We last left the main armies around New York City in Episode 246, in the spring of 1780. For nearly four years, Washington had kept his main army just outside of New York City, waiting for an opportunity to recapture what he had lost. Britain had taken the city and the surrounding islands in 1776, but since then had seen almost no success in being able to expand outside of the immediate area and permanently occupy the region around it. The British had used New York as a base to capture other areas such as Philadelphia, or Newport, Rhode Island, but had to withdraw from those possessions after a short time anyway.
But if British defenses at New York were weak, the Continentals were even weaker. Washington’s army was starving and on the verge of mutiny. The Continentals were in no condition to launch a major spring offensive against New York. The British navy still controlled the waters around New York, meaning that even if the Americans did somehow retake the city, they would be vulnerable to being surrounded and captured. Consequently, General Washington waited for the promised arrival of a French army and a French fleet to help him deliver the final blow to the British in New York. June of 1780 was mostly sitting around waiting for the arrival of the French.
Trumbull v. Watt
With much of the British forces to the south, the Continental Navy managed to get one of its frigates out of Connecticut and into the Atlantic Ocean. Congress had approved the 28-gun Trumbull to be built in 1775, but shortages and delays meant that this was her maiden voyage, leaving in May, 1780.
In the Revolution, his career had been rather undistinguished. Captain Nicholson lost his first ship, the Virginia, when he ran it aground in the Chesapeake Bay trying to escape from a British ship. The captain fled, leaving his ship and crew to be captured. He returned the next day under a flag of truce, but only to collect his personal property from the captured ship. Despite this, Congress gave him command of the Iris, but he lost that after his crew refused to fight.
Nicolson’s command of the Trumbull in 1780 seemed like a final opportunity to prove himself worthy of his command. When the Trumbull spotted a sail in the Atlantic about 250 miles north of Bermuda, Captain Nicholson closed in for an attack. The other ship turned out to be the Watt, a British privateer out of Liverpool. The 32-gun Watt and the 28-gun Trumbull were pretty evenly matched as they approached one another. The two ships sailed within firing range in the early afternoon of June 1, and opened fire. The battle ensued for about two and a half hours, with the ships circling each other at nearly point blank range and firing as fast as they could. Both ships took serious damage and were in danger of sinking. Eventually, the Watt sailed away to New York. The Trumbull was too damaged to pursue and instead headed to Boston for repairs. The American crew took about 40 casualties to the Watt’s 90. But since neither ship managed to capture or sink the other, the battle is generally considered a draw.
Back on land though, the armies in New York and New Jersey with limited manpower mostly struggled to survive the freezing winter and await reinforcements. In late May, word of the British capture of Charleston reached New York. Hessian General Knyphausen knew that General Clinton would soon return to New York, but exactly when was uncertain. It had taken the British fleet more than a month to sail from New York to Charleston in bad weather. Clinton had sent word to Knyphausen that he was on his way and that Knyphausen should be prepared to launch an offensive against the Continentals, once he returned. But those messages never reached New York, so Knyphausen was left in the dark.
|Wm Von Knyphausen
Even without orders, Knyphausen knew that Clinton would return. Knyphausen had received intelligence that the Continental Army under Washington at Morristown had fallen to about 3500 men. He also knew the enemy was starving and on the verge of mutiny. Knyphausen saw an opportunity to sweep into northern New Jersey, hit Morristown, and possibly destroy what remained of Washington’s army.
Supporting Knyphausen’s plan to invade New Jersey were New Jersey’s royal governor, William Franklin, and New York Governor James Robertson. Franklin, the royal Governor of New Jersey had been forced from his position in 1776 and taken prisoner by the rebels. The son of Benjamin Franklin remained in a Connecticut jail for two years, before finally being exchanged in a prisoner swap. He was sent to British-occupied New York where he consistently advocated for aggressive actions to recapture New Jersey. He also helped organized loyalist militia, often used for guerilla raids into New Jersey.
James Robertson and only arrived in New York a few weeks earlier. While Clinton was away taking Charleston, London replaced New York Governor William Tryon with Robertson. Tryon and Clinton had clashed regularly. Tryon advocated using the army to attack civilian targets, which Clinton opposed. Tryon wanted to destroy morale among the patriots by imposing destruction and misery, and Clinton had a very different policy.
Tryon was an army general as such had to take orders from General Clinton. But since he was also governor, he had authority to act on his own in his civilian capacity. This often led to conflicts. Clinton’s complaining about this eventually led to Robertson replacing Tryon as governor. Tryon remained in New York as a major general, but was frustrated that Clinton would not give him a command after his raids against Connecticut towns in 1779. As a result, while Tryon was around for the summer, he would return to London in September, 1780.
Robertson was also a major general in the regular army. His background is a bit unusual. The son of a Scottish freeholder, Robertson did not come from poverty, but his family did not have a title or political connections. It certainly did not have enough money to buy a commission for him. Robertson got his start in military life by enlisting in the marines. He was one of the few men of his time who started as a private, but then was able to receive a position as an officer through merit. He showed conspicuous bravery in leadership in several actions including some under Admiral Vernon in the West Indies, where he served along with Lawrence Washington, a young colonist whose half-brother George would later rise to prominence.
As open rebellion in the colonies drew closer, Robertson received a commission as brigadier general in America, which would only apply as long as he remained there, and did not come with a bump in pay. Robertson was in Boston during Lexington and Bunker Hill. His duties remained administrative. Although he regularly volunteered to lead men in combat, he remained sidelined, eventually evacuating Boston in early 1776 with the rest of the army.
Robertson led a battalion at the battle of Long Island, but only in the second wave, meaning he did not see much combat. His administrative skills and ability to work with locals helped him to win an appointment as the military commandant of occupied New York. His reputation in that role was a man of compassion, who tried not to create unnecessary suffering, even for rebels, but at the same time focused on restoring the king’s authority.
In February, 1777, Robertson returned to London, carrying General Howe’s dispatches about the rebel attacks at Trenton and Princeton. Robertson spent considerable time with Lord Germain, mostly supporting General Howe’s leadership. Two years later, in 1779, Robertson testified extensively before Parliament, where he was highly critical of General Howe’s actions that had allowed the Continental Army to escape New York and then strike back. He also advocated for a policy that stressed diplomacy with the colonists, and less reliance on brute military force. Robertson believed the colonists were mostly disposed to being loyalists, if treated properly.
It was during this time when Robertson was supporting Germain against Howe in the Parliamentary hearings, that Germain decided to appoint Robertson as the new governor of New York, although it would be another year before Robertson actually took the position. His commission was signed in May 1779, but Robertson did not arrive in New York City until March 1780. At the time General Clinton was down in South Carolina and General Knyphausen was considering his plans to attack the Continentals in New Jersey.
Even though Knyphausen had received no word from General Clinton, the support of Governor Robertson and New Jersey Governor Franklin gave him enough backing to proceed with an invasion into New Jersey. The governors were convinced that the Continentals were on the verge of collapse, and that the long-suffering local New Jersey population would welcome a return to peace, stability, and prosperity under the king’s rule. They only needed the British to show up and give them a push.
The British assembled a force of about 6000 regulars, Hessians, and loyalists, split into two divisions. The first came under the Command of Brigadier General Thomas Stirling. The second commander was Major General Edward Mathew. A smaller third division which Knyphausen commanded himself, along with General Tryon, would also cross into New Jersey and be available as needed.
The plan was to cross the harbor into New Jersey at night, landing in Elizabethtown at about midnight on the morning of June 7. From there, Stirling’s division would march north to capture Springfield and Hobarts Gap, while the ships that had carried them would return to New York and continue ferrying Mathew’s division to Elizabethtown. Stirling’s capture of Hobarts Gap would give the British a relatively straight shot at Morristown where they would attack what remained of Washington’s main army.
As the British began their landing at Elizabethtown in the early night hours of June 7, Maxwell’s New Jersey militia opened fire. There were only a few dozen defenders to hold off a landing of thousands of enemy soldiers, so there was no expectation that this would be anything other than harassing fire. The militia, however, managed to hit General Stirling. He would survive, but command of his division fell to Hessian Colonel Ludwig von Wurmb.
The ensuing confusion slowed the move out of Elizabethtown. Meanwhile the militia commander at Elizabethtown, Colonel Elias Dayton, sent word to General Maxwell and General Washington that a landing of several thousand of the enemy was taking place at Elizabethtown. Within hours, Washington was personally leading his Continentals toward the battle, while also sending out alerts for the local militia to turn out.
Around dawn, Colonel Wurmb began the 1st division’s march out of Elizabethtown toward an alerted countryside full of Continentals and militia. Colonel Dayton had pulled back his militia to the small village of Connecticut Farms (known today as the town of Union) about four miles inland. His militia tore up several bridges along the way to slow the British advance. At Connecticut Farms, they were joined by more local militia and backed up by General Maxwell, who had deployed the 1st and 2nd New Jersey regiments to prevent a British flanking maneuver against the militia.
When the British division under Wurmb arrived after daylight, the commander sent out probes to test the enemy’s size and position. A short time later, General Knyphausen himself arrived on the scene with his third division.
The Americans managed to fight an effective rearguard action, giving up each house and piece of land at a cost for the attackers. The British force, which was mostly Hessian and loyalist, had been aggravated by a night of constant harassing fire, let loose on the village, looting and burning homes.
One of the homes was that of Reverend James Caldwell, an infamous rebel according to the loyalists. Caldwell was known as the fighting parson, having regularly used his sermons to support the patriot cause and the fight against the king’s rule. Loyalists had burned his church in Elizabethtown a year earlier, at which point he had moved his family to the relative safety of Connecticut Farms.
Reverend Caldwell had also served as a chaplain with Maxwell’s regiments. At the time of the attack, he was in Morristown with the main Continental Army. Although most civilians had abandoned their homes, Caldwell’s wife and children remained behind.
Later accounts state that a Hessian soldier deliberately shot Caldwell's wife, Hannah Caldwell, as she and her children cowered in the kitchen of their home. Whether it was deliberate murder or an accident, Hannah Caldwell was killed instantly by an enemy bullet. The soldiers then burned the home as the children and the maid fled for their lives. The murder would soon become another rallying cry for the Americans.
By about 9:30, the British had taken Connecticut farm and then paused again to await the arrival for more reinforcements as well as baggage and artillery.
The Americans under General Maxwell, continued to grow as more militia arrived from the surrounding area. By 11:00 AM, Maxwell ordered an assault on the British lines, having acquired enough men for a frontal assault, as well as attacks on both the right and left enemy flanks. Under some heated hand to hand combat, the British held their positions and drove back the Americans, who retreated back to a bridge over the Rahway River.
Knyphausen had no interest in pursuing the Americans until his reinforcements arrived. Instead, he dug in and began building entrenchments. A bit later, General Robertson arrived. Although he had no command in this action, the Governor came over to New Jersey on his own, and brought with him the regiment that Knyphausen had been left to hold Elizabethtown. Knyphausen was annoyed that Robertson had removed the guard holding the town that he needed for a withdrawal should the Americans get the better of them. He did not press the matter, since starting a quarrel with the new governor could only cause problems for him later.
As the British dug in at Connecticut Farms, Washington moved the bulk of his main army to Short Hills, a few miles to the north. With him were his top generals, including Von Steuben, Lafayette, and Greene. The main army did not join in the fight. Instead, they took defensive positions in case the British pushed through the thin American lines and continued to move north toward Morristown.
As night fell, the British under Knyphausen remained at Connecticut Farms, getting a poor night’s sleep as they had to remain alert for an attack.
|Mass grave marker for British
and Hessian Troops killed
The following morning, Knyphausen took the advice of General Tryon to burn all of the buildings at Connecticut Farms as punishment for the American resistance. Knyphausen’s goal of taking Morristown was dead by this time. The Americans had taken up good defensive positions in the hills and more militia seemed to be turning out by the hour. That evening, Knyphausen ordered the British to return to Elizabethtown and retreat back across the water to New York. Another evening thunderstorm prevented the Americans from pursuing the retreating army.
When he learned about it the following morning, Washington remained cautious that the retreat could be a ruse to get the Americans out of their defensive positions and fight them on an open field. He kept the bulk of his army in its defenses, and sent a division of only about 800 men under General Edward Hand to harass the enemy’s retreat.
Knyphausen left a couple of regiments of regulars and Hessians to hold a rearguard action as he moved the last of his army back across the water to Staten Island.
By the morning of June 9, the British were back on Staten Island or Manhattan, and the battle was at an end.
The Americans had taken a few dozen casualties while the British had taken nearly 200. The bulk of these were wounded Hessians who were in the fight with Maxwell’s attack on the morning of the first day of fighting. The Americans also reported capturing several dozen stragglers who did not retreat quickly enough with the rest of the army.
While the British had failed to take their objective, they were not done yet either. And we will take up a continuation of the story next week, when we cover the Battle of Springfield.
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Battle of Connecticut Farms: https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1780/battle-connecticut-farms
Battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield: https://revolutionarynj.org/storylines/battle-of-springfield/
Battle of Connecticut Farms: https://military-history.fandom.com/wiki/Battle_of_Connecticut_Farms
II. General Orders (morning orders), 7 June 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-26-02-0233-0003
“III. From George Washington to Major General Stirling, 7 June 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-26-02-0233-0004.
“V. General Orders (second general orders), 7 June 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-26-02-0233-0006
“George Washington to Major General William Alexander, Lord Stirling, 8 June ,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-26-02-0002-0037
.“VI. General Orders (morning orders), 8 June 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-26-02-0233-0007
“From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 10 June 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-26-02-0253
Sobol, Thomas T. “William Maxwell, New Jersey’s Hard Fighting General” Journal of the American Revolution, August 15, 2016. https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/08/william-maxwell-new-jerseys-hard-fighting-general
(from archive.org unless noted)
Corbin, William H. Connecticut Farms, Elizabeth, N.J. Journal press, 1905.
Duer, William A. The life of William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, Major-General in the Army of the United States during the Revolution: with selections from his correspondence, New York: Wiley & Putnam, 1847.
Klein, Milton M. (ed) & Howard, Ronald W. (ed) The Twilight of British Rule in Revolutionary America: The New York Letter Book of General James Robertson, 1780-1783, Cooperstown, NY: New York State Historical Association, 1983.
Nelson, William (ed) Documents relating to the revolutionary history of the state of New Jersey : extracts from American newspapers, Vol. 4 Trenton: State Gazette Pub. Co. 1914.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Fleming, Thomas, The Forgotten Victory: The Battle for New Jersey - 1780, Reader’s Digest Press, 1973 (borrow on Archive.org).
Lengel, Edward The Battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield, 1780, Westholme Publishing, 2020.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.