wanted to find out who he was. He took care of his mother. He was such a focused young man and a skilled young man, that he was able to establish himself on a small farm at a time when blacks were not supposed to be property owners. So he's breaking all the rules here. He got in the army. He's buying land.
He continued to serve in the New Jersey militia throughout the war. He fought at the Battle of Monmouth, for example, then some other places. He established his farm. He didn't get married until he was 35 because he didn't feel he was ready yet to support a family. As soon as he did support a family, he married a woman who was a slave woman. Her owners sold her to him on their wedding day, and he freed her. They had six or seven children and they continued to live in the area around Flemington the rest of their lives. He died in 1836. She died in 1844.
One of their youngest boys grew up to be an abolitionist, working with Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison to free African Americans. And to prevent African Americans from being colonized by being sent to Liberia and other parts of Africa to get them out of the United States. He had to fight against that. So the two generations - this is a story of freedom and liberties, you know, in all kinds of so many different depths of that, but I find it a fascinating story.
MJT It sounds like an absolutely fascinating topic. I mean, the issue of free blacks in that era, is an interesting one, because we think of blacks as all being slaves almost.
MJT And then, after the war, kind of the conventional wisdom, which is wrong, obviously, is that all the slavery was in the south and the north just ended slavery. New Jersey did pass laws to end slavery after the war, but it was a very slow phase-out of slavery.
LK It was a gradual abolition. I don't know that New Jersey ever abolished slavery, by law, there were a couple of attempts at it that were only partial, because in 1804, the first of the laws: if you were born before July 4 1804, as a slave, you were a slave for life. You're not going to get out of this. If you're a baby born on July 5 1804. You are, and the wording on this changed, but essentially, you are a slave owned by your mother's master until you reach a certain age, and it was a different age for boys and girls. It was in the 20s. It varied as to how these people were looked at. Were they looked at as slaves? Were they looked at as indentured servants until that adult age? So slavery is going to go on and on and on. In the 1850 census, in Hopewell Township, there were still two slaves. I believe there was still one in 1860.
MJT The difference between an indentured servant and a slave is essentially a matter of whether you have lifetime service, or limited service, but the actual time you're spending in that service, there's really not a whole lot of difference.
LK Exactly. And Mike, that's why I kind of compared his indentured servitude to his Continental service as being almost the same as being an indentured servant.
MJT Right. Well, it sounds like a fascinating story. I look forward to reading it.
All right. Well, Larry Kidder, I thank you very much for joining us on the American Revolution. I appreciate your time today. And we look forward to hearing from you again in the future.
LK Great. Well, thanks very much, Mike. I enjoyed talking with you.
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