by Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
October 6, 2018
One of the most interesting stories from the past volumes I have worked on at the Papers of George Washington occurs in Revolutionary War Series vol. 24, which presents George Washington’s correspondence from Jan. 1 to March 9, 1780.
In early February 1780, Gen. George Washington’s main army was encamped at Jockey Hollow, New Jersey. But the general maintained his headquarters about three miles away in Morristown, N.J., at the house of the widow Theodosia Ford. That separation from the main army enticed the British high command into undertaking an operation that, if successful, would cripple the Continental army and demoralize the Patriot cause: the capture of Washington.
The winter of 1779-80 was the most severe the Continental army had ever experienced. The deep snow and sub-freezing temperatures had stopped most mills’ production and made long-distance transportation exceedingly difficult. The soldiers remained desperately short of supplies all winter. The Hudson River had frozen solid.
Due to the easy crossing of Arthur Kill1 provided by the ice, many leaders in New Jersey were wary of the potential for quick raids launched from Staten Island designed to capture senior leaders. William Livingston, the state’s governor, suspected he might be the victim of such a plot. Believing it would be “imprudent” for him to remain at his home in Parsippany, he took up residence in Morristown.2 Silas Condict, a member of the New Jersey executive council, feared that Washington himself might be the target of a British raid. On the last day of January, Condict wrote the American commander to express his concern “respecting Your Excellencys Cituation, which I do not think so secure as I could wish, while the frost Makes firm passing into Jersey from every part of the Enemies lines.” The councilman thought the ice might induce the British to make a “bold attempt” to surprise Washington in his headquarters: “The Importance of the Object, May induce them to hozard an attempt, and will fully justify every Means to be ready to recieve them.” Condict thought a party of horse could reach Morristown “undiscovered.”3
Washington, however, expressed confidence in the security of his headquarters. He believed that no cavalry force could reach the vicinity of Morristown before the alarm could be sounded and troops could arrive from Jockey Hollow to support his guards, who were quartered near the Ford house.4 He informed Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair, “I have taken precautions to guard against an attempt by such a party [cavalry] as might be reasonably supposed to be able to reach this [location] in the course of a night.”5
The enemy, though, thought it could indeed capture the American commander in chief. After learning of the vulnerability of Washington’s headquarters, Capt. George Beckwith, aide-de-camp to Lt. Gen. Wilhelm von Knyphausen (temporary commander of the British, German, and Provincial troops in the New York City area) formulated a plan to “carry off” the American general.6 Knyphausen explained the plan in his report to British commander in chief Sir Henry Clinton: “General Washington, having taken up his Quarters at a distance from his Army, under the protection of a small Corps of Infantry, it appeared practicable to surprise that Body, with Cavalry and to penetrate to the neighbourhood of Morris Town.”7 Knyphausen had approved the plan by Feb. 7, and that same day, the cavalry for the raid began assembling.8 Knyphausen intended to launch the attack on Feb. 8., but a sudden fall of snow and rain “put a Stop to the Movement.9
The British assembled forces from throughout the New York City area to execute the attack. The cavalry force would first hit Hackensack, from where they would move towards Morristown. At least 300 cavalry, including the hussar company of Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers and probably all of the 17th Light Dragoons present in New York, were assigned to this force, commanded by Lt. Col. Samuel Birch of the 17th Dragoons.10 This body was reinforced by a regiment of infantry, numbering about 200, designed to cover the cavalry on their return.11 To draw attention away from this cavalry raid on Washington’s Morristown headquarters, three other groups of raiders were to attack from Staten Island: one force to hit Woodbridge; another, smaller force to strike Rahway; and the largest force to attack Elizabethtown. British brigadier general Thomas Stirling commanded all the British and Provincial troops on Staten Island. Provincial brigadier general Cortlandt Skinner assisted as the next ranking officer on the island. Two battalions of Skinner’s New Jersey Volunteers, totaling about 370 soldiers, were stationed on Staten Island.12 Stirling also had two other Provincial regiments at his disposal: Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers of about 400 strong, and Col. Francis Lord Rawdon’s 2nd American Regiment (Volunteers of Ireland) with about 400 to 500 men.13 All these troops were assigned to the special operation.14
To guard against raids from Staten Island, General Washington kept two brigades of his main army stationed west of Elizabethtown. In February, Major General St. Clair commanded these brigades. St. Clair had ordered his commanders to establish outposts at Rahway, Cranes Mills, Connecticut Farms, Elizabethtown, and Newark.15 In addition to St. Clair’s brigades, the New Jersey militia could be called into the field on an alarm. Washington also kept a detachment of about 200 infantrymen at Paramus.16
Washington and St. Clair had also put another force into operation that proved critical in deflecting one of the raiding parties: a company of light cavalry raised from New Jersey militia volunteers. St. Clair stationed these light cavalrymen at Rahway, Newark, and Woodbridge, with fifteen at each town.17
With no snowfall on the 10th,18 Knyphausen gave the order to attack that night. According to plan, Simcoe crossed the ice with 200 infantrymen of his Queen’s Rangers at 1:00 in the morning on Feb. 11. Brigadier General Stirling’s orders called for Simcoe to send a party to surprise the enemy post at Woodbridge or Rahway “and to give a general alarm.”19 Accordingly, Simcoe headed his rangers toward Woodbridge. Because of the deep snow, his men could only march “on the beaten road.” Meanwhile, Stirling had also sent forward the force designed to hit Elizabethtown. The diversionary attack on that town was the most destructive of all the raids launched on Feb. 11. Brigadier General Skinner himself appears to have commanded this raid. His force probably consisted of his two battalions and possibly some or all of Rawdon’s Irish Volunteers.
The forces attacking from Staten Island struck “about an hour before day.”20 St. Clair’s guards at Woodbridge were warned of Simcoe’s approach and quickly retreated, with only one man wounded. Frustrated in his primary mission, the British colonel determined to press on “until he beat up some of the enemy’s quarters, or fell in with their patroles.”21 But they soon ran into a militia horse patrol that sounded the alarm. From the moment of the militia cavalry’s alert, the Queen’s Rangers were on the defensive. The Rangers began to take fire from the guards and militia. Simcoe ordered a retreat back to the coast.22
At Elizabethtown, St. Clair’s guards (50 men) “were timely aprised” of the enemy’s approach and quickly retreated. But Skinner’s soldiers were able to get off some shots at the rearguard and wound one man.23 With the guards now alerted, Skinner’s men could not accomplish their primary mission. But as was often the case, plunder became their next objective. “A Number of Houses in the Town have been stript of every thing,” St. Clair informed Washington, “and ten or twelve of the Inhabitants carried Off.”24 The guards, horse patrols, and some militia pursued Skinner’s retreating raiders.25 The force that raided Rahway, probably troops from Skinner’s battalions or Rawdon’s regiment, accomplished little other than its diversionary mission.26
Lieutenant Colonel Birch’s strike force crossed the Hudson on the ice and assembled at Paulus Hook. After sallying out of that fortress in the early morning darkness of Feb. 11, the raiders moved to Hackensack (where a road leads across the Acquakinunk bridge and on to Morristown). By attacking from the direction of Hackensack, they probably hoped to outflank any guards or patrols, especially since they believed that Washington had withdrawn the detachment at Paramus. A spy in St. Clair’s service, who accompanied the force, explained what happened after the dragoons left Hackensack:
They proceeded some distan<ce into> the Country, and from the rout they persued he thi<nks in>tended to have pass’d the Cedar Swamp, and were very perticular in their Inquiries, about the situation of your Quarters, and where I was quarter’d and the guards that were posted betwixt Hackinsack & Morris Town—He says perticularly that after marching some way into the Country, he heard an Officer ask the Commandant where they were going–He replyed, he could not tell them that but they had more than Thirty Miles to March that Night—That in a short time after this, finding the Snow very deep & the Roads not broken they returned and he was dismissed.27
They had penetrated five or six miles into the country after leaving Hackensack before they were forced to turn back. The roads, according to Knyphausen, were “impassable.”28 In addition to the deep snow on the roads, the recent fall of sleet had created a layer of ice that cut the horses’ fetlocks (the ankle-like joint of a horse’s foot).29 Winter had stopped the force that was otherwise unopposed. Birch signaled his retreat by firing five rockets. Skinner, at the bridge in Elizabethtown, picked up the signal and fired five rockets to signal Simcoe.30 But Simcoe was already on the retreat.
St. Clair suspected the cavalry attack had been designed to capture Washington, and he thought the commander in chief’s precautions were inadequate.31 Looking at his defensive measures in the light of this bold operation by the British, Washington agreed. To give better warning of a cavalry attack from the vicinity of Hackensack, Washington advised St. Clair to extend his horse patrols “more to your left [north]” while the ice remained solid in the Hudson River.32 Also, the warming weather soon induced Washington to add another defense against a repeat of such a cavalry raid on his headquarters: he increased the numbers of his guards.33 The British, however, did not repeat their operation. The severe winter, though it nearly starved Washington’s army, probably saved him from capture, or at least a severe battle in the streets of Morristown between his guards and the British cavalry. It thus may very well have saved the American cause as well.
For the full story of this little-known operation, see my article in the Journal of the American Revolution: “Raid Across the Ice: The British Operation to Capture Washington.”
1. Arthur Kill is the body of water between Staten Island and the New Jersey coast.
2. William Livingston to Washington, Jan. 13, 1780, Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:108–9.
3. Silas Condict to Washington, Jan. 31, 1780, Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:336-37.
4. Washington to Condict, Feb. 1, 1780, Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:341-42.
5. Washington to St. Clair, Feb. 12, 1780, Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:457-58.
6. John Graves Simcoe, Simcoe’s Military Journal. A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps, Called the Queen’s Rangers … (New York, 1844), 131.
7. Knyphausen’s report of Jan. 1 to Feb. 24, 1780 to Gen. Henry Clinton, University of Michigan, William L. Clements Library: Clinton Papers.
8. Knyphausen’s report of that date.
10. One of St. Clair’s spies, who was acting as a guide for this force (see below), referred to the commander of the party as “commandant,” indicating a lieutenant colonel or major in command of a regiment (St. Clair to Washington, Feb. 11, 1780 in Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:444-49). Deputy quartermaster general James Abeel reported to Washington’s aide-de-camp Richard Kidder Meade that Maj. Gen. Charles Grey commanded this force, but that is highly unlikely because Grey was in England at the time.
11. New York printer Hugh Gaine wrote in his journal on Feb. 11 that the “Light Horse and Regiment of Foot” left New York the night before to attack Washington’s headquarters (Ford, The Writings of George Washington 2:80); Abeel to Meade, Feb. 13, Library of Congress: Papers of George Washington. Abeel reported the cavalry at 400 to 500 and the infantry as 3,000. The infantry number seems grossly inflated and does not correspond with other accounts.
12. These and the following figures are for those present and fit for duty. The 2nd Battalion (113 present and fit) was stationed on Long Island and did not participate in this attack. It did not participate in any actions in New Jersey after Aug. 19, 1779 (Paulus Hook); see Walter T. Dornfest, Military Loyalists of the American Revolution: Officers and Regiments, 1775-1783 (Jefferson, N.C., 2011), 386-89. The battalion was quartered for the winter on Long Island (Baurmeister, Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776-1784, 319).
13. Ibid., 393, 399-400.
14. The Garrison Regiment Von Bünau from Hesse-Casal, also stationed on the island, does not appear to have taken part in the raid (Baurmeister, Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776-1784, 320).
15. St. Clair to Washington, Jan. 28, 1780, in Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:307-10.
16. Washington to Stirling, Jan. 14, 1780, in Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:136-37; and Washington to William De Hart, Jan. 18, 1780, in Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:171-72.
17. St. Clair to Washington, January 31, 1780, in Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:337-38; David A. Bernstein, ed., Minutes of the Governor’s Privy Council, 1777–1789 (Trenton, 1974 in New Jersey Archives, 3rd ser., vol. 1), 145-46; and St. Clair to Washington, Feb. 7, 1780, in Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:403-5.
18. Washington recorded in his weather diary that at Morristown the weather on the 10th was “moderate” (Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Diaries of George Washington, 3, [Charlottesville, Va., 1978], 345).
19. Simcoe, 132.
20. St. Clair to Washington, Feb. 11, 1780 in Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:444-49.
21. Simcoe, 132.
22. Ibid., 131-34.
23. St. Clair to Washington, February 11, 1780 in Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:444-49.
28. Knyphausen’s report.
29. St. Clair to Washington, Feb. 11, 1780 in Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:444-49; Simcoe, 134.
30. Abeel’s intelligence report to Meade, Feb. 13, 1780, Library of Congress, George Washington Papers.
31. St. Clair to Washington, Feb. 11, 1780 in Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:444-49.
32. Washington to St. Clair, Feb. 12, 1780, in Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 24:457-58.
33.General Orders, March 19, 1780 in Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 25:87-88.