Raid Across the Ice: the British Operation to Capture Washington

The War Years (1775-1783)

December 17, 2013
by Benjamin Huggins Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

George Washington at Princeton by Charles Willson Peale (1741 - 1827).
George Washington at Princeton by Charles Willson Peale (1741 – 1827).

In early February 1780, General George Washington’s main army was encamped at Jockey Hollow, New Jersey. But the general maintained his headquarters about three miles away in Morristown, at the house of the widow Theodosia Ford. That separation 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 1779-1780 was the most severe the Continental Army ever experienced. Deep snow and sub-freezing temperatures stopped most mills and made long-distance transportation exceedingly difficult. The impossibility of bringing supplies in from other states forced the American commander in chief to resort to a “requisition” of food supplies in New Jersey—essentially  an impress but with the aid of civilian magistrates.[1] Though the requisition temporarily relieved the distress of the army, the soldiers remained desperately short of supplies all winter. But this severe winter probably also saved the Revolution by frustrating the British cavalry raid designed to surprise and capture the American commander.

Due to the easy crossing of Arthur Kill[2] provided by ice, many leaders in New Jersey were wary of the potential for quick raids designed to capture senior leaders. William Livingston, the state’s governor, suspected such a plot to capture him.  Believing it would be “imprudent” for him to remain at his home in Parsippany, he took up residence in Morristown.[3] 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. “The Importance of the Object, May induce them to hozard an attempt, and will fully justify every Means to be ready to recieve them.” He thought a party of horse could reach Morristown “undiscovered.”[4]

Washington, however, expressed confidence in the security of his headquarters. He believed that no cavalry force could reach the vicinity before the alarm could be sounded and troops arrived from Jockey Hollow to support his guards, who were quartered close by the Ford house. He replied to Condict that he had considered the possibility of a surprise cavalry attack and had taken “precautions” which he thought would prove “effectual.” [5]  Likewise, he informed Major General Arthur St. Clair: “I have taken precautions to guard against an attempt by such a party as might be reasonably supposed to be able to reach this in the course of a night [meaning cavalry].” Washington rightly believed he was in no danger from an infantry attack.[6] Other than the nearby location of the barracks for his guards, we do not know the specific “precautions” that he had taken to protect himself from capture. A nineteenth-century account claimed that on an alarm, “the life-guard would immediately rush to the house of the general, barricade the doors, and throw up the windows. Five soldiers, with their muskets cocked and brought to a charge, were generally placed at each window, and there they would remain until the troops from the camp marched to head-quarters, and the cause of the alarm was ascertained.”[7] Washington was more concerned for the safety of his generals who lived at a distance from the army than he was for himself.[8]

British 17th Light DragoonsThe enemy, though, thought they could get to the American commander in chief with a cavalry force. Captain 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, after learning of the situation of Washington’s headquarters formulated a plan to “carry off” the American general.[9] 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.”[10] Knyphausen had approved the plan by 7 February, and that same day the cavalry for the raid began assembling.[11] On that day, the hussars (light horse) of Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers moved across the ice from Staten Island to New York City, and by the next day the 17th Light Dragoons had moved from their winter quarters at Hempstead, Long Island to the city.[12]

As originally planned, the raid on Washington’s headquarters by 120 dragoons was to be “favored” by several other simultaneous strikes into New Jersey. One force, attacking across the ice from King’s Bridge, was to hit the American outpost at Paramus, where Washington maintained at detachment of about 200 infantry. A “small body” would cross the frozen Hudson River at Fort Lee and attack the advanced post at Hackensack. Another force would attack from the city to hit the outpost at Newark Mountain meeting house. Finally, forces from Staten Island would attempt to surprise outposts at Cranes Mills, Elizabethtown, Rahway, and Woodbridge. A body of infantry was to remain at the meeting house to receive the cavalry as it retreated back to the Hudson with a captive General Washington.[13]

Knyphausen intended to launch the attack on 8 February, but a sudden fall of snow and rain “put a Stop to the Movement.”[14] The next day, he received intelligence that the Continental outposts at Newark Mountain meeting house and Paramus had been withdrawn, and he presumably canceled those attacks.

With the cancellation of two of the raids, Knyphausen appears to have boosted the number of the cavalry for the attack on Washington’s headquarters. That force also now took on the mission of attacking Hackensack, from where they would move towards Morristown. At least 300 cavalry, including the hussar company of the Queen’s Rangers and probably all of the 17th Light Dragoons present in New York, were assigned to this force, which was most likely commanded by Lt. Col. Samuel Birch of the 17th Light Dragoons.[15] This body was apparently reinforced by a regiment of infantry, numbering about 200, designed to cover the cavalry on their return and also to bring off cattle at Hackensack.[16] Loyalist William Smith, royal chief justice of New York, wrote in his diary that 4 or 500 men crossed the Hudson from the city.[17]

Washington's headquarters at Morristown. Photo courtesy of author.
Washington’s headquarters at Morristown. Photo courtesy of National Park Service.

To draw attention away from this cavalry raid three other groups were to attack from Staten Island: one force to hit Woodbridge, another, smaller force to strike Rahway, and the largest to hit Elizabethtown. British Brigadier General Thomas Stirling commanded the British and Provincial troops on Staten Island. Provincial Brigadier General Cortlandt Skinner was the next ranking officer; two battalions of his New Jersey Volunteers, totaling about 370 soldiers, were stationed on Staten Island.[18] Stirling also had two other Provincial regiments at his disposal: Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers, about 400 strong, and Col. Francis Lord Rawdon’s 2nd American Regiment (Volunteers of Ireland) with about 400-500 men.[19] All these troops appear to have been assigned to the attack.[20]

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. On his arrival to take the command on 27 January, St. Clair ordered his commanders to post guards at Rahway, Cranes Mills, Connecticut Farms, Elizabethtown, and Newark.[21] 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 infantry at Paramus.[22] (Knyphausen’s information that Washington had recalled the detachments at Newark and Paramus was false).

Washington and St. Clair had also put another force into operation that proved critical in deflecting one of the raiding parties. Due to a lack of Continental cavalry to patrol the areas between his guard posts, St. Clair asked the New Jersey authorities to raise a company of light cavalry at Continental expense to patrol the coast roads between Newark and Amboy. The company eventually numbered forty-five light cavalry raised from militia volunteers. St. Clair stationed these light cavalry at Rahway, Newark, and Woodbridge, with fifteen at each town.[23] They would prove their worth in the coming fights.

With no snow on the 10th,[24] Knyphausen gave the order to attack that night. According to plan, Simcoe crossed the ice with 200 infantry of his Queen’s Rangers at 1 o’clock in the morning on 11 February.  Brigadier Stirling’s orders called for the colonel to send a party to surprise the enemy post at Woodbridge or Rahway “and to give a general alarm.”[25] Simcoe posted Maj. Richard Armstrong with some of the regiment’s infantry, his remaining cavalry, and some cannon at the heights overlooking the Old Blazing Star Ferry to cover his return. He then headed the rest of the Rangers toward Woodbridge. Because of deep snow, Simcoe’s men could only march “on the beaten road.”

Meanwhile, Stirling had also sent forward the force designed to hit Elizabethtown. This diversionary attack was the most destructive of all the raids. Brigadier General Skinner himself appears to have commanded; 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.”[26] St. Clair’s guards at Woodbridge were warned of Simcoe’s approach and quickly retreated, losing 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.” Though they seized some beef, Simcoe’s Rangers committed no depredations in the town. St. Clair reported: “The Party at Woodbridge committed no outrage of any kind upon either the Persons or Houses of the Inhabitants, but carried off about thirty Head of Cattle.”[27]

Simcoe did not anticipate encountering St. Clair’s militia horse patrols. In the dark of the early morning, the Rangers managed to slip past some guards posted at the cross roads of the road from Amboy to Elizabethtown, but they soon ran into a militia horse patrol that sounded the alarm. The horse patrols had done their job. From the moment of the militia horse’s alert, the Queen’s Rangers were on the defensive. The Rangers began to take fire from guards and militia. Simcoe ordered a retreat back to the coast. By 8 o’clock the Americans were pursuing Simcoe’s Rangers down the road to the Old Blazing Star ferry. Simcoe ordered the lead company to cover the regiment by light infantry tactics of firing from the cover of trees and orchards. The snow prevented any flanking move by the pursuing Americans, who could only follow Simcoe’s rear company down the road. The Americans pursued so closely that Simcoe had to order a charge to clear his rear before arriving at the crossing. When Simcoe’s men were on the ice, the Americans took post in the ferry house and began firing on them. Covered by Major Armstrong’s cannon and a company which Simcoe had detached from the column and positioned on the island behind the ridges of ice heaped up by the tide, Simcoe’s raiders made their way safely back across the ice.  Simcoe stated that he had only one man killed and “a few” wounded.[28]

At Elizabethtown, St. Clair’s guards (fifty men) “were timely aprised” of the enemy’s approach and quickly retreated. But Skinner’s soldiers got off some shots at the rearguard and wounded one man.[29] Finding the guards alerted, Skinner’s men could not accomplish their primary mission. But as was often the case, plunder became their next objective. Skinner, whose hard-war conduct had long ago made him an object of enmity to the Patriots, seems to have done little to restrict depredations in the town. “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.”[30] One newspaper account noted that Elizabethtown “has not before suffered so much by plundering since the beginning of the war.”[31] The New Jersey Gazette angrily accused Skinner’s raiders of being no more than a “plundering party,” who had plundered the houses of several prominent citizens “in a most barbarous manner.”[32]

St. Clair’s guards took two prisoners, but they turned out to be militia or civilians from Staten Island who had followed Skinner’s troops in order to plunder.[33] The guards, horse patrols, and some militia pursued Skinner’s retreating raiders, and claimed to have wounded several (but none were left behind).[34] William Smith wrote in his diary the next day that the raiders brought back twenty men “mostly militia” from Elizabethtown.[35]

The force that raided Rahway, probably troops from Skinner’s battalions or Rawdon’s regiment, accomplished little other than its diversionary mission. St. Clair reported to Washington that these raiders “landed at Raway, in a very obscure place, plunder[ed] two houses and carried off two Men, and seem to have had no other object.”[36]

Next to Simcoe’s attack, the raid on Morristown is best documented thanks to one factor: one of the force’s guides was a spy employed by St. Clair. That general had sent the unnamed spy into New York City to gather intelligence and had been waiting for his report for several days.[37] The spy was probably one of the supposed British sympathizers allowed to trade with New York through the British outpost at Paulus Hook, New Jersey. Lt. Col. Birch’s strike force crossed the Hudson on the ice. While these cavalry were assembling at Paulus Hook on the 10th, the British commanders stopped all traffic in and out of the post and the spy became trapped. Apparently unaware of the man’s sympathies, the British commander decided to use St. Clair’s spy as guide. After sallying out in the early morning darkness of 11 February, the raiders moved to Hackensack (where a road led 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. St. Clair’s spy 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.[38]

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.”[39] In addition to deep snow in the roads, the recent fall of sleet had created a layer of ice that cut the horses’ fetlocks.[40] 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.[41] But Simcoe was already on the retreat.

Though the British commanders had tried to maintain secrecy, the objective of the raid was generally known in the city.  New York printer Hugh Gaine wrote in his journal entry for 11 February that the raiders had gone out with “a Design as was said, to surprise G. Washington at Morris Town.”[42] On the same day William Smith reported in his diary: “I suspect Washington was the chief Object and the Sallies from Staten Island Feints.”[43]

St. Clair suspected the cavalry attack had been designed to capture Washington and he thought the commander in chief’s precautions were inadequate.[44] In light of this bold attack, 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.[45]

Also, warming weather soon induced Washington to add another defense against a repeat of such a cavalry raid. He increased the numbers of his guards. On 19 March, the general ordered two soldiers from every regiment and one sergeant from each brigade to join the commander in chief’s guard. By that date, the deep snow on the roads was mostly gone. A thaw in late February had uncovered most of the roads about Morristown.[46] Though a new snow fall on 16 March had put nine inches down,[47] Washington may have felt that the frozen ground (vice the thick mud of late February) made him more vulnerable to a raid. The British, though, did not repeat their operation.

The severe winter, though it brought Washington’s army near to starvation, probably saved him from capture, or at least a severe battle in the streets of Morristown between his guards and the British cavalry. And it thus may very well have also saved the American cause.


[1] See Washington’s (GW’s) circular to the New Jersey magistrates of 7 January and GW’s letters of 8 January to William De Hart and other field officers who were to supervise the requisition, both in U.S. Library of Congress, George Washington Papers (DLC:GW.

[2] Arthur Kill is the body of water between Staten Island and the New Jersey coast.

[3] William Livingston to GW, 13 Jan. 1780, Harvard University: Jared Sparks Collection of Documents Concerning the American Revolution, 1740-1866, series 3.

[4] Condict to GW, 31 Jan. 1780, DLC:GW.

[5] GW to Condict, 1 Feb. 1780, DLC:GW.

[6] GW to St. Clair, 12 Feb. 1780, Huntington Library (CSmH).

[7] Benson J. Lossing, Pictorial Field Book  of the Revolution, I, (New York: Harper Brothers, 1851), 310; for the location of the guards’ barracks in Morristown, see Samuel Stelle Smith, Winter at Morristown 1779-1780 The Darkest Hour (Monmouth Beach, N.J.: Philip Freneau Press, 1979), 12.

[8] See GW’s letter to Maj. Gen. William Alexander, Lord Stirling of 29 Jan. 1780, New York Historical Society (NHi): Stirling Papers.

[9] John Graves Simcoe, Simcoe’s Military Journal. A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps, Called the Queen’s Rangers … (New York: Bartlett & Welford, 1844), 131.

[10] Knyphausen’s report of 1 Jan.-24 Feb. 1780 to Gen. Henry Clinton, University of Michigan, William L. Clements Library: Clinton Papers.

[11] Knyphausen’s report of that date.

[12] Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Journals of Hugh Gaine, Printer (1902. Reprint. [New York] 1970), 2:79; Simcoe, 131; Carl Leopold Baurmeister, Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776–1784, of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces. Translated and annotated by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf (New Brunswick, N.J., 1957), 319; and Knyphausen’s report.

[13] Knyphausen’s report.

[14] Knyphausen’s report.

[15] 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 GW, 11 Feb., DLC:GW). Deputy quartermaster general James Abeel reported to GW’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.

[16] New York printer Hugh Gaine wrote in his journal on 11 February that the “Light Horse and Regiment of Foot” left New York the night before to attack Washington’s headquarters (Ford, The Journals of Hugh Gaine, 2:80); Abeel to Meade, 13 Feb., DLC:GW. Abeel reported the cavalry at 4 to 500 and the infantry as 3,000. The infantry number seems grossly inflated and does not match other accounts.

[17] William H.W. Sabine, ed., Historical Memoirs from 26 August 1778 to 12 November 1783 of William Smith …. (New York, 1971), 227.

[18] These and 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 19 August 1779 (Paulus Hook); see Walter T. Dornfest, Military Loyalists of the American Revolution: Officers and Regiments, 1775-1783 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2011), 386-89. The battalion was quartered for the winter on Long Island (Baurmeister, Revolution in America, 319).

[19] Dornfest, Military Loyalists, 393, 399-400.

[20] 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, 320).

[21] St. Clair to GW, 28 Jan. 1780, DLC:GW.

[22] GW to Stirling, 14 Jan. 1780, NHi: Stirling Papers; and GW to William De Hart, 18 Jan., New York Public Library: Myers Collection.

[23] St. Clair to GW, 31 Jan. 1780, DLC:GW; 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 GW, 7 Feb. 1780, DLC:GW.

[24] GW 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.: University Press of Virginia, 1978), 345).

[25] Simcoe, Simcoe’s Military Journal, 132.

[26] St. Clair to GW, 11 Feb. 1780, DLC:GW.

[27] St. Clair to GW, 11 Feb. 1780, DLC:GW.

[28] Simcoe, Simcoe’s Military Journal, 131-34.

[29] St. Clair to GW, 11 Feb. 1780, DLC:GW.

[30] St. Clair to GW, 11 Feb. 1780, DLC:GW.

[31] The Providence Gazette; And Country Journal, 26 Feb. 1780.

[32] The New-Jersey Gazette (Trenton), 16 Feb. 1780.

[33] St. Clair to GW, 11 Feb. 1780, DLC:GW.

[34] St. Clair to GW, 11 Feb. 1780, DLC:GW.

[35] Sabine, Historical Memoirs, 227.

[36] St. Clair to GW, 11 Feb. 1780, DLC:GW.

[37] St. Clair to GW, 7 and 10 Feb. 1780, both in DLC:GW.

[38] St. Clair to GW, 11 Feb. 1780, DLC:GW

[39] Knyphausen’s report.

[40] St. Clair to GW, 11 Feb., DLC:GW; Simcoe, Simcoe’s Military Journal, 134.

[41] Abeel’s intelligence report to Meade, 13 Feb. 1780, DLC:GW.

[42] Ford, The Journals of Hugh Gaine, 2:80

[43] Sabine, Historical Memoirs, 227.

[44] St. Clair to GW, 11 Feb., DLC:GW.

[45] GW to St. Clair, 12 Feb. 1780, CSmH.

[46] See GW’s diary entries for 24, 28, and 29 February 1780, in Diaries, 3:346. GW recorded on 29 Feb. and 1 March that the roads were “deep” with mud.

[47] Diaries, 3:348.


  • Another article for which this Journal was created. Even though the actions ultimately had little effect on the course of the War, it’s interesting to note how emboldened the British could be under the worst sort of conditions and how little it would have taken to change the course of history. The other point noted is how well Washington posted his troops during the winter to avoid such a surprise. I’m feeling an urgent need to sit by a roaring fire. Hopefully, Mr. Huggins can offer more interesting articles from his vantage point as an editor of GW’s papers.

  • It’s a very minor point. But some primary and secondary sources state that Washington’s HQ at the Ford Mansion is three miles southwest from where the Continental army wintered at Jockey Hollow. But having lived in Morristown, NJ for many years, it is more like five miles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *