Sunday, December 6, 2020

ARP178 Massacre at Hancock’s Bridge

For the last couple of weeks I stepped away from General Washington’s Continentals at Valley Forge and General Howe’s regulars in Philadelphia to talk about naval operations and the establishment of Vermont.  This week, I want to focus on some of the fighting that still took place around Philadelphia as the two armies sought out ways to go after each other over course of the winter.

Of course, food was key to both armies.  The British in Philadelphia needed to supply their thousands of soldiers with all the necessities.  They could not send smaller foraging parties out of the city without being attacked.  Howe had sent a large army out into the Darby area of Pennsylvania shortly after capturing Philadelphia.  That had provided most of the winter supplies for his army.  But by early 1778, supplies were running tight.  The army had to reduce food rations to its soldiers, resulting in men going hungry. 

The Continentals similarly, were in desperate need of food, clothing and just about everything else.  They had better access to the farmlands around them.  However, the locals were in no mood to give away their crops and did not want to accept the increasingly worthless paper money being offered.  Congress suggested that Washington simply confiscate what he needed.  But Washington was concerned that doing so would turn the locals against the army and encourage them to support the British.  

Out of desperation, Washington eventually tasked General Nathanael Greene to scavenge the area to the south of Valley Forge, seizing whatever he could.  But by that time, there was little that the army could find.  As a result, the Continentals also suffered from cold and hunger at Valley Forge.  

Salem Co. NJ Raid

In February, Washington tasked General Anthony Wayne to take an army across the Delaware River into southern New Jersey, to round up cattle there, and to bring them back to Valley Forge for the army.  The area along the eastern shore of the Delaware River near Philadelphia was largely settled by Quakers. These locals tended to have Tory sympathies and did not seem to mind trading with the British.  

Anthony Wayne
Washington instructed Wayne to seize what he could.  Whatever the army could not carry, it should destroy in order to deny it to the enemy.  Wayne, you may recall, had been the American commander at the Paoli Massacre, something I discussed back in Episode 160.  This new mission was an opportunity to vindicate himself after that loss.  Wayne would lead a force of nearly 300 Continentals across the Delaware River into Salem County, New Jersey.

Making such a crossing would not be easy.  Since Philadelphia was between Valley Forge and New Jersey, Wayne’s army would have to find its way around the British-occupied city to reach his goal.  In addition, the Delaware was a large river that could not be forded anywhere.  Wayne would need to get boats for the crossing.

To assist with the raid, Wayne worked with Captain John Barry.  As you may recall, Barry had gotten into a heated argument with Francis Hopkinson, a member of the Navy Board and delegate to the Continental Congress.  

Shortly after the British had captured Philadelphia, Hopkinson had demanded that Barry sink Continental Navy his ships, which were still upriver from the city, in order to prevent the enemy from capturing them.  He had done it in a rather insulting and peremptory way to which Barry took great offense.  

Following that argument in late 1777, Hopkinson brought his complaint to Congress and the Maritime committee as a military officer’s challenge to civilian rule.  This was something that made Congress rather paranoid and which took quite seriously.  It considered a motion to dismiss Barry from service.  The vote was recorded as a tie, meaning no action would be taken.  Barry had been one vote away from becoming disgraced former Captain Barry.

With that matter behind him though, the Maritime Committee instructed Barry to provide assistance with the New Jersey raid.  Barry took two barges still upriver from Philadelphia, down past the city for use in this mission. His men rowed with muffled oars past the British fleet docked at Philadelphia.  At one point during the night, a British sentry thought he heard something and fired into the darkness at the barges.  The men stayed silent for a few minutes, then continued on their way.  

By dawn, they were south of Philadelphia but not south of the British-occupied territory.  The barges took cover in one of the small tributaries into the Delaware and hid from the British Navy during the daylight hours.  After dark, they resumed rowing past Chester and Marcus Hook, finally arriving in Wilmington, Delaware, where General William Smallwood’s Continentals controlled the area.

John Barry
On February 19, Barry used the barges to ferry Wayne’s men across the river to Salem.  Over the next four days, the Continentals, turned cattle rustlers, rounded up over 500 head of cattle and wagons full of hay to feed them.  The problem now was getting them back to Valley Forge.

By this time, the British had learned of the raiders.  General Howe sent an army of 4000 regulars and Hessians to dispatch Wayne’s force and retake the herd of cattle.  The British marched north of Philadelphia to use the ferry to Burlington, New Jersey.  Further north, the Delaware River was more narrow and easier to cross.  From there, the British would sweep south and capture whatever American forces they found.

Barry and Wayne tried to move the cattle back to a landing south of Wilmington, but quickly realized that the barges were not suited to moving a herd of cattle.  After holding a council of war on February 23, the officers decided on another course of action.  Overnight, Barry took his barges and some of Wayne’s soldiers upriver to the site of the old Fort Billingsport.  This was just inside the area controlled by the British.

The next morning, raiders from Barry’s fleet stopped at every farm near the coast and set fire to all of their hay.  This was a tedious process, not only because of the dispersed farms, but also because the men had to speak with each angry farmer, and write down their names and the amount of hay destroyed so that the Continentals could reimburse the farmer at a later date.  This was per Washington’s instructions not to engage in wanton destruction of the property of civilians.

The British in Philadelphia saw the plumes of smoke along the New Jersey coast.  They halted the march to Burlington and crossed further south at Cooper’s Ferry, just south of Philadelphia.  The British also dispatched several ships to move downriver and intercept the enemy.  Barry’s men got a few hours of sleep that night, then continued their path of destruction the next day, setting fires as they continued to move south toward Salem.  In all, they set fires along more than 30 miles of coast line.

As the British followed the line of fires moving south, General Wayne and the remainder of his troops drove the herd of cattle and its wagons northward on an inland road.  Over the same two days, they traveled to Burlington, New Jersey and used the ferry there to move the herd into Pennsylvania.  From there, they were able to drive the herd west toward Valley Forge to feed the starving army.

Meanwhile, on the night of February 25, a British warship finally caught up with Barry’s barges. A nighttime chase ensued with Barry’s crew in serious danger of capture.  When two more ships appeared on the river, the British gave chase to those ships.  It took a few hours for them to realize that those ships were also British.  By the time they realized their mistake, Barry had reached the Delaware coast, hidden their boats, and made their escape.

Cooper’s Ferry

The navy realized that Barry had given them the slip.  After a couple more days of searching, they returned to Philadelphia, finding nothing.  The British Army, however, deployed to New Jersey and continued its search for the arsonists who were plundering and destroying the area farms.  

John Graves Simcoe
Among the British troops in New Jersey were three regiments of regulars under the command of Colonel Charles Mawhood, who you may recall was the commanding officer at the Battle of Princeton more than a year earlier.  With the regulars, was a fourth regiment of loyalists, known as the Queen’s Rangers under the command of Major John Graves Simcoe.  In total, Mawhood had between 1000 and 1200 men under his command in New Jersey.  However, Mawhood divided his forces into smaller foraging parties, assuming that the enemy had dispersed.

Anthony Wayne had moved his cattle into Pennsylvania, but Wayne himself remained with most of his troops in Mount Holly, New Jersey to manage the ongoing skirmishes with the British.  Joining him were General Casimir Pulaski with 50 cavalrymen, and 250 New Jersey militia under the command of Colonel Joseph Ellis, who was also the Sheriff of Gloucester County, New Jersey.

With the British forces divided, Wayne took an opportunity to strike.  On March 2, the Americans found Cooper’s ferry under the control of Major Simcoe and the Queen’s Rangers.  Cooper’s ferry led directly from New Jersey into Philadelphia from what is today Camden, close to where the Ben Franklin Bridge is today.  The British were transporting cattle across the ferry into Philadelphia, but had set up proper defensive lines to guard against just such an attack.

Wayne and Pulaski had a small number of troops with them.  Wayne sent messengers to the militia to join them for a full attack.  However, when it appeared that the remaining British forces were about to board the ferry and go back to Philadelphia, Wayne opted to attack with the smaller force already there.

The Americans opened fire on the British, leading to a sustained combat.  The British had several small field pieces, which deterred the Americans from charging the position.  However, the battle continued for some time.  As it did, a larger contingent of British regulars moved up from the south toward the battle.  When they attempted to cross a bridge over a small creek, they ran into about 100 local militia under the command of Colonel Ellis.  The militia managed to hold the regulars at bay and prevented them from reinforcing the defenders at Cooper’s Ferry.  

The fighting continued until after dark. By that time the defenders at Cooper’s Ferry were able to get across the river to Philadelphia.  Wayne moved his men further north to Bordentown, New Jersey.  He remained there for nearly two weeks, continuing to look for ways to harass the enemy.  Finally, he received orders from Washington to return to Valley Forge.  He crossed back into Pennsylvania the next day, taking his Continentals with him.

Barry Commands the Alert

Earlier, I left Captain Barry in lower Delaware having escaped the British in late February.  Barry sent the infantry that General Wayne had detached to them, to march back to Valley Forge.  However, Barry and his sailors remained in the area, keeping a low profile.

On March 7, after about two weeks of laying low, Barry spotted two British transports sailing upriver toward Philadelphia, with an armed schooner not far behind.  Barry and his men had seven small row barges.  Using an island as cover, three of Barry’s boats were on top of the smallest vessel, the Mermaid, before the enemy knew it.  The men boarded the ship and took control without a shot fired.

Barry personally led the other four of his boats toward the larger Kitty.  The British commander fired two four pounder cannons at the attackers, but the shots missed the small boats entirely.  Barry had cannons mounted to the bows of their barges and returned fire.  The British captain quickly surrendered.

Having captured both transports in less than thirty minutes, Barry next had to contend with the British warship sailing up on them.  Rather than escape, Barry turned the two captured ships and his seven row barges toward the enemy and prepared to engage.  The stunned captain of the enemy vessel, the Alert, struck his colors and surrendered.  Barry had captured the small navy ship with eight cannons, twelve howitzers, and a crew of thirty-three.

The reason for the surrender was that the Alert was carrying the wives of three British officers going to meet their husbands in Philadelphia.  The captain did not want to risk their lives in battle.  Barry agreed to send the ladies to Philadelphia, paroling two of his prisoners to escort them.  Also aboard ship were the papers of Hessian General Wilhelm von Knyphausen and the engineering tools belonging to Colonel John Montresor.  Barry sent these prizes, along with a captured barrel of pickled oysters, and a large wheel of cheese, to General Washington at Valley Forge with his compliments.

Barry’s fight was not over though.  The three ships he had captured were the head of a larger convoy, which included the fifty gun British warship the Experiment, under the command of Sir James Wallace.  Also the twenty gun Brune, and two more smaller warships, the Dispatch and the York.  At the same time, another British vessel, the George, was sailing down river and ready to engage in battle.  

Barry had a day to send his prisoners ashore, along with the valuable cargo to be sent back to Valley Forge.  The British squadron caught up to him on the morning of March 9. Barry set on fire the two captured transports, still loaded with hay, but with their cannons sent ashore.  He also rowed his galleys across the river to New Jersey so that his men could escape.  The British ignored the row galleys and pursued the Alert.  Barry sailed upriver toward Philadelphia, trying to stay out of range of the enemy squadron.

After several hours of chase, Barry realized that he was no match for the squadron on his tail.  He pushed all of his cannons into the river, turned the Alert toward the Pennsylvania shore, grounded her and damaged her hull.  He and his crew escaped into the Pennsylvania countryside and made their way back to Wilmington, without a man lost.

The naval battle on the Delaware River returned Barry to hero status.  It also forced the British Navy to much more heavily patrol the length of the Delaware river for the remainder of the Philadelphia occupation.  

Quinton’s Bridge

At the same time the navy was regaining control of the Delaware River, the British Army remained active in the area of southern New Jersey, looking for rebels and foraging for food.  Colonel Mawhood took his four regiments down the Delaware River to attack the patriot militia near Salem, New Jersey.  He deployed Major Simcoe and the Queen’s Rangers, along with a few companies of local loyalist militia, about six miles north of Salem at around 3:00 AM on March 17.  Simcoe had orders to seize horses for his men, and meet back up with the main force at Salem.

The patriot militia came out to meet the invaders.  They formed a defensive line along Alloway Creek, about five miles inland from the Delaware River.  Several hundred militia formed their defenses behind three bridges along the creek: Thompson’s Bridge, Quinton’s Bridge, and Hancock’s Bridge.  The British sent small parties to each bridge to keep an eye on the militia, while the rest of their forces moved out in foraging parties.

At Quinton’s Bridge, the British found about three hundred patriot militia under the command of Colonel Asher Holmes behind entrenched defenses on the west bank of the creek overlooking the bridge.  The Americans had also pulled up the planks of the bridge, making a quick assault across the bridge impossible.  A direct attack would require the British to make their way across the tiny bridge while under devastating fire. Instead, Mawhood and Simcoe came up with another plan.  The British marched a few companies of regulars to within sight of the bridge to occupy the attention of the militia.

At the same time, a company of the Queen’s rangers occupied a tavern on the western bank of the river.  Several other companies of British hid in the woods near the bridge.  The screening force then loudly withdrew and moved back toward the Delaware River.  Seeing that, the militia replaced the planks in the bridge and about 200 men, under the command of Captain William Smith, crossed over to pursue and harass the retreating regulars.  The other 100 remained in their defensive position.

Once the Americans had crossed the bridge and were marching through the forest in pursuit of the enemy, the British revealed their ambush.  An American officer on horseback had ridden ahead of the main force and discovered the enemy.  Therefore, the British had to fire on him before the main American force was within range.  The militia, hearing the fire, then fell back to the bridge, only to find the Queen’s Rangers, who had hidden in the tavern, now blocking their path across the bridge.  The militia panicked and ran downstream, pursued by British cavalry and infantry.  Most of them managed to escape by swimming across the creek.

The British had planned to cross the bridge and hit the remaining militia still on the other side.  However, more patriot reinforcements arrived under the command of Colonel Elijah Hand, with two field cannons to defend the bridge.  That was enough to get the British to call off an attempted assault across the bridge.  Instead, they returned to Salem.

The British confirmed only one enemy killed and that officer on horseback, whom they wounded and captured.  The Americans believed they lost somewhere between twenty and forty killed.  It is thought that most of them drowned while trying to swim across the creek.  The British reported only one of their own who suffered a mortal wound.

Hancock’s Bridge

As Colonel Mahwood stared at his enemy across the creek, he sent Major Simcoe downstream to Hancock’s Bridge.  They had received intelligence that another three hundred militia were at guarding that crossing.

Hancock House
On March 21, three days after the battle at Quinton’s Bridge, the Simcoe’s force of about 300 attacked Hancock’s Bridge.  They began with a predawn attack on the home of William Hancock, which was right next to the bridge.  Simcoe believed that the American officers were sleeping in the house and ordered his men to break in and bayonet all of them, leaving no prisoners.  His hope was to kill them before the rest of the militia army could rally to a defense.

As it turned out, the twenty or thirty militiamen sleeping in the house were the entire force located there.  The militia had torn up the bridge the night before and had left the area, aside from this small force.  The British killed the sleeping soldiers, as well as a civilian: William Hancock.  He was a Quaker pacifist and a known loyalist.  Simcoe had thought that Hancock had abandoned his house to the patriots.  Hancock had abandoned the house.  However, he had returned the night before and was put to the bayonet before he could identify himself.

In truth, not all of the sleeping patriots were killed.  Accounts list only eight or ten deaths, with the others wounded and taken prisoner.

Later that day, after word of the massacre reached the patriot defenders at Quinton’s bridge, Colonel Mawhood sent a letter to them demanding that they withdraw and allow the British to continue their foraging unimpeded.  If they did, the British would leave shortly and pay for the hay, corn, and cattle that they had taken. If the Americans refused, he would burn all of their homes, and named  a list of 27 known patriots with whom he planned to start.

The following day, Colonel Hand responded, calling Mawhood a barbarian and refusing to back off.  As promised, Mawhood continued his scavenging of the area over the next week, and burned the homes of the 27 patriots on his list.  After that, the British boarded their ships and returned to Philadelphia.

- - -

Next Episode 179 Prisoner Exchanges 

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Further Reading


“To George Washington from Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, 25 February 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, 26 February 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, 2 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, 5 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, 12 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, 14 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, 14 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Quinton’s Bridge, New Jersey

Battle of Quinton’s Bridge

The Battle of Quinton's Bridge:

The Making of a “Massacre” Simcoe’s Surprise Attack at Hancock’s Bridge:

Battle of Hancock’s Bridge:

The Massacre at Hancock’s Bridge:

Hancock House:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Griffin, Martin I. J. The Story of Commodore John Barry, " Father of the American Navy," Philadelphia: Soc. of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, 1908.

Pennypacker, Samuel W. Anthony Wayne, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott company, 1908.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Drury, Bob & Clavin, Tom Valley Forge, Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Fleming, Thomas Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge, Smithsonian, 2005.

McGrath, Tim John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail, Westholme Publishing, 2010.

McGrath, Tim Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea, NAL Caliber, 2014. 

McGuire, Thomas J. The Philadelphia Campaign, Vol. 2, Stackpole Books, 2007.

Reed, John Ford Campaign to Valley Forge, July 1, 1777-December 19, 1777, Pioneer Press, 1980 (orig. Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1965).

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


  1. I had thought they were under the command of Benjamin Holme, not Asher Holme?

    1. Source:

      And he's an ancestor of mine 😀