A few weeks ago, I talked about the Continental Army settling into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey over the winter of 1779-1780. It was a brutally cold and snowy winter, made so much worse by the fact that the army had no food or clothing, and felt abandoned by the civilians for whom they were supposedly fighting.
Despite the weather and deprivations, Congress did attempt a few raids and had to defend against a few British raids over the winter.
Raid on Staten Island
One of the reasons that the British felt protected in New York City was that they were almost completely surrounded by water, and the Americans would not really challenge the British Navy’s control of those waters.
|Gen. William Heath|
The harsh winter changed that dynamic. Frigid weather froze over New York Harbor, requiring ships to move out to salt water that did not freeze over. The ice also provided a way for armies simply to march across the water.
In January, the Continentals did just that. Staten Island is separated from New Jersey by a narrow waterway known as Arthur Kill (actually a bastardization of “Achter Kill” - Dutch for backchannel). Because Staten Island was so close to American occupied New Jersey, and separated by even more water from the main British forces on Manhattan, the island provided a tempting target for the Americans. General Sullivan had launched a massive raid on the island in 1777 but ran into trouble evacuating his men from the island after the British counterattacked. (see Episode 153).
In early 1780, the concerns about crossing the waterway disappeared when the Arthur Kill turned into a solid sheet of ice that could support horses and cannons. In mid January, General Nathanael Greene proposed a raid across that ice onto Staten Island. An army of 2500 soldiers broken up into smaller raiding parties and pulling small field cannons could create some havoc on the British and Hessian encampments there.
Greene was one of Washington’s most senior major generals, but Washington had made Greene the army’s quartermaster general nearly two years earlier at Valley Forge. Since the army was still desperately short of everything, Washington did not tap Greene to conduct the raid. Instead he turned to General William Alexander, Lord Sterling. General Lord Sterling was a New Jersey native and had fought the forage wars in northern New Jersey with a fair amount of success.
|Gen. Lord Stirling|
Sterling launched his plan on the evening of January 14. Things did not go so well. The enemy saw the raiders coming and were able to man their fortifications before the Continentals could attack. The Americans had broken into smaller units in order to maximize speed and stealth. These smaller unsupervised groups ended up focusing more on raiding local farms and helping themselves to much needed food, clothing, and other necessities.
In New York City, General Henry Clinton had left, along with General Cornwallis for the siege of Charleston, South Carolina. Hessian General Wilhelm von Knyphausen held command, with British General James Pattison, the senior British officer. Having received word of the raid on Staten Island, they attempted to send reinforcements. Attempts to move soldiers across New York Harbor by boat failed due to the presence of too much ice. Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe was on Staten Island during the raid. He reported that he wanted to lead a counterattack against the raiders but could not convince the local Tory militia to hold the fortifications that his Queen’s Rangers would have to leave for such an attack.
Even though the British could not get their reinforcements to the island, the Americans saw the British boats that were attempting to cross New York Harbor and determined they needed to evacuate the island before the British could arrive. As a result, the Americans retreated in relatively good order and pulled back to New Jersey by the morning of January 16.
Both sides took a few battle casualties from the fighting, and the Americans managed to burn one British redoubt. They also captured 17 prisoners and had looted a fair amount of property. The British managed to capture about 40 American stragglers or deserters. The Americans also ended up with about 500 men suffering frostbite, from several days of marching in what has been described as wait-deep snow.
On their return to New Jersey, officers attempted to search the men for items looted from civilians on the island. They said they found very little, although the locals complained greatly about the looting. It could simply be that the soldiers were too good at hiding their loot, or the officers were not terribly motivated to find it.
Overall, the raid is generally considered a failure, since the Americans took more casualties than the enemy did. However, it did put both sides on notice that even a brutal winter was not going to end the fighting season.
A few days after the Staten Island raid, a contingent of Connecticut militia raided a home in Kingsbridge, near the northern tip of Manhattan Island. Kingsbridge was the edge of British controlled territory.
The target of the Connecticut militia was a house occupied by several loyalist officers, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Hatfield, an notorious loyalist militia leader who was a native of the area. The raid, led by Captain Samuel Lockwood of Connecticut, hoped to capture Hatfield and some of his fellow officers in a night raid. The raiders attacked the home, shooting three guards and killing Hatfield’s horse. About fifteen loyalist officers and men, alerted to the attack, threw up a defensive barricade inside an upper story of the house and held off the attackers for about fifteen minutes. When the attackers threatened to burn the house with the men inside, the defenders agreed to surrender.
The raiders led the prisoners north back to the American lines. One of the prisoners, Major Thomas Huggeford, managed to escape. He returned to the main loyalist regiment and was able to send a company of dragoons and infantry on horseback after the retreating militia. The Connecticut raiders managed to get their prisoners back to their lines, but left the bulk of their soldiers as a rearguard to confront the loyalists pursuing them. The resulting battle, which quickly descended into hand to hand combat, led to the patriot militia being overrun. Loyalist newspapers reported 23 rebels killed and another 40 captured, many of the prisoners wounded. If those numbers are correct, that would be more than three-quarters of the original raiding party. Another report said there were only nine killed and 16 captured. Whichever number is correct, it was a pretty bloody casualty rate for such a small skirmish. The loyalists withdrew back to their lines and ended the encounter.
These two January raids put the British garrison in New York on notice that they were subject to more attacks. The traditional protection provided by the rivers and harbor, and the inability of the navy to sail through icy water made New York much more vulnerable to attack. Given that General Clinton had left for Charleston with most of his best soldiers, the 14,000 or so soldiers were largely made up of loyalist militia, Hessians, and regulars not fit for active duty.
British General Patterson began forcing any men of fighting age into active loyalist militia forces. He also organized any sailors, either from the navy or the commercial fleets into fighting units. This raised another five or six thousand men, but men with little training, experience, or enthusiasm for fighting. If the Americans were able to assemble a large invasion, the British might be in trouble.
Considering that the best defense is a good offense, and itching for some payback for the two American raids just launched against them, the British planned to conduct some raids of their own on New Jersey. Since crossing the frozen ice worked both ways, the British moved a large force to Staten Island, with the plan of attacking Elizabethtown, New Jersey (known as Elizabeth today).
Leading the attack was the Provincial Lieutenant Colonel Abraham Buskirk. You may recall I mentioned Buskirk during the 1777 raid on Staten Island (Episode 153). Buskirk also led the attack on Light Horse Harry Lee’s soldiers while they were attempting to withdraw from their raid on Paulus Hook (Episode 231). Buskirk was a New Jersey native, a doctor from Bergen County. He had to abandon his home when he refused to support the patriot cause and volunteered to raise a loyalist regiment after the British captured New York City, and had been stationed on Staten Island for several years.
|Wm Von Knyphausen|
About a week after the Connecticut militia raid on Kingsbridge, Colonel Buskirk assembled his regiment. The exact size of the raiding party is unclear. Once source says that the regiment executed the raid along with a company of British dragoons and some local New York militia, totalling about 400 soldiers. Another source says that Buskirk acted on his own with only about 130 soldiers from his loyalist regiment.
The target of the Elizabethtown raid was the town courthouse along with the Presbetyrian church. The loyalist targeted the church because its pastor was the Reverend James Caldwell, known for his fiery speeches in favor of the patriot cause, and efforts to recruit soldiers for the Continental army. Caldwell himself had served as a chaplain in the Continental army for a time.
The loyalists raiding party crossed the icy Arthur Kill in a night ride on January 25th. They completely surprised the small garrison stationed at Elizabethtown, capturing 52 officers and men, primarily from the Maryland line. That same night the raiders returned to Staten Island considering their raid a success.
That same night as the raid on Elizabeth town the British launched a second coordinated night raid. The second attack targeted Newark.
Maj. Charles Lumm of the 44th Regiment of Foot commanded the garrison at Paulus Hook, reoccupied after the American raid earlier that summer. Lumm led a three hundred man brigade at night across the ice to attack the small American garrison at Newark. Lumm caught the Continentals by surprise, capturing 32 of the 33 soldiers on guard duty, as well as four other soldiers swept up during the raid. The officer in command of the outpost, Captain John Noble Cumming of the 2nd New Jersey and his second in command were staying in separate quarters and managed to escape.
One of the targets of the Newark raid was a man named Robert Neal. He was working with the Continental army’s quartermaster corps and had been responsible for the seizure of food and firewood owned by local loyalists. Neal was taken into custody and imprisoned in New York. Also captured that night was Judge Joseph Hedden. Judge Hedden had not been a target of the raid, but apparently one of the loyalists on the raid had a grudge against Hedden and convinced his comrades to capture him. The British dragged Hedden out of bed, wearing only a shirt and stockings. He requested to be allowed to put on some clothes but was refused. When his wife tried to intervene, loyalist soldiers bayoneted her. Hedden was also taken to New York, and suffered severe frostbite for having to march for miles in the snow without clothes. The British returned to their base at Paulus Hook
Because the raid came off as a surprise, there was little fighting. The British did not report any battle losses. Lumm, however, did report that five of his men were missing. The men had marched at night across ice and snow totaling about twenty miles. Several of the men fell behind in the march and were lost. Lumm later reported he found two of their bodies, frozen to death.
Young’s House NY
A week later, on the night of February 2, a British force left its northern outpost at Kingsbridge to launch an attack on the American outpost to the north. Lieutenant Colonel Chappel Norton led a group consisting of two companies of light infantry, two companies of grenadiers, several companies of Hessian infantry, several companies of mounted loyalists led by James DeLancey, and mounted Hessian jaegers. In total between five and six hundred men embarked on a night march against the Americans.
The front line American garrison fell under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Thompson, who commanded about 250 men from various Massachusetts regiments. His command was based at the home of Joseph Young.
Colonel Thompson received intelligence that an enemy force was approaching, but did not realize how large it was. He called in his guard posts and prepared to meet the attack. The attackers on horseback quickly overran the American pickets and began a firefight with the defenders inside the Young House. They did not attempt to storm the house until the infantry arrived.
Once the main British force arrived at the house, the men surrounded the Americans and pushed forward to take the house. Some Continentals fled, but were run down by the cavalry. The British force, with its superior force, eventually stormed the house, capturing those inside. Including a wounded Colonel Thompson. The entire fight took less than an hour.
About half of the Americans managed to escape, but the British killed fourteen, wounded 37 and marched 76 prisoners back to Kingsbridge. Among them was the wounded Colonel Thompson who would, along with the other officers, receive parole to Long Island. The enlisted prisoners were condemned to imprisonment in New York’s infamous Sugarhouse, where many of them died slow lingering deaths from disease and starvation. The British reported five killed and fourteen wounded in the battle.
The British force burned the Young House, leaving five wounded enemy soldiers inside the burning home. They also left some of the wounded who were too injured to make the journey back to Kingsbridge and would likely die where they lay.
An American relief force arrived on the scene too late to do anything but report the attack back to the American Commander, General William Heath, who relayed the “disagreeable circumstances” of the attack back to General Washington.
Kidnapping George Washington
Aside from the raids on outposts, the British also concocted a more daring attack. British intelligence learned that General Washington had established his winter quarters at a home in Morristown, about three miles away from the main army.
General Knyphausen, still in command at New York with Generals Clinton and Cornwallis away in Charleston, approved a raid to capture General Washington, similar to the raid that had captured General Charles Lee back in 1776. A relatively small group of cavalry would ride into the enemy lines at night, capture the general, and return to British lines before the Americans could react. With the solid ice still allowing passage by horses from Staten Island to the mainland, they believed the raid could be carried out rather quickly.
Initially, the plan was to conduct a series of raids on American outposts that same night, in order to provide distraction a distraction. But poor weather caused a delay, and the Americans withdrew from some of their more vulnerable outposts following some of the earlier British raids.
Instead, the British raid would be bulked up to include 300 cavalry, a combination of the 17th light dragoons under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Birch, and loyalists in the Queen’s Rangers, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe. The cavalry would be backed up by another 200 infantry who would provide cover for a retreat as they returned with the prisoner Washington in custody.
At around 1:00 Am on the morning of February 11, the British force crossed over the Arthur Kill and began its night raid toward Morristown. Along the way, several diversionary forces hit Elizabeth and several other coastal towns, hoping to cause some distraction.
The Americans, however, were not caught completely unprepared. Washington’s Life Guard had drilled for just such an attack, setting up escape plans for George and Martha Washington. General Arthur St. Clair also organized nighttime horse patrols that were designed to intercept any such raiding parties.
The Americans also caught a piece of luck. Days before the planned raid, the British cut off all travel between New York and New Jersey in order to prevent any word of the raid from reaching the Americans. One of the merchants cut off during this travel ban was a man from northern New Jersey who was attempting to sell food to the British. The British officers asked if he would agree to serve as a local guide on the raid, and he agreed.
Unbeknownst to the British, the merchant was, in fact, an American spy, who had been in New York to gain intelligence. Taking advantage of the opportunity to lead the attackers astray, he did so.
The British could not avoid main roads because of the deep snow. They managed to avoid several Continental check points, but could not avoid the roaming horse patrols. The cavalry managed to make its way about six miles inland, but was still at least twenty miles from Morristown, when they realized that the poor weather and roaming patrols would make it impossible to reach Washington’s residence while it was still dark and with the element of surprise. Colonel Birch ordered the firing of several rockets to indicate he was calling off the raid and that all raiders should return to Hackensack.
So, the kidnapping raid never really got close to success. It did, however, put the Continentals on greater alert so that they would be ready for the next such raid.
Next week, we return to Europe where Britain conducts a naval battle off the coast of Spain that resupplies its besieged garrison at Gibraltar.
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William Alexander’s (Lord Stirling) Raid of Staten Island, January 14-15, 1780: https://revolutionarywarstatenisland.com/2019/09/09/william-alexanders-lord-stirling-raid-of-staten-island-january-14-15-1780
Staten Island Expedition of Alexander: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/staten-island-expedition-alexander
Battle in a Blizzard - January 15, 1780: https://www.olddutchchurchnyc.org/battle-of-january-15-1780
“Enclosure: Recommendations for Attack on Staten Island, c.12 January 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-24-02-0078-0002
Capt. Samuel Lockwood at War https://boston1775.blogspot.com/2020/01/capt-samuel-lockwood-at-war.html
Raid on Isaac Hatfield's House https://boston1775.blogspot.com/2020/01/raid-on-isaac-hatfields-house.html
The Fighting Ground Between the Enemy https://boston1775.blogspot.com/2020/01/the-fighting-ground-between-enemy.html
Presbyterian Church burned at Elizabethtown, New Jersey https://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com/presbyterian-church-burned-elizabethtown-new-jersey.html
British Account of Elizabethtown and Newark https://www.historycarper.com/1780/02/16/british-account-of-elizabethtown-and-newark
Braisted, Todd W. “A RELATION OF DISAGREEABLE CIRCUMSTANCES: THE ATTACK ON YOUNG’S HOUSE FEBRUARY 3, 1780” Journal of the American Revolution, March 27, 2018 https://allthingsliberty.com/2018/03/a-relation-of-disagreeable-circumstances-the-attack-on-youngs-house-february-3-1780
Battle of Young’s House: https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1780/battle-youngs-house
Benjamin Huggins “RAID ACROSS THE ICE: THE BRITISH OPERATION TO CAPTURE WASHINGTON” Journal of the American Revolution, December 17, 2013 https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/12/raid-across-ice-british-operation-capture-washington
Mann, Frank Paul The British Occupation of Southern New York during the American Revolution and the Failure to Restore Civilian Civilian Government, Syracuse University Dissertation, 2013: https://surface.syr.edu/hst_etd/100
(from archive.org unless noted)
Abbott, William (ed) Memoirs of Major General William Heath, New York: Wm Abbot, 1901.
Atkinson Joseph History of Newark, William B. Guild, 1878.
Read, D. B. Life and Times of Gen. John Graves Simcoe, Toronto:G. Virtue, 1890.
“Wilhelm, Baron Innhausen and Knyphausen” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1892:
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Chadwick, Bruce The General and Mrs. Washington: The Untold Story of a Marriage and a Revolution, Sourcebooks, 2006.
Cunningham, John T. The Uncertain Revolution: Washington and the Continental Army at Morristown, Down the Shore Publishing, 2007.
Daughan, George C. Revolution on the Hudson: New York City and the Hudson River Valley in the American War of Independence, 2016 (or read on archive.org)
Greenman, Jeremiah Diary of a common soldier in the American Revolution, 1775-1783 : an annotated edition of the military journal of Jeremiah Greenman, Northern Illinois University Press, 1978 (or read on archive.org).
Hazelgrove, William Morristown: The Darkest Winter of the Revolutionary War and the Plot to Kidnap George Washington, Lyons Press 2021.
Laurerman, Rosalie Jockey Hollow: Where a Forgotten Army Persevered to Win America's Freedom, (self-published) 2015.
Simcoe, John Graves A Journal of the Operations of the Queen's Rangers, Anro Press 1968.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.