Sunday, August 1, 2021

ARP211 Winter at Middlebrook

By December of 1778, the Continental Army settled into its winter quarters around Middlebrook, NJ.  The British were already behind their fixed defenses in New York City, the departure in late fall of so many regulars to other parts of the empire made it unlikely that the British would attempt any more major offensives like the grand forage into Bergen county that I discussed in an earlier episode (Episode 198).

William Tryon

Although the lines between the two armies that winter were relatively quiet, both sides did send out raiding parties from time to time.

British Major General William Tryon was one of the more active officers.  Tryon, you may recall, had been royal governor of North Carolina, and then New York before the war.  Prior to that, he had been a career officer in the regular army and was no stranger to combat.  As Governor, Tryon had developed a reputation as a tough leader, taking on the rebels at Alamance in 1771, and then against the Green Mountain Boys in the years just before the war.

William Tryon
Tryon had taken a commission as a major general of provincial forces in the early part of the war.  He was also still a colonel in the regular army.  By 1778, he had received a commission as major general in America, in the British army as well.  The rank of an officer “in America” is a bit strange.  It came with all the authority of a regular officer, but the commission only lasted in that theater of war and for the duration of the war.  If the officer transferred to another theater, or returned to Britain, he would revert back to his permanent rank.

Tryon was also still governor of the colony New York, although this meant little by 1779 since most of the state was under rebel control, and the area around New York City was under martial law.  Tryon’s rule was effectively limited to his authority as military commander of Long Island.  

Tryon was also among the most hard core of British officers who believed that the army was being too soft on the rebels.  Tryon had advocated for a complete war of destruction.  He wanted to go on raids that would burn down civilian towns, destroy food and supplies, and generally make life miserable enough that the people would demand an end to the war and once again accept crown rule.  Even though some leaders back in London also seemed to support this tough policy, to Tryon’s frustration, General Howe, and then General Clinton both rejected such a campaign of terror against civilians.

As the war continued on without any real end in sight, Tryon had petitioned the ministry to end his position as New York Governor and allow him to return to London. Tryon hoped to get a permanent military commission that would replace his compensation as colonial governor but which would also allow him to return to his family in England.  He pleaded both health and family reasons for his desire to end his term in America.

Again, Tryon would be frustrated.  Secretary of State Lord Germain wrote Tryon in late 1778 requesting that he remain in New York until the British reestablished rule, or as Germain put it “all hope is lost.”  The fact that the American Secretary in London was even articulating the possibility in 1778 that Britain could lose the war is rather telling.

General Clinton offered Tryon command of the campaign that he deployed in late 1778 to capture Savannah Georgia.  Tryon declined.  He complained of continuing ailments brought on from diseases he picked up while Governor of North Carolina years earlier in his career.  He believed that a return to the south might make his illness even worse.  Instead, the command of that mission went to Colonel Archibald Campbell.

Horseneck Landing

In February, 1779, General Tryon got approval from General Clinton to lead a raid into Connecticut.  Tryon assembled a force of mostly provincial militia, along with some regulars and Hessians, to raid a community known as Horseneck, which is in present day West Greenwich Connecticut.  On the night of February 25, his brigade marched out under cover of darkness, from the British lines at Kingsbridge.  They completed the twenty mile march to Greenwich by the following morning.

General Israel Putnam was in Greenwich at the time.  He managed to assemble a group of about 150 local militia to meet the raiders.  The Americans had three small field cannons to support their lines.  The British, however, so outnumbered the men that there was no realistic chance of sustaining a defensive line.

Putnam at Horseneck Landing
According to local lore, General Putnam ordered his men to flee into a nearby swamp where the dragoons on horseback could not follow.  Putnam remained with the cannons to distract the British attackers as his men fled.

As the enemy got close, Putnam turned his horse and rode down a steep embankment.  According to some accounts it was a set of stone steps.  Others believe it was a dirt cow path.  Whatever the exact route, the steep path down the hill was so dangerous that the British dragoons did not pursue.  Instead, they fired at the general, one of them managing to shoot Putnam’s hat, but failing to wound the man.

Again, according to unconfirmed accounts, the general stopped at the bottom of the hill, waved his sword at his attacks, and some say swore at them.  Putnam then rode to safety, where he met up with more militia and some of the men from his first assault, who had escaped and then found their way back to the general.

The British destroyed the three American field cannons. They also burned several buildings in Greenwich, along with a saltworks, and a few boats.  By 2:00 PM, the British had finished their work.  General Tryon had driven the men without sleep the previous night, but opted to begin their march back right away.  He feared the Americans might be able to rally a larger force to assault them, if they delayed too long.  

As the British began to withdraw from Greenwich, General Putnam returned again with the militia that he had been able to rally over several hours.  The Americans still did not have the numbers to challenge the British, but did continue to lay down a harassing fire on the British rear of the column.  Putnam managed to catch 38 enemy stragglers who did not keep up with the retreating column.  They also recaptured some of the ammunition and supplies that the British had seized and were trying to haul back to their lines.

By that night, the British had managed to make it out of Connecticut, but were still not back to their lines in Kingsbridge.  Tryon approved a few hours of rest for his exhausted troops, but then got the column moving again early, finally returning to their lines by the afternoon of the 27th.  The entire raid had lasted less than 48 hours, most of that time marching to and from Greenwich.

Following the battle, General Putnam sent an officer under a flag of truce with his captured prisoners to General Tryon’s lines.  He proposed a prisoner swap with some of the prisoners the British had captured in their raid.  Tryon agreed and made the trade.  He even sent General Putnam a new hat with the returning prisoners, to replace the one his officers had shot a hole through.  

Although the raid seemed to be a British victory, it did not seem to improve General Tryon’s standing with General Clinton.  The British commander criticized the raid as a pointless adventure, which led to the deaths of two British soldiers and nine others wounded.  Clinton also attacked Tryon for using his authority as governor to issue several pardons without the approval of the military commander.

Tryon, I think with some justification, returned criticism of the commander for not doing much of anything.  He claimed that, if given 3000 soldiers, he could visit devastation along the New England coast.  Tryon’s criticisms against Clinton seem reminiscent of Clinton’s complaints against General Howe three years earlier when Howe as North American commander was continually reigning in and slowing down General Clinton.

Clinton’s Plans for 1779

A few months later, General Clinton would lead his own offensive and would leave General Tryon cooling his heels in New York City. 

The British had significantly reduced their ranks in North America.  London had issued orders to Clinton not to embark on any major campaigns like the Saratoga Campaign or the Philadelphia Campaign.  The main military action was taking place in Georgia and moving into South Carolina.  Even so, Clinton would not simply sit idly and do nothing with his forces in New York and Newport.  

The British commander spent the winter developing his plans for a series of spring actions.  All of them had limited goals, making use of the limited manpower that was left to him.  He outlined three separate actions for the spring and summer:

Gen. Sir Henry Clinton

The first was a renewed assault up the Hudson River.  He would not attempt to establish a connection all the way to Quebec.  Rather, he would only move upriver to cut off the use of King’s Ferry as a point of transport between New England and the rest of the colonies.  He also planned to move further upriver and threaten the American defenses at West Point.

A second series of raids would assault ports in Connecticut. Assuming Britain could retain control of the waters around Long Island, they could attack the Connecticut coast with impunity.  A large enough raid might even provoke the Continentals into a larger battle, fought on Clinton’s terms, giving him an opportunity to use his superior strategic abilities to defeat them.

A third offensive would make use of a series of raids into the Chesapeake Bay area, destroying commerce and military stores in Maryland and Virginia.  This would not only remove much-needed supplies from the Continental Army.  It would also distract the enemy’s focus on the southern campaign, where British forces in Savannah hoped to capture South Carolina, and possibly move into North Carolina as well.

Long Island Sound

Even while making longer-term strategic plans, Clinton’s forces around New York had to defend against continual raids, particularly from Connecticut, which was just a short boat ride to British-occupied Long Island.  Because Long Island was so large, the British did not have men to defend the entire island.  Particularly isolated was the eastern end of the island, which was more than 100 miles from New York City but only a 10 mile boat ride from the Connecticut coast.

While British vessels patrolled the sound, it remained a pretty wild no-man’s land where smugglers and privateers operated with impunity.  Even posts on western Long Island, near New York City were subject to attack.  Shortly after Tyron’s raid at Horseneck Landing, Connecticut Captain Andrew Meade led a small fleet of Connecticut whaleboats.  The men rowed across the sound at night and seized a small sailing ship at Ferry Point, loaded with supplies.  The raiders sailed the ship back to Greenwich before the British could react.

James Rivington
The British sailed after the stolen vessel.  As they attempted to enter the harbor at Greenwich, they came under fire from cannons that the local militia had mounted on the hill overlooking the harbor.  The British were forced to withdraw without recapturing their lost prize.

A few days later, Captain Meade led another group of men determined to destroy the printing offices of the Royal Gazette, a Tory newspaper in British-occupied New York.  This time they infiltrated downtown Manhattan, seizing the newspaper’s type and carrying it back to Greenwich for destruction.  The newspaper’s owner was a notorious Tory named James Rivington.  The raiders, of course, did not know it, but Rivington was also an American spy, working for the Culper Spy Ring.

Occupied New York

New York City had become an increasingly difficult place to live over the winter of 1778-79.  The city had become more crowded than ever.  Although thousands of British regulars had departed, loyalists from all over the country were taking refuge there.  Thousands of Philadelphia loyalists were attempting to secure the necessary food, clothing, and shelter.  

Without limited access to crops and cattle, food became limited.  To help ease the food demands, Clinton permitted the release of 430 American prisoners in January.  He transported the prisoners to New London, Connecticut for release on parole.  The men were in such poor condition from cold, hunger, and disease that fifteen of them died during the short trip across Long Island sound.  Of those who survived the journey, many more died over the next few weeks, and almost all of them required care.  Many could not even walk.  

The Connecticut Assembly ordered depositions taken from surviving prisoners in order to document the treatment they had suffered as prisoners of war.  Most of the thousands of prisoners who had been held aboard prison ships or at the Sugarhouse left their prisons feet first.  Untold thousands died under horrific conditions.  By the end of February, there were only about 700 prisoners held in the city, including about 200 men on the prison ship Good Hope.  By mid-April, the Good Hope, reported holding only 144 prisoners.  None had been released, but 25% of the ship’s prisoner population had died in only a few weeks.

Continental Army at Middlebrook

General Washington had located the bulk of the Continental Army around Middlebrook, New Jersey, generally the same location they occupied when the British under General Howe were in New York before leaving for Philadelphia.  The Continentals had encamped there in May - July of 1777. Washington was familiar with the terrain, which he believed provided effective defenses against a British assault.  The Continentals could observe the British in New York from the mountaintops, but were also a good day’s march from the enemy, making a surprise attack unlikely.  It also provided good roads in any direction the army might need to pivot in order to counter a British offensive.

George Washington was not with his men for much of the early winter months because he had travelled to Philadelphia.  There he was trying to convince Congress that the army did not have the resources to launch a new offensive into Philadelphia.  Washington’s main focus was putting together a campaign to wipe out the hostile Iroquois and Tories that continued to bring suffering to New Yorkers throughout much of the state.  For most of December and January, Major General William Alexander, Lord Stirling, commanded the main army.

Wallace House, Washington HQ
After Washington returned from Philadelphia, he and Martha stayed at the home of John Wallace.  It was a four bedroom home.  George and Martha occupied one room, a second was shared by Washington’s aid.  The Homeowner, Wallace and his wife occupied a third, and the owner’s mother-in-law, the fourth.

Other generals took up residence at other private homes in the area. Nathanael Greene stayed at the home of Derrick Van Veghten House about one mile east of the Wallace House. Anthony Wayne and his staff occupied the home of Abraham Van Nest.  There, a confrontation with the homeowners eventually resulted in a lawsuit. Lord Stirling stayed at the Philip Van Horne House about two miles east of the Wallace House.  Von Steuben took up residence with local Abraham Staats, about four miles east of the Wallace House. Henry Knox stayed at the home of Jacobus Van Der Veer House six miles north of the Wallace House.

The main army divided into three divisions, camping separately so that the collection of local resources like wood and water would not be too concentrated. What became known as the Pennsylvania camp was laid out south of the Raritan River, to the west of the road to Princeton. The Virginia and Maryland camps deployed on the other side of the Raritan River, about four miles to the northeast, near roads leading toward New York City and the New Jersey coast. To the north of the crossroads village of Pluckemin, about seven miles from the Virginia and Maryland camps, General Knox erected an artillery park for his soldiers and guns.

The winter in New Jersey was not as cold as prior winter at Valley Forge, not nearly as bad as the following winter would be at Morristown. Deprivations continued as the army lacked sufficient food, clothing, and shelter for the men.  Again though, the deprivations do not seem to be quite as bad as the year before.  Reforms by the new quartermaster, Nathanael Greene, seemed to be having some positive effect.

Middlebrook Encampment

The winter at Middlebrook does not seem to get the same attention as the prior winter at Valley Forge, but it was quite difficult for many of the soldiers who endured there.   Most of the men, though, were spread out in the rural mountainous area around Middlebrook, near modern day Boundbrook, New Jersey.  There were not nearly enough buildings to house the men.  The army tried to build crude wooden huts 16’ by 14’ with a single fireplace that would hold a dozen soldiers each.  Even so, many of the soldiers had to endure much of the winter in tents.

One reason the deaths were not as great as at Valley Forge, was that the army had inoculated against smallpox during its stay at Valley Forge.  The inoculated soldiers did not have to suffer with that dreaded and deadly disease the following winter.  Washington first encamped in December with between 10,000 and 12,000 Continentals.  Deaths and desertions left the army with only 8000 survivors by spring.  Of the survivors, another third were unfit for duty due to illness, often brought on by the cold weather and deprivation. The army benefitted from some new uniforms provided by their French allies.  In March, the French Ambassador Gerard visited the camp and received a grand review of the army.  

Compared to other winter encampments, the winter at Middlebrook was not so bad.  Like Washington, many of the general officers had their wives join them at camp.  General Greene held a dance at his quarters in mid-march, where he noted that General Washington and his wife Catherine danced for three hours straight. The men also held a larger celebration on February 18, to mark the first anniversary of the French alliance.

As I said, the winter passed relatively quietly until the British began to deploy for their spring operations in April.  In May, the Continentals left Middlebrook to defend against attacks in the Hudson Valley.  By June, the winter camp was empty and abandoned.

Next week, we return south again as the British attempt to expand on their success in capturing Savanna, Georgia, but find patriot resistance surprisingly resilient.

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Next Episode 212 Port Royal & Kettle Creek (Available August 8, 2021)

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Further Reading


Horseneck Landing

General Putnam’s account of the Battle of Horseneck:

Tryon’s Descent on Horseneck (British account):

Melillo “The Meaning of Memorial Day in Greenwich” Greenwich Free Press, May 26, 2019:

“To George Washington from Major General Israel Putnam, 28 March 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

1779 Campaign:

The Middlebrook Winter Encampment:

“General Orders, 6 February 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Middle Encampment (map)

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Hill, George C. Gen. Israel Putnam, Boston: E. O. Libby and Co. 1858. 

Irving, Washington The Life Of George Washington, Vol. 3, London: George Bell and Sons, 1905.  

Tarbox, Increase N. Life of Israel Putnam ("Old Put"), Major-General in the Continental Army, Boston: Lockwood, Brooks, and Co, 1876. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Burrows, Edwin Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War, Basic Books, 2008.

Chernow, Ron George Washington, A Life, Penguin Press, 2010.

Hubbard, Robert E. Major General Israel Putnam: Hero of the American Revolution, McFarland & Co. 2017. 

Nelson, Paul David William Tryon and the Course of Empire: A Life in British Imperial Service, Univ of NC Press, 1990.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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