Fort Mercer, New Jersey
Fort Mercer, New Jersey
FORT MERCER, NEW JERSEY. (Red Bank, Gloucester Co.) 22 October-21 November 1777. As part of the system of Delaware River forts, a triple row of chevaux de frise extended between and was covered by Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania, and Fort Mercer, New Jersey. Fort Mercer was a large earthwork with most of its cannon aimed at the river, but it was nevertheless protected on the land side by a substantial ditch and abatis. Colonel Christopher Greene commanded a garrison of about six hundred from his own First and Colonel Israel Angell's Second Rhode Island Regiments and Captain Jotham Drury's company of Crane's Continental artillery regiment. New Jersey militia reinforced the garrison, but not in the numbers expected. When Major Thomas-Antoine du Plessis, chevalier de Mauduit, arrived, Greene listened to the expert and made a very significant change: the fort was too extensive for the size of the garrison, so a new, interior wall was built that cut off the northern wing but which could not be seen from the outside.
On 21 October 1777 Howe sent Colonel Karl Emil Ulrich Donop from Philadelphia with two thousand Hessians to capture the fort, correctly assuming that it was far more vulnerable to attack from the rear than to ships trying to force their way north. Donop was not a member of the nobility, but he was a very experienced soldier who commanded the brigade made up of the Hesse-Cassel grenadiers and served as the colonel in chief of the Jäger Corps. For this mission he had three of his grenadier battalions (named for their commanders, Lieutenant Colonels Otto von Linsingen, Georg von Lengerke and Friedrich von Minnigerode); four foot companies of jägers plus a dozen more from the corps' mounted troop; an infantry regiment (Musketeer Regiment von Mirbach commanded by Colonel Justus Block); and an artillery detachment with two British medium guns and eight three-pounders. All three of the grenadier battalions, however, were worn out by the campaign and probably were down to only about three hundred effectives each. Mirbach was better off but considered to be a lower quality unit than the elite grenadiers; also, its intelligence on the state of the fort and garrison was several weeks out of date.
After crossing the river and camping at Haddonfield, New Jersey, Donop started about 4 o'clock on the morning of the 22nd, and after being delayed by a destroyed bridge, approached the fort about one o'clock that afternoon. Deploying to cut the fort off and moving up the last two miles consumed three more hours, but at 4 p.m. an officer was sent to demand surrender, threatening "no quarter" if Greene did not surrender. The Americans refused to capitulate.
The Germans had both of their flanks anchored on the Delaware River, with Lengerke and the artillery as the right flank, Mirbach in the center (east), and Linsing as the left (south) flank. Minnigerode and bulk of the jägers acted as a reserve and then moved forward to hit the north face. Each assault unit carried bundles of fascines to throw in the ditch. Donop's columns advanced at double time in an effort to minimize the casualties from the Americans' artillery and three supporting galleys firing from the river. Minnigerode on the right, Mirbach in the center, and Linsing on the left all made it into the ditch. Minnigerode also got into the fort, where the Germans later said American resistance stiffened. In reality, that column had only pushed aside a screening force on the abandoned outer works and then ran head-on into du Plessis's unsuspected new wall; the other two columns failed to clear the ditch because their sections of wall were fully manned.
The first assault stopped cold in the face of heavy, accurate fire that cut down many of the officers. A second try ended almost immediately as more officers fell. Forty minutes after it started the survivors retreated, with Lengercke's relatively unscathed battalion covering the retreat route. Greene lacked the manpower to pursue. Lieutenant Colonel Von Linsingen late on the 23rd led the remnants into Philadelphia, where the three assault units went into barracks "for they could not possibly do service very soon" because of their losses (Muenchhausen, p. 41).
The defenders of Fort Mifflin were forced to abandon their post on the night of 15-16 November, which made Fort Mercer untenable. As Cornwallis approached with two thousand men for another assault, Greene pulled out of Fort Mercer the night of 20-21 November. The Howe brothers finally had a line of supply open so that they could hold on to Philadelphia.
NUMBERS AND LOSSES
The attack on Fort Mercer left Donop mortally wounded (hit in the hip by a musket ball, he died on 25 October); 22 other officers were killed or wounded, including all four battalion or regimental commanders. The official Hessian report gave total Hessian losses as 371, but that is probably understated a bit; the true numbers of killed, wounded, or captured should be about 400, which would be about one-third of the men engaged. The Americans lost only 32 killed or wounded.
While Greene and the other defenders greatly respected the heroism displayed by Donop and his men, the fight had very little impact on the outcome or pace of the campaign. But it did have a huge impact on the role of the Germans for the rest of the war. The historian Rodney Atwood has written, "Redbank marks a turning point for the Hessian corps in America. If Trenton destroyed the myth of Hessian invincibility, Redbank shattered the physical reality. Their best troops had suffered devastating losses…. Redbank, not Trenton, killed Hessian enthusiasm for the American War" (pp. 128-129).
Ford, Worthington. Defences of Philadelphia in 1777. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Historical Printing Club, 1897.
Muenchhausen, Friedrich von. At General Howe's Side: The Diary of General Howe's Aide de Camp, Captain Friedrich von Muenchhausen. Translated and edited by Ernst Kipping and Samuel S. Smith. Monmouth Beach, N.J.: Philip Freneau Press, 1974.
Smith, Samuel. The Fight for the Delaware, 1977. Monmouth Beach, N.J.: Philip Freneau Press, 1970.
Taaffe, Stephen R. The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777–1778. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003.
revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.