New Jersey Campaign

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New Jersey Campaign

NEW JERSEY CAMPAIGN. November 1776–January 1777. After the Battle of White Plains on 28 October 1776, Washington set up three principal concentrations of forces to enable him to block British efforts in case Sir William Howe tried to move east, north, or southwest. Washington would keep one large part of the army (7,000) in New Jersey, using Fort Lee as his base; Major General Charles Lee would keep a similar force (7,000 of the best troops) in Westchester County to block an advance into New England; and Major General William Heath would use the smallest of the pieces (4,000) to protect the Hudson Highlands forts and lines of communications between Washington and Lee. A small force remained on the northern tip of Manhattan, but it was to be withdrawn to New Jersey.

The balance of that plan collapsed when Howe suddenly shifted his troops and captured Fort Washington, New York, on 16 November 1776 and Fort Lee, New Jersey, on the 18th. Washington was forced to retreat to Newark, opening a gap between his troops and the other contingents. As the British maintained pursuit and forced him to keep falling back, the chances of being able to use the coordinated action upon which the original disposition depended gradually evaporated.

As early as 10 November, after the Battle of White Plains and before loss of the Hudson River forts, Washington had written Lee: "If the enemy should remove the whole, or the greatest part of their force, to the west side of Hudson river, I have no doubt of your following with all possible dispatch, leaving the militia and invalids to cover the frontiers of Connecticut in case of need." On 20 November, Washington suggested that Lee cross the river and there await further orders. The next day Washington reiterated that Lee should make this move, unless "some new event should occur, or some more cogent reason present itself." Lee's inaction has led to speculations that he was deliberately jeopardizing the American cause by allowing the British to defeat the forces under Washington's personal command so that Congress would make him commander in chief, but there is no proof to support this charge. Lee had not received a specific order, and he still thought that his force would be more effective east of the Hudson. Instead of going himself, he tried to order Heath to send two thousand of his garrison to Washington, arguing that Heath was closer and could get reinforcements to Washington sooner. Heath, however, had direct orders from Washington not to weaken his defenses of the strategic river crossings under any circumstances, and so he refused Lee.

Howe did not move against Heath and clear the lower Hudson because the onset of winter would limit naval support and make it too hard to retain any gains; the notion of cooperating with British forces from Canada had not been part of anyone's plans for the year. He also saw no value in trying to invade New England because the region was too strongly behind the Revolution; the plan for the year had called for isolating it and slowly wearing down the will to resist by bringing the other colonies back into the fold. Nor did Howe see any realistic chance to move against Philadelphia with his entire force, knowing that he still had to consolidate his hold on New York and its environs and that it was too late in the year to risk the long overland movement that would be involved. Instead, he began preparations to go into winter quarters.

The Royal Navy did not consider New York to be a suitable port in cold weather, an opinion that modern Americans find extremely hard to understand. Admiral Richard Howe and his captains felt that Newport, Rhode Island, was a far better winter anchorage, and William Howe agreed to get it for them. General Henry Clinton left New York with six thousand troops on 1 December and sailed through Long Island Sound, landing and securing Newport on the 7th without any casualties.


As part of his plan to establish winter quarters, Howe wanted to gain space and access to forage by placing part of the British forces in New Jersey. He sent Cornwallis from Fort Lee with instructions to push Washington beyond Brunswick; Cornwallis boasted that he would catch Washington as a hunter bags a fox. Washington started his withdrawal on 21 November to avoid being trapped east of the Passaic River and reached Newark on the 22nd. There he paused and regrouped by sending the sick to safety at Morristown and detaching other troops to stamp out the first hints of a Loyalist uprising near Monmouth; other officers were sent to assemble all the boats on the Delaware River. Meanwhile, Congress searched the Philadelphia area for additional forces to send to his aid, mobilizing three battalions of the city's Associator infantry under Colonel Lambert Cadwalader and Captain Samuel Morris's City Troop of light horse and giving orders to Captain Thomas Forrest's company of full-time state artillery to go with them. Washington withdrew from Newark on the 28th in two columns, keeping ahead of the British vanguard. The Americans followed two different routes to Brunswick, and from there they crossed the Raritan River just ahead of the jägers leading Cornwallis's advance. The pursuit had failed to catch Washington, and now Cornwallis's exhausted men had to stop and rest.

On 1 December the enlistments of the Flying Camp's militia regiments officially expired and most of the remaining members headed home, further reducing Washington's effectives. That same day the British began pushing across the Raritan but were held at bay by an aggressive rear guard that included Captain Alexander Hamilton's company of New York artillery. On the 2nd, Washington reached Princeton and directed Brigadier General William Alexander (Lord Stirling) to remain with his and Brigadier General Adam Stephen's brigades (fourteen hundred men from Virginia and Delaware). Their mission was to buy time for the rest of the army to cross over the Delaware River to safety on the Pennsylvania side. While men and supplies ferried across using the boats assembled earlier, Washington started reinforcing Stirling's group. On the 6th, however, Howe joined Cornwallis at Brunswick with several more brigades of British and Hesse-Cassel regulars and then advanced to Princeton the next day. Stirling did not engage, but fell slowly back as ordered, and by the end of the afternoon of the 7th, most of the men had safely crossed using Beatty's ferry and the Trenton ferry. The rear guard crossed early on the 8th, just as the leading British patrols entered Trenton. Cornwallis wasted a day unsuccessfully searching for boats to use in getting his troops across.

For his part, Washington deployed his men along a twenty-five-mile front and began moving supplies forward from Philadelphia to refit the exhausted regiments. The right was opposite Burlington, New Jersey, and the center rested near the Pennsylvania side of McKonkey's Ferry (the New Jersey end later became Taylorsville). Having missed his fox, Cornwallis got permission to stop at the Delaware, and he began to establish winter garrisons in New Jersey. On 13 December, the day Lee was captured at Basking Ridge, Howe announced that the year's campaign had ended. The preceding day Congress had resolved to move from Philadelphia to Baltimore. Howe believed the campaign had come to an end. While older authors (depending heavily on allegations made by disgruntled Loyalists after the war) have accused Howe of being lazy or of "pulling his punches" in order to try to find a way to end the war through negotiations, the simple fact is that he had accomplished as much as the weak British logistical system would allow. He and Clinton had favored contracting the occupied zone to a line between Brunswick and Newark, but Cornwallis persuaded him to hold a greater area. Howe established forward garrisons at Bordentown, Pennington, and Trenton, with a larger base twenty-five miles to the rear at Brunswick. The rationale for this expanded area was that every square mile held encouraged Loyalist support and deprived Washington of recruits; the British felt there were only minimal risks to the more extended lines of communications.


Washington was not as badly off as American mythology depicts. The retreat through New Jersey had been executed with precision, exploiting the superior land mobility of the American forces to carefully stay out of range of the British. Detachments assembled in the hills to the west of the British supply lines during the withdrawal, creating a potential for future attacks on rear areas. Washington's defensive positions along the bend of the Delaware River provided access to the logistical support of the depots in Philadelphia. And during the month of December, reinforcements began arriving. Militia detachments came from New Jersey; Colonel John Cadwalader came up with one thousand Philadelphia Associators; several new Continental regiments came up from recruiting areas, including the German Battalion that Congress released from garrison duty in Philadelphia; and veteran troops from other commands in the north worked their way around the British. On the 20th, Sullivan (who took command when Lee was captured) joined with two thousand of the men originally left on the east side of the Hudson, and Brigadier General Benedict Arnold was a day's march behind with seven more regiments from the Lake Champlain front. Also on the 20th, Brigadier General Alexander McDougall reached Morristown with three regiments of Continentals from Heath's forces to reinforce seven hundred New Jersey militia. Washington sent Brigadier General William Maxwell, a native of the area, to take command and begin harassing British supply trains. And Thomas Paine's first number of The Crisis was beginning to have a major impact on military and civilian morale.

By Christmas, Washington had some seven thousand officers and men under his immediate command capable of offensive action. More militia, stiffened by another brigade of Continentals, guarded positions further downstream but still close enough to cooperate. Washington also knew that the enlistments of many of the Continentals would expire on 31 December, and his officers began making passionate appeals for them to volunteer to stay another six weeks until the new recruits could arrive. But Washington wanted to use the veterans before year's end while he knew they would be available, and so he issued orders for a blow against the scattered British garrisons. On Christmas night his main force crossed the ice-choked Delaware and defeated the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey, on 26 December 1776.

When the last of the Americans returned to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware at daylight on 27 December, Washington watched the British reaction. The Bordentown garrison (another Hesse-Cassel brigade) immediately fell back to Princeton, policing up the Trenton survivors on the way. Cadwalader crossed back over to the east bank at midday and began probing towards Burlington to develop better intelligence. He reached Burlington that night and started receiving additional militia coming up from Philadelphia. As intelligence started to flow, Washington began to contemplate another offensive blow—this time a spoiling attack.


On 30 December, Washington—having regrouped, received new supplies, and moved the prisoners to the rear—started back across the Delaware. The Americans reoccupied Trenton and sent patrols forward. The next evening copies of the congressional resolutions that granted Washington dictatorial powers reached Trenton. Although his numbers had been somewhat reduced by expired enlistments and detachments left in Pennsylvania, Washington still had over six thousand men available, thanks to the two thousand militia reinforcements. He also knew that the British had moved more troops into New Jersey and had them on the way to Princeton. When those forces arrived he would be outnumbered by several thousand. So he ordered Cadwalader and Mifflin to join him with their militia forces. He also sent a covering force to delay the expected enemy approach from Princeton.

This covering force was made up of the riflemen from Colonel Edward Hand's First Continental Regiment, Colonel Nicholas Haussegger's German Battalion, and Colonel Charles Scott with the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Virginia Regiments, reinforced by the six cannon of Forrest's artillery company. On 1 January they were in position along Five Mile Run (later Little Shabbakunk Creek), and on the next day, while Cadwalader's units were still arriving at Trenton, the British appeared on the road from Princeton. Brigadier General Matthias de Roche-Fermoy, the American commander, inexplicably left the advanced position for Trenton, but Hand took over and conducted the delaying action with great skill. Five times the Americans caught the approaching column and forced the enemy to deploy, taking advantage of every creek and defile. Sometimes it was only fire from pickets, other times it was a more substantial blocking party, as at Five Mile Run and Big Shabbakunk Creek. Each time Cornwallis's men had to deploy for a coordinated attack, wasting valuable daylight. Hand then dropped back in good order and with few casualties. Half a mile north of Trenton at Stockton Hollow, the Americans made another stand, this time from woods behind a ravine. Once again the British had to deploy from column into line in the slush of open fields, where they were particularly vulnerable to Hand's riflemen and Forrest's guns, and to bring up artillery. The covering force, supported by other troops, then continued its delaying action through the town at about 4 p.m. and finally reached the main line Washington had set up south of Assunpink Creek. At about sunset, Cornwallis's larger force faced some sixty-eight hundred men in a very strong defensive position, and in the twilight—around 4:45-5:00 p.m.—he launched a series of probing attacks on the various fords. The Americans held firm and shattered a series of attempts by Hessian grenadiers and British infantry to storm the bridge. Washington had achieved his vitally important purpose of delaying a coordinated attack on his main position during daylight, and in this Second Battle of Trenton probably inflicted 365 casualties at relatively small cost. The American units conducted themselves well, and Washington's defensive battle was brilliantly managed.

However, the Americans were in a bad spot: they were outnumbered; vulnerable to being enveloped or pounded by artillery on 3 January; and lacked the boats to fall back across the Delaware. Thanks to the Americans' domination of the reconnaissance-counter-reconnaissance contest, Washington knew that another course of action was open. It was risky and unorthodox, but it caught Cornwallis flat-footed. Patrols had determined that the back roads were open and that Princeton and Brunswick in the British rear were vulnerable. Leaving his campfires burning, Washington slipped out of his positions during the night to execute the brilliant strategic envelopment that led to the Battle of Princeton on 3 January.

The American army then went into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey. On 4-6 January, other American contingents attacked patrols near Springfield, and the confused British evacuated Elizabethtown.


In a whirlwind campaign that Frederick the Great at the time called a masterpiece and that the historian Howard H. Peckham has called "The Nine Days' Wonder," Washington had driven Howe from all his posts in New Jersey except Amboy and Brunswick. Although five thousand British remained in each of the latter places, they presented no strategic threat. American morale bounded upwards; New Jersey Loyalists who had revealed themselves had to flee. The time and space bought by a cadre of veteran Continentals and their supporting militia enabled the new, larger Continental army of 1777 to recruit and come forward.

Howe's failures in this campaign resulted from an understandable overconfidence based on the earlier success in taking New York. He might have shown more caution had he considered the strong fights put up by various Continental formations on Long Island, Harlem Heights, and Pell's Point, but that is more apparent in hindsight than it was in December 1776. Conventional thinking by the winter garrison commander, especially Colonel Rall, gave Washington his opening, and the Virginian took full advantage of it. Cornwallis, an aggressive commander, reacted as he often would during this war by trying to force a decisive action on a more mobile opponent, ignoring critical logistics. During the spring the "forage war" in New Jersey would gradually convince Howe that an overland move against Philadelphia in 1777 simply was not feasible.

SEE ALSO Associators; Basking Ridge, New Jersey; Fort Lee, New Jersey; Fort Washington, New York; Morristown Winter Quarters, New Jersey (6 January-28 May, 1777); Princeton, New Jersey; Trenton, New Jersey; Washington's "Dictatorial Powers"; White Plains, New York.


Bill, Alfred H. The Campaign of Princeton, 1776–1777. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1948.

Dwyer, William H. The Day Is Ours! November 1776–January 1777: An Inside View of the Battles of Trenton and Princeton. New York: Viking, 1983.

Fischer, David Hackett. Washington's Crossing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Ketchum, Richard M. The Winter Soldiers. New York: Doubleday, 1973.

Lefkowitz, Arthur S. The Long Retreat: The Calamitous American Defense of New Jersey, 1776. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

Smith, Samuel S. The Battle of Trenton. Monmouth Beach, N.J.: Philip Freneau Press, 1965.

――――――. The Battle of Princeton. Monmouth Beach, N.J.: Philip Freneau Press, 1967.

Stryker, William S. The Battles of Trenton and Princeton. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1898.

                           revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.

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