Last time, we covered General Wilhelm von Knyphausen’s foray into New Jersey on June 6-8, 1780, where he hoped to attack the Continental Headquarters at Morristown, but did little more than burn the village of Connecticut Farms.
|Battle of Springfield|
Kyphausen’s failed attack showed that the Continentals were still very much a force to be reckoned with, and that the New Jersey militia was still more than willing to turn out against the British whenever they set foot in New Jersey.
As with any loss, there was plenty of finger pointing. Knyphausen said he had been duped by loyalist leaders who gave him bad intelligence about the state of the Continentals and the resolve of the state militia. Loyalist leaders pointed right back at Knyphausen and the Hessians, saying that he and Colonel Wurmb had moved far too slowly, sitting around for hours in what was supposed to be a lighting strike that would catch the enemy off guard.
On June 8, the same day that Knyphausen was bringing his defeated force back to New York, General Henry Clinton boarded a ship in Charleston. Having defeated the southern army under Benjamin Lincoln, Clinton hoped to make it back to New York in time to confront the French Army that was expected to land any day.
|Gen. Henry Clinton|
Clinton was unaware of Knyphausen’s raid that had led to the battle at Connecticut Farms. He had sent word via junior officers, including by some accounts Major John André, that Knyphausen was to be prepared for an attack after the main army returned from South Carolina. According to one account, an officer had arrived to inform Knyphausen of this on the afternoon of June 6, just as he was launching his raid. Knyphausen later said the officer only told him that Clinton would return soon, not that the general was planning his own attack after his arrival.
General Clinton made it back to New York in a relatively speedy 10 days, arriving on June 18. In his later reports, Clinton said that he had planned a two pronged attack with Knyphausen launching an attack similar to what Knyphausen did at Elizabethtown, while Clinton launched another raid to the south at Amboy, knowing that Washington would be unable to defend against both attacks at the same time.
Kyphausen’s raid before he had returned, however, had put the Americans on alert and had greatly reduced the chances of success for a second raid. At the same time, Clinton also received intelligence from General Benedict Arnold, commander at West Point, who had already agreed to switch sides at an appropriate time. Arnold reported to Clinton that the French Army was due to land at Newport, Rhode Island.
Knyphausen’s raid that ended at Connecticut Farms certainly put Washington and the Continentals on alert. After some thought, Washington concluded that Knyphausen’s raid must not have simply been a failed attack. Rather, it was a feint to encourage Washington to move more of his army further south and closer to New York City in anticipation of the next raid. If that was what the British wanted him to do Washington believed the next real attack would be for the British to sail up the Hudson River and attack West Point. It was only late June, with the whole summer and fall fighting season ahead of them, and with Clinton’s main army on its way back to New York, Washington surmised that the British would attempt a much larger offensive, and the most likely target was West Point.
Washington grew even more concerned after learning that the British were concentrating larger forces at Elizabethtown and had even built a pontoon bridge between Staten Island and the New Jersey coast to transport men and equipment much faster.
Even before Connecticut Farms, Washington had been frustrated by the failure of Congress and the states to supply him with enough soldiers to conduct a credible campaign in 1780. Not only that, Congress had ordered him to send some of his forces south to contest General Cornwallis in the Carolinas after the loss of the southern army under Benjamin Lincoln.
The President of Congress, Samuel Huntington had specifically written to Washington to let him know that Congress wanted the Continental cavalry under Light Horse Harry Lee to proceed immediately to the Carolinas. Huntington’s letter included a contingency that said Washington could hold off if the transfer would upset some of his immediate plans. The normally compliant Washington relied on that to ignore Congress’ request and keep his much-needed cavalry available to monitor the enemy following the attack on Connecticut Farms. Washington sent an urgent note to the Board of War in Philadelphia requesting the immediate return of Lee’s brigade. Lee’s infantry had already moved further south, but his cavalry returned to Morristown to assist Washington.
Washington also put General Von Steuben in command of the advance guard, tasking the former commander Lord Stirling with riding through New Jersey and trying to rouse more militia. Almost 3000 militia had answered the call when the British marched on Connecticut farms, but Washington had to allow about half of them to return home. Had he tried to force them to stay in the field, they would be less likely to turn out the next time he needed them. Washington also put General Greene in overall command of the forces in New Jersey, while Washington himself focused on securing West Point, where Benedict Arnold commanded. Units in upstate New York who were deployed to oppose the attacks by the loyalists and Iroquois from Niagara had to move to West Point to prepare for a defense of that important fort.
Still in command at the front lines was General William Maxwell. In my last episode, I mentioned Maxwell’s key role in preventing the British advance, but I’ve never really given much detail on Maxwell.
|Wm Von Knyphausen|
General Maxwell was of Scottish descent, but was born in Northern Ireland. When he was a young boy, his family moved to Warren County, New Jersey, northwest of Trenton. At age 21, Maxwell enlisted in the provincial militia and was one of many future generals who had one of his early military experiences on the Braddock Campaign near what is today Pittsburgh. As a lieutenant in the New Jersey Blues, Maxwell fought in the French and Indian War, participating in the British assault on Carillon where British General Howe’s older brother was killed.
After the French and Indian War, Maxwell continued to serve in the British army as a commissary officer on the frontier. He spent time at Fort Michilimackinac in what is today Michigan.
Despite his long standing role with the British Army, Maxwell remained a committed patriot. In 1774, he resigned his commission and returned to New Jersey. The following year he took a commission as colonel of the Second New Jersey Regiment. After his regiment joined the Continental Army, Colonel Maxwell led his regiment on the Quebec Campaign under General John Sullivan.
As the war moved to New York in the second half of 1776, Congress appointed ten new brigadier generals in August and September. Colonel Maxwell was not among them. Finally, in October, after the British had taken New York and were on the verge of invading New Jersey, Congress finally promoted Maxwell to brigadier.
He fought under Washington during the retreat from New York and in the Philadelphia Campaign. Maxwell has also played a leading role in the Sullivan Campaign of upstate New York.
Despite his active role, Maxwell did not seem to stand out. He was known as Scotch Willie to the men and had a rather rough hewn, hard-drinking persona that probably kept him from the favor of gentlemen like General Washington. In 1777 Washington had authorized him to form the New Jersey Brigade, which was supposed to be an effective light infantry force. Maxwell did credibly well at Cooch’s Bridge and Brandywine, but did not seem to impress the leadership.
Despite four years of combat as a brigadier by 1780, Maxwell had failed to see promotion. One reason was probably that New Jersey already had a major general and that two from that state would have been seen as excessive. Another reason was Maxwell’s reputation for drinking, something that would not necessarily prevent his promotion, but certainly did not help. Washington found Maxwell most useful in his home state of New Jersey, mostly organizing local militia for defense against British raids.
As he had under General Stirling at Connecticut Farms, Maxwell would command a mix of Continentals and militia at the front of the American lines, where the British were expected to attack.
Plan of Attack
Back in New York City, General Clinton blamed the whole state of alert in New Jersey among the Americans in New Jersey on General Knyphausen’s ill-advised assault of June 7. The two officers were barely on speaking terms after that. With reports from Arnold that the French were going to land very soon in Rhode Island, Clinton decided that an assault on West Point was out of the question. Even if British forces captured West Point, the combined Continental and French Army could take it back, and possibly capture a sizable chunk of the British army in the process.
|Battle of Sprinfield|
The British still held a beachhead at Elizabeth town, which was regularly taking hit and run attacks from the Americans, often Lee’s cavalry who were trying to determine their numbers. On the night of June 22, a group of Queen’s Rangers, led by Colonel John Graves Simcoe, and Hessian Jaegers sent out a raiding party from Elizabethtown to capture a few American pickets. They managed to capture a few prisoners, but also lost two men killed, several wounded, and a couple of their own captured by the Americans, who remained on full alert.
That night, in the pre-dawn hours of June 23, the British launched their offensive. General Mathew was already in Elizabethtown with a division that included the Queen’s Rangers, and a number of other Hessian, loyalist, and regular units. Knyphausen commanded a second division that would cross the pontoon bridge and support Mathew. A third division under General Robertson would remain in Elizabethtown to keep open a line of supplies and communication with New York, and also a possible line of retreat.
The Mathew and Knyphausen division would march to Connecticut Farms as they had weeks earlier. There, they would divide so that Knyphausen would march directly toward Springfield, while Matthew would march back to the east, away from the enemy, and make an unobserved advance toward Springfield from a different direction.
Battle of Springfield
Mathew’s division, led by Colonel Simcoe and the Queen’s Rangers, led the advance beginning around 4:00 AM. They came into contact with Maxwell's Continentals and New Jersey Militia at Connecticut farms, or what was left of it. The Americans had set up their defenses amidst the ruins of the house burned their weeks earlier. In a planned retreat, the Americans pulled back across the Rahway River. Behind them was the village of Springfield.
General Greene anticipated that the British would probably mount a direct assault as a distraction, while they hit their target with a flanking maneuver. It was a plan of attack the British had used successfully in many prior battles against the Americans. So instead of keeping his main force at Springfield, Greene positioned most of his soldiers at Short Hills, a few miles to the north.
A relatively small number of Continentals and militia fought a slow retreat against the advancing British, ultimately sacrificing possession of Springfield with the intent of staying between the British and Hobart Gap, a more defensible area that would be necessary for the British to capture if they wanted to march on Morristown.
As Greene anticipated, Knyphausen pushed directly against Springfield, while Mathew’s division crossed further upriver with the intent of flanking the Americans at Springfield from the side. Knyphausen used a few small field artillery to amuse the Americans at Springfield while Mathew crossed at the Vauxhall Bridge virtually unopposed.
Knyphausen’s soldiers entered Springfield by late morning. Apparently against orders, the invading force burned all of the homes in the village. According to an after-action report, Knyphausen ordered one house to be burned because his troops were taking fire from enemy soldiers in the house. Other soldiers, seeing that house set on fire, took that action to mean open season on the entire village of thirty homes being burned to the ground.
Some of the Americans received orders to launch a counter-attack on Springfield. These orders were quickly countermanded by General Greene to pull back and take a better defensive position. Greene did not want to fight the enemy except on the ground of his choosing. Springfield was not a strategic target. Keeping the British from reaching Hobart Gap was the goal. Knyphausen’s forces eventually moved forward to the main American defenses, behind a second branch of the Rahway River. Once again, the Americans withdrew in good order, still inflicting casualties as they pulled back.
Unable to confront the Americans on favorable ground, the frustrated British divisions under both Mathew and Knyphausen ceased their advance by early afternoon. The two divisions once again concentrated their forces in Springfield, but found the Americans in good defensive positions that could not be dislodged without great loss.
The British then opted to pull back to Elizabethtown. Greene sent a harassing force of about 120 soldiers to pursue the British, but kept his main army in their defenses. Lee’s cavalry also exchanged fire with the British rearguard and captured a few stragglers.
By evening the main British forces were back in Elizabethtown and using the pontoon bridge to cross back onto Staten Island. By dawn the following day, the entire British army was back in New York and had dismantled the pontoon bridge, completely abandoning their toehold at Elizabethtown.
American losses were rather light, only 15 killed, 49 wounded and 11 missing. British losses, as reported by Knyphausen, were also relatively light, 14 killed, 89 wounded and 11 missing. But several other unofficial reports indicate that British casualties were at least double that amount. Both sides had acted with caution. Neither side risked large casualties by engaging with the enemy where the enemy wanted.
Greene, in his first independent command in years, had proven that he knew how to give up ground tactically for a larger strategic victory, something that would serve him well over the next year or two. The British had bet that the Americans would make the same mistakes they had made in previous battles. The American generals, however, were becoming more experienced in strategy and were not likely to make those same rookie blunders again.
The British had also received intelligence that the Continental army was on the verge of collapse and that New Jersey was on the ready to return to crown rule in order to put an end to the chaos under patriot rule. These attacks, both Springfield and Connecticut Farms, made clear that the Continentals could still very much hold their own against a large operation, and that the New Jersey militia was still a force to be reckoned with.
If anything, the attacks made the situation worse for the British. The burning of Springfield Village handed the Americans another public relations victory. They could portray the British and Hessians as ruthless savages who had no regard for civilians, which of course, encouraged New Jersey civilians to continue support for the patriots. All the fighting over resources between the army and civilians over the winter seemed to wash away in the face of a British attack on the New Jersey countryside.
Next Week: British inroads into North Carolina result in the Battle of Ramsour's Mill
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Next Episode 255 Ramsour's Mill
Previous Episode 253 Connecticut Farms
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Sobol, Thomas T. “William Maxwell, New Jersey’s Hard Fighting General” Journal of the American Revolution, August 15, 2016. https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/08/william-maxwell-new-jerseys-hard-fighting-general
Battle of Springfield: https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1780/battle-of-springfield
Battle of Springfield: https://www.durandhedden.org/archives/articles/the_battle_of_springfield
Battle of Springfield: https://www.myrevolutionarywar.com/battles/800623-springfield
“To George Washington from Samuel Huntington, 6 June 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-26-02-0227
“From George Washington to the Board of War, 8 June 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-26-02-0237
“From George Washington to Brigadier General Nathaniel Heard, 9 June 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-26-02-0244
“From George Washington to Pierre Van Cortlandt, 10 June 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-26-02-0258
(from archive.org unless noted)
Duer, William A. The life of William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, Major-General in the Army of the United States during the Revolution: with selections from his correspondence, New York: Wiley & Putnam, 1847.
Klein, Milton M. (ed) & Howard, Ronald W. (ed) The Twilight of British Rule in Revolutionary America: The New York Letter Book of General James Robertson, 1780-1783, Cooperstown, NY: New York State Historical Association, 1983.
Nelson, William (ed) Documents relating to the revolutionary history of the state of New Jersey : extracts from American newspapers, Vol. 4,Trenton: State Gazette Pub. Co. 1914.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Fleming, Thomas, The Forgotten Victory: The Battle for New Jersey - 1780, Reader’s Digest Press, 1973. (borrow on Archive.org)
Lengel, Edward The Battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield, 1780, Westholme Publishing, 2020.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
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