Sunday, February 2, 2020

Episode 134 Battle of Bound Brook




Today we return to northern New Jersey in spring 1777. As you recall, General Washington’s Continentals attacked outposts at Trenton and Princeton at the beginning of the year, bringing the fight back to New Jersey after the British thought they had conquered it.  This kicked off the Forage War that I discussed back in Episode 127.  The Continental fighting had re-energized the New Jersey patriot militia to attack British or Hessians soldiers whenever they ventured out in small groups, or even some larger ones.

The fighting made it almost impossible for the British to forage for food or fuel in New Jersey over the winter.  Instead, they hunkered down in larger fortified bases and relied on supplies from New York to sustain them. The British held a few strongholds in northern New Jersey.  They kept armies in Elizabethtown, Amboy, and Brunswick.

Washington at Morristown

While fighting the Forage War and keeping an eye on British forces, Washington had moved the bulk of his Continental Army to Morristown New Jersey, about thirty miles due west of New York City.  From there, he could maintain a defensive position in the Watchung Mountains.  He could pivot his army north if the British moved up toward the Hudson River Valley, or to the south if the British moved once again across New Jersey toward Philadelphia.

Washington was also struggling to keep an army in the field.  Remember, the 10,000 man Continental Army that he had brought from Boston to New York had shrunk to about 2000 just before he made his desperate attack across the Delaware River on Trenton.  That victory helped with recruiting initially and also inspired more militia to turn out.

That said, even much of Washington’s core of dedicated soldiers from the Trenton campaign had been expected to be released at the end of 1776 when their enlistments expired.  Washington and his officers had inspired many of them to stay on for a short time by pleading with them and convincing the majority that their service for just another month or two was of critical military importance. Their willingness to stick it out another couple of months allowed Washington to fight the second battle of Trenton, the Battle of Princeton and lock down the British for several months of the Forage War.

Continental Soldiers (from Wikimedia)
By March though, even these extended enlistments had ended.  Many of the men had begun to leave by late January.  The two armies were not in active large scale combat, and many of these soldiers were more than ready to go home.  Many of the final holdovers from 1776 had left the army.

Washington realized he needed a large professional army, as large as the British force, or preferably larger. To get that army Washington needed to overcome push-back among many Americans against the idea.  Large standing armies of paid soldiers under long term enlistments smacked of tyranny for many patriots.  Many preferred a militia army where civilians would take up arms when needed but then go back to their lives.  This assured the people that the army could not become a tool of oppression, because the army was the people.

The reality though, was that during this time of war, militia could not cut it. They were not as reliable, not as well trained, and would often leave when they were needed most after short term enlistments expired. Washington finally convinced Congress to give him a professional army, and a huge one at that. He got Congress to authorize an army of 75,000 Continental soldiers for 1777.  Now there was no way they would ever get to that size, but the goal at this time was a massive build up.  Washington also wanted an army of that was trained, disciplined, and would remain under arms for the multi-year campaigns ahead.

Congress offered sizable enlistment bonuses for a three year enlistment.  It also promised free land to those who volunteered for the duration of the war.  These enticements, along with the American victories in New Jersey, inspired a new group of recruits that gave Washington over 11,000 Continentals at his command by spring.  Another 17,000 militia were also available in the region for Washington should he need them.

While growing in numbers, the army under his command still had little training or combat experience.  Most of those soldiers who had fought at Boston or in the New York campaign had gone home, with new inexperienced replacements filling the ranks.  Even many who had just fought in the New Jersey campaign were leaving. Washington still had no experienced professional officers capable of training and drilling the new recruits to fight like professionals.  This was the beginning of the professional standing army that Washington thought he had needed since he had taken charge.  While he had soldiers who had committed to multi-year enlistments, those soldiers did not yet have the experience or training that he thought they needed before they could challenge the regulars on the battlefield.

Spring Offensive

As winter becomes spring, a soldier’s thoughts turn to fighting.  Although this winter had been pretty busy, traditionally new offensives began in the spring when the weather made fighting, camping, and marching bearable for the soldiers.

The problem was, no one was quite sure what the plan was for the spring offensive.  As I discussed a couple of weeks ago, the British commander in North America, General William Howe did not get the reinforcements he wanted to launch multiple offensives against New England, New York and the middle colonies.  Instead, he was talking about taking Philadelphia.  No one was actually sure though since they also thought he was going to have to send troops up the Hudson Valley to link up with the northern army. General Burgoyne would soon be leading that army down from Canada.  London wanted at least some portion of Howe’s main army available to support Burgoyne as he moved down the Hudson Valley.

Last week we looked at the first British raid up the Hudson River on Peekskill, essentially testing Continental defenses and seeing what they could do.  This week, the British are going to do something similar in New Jersey but on a larger scale.

As I said, the British learned during the Forage War over the winter, that sending out even a few hundred soldiers could invite an ambush and random attacks.  An offensive in New Jersey would have to be on a larger scale.

Since the British had some larger bases along the New Jersey coast further to the south, Washington deployed several detachments that protected his main army from a southern attack.  He ordered now Major General Benjamin Lincoln to Bound Brook, New Jersey, along the Raritan River.  Congress had commissioned Lincoln to major general in February.

Before then, Lincoln was not in the Continental Army.  He had been a general in the Massachusetts militia.  Lincoln was more politician than soldier and had been involved primarily in supply and logistics during the Siege of Boston.  He had remained in Massachusetts after the Continental Army left for New York.

Benjamin Lincoln
(from Wikimedia)
Lincoln had brought a supporting militia army to New York after the British already had captured most of the area.  He played a role in the failed attempt to take Fort Independence, something I discussed back in Episode 128.  Although the mission was a failure and General Washington heavily criticized the mission’s commander, General William Heath, Washington apparently came away with a good impression of General Lincoln.

This was also about the same time Major General Artemas Ward resigned his commission due to age and infirmity.  Ward’s resignation made room for another major general from Massachusetts.  Washington seemed to see some military potential in Lincoln and had recommended to Congress that he receive a commission.

Lincoln became a major general in the Continental Army on the same day that that congress promoted four other brigadier generals to major general: William Alexander (Lord Stirling) of New Jersey, Arthur St. Clair and Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania, and Adam Stephen of Virginia.  Congress expected to increase the size of the army and needed more generals.  In truth, they never were able to recruit as large an army as they had planned and would have more generals than needed.

Perhaps more importantly, all of these new major generals had been junior to Brigadier General Benedict Arnold and had nothing close to his fighting record.  As I discussed a few weeks ago, this had almost led to Arnold’s resignation.  Lincoln was one of those politician-generals that particularly irked combat generals like Arnold.  Lincoln had done almost nothing beyond a support role as a militia officer.  He only had played a role assisting the commander at the failed assault on Fort Independence.  Now he was joining the army as a major general.  Lincoln was the only American officer outside of that first group at the founding of the Continental Army to join the Continentals at that level.

The village of Bound Brook was Lincoln’s first command as a Continental officer where he was not directly under the supervision of Washington.  Initially, Lincoln commanded a force of about one thousand infantrymen and an artillery unit to provide defensive support.  His primary mission was to protect three bridges across the Raritan River that the British might use for an attack on Morristown from the south.  By late March though, expiring enlistments reduced his force by half, to about 500 men.  Most of those remaining were Pennsylvania men who had seen little combat so far.

Lord Cornwallis
(from Wikimedia)
Back in Brunswick, British General Charles, Lord Cornwallis, was itching to do something.  In December, he had been just about to get on a ship back to London where he was looking forward to time with his wife and children, and chatting with top officials in London about the war.  Instead, General Howe got word of Washington’s attack on Trenton and sent Cornwallis at the head of an army to deal with it.  On the one hand, Howe’s decision to send Cornwallis rather than the far more senior General Henry Clinton indicated that Cornwallis was a rising star.  On the other hand, Cornwallis spent most of the winter chasing around New Jersey, and accomplishing little rather than enjoying time back in England.  This was not really what he wanted.

A year earlier, Cornwallis had begun his American adventure under General Clinton.  His forces had attempted and failed to capture South Carolina’s Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island in Charleston Harbor, something I discussed back in Episode 96.  Cornwallis had impressed General Howe with his leadership at the Battle of Long Island and his work pushing the Continentals out of New York.  As Generals Clinton and Lord Percy were getting pushed aside, Cornwallis was taking a more prominent role under General Howe’s overall command.

Cornwallis had chased Washington down to Trenton, only to see the Continentals slip around behind him and attack the British rear at Princeton.  For the rest of the winter, Cornwallis sat mostly on defense, trying to protect his soldiers during the Forage War and making sure the Americans did not take another outpost like they had at Trenton.  It was an irritating and frustrating winter for the British generally and Cornwallis in particular.

As the weather began to warm and the rivers melted, Cornwallis wanted to start doing something more like a strategic offensive.  With intelligence that Lincoln’s army at Bound Brook had shrunk and was somewhat isolated from the main army. Cornwallis planned a day raid that would capture Lincoln’s army. The British could toss them into the New York prison ships and claim a quick victory to begin the spring campaign.

As early as February, Cornwallis has asked Hessian j├Ąger Captain Johann Ewald to develop a plan to take the Continental force at Bound Brook.  Since the plan required fording the river, they had to wait for spring to implement it.  In April, Cornwallis assembled a force of about 4000 British and Hessian soldiers.  A force of Hessians under the command of Colonel Carl von Donop, would assault one of the bridges directly.  Major General James Grant would command another group of British and Hessians on the right flank to threaten the Continentals from another direction.  Cornwallis himself would take another brigade on the British left flank.  They would ford the Raritan further upriver and prevent any Continental retreat in that direction.  Another group of several light infantry companies would move north of the area to cut off the road from Bound Brook back to the main Continental army at Morristown.  With four separate forces coming at them from different directions, the Continentals would be trapped and would have to surrender.

The Attack

On the night of April 12, 1777, the British and Hessian armies prepared themselves for a night march so that they could hit the enemy before dawn on the morning of the 13th.  Ewald’s small force at the center was the first to engage the enemy.  Its goal was to draw the attention of the enemy while Von Donop moved in from another direction to surprise the defenders.

Battle of Bound Brook (from Wikimedia)
Ewald’s men, however, were overly enthusiastic. They chased back the American sentries to the main lines where they ran into Continental artillery.  In doing so, this small advance group found themselves almost surrounded by the Continentals.

Fortunately for Ewald, Von Donop and Cornwallis both appeared with their forces from other directions.  The Continentals could not focus on capturing Ewald.  Instead they had to run for their lives.  General Lincoln, had to flee along with his small army in a hurry.  He lost all of his papers and personal property as he ran from the field.  Von Donop later reported that he thought Lincoln must have fled in his underwear since they found his uniform still in his tent.

The Pennsylvania artillery put up a sustained defense, as it covered the retreat of the infantry.  As a result, it suffered the bulk of the battle casualties as well as the loss of its field guns to the enemy.

The Americans were fortunate that the British light infantry deployed to cut off their escape up the road toward Morristown was late getting into place.  This delay allowed the bulk of the Continentals to escape.  The actual fighting was over quickly.  The Americans suffered somewhere between thirty and sixty killed or wounded (accounts differ).  The British also captured 80 or 90 prisoners. The British only suffered a few wounded by American defenders.

Up in Morristown, Washington received word of the attack by mid-morning.  He authorized a counter-attack under the command of Major General Nathanael Greene.  Washington feared the British might continue up to Morristown and attack the main army there.  Cornwallis had no such intent.  This was meant to be a short one day raid.  By 11:00 AM, the British collected their prisoners, the captured guns, and began the march back to their base at Brunswick.

By the time Greene’s force made it to Bound Brook, his soldiers found the last of the British rearguard trying to cross the Raritan River.  A short skirmish resulted in eight British dead and sixteen captured.  The Continentals occupied Bound Brook again that same afternoon.

Aftermath

The battle was technically a British victory.  Cornwallis captured the town, along with a few prisoners and some supplies, as he had hoped.  Widely varying reports indicate that in total, somewhere between 40 and 120 of the 500 Continentals as Bound Brook were killed, wounded, or captured.  The British only reported seven wounded in the battle itself.  They lost another eight killed and 16 captured in the rearguard action that the Continentals fought during their withdraw.

Nathanael Greene
(from Wikimedia)
Cornwallis’ main objective though, was to capture the entire American force at Bound Brook.  This failed because the British did not cut off the escape route by the time the attack began.  Most soldiers, including the commander General Lincoln, were able to escape, even if the retreat was panicked and disorganized.

Following the battle, General Washington directed his officers to improve the defenses against another attack.  General Greene surveyed the area and reported back that there was no good way to defend against another large British attack.  Washington also provided more reinforcements to the southern detachment so that they would not be so outnumbered if attacked again.

However, the southern force was still isolated and exposed.  If the British wanted to launch another raid, the force could still be vulnerable as it was separate from the main army.  Therefore it was still subject to being surrounded.  More importantly, if Washington had to deploy more of his army to back up the force at Bound Brook, the British could send an even larger offensive army.  Washington would risk the capture a Continental force of perhaps thousands who did not have the natural protection provided by the Watchung Mountains.  That was why Washington did not have his main force there in the first place.  That was why his headquarters was in Morristown, in the safety of the Watchung mountains.

After several weeks of evaluation and debate, Washington, in late May, pulled back the southern flank of his army to Middlebrook.  Although not far away, it would give the soldiers a natural defensive position in the Watchung Mountains.  From the heights they would be better able to see the approach of an enemy army.  The British would be able to cross the Raritan river unopposed, but then they would have to challenge the Continentals in their mountain defenses.

As it turned out, this would not be an issue. The British sat out the entire month of May and much of June as well with no significant activity in New Jersey.  Washington had the time he needed to adjust his defenses.  After Washington’s forces had made the move to Middlebrook, the British would make one more thrust into the area in late June.  I’ll get to that in a future episode a few weeks from now.

Before we get to those events, a couple of weeks after the raid on Bound Brook, the British would launch another raid against Danbury Connecticut.  For that story, you will need to wait until next week, when I discuss, you guessed it, the Danbury Raid.

- - -

Next Episode 135 The Danbury Raid

Previous Episode 133 The Peekskill Raid


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Further Reading

Websites

Washington Headquarters at Morristoown: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/washington-sets-up-winter-quarters-in-morristown

Battle of Bound Brook: https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1777/battle-bound-brook

Abraham Staats House: https://www.staatshouse.org/events/battle-of-bound-brook

Battle of Bound Brook:
https://www.revolutionarywarnewjersey.com/new_jersey_revolutionary_war_sites/towns/bound_brook_nj_revolutionary_war_sites.htm

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

Lundin, Leonard Cockpit Of The Revolution The War For Independence In New Jersey, Princeton Univ. Press, 1940.

Sparks, Jared, The Library of American Biography Second Series, Vol. 13, Charles C. Little & James Brown, 1847 (contains Bowen, Francis Life of Benjamin Lincoln).

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

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*

Lindsley, James E. First Winter: Washington and His Army in Morristown, 1777, 2006

McGuire, Thomas J. The Philadelphia Campaign Vol. 1, Stackpole Books, 2006.

Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan, 1952 (book recommendation of the week).

Wickwire, Franklin and Mary Cornwallis: The American Adventure, Houghton Mifflin, 1970. May also be borrowed at Archive.org.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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