Sunday, March 15, 2020

Episode 140 Battle of Short Hills

A few weeks ago, in Episode 134, I discussed the British raid on Bound Brook on April 13, 1777. General Cornwallis led 4000 British and Hessians against an American outpost of 500 Continentals along the Raritan River, hoping to net some prisoners.  The British raided the town and took some prisoners, but the bulk of the Continental outpost escaped capture.

The Americans retook the post that day, but after a few weeks determined that the isolated outpost was prone to another attack.  Washington moved them back a few miles to Middlebrook, in the Watchung Mountains where defensive lines would be easier to hold.

No one on the Continental side was quite sure what British General William Howe planned to do next. To be fair, most of the officers in the British army were equally left in the dark as to their commander’s plans. Howe still might move northward to link up with the planned British thrust from Canada under General Johnny Burgoyne.  He might also attempt to move on Philadelphia.

Everyone sat around waiting for a spring offensive to begin.  But spring turned into summer while the British army sat in New York City and its defensive outposts around the city, without any clear indication of any movement.

On June 9, Howe finally moved most of his army out of New York City and Staten Island to Amboy in New Jersey.  A couple of days later, the army marched along the banks of the Raritan River. They marched past Bound Brook, the area abandoned by the Continentals a few weeks earlier.  The British encamped at Brunswick. After camping for three days, on June 14th, the British once again packed up and marched to Somerset Courthouse, within easy sight of the Americans.

Memorial for Battle of Short Hills
(from Rev War NJ)
This was more than a large raid.  Howe put about 20,000 British and Hessians on the march, leaving a smaller force to protect New York City. The column marched south of Washington’s defensive position, apparently moving toward Philadelphia.  If Washington wanted to confront Howe, he would have to leave his defensive position in the mountains and attack the regulars on the same land where Howe’s army had chased the Continentals the year before.

It truth though, Howe had no plans to march his army to Philadelphia.  The whole movement had been a feint to see if the British could draw the Americans out of their defenses and into an open fight.  It would not work.  Washington had received intelligence that Howe had left behind his heavy baggage and equipment needed to cross the Delaware River.  He deduced that the British were not headed to Philadelphia, but were looking for a fight on their own terms against a smaller Continental force.  Therefore the Americans stayed in the hills where the British dared not attack.

After camping at Somerset Courthouse for five days and daring the Americans to attack, Howe packed up and returned to Amboy.  As the British pulled back, the Continentals finally came down out of the mountains to shadow the retreating regulars.  Washington was convinced that the British withdrawal meant the immediate danger had passed.  He allowed some of his local militia to return home and began to deploy his Continentals across the plains to show that the Americans once again controlled New Jersey.

British General Howe had already ferried much of his army back to Staten Island.  As he was in the process of moving over the rest, an American deserter informed him that the Continentals had finally moved down out of the mountains. Upon being alerted to this, Howe turned around his column and rushed back to engage the Americans.  He began moving his soldiers back to New Jersey after dark on June 25th, beginning around 10:00 PM.

By about 1:00 AM on June 26, the army was in formation and ready to march.  Howe moved his army north in two columns, in a night raid.  Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis led one column.  Major General John Vaughan commanded the other.  Howe personally went with the column commanded by Vaughan.  By moving north, the British hoped to circle around Washington’s left flank and get between the Continentals and the mountains.  This would force the Americans to fight on an open field, or retreat back toward Philadelphia.

John Vaughan

Of course I’ve talked about Howe and Cornwallis before.  General John Vaughan was also a veteran of the war.  He just hasn’t had a prominent enough role for me to mention yet.

Gen. John Vaughan (from Wikimedia)
As with most British generals, Vaughn came from aristocracy.  He was the son the Third Viscount Lisburne.  He was not the first born though, so he would not inherit his father’s land or titles.  Instead Dad purchased him an officer’s commission and sent him off on a career in the military beginning in 1746.  It’s not clear exactly how old he was since his date of birth is unknown, but he was probably a young teenager at the time.  He joined while the British were still fighting the War of Austrian Succession, but there is no record of him serving in combat.

Following the war’s end Vaughan received several peacetime promotions, almost certainly with the assistance of his family’s money.  When the Seven Years War began, Vaughan served with distinction, leading grenadiers in both Germany and Martinique.  By the end of the war, he had risen to lieutenant colonel.  In 1772 he received another peacetime commission to full colonel, and two years later got elected to Parliament.  He generally backed the policies of the Prime Minister but did not speak much.  In 1776, while retaining his seat in the British Parliament, he also won a seat in the Irish Parliament.

Vaughan political service and military experience did not go unnoticed.  When the ministry needed willing officers to go to America, it promoted Vaughan to major general and sent him with the forces dispatched under General Cornwallis to recapture the southern colonies.  Vaughn was present at the Battle of Fort Sullivan, but I’m not sure that he did anything of note there.  Eventually his forces, then under the command of General Clinton, sailed up to New York.

There, everyone came under General Howe’s command as he launched the campaign to capture New York.  Vaughan led his grenadiers at the Battle of Long Island.  He also landed a force at Kips Bay and fought at White Plains, where he was wounded in the thigh.  He quickly recovered though and was ready to lead men into battle once again in spring 1777.  General Howe selected him to lead his army in the field, along with General Cornwallis.  Like Cornwallis, Vaughan was a general on the rise, someone upon whom General Howe would rely.

Lord Stirling

The two British columns marched to cut off the Continentals, Washington had prepared for this.  He sent General Lord Stirling to protect the Continental left flank and prevent just such a maneuver as Howe had planned.

Lord Stirling is also an interesting character I should probably introduce.  William Alexander was born in New York in 1726.  His father was a prominent lawyer who served on the Governor’s Council and held several other government positions.  His father had come to New York a decade before William was born, after his participation in the Jacobite Rising of 1715.  More worried about losing his head for treason, William’s father never tried to claim his father’s title of Earl of Stirling after the death of William’s grandfather.

Wm Alexander "Lord Stirling" (from Thoughtco)
Upon his father’s death, William tried to reclaim this title.  He retained lawyers in Scotland and got a Scottish court to recognize his claim in 1759.  The Scottish ruling, however, was not enough for Alexander.  He petitioned the House of Lords to recognize his claim.  The House of Lords looked into it, decided that the claim was dubious and rejected it.  William Alexander would not be Lord Stirling.

Alexander though, would not let the House of Lords deny who he was.  He told himself Don't hide yourself in regret, Just love yourself and you're set, I'm on the right track, baby, I was born this way (apologies to Lady Gaga).  Alexander knew he was born a lord.  So whatever the House of Lords said in London, Alexander called himself Lord Stirling, and expected others to address him as such.

Despite the controversy over his title, Lord Stirling had inherited a fair amount of wealth and property from his father.  He built a large estate in New Jersey and lived a rather lavish lifestyle.  He was also an early proponent of the patriot cause.  Several months after Lexington and Concord, Stirling formed a New Jersey militia regiment which he led as its colonel.  He used his personal money to outfit the new regiment.

Shortly thereafter, he gained attention when his regiment captured a small British transport ship in New York Harbor.  In March 1776, as the war began to pivot to New York, Congress appointed Stirling a brigadier general.  He performed with conspicuous bravery at the Battle of Long Island, standing against an overwhelming British assault to buy time for the rest of the Continental Army to retreat back to the defenses along the Hudson River.  The British captured Stirling during this defense, but rather quickly exchanged him from Montfort Browne, the Governor of the Bahamas.  Recall that the Continental Navy had taken Browne prisoner during its raid in the spring of 1776.  Stirling returned in time to join Washington in crossing the Delaware River and attacking Trenton.  His leadership during the Forage War only improved his reputation as a fierce fighter and daring leader.

Based on Stirling’s experience in battle, Congress promoted him to major general in February 1777.  Washington at this point relied on him to protect the army’s flank against a British attack.

Stirling’s officers

General Stirling commanded a force of about 2500 men.  Serving under General Stirling were a few other notable officers.  General William Maxwell served under Stirling.  Maxwell was the only other Continental general from New Jersey until the end of the war.  I gave some background to Maxwell back in Episode 124, so I won’t repeat myself. He only had been a general for a few months by this time and was looking to be tested in battle.

Thomas Conway
(from Wikimedia)
Also serving under Stirling was Colonel Daniel Morgan.  You may recall Morgan had been serving under General Richard Montgomery at Quebec.  When Montgomery died in the first volley, Morgan took command and invaded the city, only to be taken prisoner.  Morgan rotted in a Quebec jail for about nine months when he was finally paroled in September 1776. But his parole required that he not resume command until traded for an officer of equal rank.  So Morgan had to sit in time out during the whole retreat from New Jersey as well as the crossing of the Delaware and the battles at Trenton and Princeton.  Finally, in January 1777, the Americans had captured some more British officers and traded for Morgan.  They also then told Morgan he was promoted to full colonel and put him in charge of a regiment that included his riflemen.  Morgan had just assumed his new command in April, less than two months earlier.

General Thomas Conway also served under Stirling.  Conway was born in Ireland but grew up in France.  He had served in the French Army since the age of 14, rising to the rank of colonel.  Conway was one of the first French officers who received a promise of a generalship from American agents in Paris and who sailed over to America.  I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago as part of the effort to involve France in the war.  Conway presented himself to the Continental Congress and received a rank of brigadier general in the Continental Army on May 13.  Washington, apparently was not happy about getting foreign officers who he had to promote over his own increasingly experienced officer corps.  That said, Washington’s recognition of civilian authority obligated him to accede to the will of Congress.  Less than a week later, Washington appointed this stranger to the command of a Pennsylvania brigade.  Within a month, Washington deployed Conway under Lord Stirling against the British.

Battle of Short Hills

Lord Stirling deployed his Continentals over a wide area.  His purpose was to detect any enemy movements in order to give the main army under Washington time to react.

As both Cornwallis’ column and Vaughn’s column moved north, they encountered Continental skirmishers around dawn.  Night marching was difficult and slow.  The columns had only moved about three miles inland by dawn.  Around 6:00 AM, they encountered some of Colonel Morgan’s riflemen.  About 150 American riflemen engaged in a running battle against 250 British riflemen who were using some new experimental breech loading Ferguson rifles.

The Americans fell back in good order, linking up with about 700 Pennsylvania German speaking militia under the command of General Maxwell.  The force put up a credible defense until the main British column of about 12,000 men began to descend on their position.  The Americans again began to pull back.

Troop Movements (from Wikimedia)
The withdrawal was part of Stirling’s larger plan to draw the British to the position where he wanted to fight, an area near Scotch Plains.  There, Stirling had set up defensive positions making use of his riflemen and several artillery pieces to hold against the advancing British forces.  This is what became known as the Battle of Short Hills.

The early morning battle between these forces saw some of the most intense fighting of the day.  Bearing the brunt of the fighting were Germans.  Hessian units serving under Cornwallis attacked a large force of German speaking Pennsylvania militia.  General Maxwell was nearly captured and Lord Stirling himself had a horse shot out from under him.

Although the Continentals fought well and had a good position, they could not hold it for long.  Stirling’s 2500 men faced off against about 16,000 British and Hessians who were also backed up by artillery.  The columns descended on the Continental positions leading to a heavy firefight.  After a short time though, the Continental forces had to retreat.  They did so while maintaining good order and keeping a rate of fire against the advancing British.  The attack became a running battle over several miles.

As the British advanced, they destroyed a great many homes and property.  Among the officers that day was Banastre Tarleton, who had captured General Lee months earlier.  Tarleton had a reputation for being especially ruthless in destroying civilian property and killing enemy soldiers who were trying to surrender.  Also fighting that day was John Andre.  As you may recall, Lieutenant Andre had been captured at Fort. St. Jean in 1775.  He spent over a year as a prisoner living in Pennsylvania, before finally being exchanged in December 1776.  Now promoted to Captain, Andre was back in combat and eager to prove himself.

Frazee House (from
There is a popular local story about a woman named named Elizabeth Frazee, whose husband was fighting with the New Jersey militia.  Elizabeth had been baking bread all morning at her farm in Scotch Plains to help feed the American soldiers.  Around noon, General Cornwallis’ soldiers captured the farm and Cornwallis requested the bread for his soldiers.  Frazee told the General she would only give the bread out of fear and that she supported the patriot cause.  Cornwallis ordered that the army would not take her bread and that she would not be harmed.

Stirling’s defense did its job.  General Washington was alerted to the battle as early as 7:00 AM.  As Stirling engaged the British columns, Washington moved his main force back up into the mountains where the British dared not attack.  Stirling kept the British occupied as he pulled back to Middlebrook, also in the mountains.  There, a defensive position stopped the British advance.

Late in the day, General Howe arrived at the front lines to inspect the battle.  He judged the American defenses too strong in the mountains.  Remember, the British had begun their march as a night raid the day before.  Most of them had been awake for two days straight.  They had marched through a brutal summer heat wave and fought a pitched running battle with the Continentals. They could not continue at this pace.  The British spent the night in the field, marching back to Amboy the following morning.


The British reported that they killed or wounded about one hundred Americans and also captured another seventy.  They also captured three American brass field canon.  In exchange they reported only five killed and thirty wounded.  These lopsided numbers, though, may not be accurate.  As I’ve said before, British reports often exaggerate enemy casualties and minimize their own. For example, they often only report British casualties and ignore Hessian casualties. Another unofficial report indicates at least seventy British and Hessians killed.  This seems a more realistic outcome for a multi-hour battle where soldiers were charging cannons and being harassed all day by expert riflemen. Lord Stirling’s battle and casualty report to Washington has been lost.  However, a later report to the Continental Congress reported only twenty Americans killed and forty wounded.

The Americans did not pursue the retreating British again but allowed them to pull back to Amboy.  By early July, the British pulled out of New Jersey completely, pulling all their forces back into a defensive posture along the New York side of the Hudson River.  Washington and the Continentals once again settled into a defensive posture and waited to see what General Howe and his army would do next.

The battle was a tactical victory for the British. They took the field and forced the Americans to withdraw.  However, it was a strategic victory for the Americans.  Howe was unable to engage with the Continental Army and take it out of commission.  Without doing that, he was unwilling to attempt another occupation of New Jersey. Following this conflict, General Howe would put the conquest of New Jersey on the back burner and focus on getting to Philadelphia another way.

Next Week we head back to the Continental Congress, as they approve the American flag and take care of other business.

- - -

Next Episode 141 Congress Returns to Philadelphia

Previous Episode 139 Meigs Raid on Sag Harbor

Click here to donate
American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Make a one time donation through my PayPal account.
Mike Troy

Click here to see my Patreon Page
You can support the American Revolution Podcast as a Patreon subscriber.  This is an option for people who want to make monthly pledges.  Patreon support will give you access to Podcast extras and help make the podcast a sustainable project.  Thanks again!

Further Reading


Howe Report to Lord Germain on Battle of Short Hills

Mayers, Robert The Battle of the Short Hills Sept. 2011:

Various letters from General Washington regarding Short Hills:

Free eBooks

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

The Case of Alexander, Earl and Viscount of Stirling, Viscount Canada, Lord Alexander of Tullibodie, Premier Baronet of Nova-Scotia, &c. &c. &c, 1825.

Schumacher, Ludwig Major-General the Earl of Stirling; an Essay in Biography, New Amsterdam Book Company, 1897.

Willcox, Cornélis De Witt (ed) Major André's journal, New York Times, 1968 (original 1904) (available for borrow only).

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Harris, Michael C. Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777, Savas Beatie, 2014.

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

Taaffe, Stephen R. The Philadelphia Campaign 1777-1778, Univ. Press of Kansas, 2003.

Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan, 1952.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

1 comment:

  1. HI Michael. I love your series. Very informative. You mentioned in episode 140 that some french speaking people from Québec came to help the revolution. My family came from Quebec and I am very interested in discovering more about this topic. Are you planning to make a podcast devoted to Quebecers during the revolution? If not, any suggestions of books and authors I can look at myself? Thank you so much! Stay healthy! Benoit