Sunday, November 3, 2019

Episode 121: Iron Works Hill

When we last left the Continental Army, Washington was probably at the lowest point in his life.  His attempts even to put up a decent defense against the British invasion of New York had failed completely.  By December 1776, his army had retreated across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.  The only reason the British stopped their advance was that the British Commander Howe decided to call off any further campaigning and to put his armies into winter quarters.

Continental Army on the Ropes

The British controlled all of the area around New York, took all of New Jersey, and had moved unopposed into Rhode Island.  General William Howe wrote self-congratulatory letters back to London saying that his forces had accomplished everything they had planned for the year.

Of course, that was not completely true.  The British had originally planned to move up the Hudson River through New York and meet up with the British forces under General Guy Carleton in Canada.  Carleton was to have moved down the Hudson River, thus cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies.  That did not happen, mostly because Continental General Benedict Arnold had forced Carleton to delay his advance.  Carleton needed to build his navy on Lake Champlain to defeat Arnold at Valcour Island (see Episode 110).  The delay in doing that forced Carleton to delay an invasion of New York until the following spring.

Joseph Reed
So while General Arnold had delayed British plans, General Washington had not stopped Howe from doing anything.  Everyone seemed to come to the conclusion that General Washington just wasn’t up to the task of taking on the full British Army.

Thousands of Continental soldiers now sat in prison ships in New York Harbor, dying from disease and starvation.  Thousands more deserted the Continental Army, with little desire to join their comrades on the prison ships once the final surrender came.  By some estimates, Washington’s Army had dwindled to as little as 3000 men by the time his army crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.  New York and New Jersey militia did not march with the army.  Pennsylvania militia had not yet arrived.  General Charles Lee still had several thousand continental soldiers in northern New Jersey and refused Washington’s increasingly desperate requests that he join him in Pennsylvania.  After Lee’s capture, General John Sullivan still needed time to move his Continentals in north Jersey to meet up with Washington just outside of Philadelphia.   Likewise General Horatio Gates was marching with reinforcements from Fort Ticonderoga, but was still on the march and had not yet reached Washington.

Many in Congress had lost faith in Washington as well.  They had talked of turning over command to General Lee.  The British leadership seemed to hold the same opinion.  When they captured General Lee on December 13, they saw it as a more important victory than the capture of 3000 Continental soldiers at Fort Washington.  Lee was the only general they seemed to respect.  Fortunately for the patriots, the capture put off talk of replacing Washington for a time.  It also ensured that Lee’s army would finally join with Washington in Pennsylvania.

Washington even had to be doubting himself by this time.  By the end of December, most of the remaining Continental enlistments would expire.  His army would almost certainly choose to go home as had earlier enlistments.  Washington sent many of his officers home to recruit a new army.  But no one seemed interested to sign on to what looked like a losing cause.  Thomas Paine did his part by publishing the Crisis, which I covered last week.  However, there was no good evidence that would do any good before the end of the year, if at all.

Looting and Pillaging

Despite bleak prospects, there was still reason to oppose the British occupation.  In earlier episodes, I’ve alluded to the problems of looting and pillaging.  Remember that British regulars were dirt poor.  Their pay was eight pence per day.  That’s roughly $10 per day when converted to inflation adjusted dollars.  By the time all the deductions were made for food, uniforms, and a host of other expenses, soldiers were lucky to receive maybe one fourth of that.  Their Hessian allies were paid even less. These were men living at bare subsistence, often without enough clothes to keep warm or enough food to stop feeling hungry.  When they came across abandoned homes or other property, they would help themselves to whatever they could, unless officers prevented it.  In that case, they had to do it on the sly.  Obtaining alcohol or any small valuables that could be sold later were prime targets.  But really just about anything they could carry would go.

Hessian Jagers occupied New Jersey
(from British Battles)
At times looting was part of a war strategy.  Some officers thought that the rebels should suffer after having rejected the King’s protection.  However, General Howe’s offer of pardon and amnesty was supposed to protect those who had signed oaths of allegiance.  The soldiers were not particularly careful to make that distinction.  Many New Jersey Tories who had welcomed the regulars as liberators, soon found their homes and personal items ravaged.

Not all of the pillaging was for personal gain either.  Rampaging soldiers often burned homes and simply destroyed property that they could not take with them.  They argued that civilians claiming loyalty were all rebels and would turn back to rebellion as soon as the soldiers moved on.

Rapes were another serious problem.  There were thousands of reported rapes of all sorts, from girls as young as ten to women in their seventies.  Married women and children were gang raped in front of their husbands, fathers, and brothers.  These were brutal acts of violence were often compounded with beatings threats of murder, and actual murder.

Many of the British officers put blame for these abuses on the Hessian soldiers.  British regulars did engage in such abuses too.  Whether Hessians were more to blame is questionable since British officers had an incentive to blame their allies.  If the abuses were committed by their own troops, that reflected poorly on the officers.  If committed by Hessian soldiers, the blame fell primarily on Hessian officers.

Whatever the percentage of blame, it is clear that Hessians engaged in some great share of the pillaging, looting and raping across New Jersey.  As I said, Hessians were paid even less than British Regulars.  Most enlisted men had come from families in abject poverty back in the German States and who had virtually no rights at all.  Seeing colonists who enjoyed comparative wealth and freedom and who still dared to commit treason against their king made many Hessians justify their ill treatment as just punishment.

Had the invaders limited their assaults to patriot households, that might not have been so bad for British policy.  But many loyalists quickly fell victim to military abuses: theft, destruction of property, assaults, and even murder.  Many who had spoken for the loyalist cause as the way to protect law and order now had reason to question their views.  Many were experiencing a tyranny that made many question their loyalties to the King.  The soldiers they once hailed as liberators had become their abusers.

Occupation of South Jersey

British officers did make some attempts to reign in soldier abuses, but the leadership did not seem terribly concerned about it.  Military victories would convince the citizenry to end the rebellion.  Once they returned to keeping the King’s peace, the military occupation could end and the abuses would also go away.

Initially the plan seemed to work.  General Howe’s amnesty proclamation motivated thousands across New York and New Jersey to swear allegiance to the King in return for a full pardon.  The British set out a series of outposts across New Jersey where subjects could see that they were in charge.  With any luck the Continental Army would dissolve over the winter and Howe could extend his amnesty across the continent without having to butcher thousands more on both sides.

Map of regional forces during Mount Holly Raid
Before Howe returned to New York for the winter, he personally surveyed and posted his army along the Delaware River, making sure the Americans would not attempt to cross back into New Jersey.

He left General James Grant in overall command of the region.  For those of you keeping track of such things, we first met General Grant in Episode 12, when he was a mere major captured near Fort Duquesne near the end of the French and Indian war, and again in Episode 15 when as a Lieutenant Colonel, he attacked the Cherokee at the Battle of Etchoe in South Carolina.  After the French and Indian war, Grant served as Governor of East Florida for a time, then returned home to be elected to Parliament.  There, he was one of the toughest talking members against the brewing rebellion. Grant said the patriots would never stand up to military action and that he could march across the entire continent with 5000 regulars.

When war broke out, he received a commission as full colonel and traveled with General Howe to Boston in 1775.  After Howe replaced General Thomas Gage as overall commander of North America, Grant received a promotion to brigadier general.  His leadership during the battle of Brooklyn had led to yet another promotion to major general.

Despite his rise in rank, Grant did not seem to have the respect of his officers and men.  Like General Howe, he seemed more interested in personal comforts than in the success or even the safety of the men under his command.  Grant set up his headquarters in Brunswick, NJ, closer to New York than to the outposts he commanded along the Delaware River.

The ranking officer actually present at the outposts was Hessian Colonel Carl Von Donop.  General Howe ordered Von Donop with a force of about 2000 Hessians to occupy Bordentown, NJ, a small town just a few miles south of Trenton along the Delaware River.  At the time, Bordentown had only a couple of dozen houses, nowhere near enough buildings to house 2000 Hessians for the winter.  Also as it bordered the Delaware River, the Hessians attracted artillery fire from ships and Continentals on the other side of the river.  Von Donop had to move inland and scatter his forces in farm houses around the countryside.

Some estimates say Von Donop had about 3000 men.  However, this may include the division deployed to Von Donop’s south.  Howe directed, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Stirling, an officer commanding the 42nd Regiment, known as the Black Watch, as well as a battalion of Hessians.  Stirling’s men would occupy Burlington, NJ about 10 miles southeast of Bordentown.  Again, Burlington was not large enough to house even this smaller force and suffered enemy artillery fire from the river.  Stirling also deployed his forces a few miles south of Burlington, further inland, scattering them among several farmhouses and barns in the area.

Carl Von Donop
(from Historica)
To Colonel Von Donop’s north Colonel Johann Rall commanded about 1400 Hessians at Trenton.  Rall held an independent command and did not report to Von Donop, but instead reported directly to General Grant.  At least Trenton, with about 100 buildings, was large enough to accommodate most of Rall’s soldiers, even if they did have to pack themselves into pretty tight quarters.

To support these front line outposts, General Howe established a supply depot at Princeton, further inland and about 13 miles north of Trenton.  There, General Alexander Leslie commanded another brigade of British infantry.  For those paying attention, this is the same Colonel Leslie who led a raid on Salem back in 1775 before Lexington and Concord, see Episode 46.  In early 1776 he received a promotion to brigadier general.

The British deployment was not particularly defensible.  These were thousands of soldiers spread over lightly populated countryside, with no forts or other particularly defensible positions.  Their focus was more on pacifying the region, hunting down small groups of rebels or bandits and making sure everyone knew they occupied New Jersey.  No one expected the crippled Continental Army to attempt any sort of large attack.  If an attack came, the forces were a few hours march away.  Any of the outposts should be able to hold out until relief could arrive.

While many in New Jersey had accepted the British occupation and sought amnesty.  There remained a hard core of militia who continued to harass the British at every opportunity.  These were not conventional soldiers.  They were essentially civilians with guns.  They could not take on the British army, or even the outposts that were set up.  They could, however, shoot British messengers that traveled between units, or attack supply trains providing food and supplies to the outposts.  If the British sent out companies of soldiers to track down the guerrillas, they would find only civilians who had hidden their guns and now claimed to be loyal subjects who knew nothing about the attacks in the area.  The British knew they were in hostile territory, but were frustrated that they could not get the enemy to stand and fight on a battlefield.

Iron Works Hill

Across the river in Pennsylvania, General Washington had to decide if there was anything he could do before his Army evaporated at the end of the year, just a few weeks away.  If fearful New Jersey civilians could see that they were not completely abandoned by the Continental Army, they might begin to rally around the American cause once again.  He also did not want to let the enemy get comfortable settling into winter quarters.  Anything they could do to harass and annoy the enemy had to continue.

On December 17, Washington ordered Colonel Samuel Griffin from Virginia to cross over into New Jersey.  Griffin commanded a force of about 600 men, a few Virginia artillerymen with small field cannon, along with mostly Pennsylvania and New Jersey militia.  The force made its way to Mount Holly New Jersey, where they set up a defensive position at the top of a small hill near the local iron works.

Mount Holly was close to the southernmost British outpost commanded by Colonel Stirling.  However, Stirling did not receive word of the American incursion into New Jersey, or if he did, he simply reported it to Colonel Von Donop and did not deploy any of his soldiers.  In Bordentown, Von Donop received word of the American presence. Some accounts indicate that his soldiers encountered rebels attempting to steal cattle.  They informed the British that more than 1000 rebels had encamped near Mount Holly.

Von Donop and Griffin had met on the field of battle once before.  Both men had led their battalions into battle at Harlem Heights, where Griffin was wounded.  It is not clear, however, that either man knew much about the other, or their opponent in the  previous encounter.

Samuel Griffin
(from Wikimedia)
Von Donop moved nearly all of the 3000 soldiers under his command to confront the enemy.  On December 21, the patriots encountered a small British force holding Petticoat Bridge, over Assiscunk Creek.  Outnumbered, the British outpost fell back to the north to meet up with Von Donop’s 3000 man force.

The following day, the main body of Hessians recaptured the bridge.  A brief skirmish took place, with a few casualties on each side.  The Americans fell back to Mount Holly.

That same day, Washington’s aide, Colonel Joseph Reed, rode into New Jersey to find Colonel Griffin.  He asked Griffin to keep the Hessians engaged in order to distract them as Washington prepared to cross the Delaware and attack further north.  Reed was pleased to find that Griffin had already engaged the enemy and was keeping them occupied.

It is not clear if Washington had sent Griffin into New Jersey with the intent of creating a distraction away from his newly formed plan to attack the Trenton garrison.  There are no written instructions to that effect.  Washington may have simply sent  Griffin more to get a better idea of the locations and numbers of British forces in the area.  The decision to use Griffin to distract and divide the enemy probably came later, hence Reed’s visit on the 22nd.  Reed himself called the engagement at Mount Holly accidental but with a “happy effect.”  Reed sent a messenger back to Washington, letting him know the enemy was scattered and divided making an immediate attack advisable.  Reed suggested either supporting Griffin or making a separate attack while Von Donop’s forces were so far from Trenton.

A day later, December 23, the Hessian force under Von Donop moved into Mount Holly.  The two sides engaged in a firefight lasting at least several hours, and involving the use of field cannon.  The Hessians eventually forced the smaller American battalion to fall back to their defensive position on Iron Works Hill.

The two sides continued in an exchange of fire, but the Hessians did not attempt to take the hill.  The American force was entrenched on the hill and had its own field cannons to deter any assault.  The Americans were outnumbered and that evening the Americans retreated to Moorestown, leaving Mt. Holly to the Hessians.

By some accounts, there were up to 100 casualties on both sides combined.  That seems exaggerated though.  Most accounts indicate only two or three killed on each side and maybe a dozen wounded.

Colonel Von Donop and his army occupied Mount Holly.  The Hessians looted houses, apparently found a fair amount of alcohol and got drunk.  With the patriot army having withdrawn and most of the local population having fled town, Von Donop decided not to pursue the enemy any further for the moment.  Instead, he allowed his troops to enjoy the town.

Though most of the locals fled, there is a story of one young widow who remained in town and entertained Von Donop.  Some historians have speculated that this widow might have been Betsy Ross, though I could find no solid evidence to support the theory.  Whoever she was, the widow apparently caused Von Donop to want to remain in town for a few days.  Another Hessian officer noted that Von Donop had a weakness for the ladies and was smitten by this young beautiful widow.  With the patriot force still in the area, and finding reasonably comfortable accommodations at Mount Holly, Von Donop and his men spent Christmas in the town.

Von Donop’s decision to remain in Mount Holly meant that Colonel Rall and the Hessian force in Trenton were isolated and at least a day’s march away from Von Donop’s larger force of Hessians.

- - -

Next Episode 122 Washington Crosses the Delaware 

Previous Episode 120 The American Crisis

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Further Reading


The Skirmish at Petticoat Bridge, by Norm Goos and Earl Cain:

Battle of Iron Works Hill

Battle of Iron Works Hill:

Iron Works Hill Revolutionary War Sites in Mount Holly, NJ

Iron Works Hill:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

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

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

Collins, Varnum L. A Brief Narrative of the Ravages of the British and Hessians at Princeton in 1776-1777; a contemporary account of the battles of Trenton and Princeton, Princeton University Library, 1906.

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

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 3, Washington: St. Claire Clarke, 1837.

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

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

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

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

Stryker, William Battles Of Trenton And Princeton, Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1898.

Stryker, William The Continental Army at the Crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night of 1776, J.L. Murphy Publishing Co. 1896.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

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

Bill, Alfred Hoyt The Campaign of Princeton 1776-1777, Princeton Univ. Press, 1948.

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

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

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

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

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

Lefkowitz, Arthur S. The Long Retreat, The Calamitous American Defense of New Jersey 1776, Upland Press, 1998.

Maloy, Mark Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, December 25, 1776 - January 3, 1777, Savas Beatie, 2018.

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

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

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

1 comment:

  1. Great story! I love a history scandals! Maybe the young window who Von Dunop took to was Mary Peale Field who lived at the Whitefield Mansion along the Delaware near Boardontown? He was said to visit her in December 1776. He also wrote orders to protect her home during the war. Captain Wrenden of the Hessian army had also made White Hill his temporary quarters. Although I loved to hear more about the Betsy Ross story! Thanks for your great work!