Massacre Averted: How two British Soldiers saved 350 American Lives

In the early morning hours of September 28, 1778, British Troops under Major General Charles Grey surprised and decimated an entire regiment of Continental cavalry commanded by Colonel George Baylor.  Over twenty were killed, more than forty captured, and many others wounded.  Their major lay dead, and their colonel nearly so.   And it could have been much, much worse. Now called the Baylor Massacre, the story of the British Light Infantry surprising the 3rd Dragoons at Old Tappan (modern River Vale) on that September morning is well known. Few are aware, though, that two other British detachments were in motion that evening with a much larger target in view.

Major General Charles Grey. Source: Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University
Major General Charles Grey. Source: Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University

Approximately 6,000 British and Provincial troops under Lt. Gen. Lord Cornwallis had entered Bergen County, New Jersey early in the morning of 22 September 1778.   Their mission  was to collect forage and provisions   Opposing this massive incursion was a militia picket of about sixty men at the Liberty Pole (modern Englewood), a New York Militia Company at Hackensack, the 3rd Dragoons, and some New Jersey State troops under Major Peter Fell.  The picket at Liberty Pole was swept away on 23 September by 100 British cavalry.[1]  The survivors of this defeat fled across the Hackensack River at New Bridge, joining with the New York militia and Major Fell’s State Troops, a total force of 120 infantry, who, along with Baylor’s cavalry, made their way to Old Bridge and from thence north to Paramus.[2]  Baylor, who was still at Paramus on the 26th, moved to Haring Town/Old Tappan, and their fate, the following morning.[3]

British troops fanned out from Brower’s Hill on the west side of the Hackensack to Fort Lee on the Hudson.  The troops, guarded by hastily constructed redoubts, centered their operations at New Bridge, Teaneck, Schraalenburgh and the English Neighbourhood, taking advantage of the county’s numerous Loyalists to bring provisions and forage for embarkation on small vessels down the Hackensack, to repositories on Manhattan, to the amount of some eighty loads.[4]

In addition to Baylor’s movement to Old Tappan, a new Whig force appeared on the scene, 350 men of the Orange County Militia from New York under the command of Colonel Gilbert Cooper.  They took post at Tappan, on the border with Bergen County and within four miles of the advanced British pickets.  Here they collected cattle from the inhabitants in an attempt to keep it out of British hands.[5]

After Baylor’s arrival at Old Tappan, and Cooper’s at Tappan, Lord Cornwallis decided to surprise and overwhelm both forces.  Major General Charles Grey’s attack, with 1,500 men on the 120 bivouacked dragoons, has been well recorded in history.  The fate of Colonel Cooper and his men, much less so.

Cornwallis himself intended to lead a column of British troops, some 2,500 men, north from English Neighbourhood.  An additional 1,000 men from the 71st Highlanders and the Loyalist Queen’s Rangers, would embark from Philipse’s House on the east side of the Hudson, and land behind the militia in Tappan.  Caught between these two forces, and Major General Grey’s column from the southwest, Cooper’s 350 men would be cut off and destroyed.

Portrait of British Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe by George T. Berthon. Source: Government of Ontario Art Collection
Portrait of British Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe by George T. Berthon. Source: Government of Ontario Art Collection

It was a good plan, but nature and fate intervened.  The commander of the Highlanders and Provincials accused the Royal Navy, responsible for their river crossing, of not using their utmost endeavors to cross the force in a timely manner, and offered “the testimony of a thousand men and Officers” to corroborate his viewpoint.[6]  Lt. Col John Graves Simcoe of the Rangers noted that the landing on the west side of the Hudson was three hours behind schedule, prompting him to later remark: “It requires great skill and still greater attention to adapt the movements of any embarkation in boats to the tides and shoals of rivers…”[7]  An officer in Lord Cornwallis’ column wrote that “The 71st Regt. & Simcoe’s Corps cross’d the north river last night and appear’d at Tapawn soon after we arrived there but met with nothing in their way.”[8]  Colonel Cooper and his men were gone.

What prompted the militia’s hasty withdrawal from Tappan?  Lord Cornwallis’ column started off from Liberty Pole, northward up the Closter Road, through modern day Tenafly, Demarest, Closter, Norwood and Rockleigh, 2,500 men composed of the 1st Battalion Grenadiers, Brigade of Guards, 37th Regiment and 42nd Highlanders.[9]  Some of the finest troops of the British Army were advancing quietly in the night, led by one of their best generals.  The militia would be no match for them.  Except that two of these British soldiers, for reasons known only to themselves, slipped away in the night and made all haste to Tappan.

Often in history, the specific deeds or their exact information has been lost, conjectured or simply invented to suit needs or the times.  In this case however, we are fortunate to have the exact accounts given by these two men, soldiers in the 37th Regiment of Foot, taken from a depositions made on 29 September 1778 somewhere in the Hudson Highlands:

Francis McCarny 37th British Regt.  Deserted the Evening of the 27th Inst.  Says the Regt. lay at the Liberty Pole when he left it.  That they were ordered to march Just before he came away.  That he came off and informed Col. Cooper of the Militia, that the Enemy were about marching to surprise him and Col. Baylors Regt.  That Col. Cooper retired with his Militia without giving any information to Col. Baylor, the consequence of which was that the Enemy surprised and took near all the Regt.  That there is the 15th 17th 27th 33rd 37th 44th 46th and 64th British, Lord Rodens Corps[10], 2 Battns. of Grenadiers, two of Lt. Infantry and two Regts. of Horse[11] at the Encampment on the other side the River.  That there is a number of Troops laying in their Rear, of what Corps he cannot tell.  That Lord Cornwallis Commands.  That he was informed Sir Henry Clinton was to Join them with a large Reinforcement.  That he lay at Kings Bridge with a Body for that purpose, when the other Troops cross’d the River.  That it was a General Talk among them, that they was coming up to attack the Forts on ye River.

George Motisher 37th British, deserted at the same time and from the same place as the above.  Says That there is the 15th 17th 27th 33rd 37th 42nd 44th 46th and 64th British, Lord Rodens Corps, 2 Battns. of Grenadiers, 2 of Lt. Infantry and 2 Regts. of Dragoons.  That it was the universal talk among them, that they were coming to attack the Forts on No. River.[12]

The British had no doubt why the militia had withdrawn; Cornwallis stated in his official report that “Three Deserters from the Right Column alarmed the Militia, who were posted near New Taapan, by which means they made their Escape.”[13]  There is no evidence of a third deserter that night.  An officer of the Royal Artillery noted that the militia at Tappan “escaped by the Information of two Deserters from the 37th Regiment.”[14]  Another officer likewise recorded “we arrived [in Tappan] about sunrise & found the Village evacuated by about 500 militia who had got intelligence of our coming by two deserters.”[15]  A New Jersey Loyalist serving in the Adjutant General’s Department confirmed “…they were apprised of our march by two Deserters, and escaped.[16]

The deserters, McCarny and Motisher, disappear into history after their life-saving act.  Many deserters, from both sides, typically enlisted with the enemy.  They were often career soldiers who simply practiced their trade with the other side, as casually as one might change a sports team allegiance today.  George Motisher had served in the 37th Regiment at least since October 1775, while McCarny was drafted (or transferred) from the 16th Foot to the 37th on Christmas Day 1776.  Both were listed on the muster rolls as having deserted from Captain Henry Savage’s Company of the 37th on 28 September 1778.[17]

Not every militiaman escaped death or capture that night.  As a prudent commander, Colonel Cooper had sent a patrol south across the border into New Jersey to better learn the enamy’s movements.  James Quackinbush, a former Bergen County resident who had moved with his grandfather to Clarkstown, New York in 1776, was now a soldier in the Orange County Militia.  Many years later he recalled that fateful night:

The Company of Captain [Joseph] Crane prepared for a Scouting expedition, and this deponent Volunteered as one to go into New Jersey, and after scouting some time at different places, marched on their return (It being the night that a party of the British under the command of General Gray, as this deponent believes, surprised and took the greater part of Colonel Baylor’s Cavalry as they lay asleep at Tappan) as far as the Barn of a person by the name of Hogenkamp, when worn out with fatigue laid all night in the Barn, which was but a few miles south of the place of the massacre, this deponent and the rest of the company slept quietly until morning, when they were alarmed, and informed that the British was above them, Captain Crane immediately paraded his men, and marched upon an eminence, and immediately discovered, that the British had surrounded them, and gave orders for every man to make his escape, when the greater part of the company were killed or wounded.  This deponent and few others took a different direction and fortunately escaped, among those that were killed this deponent now remembers the names of John Burges & Jacob Archer, and that Lieutenant Blauvelt was among the wounded.[18]

The “Lieutenant Blauvelt” alluded to was almost certainly Captain Abraham Blauvelt of Kakiat who soon after the event gave his own chilling account:

Abraham Blauvelt a Captain in the Militia of Orange County, and Precinct of Kakiate doth, Solemnly and upon his Honor, declare, that pursuing the Enemy as they were retiring from Herring town [Haring Town, modern area of Harrington Park, Norwood and environs], on the morning of the 28th Septr. last, and finding himself surrounded by a vastly superior force, and a retreat impossible, he offered to surrender himself, but that instead of quarter he was instantly fired upon & wounded in the Thigh & afterwards stabbed in the Breast with a Bayonet and left for Dead.  He further Declares that he Heard the British Officers and Soldiers swear that they wou’d give quarter to no Militia man.[19]

Captain Crane was amongst the prisoners taken.  The British troops who stumbled upon this militia patrol were part of Major General Grey’s column, fresh from their surprise of the 3rd Dragoons, moving eastward on Old Tappan Road towards Tappan.  The barn where the militia were surprised was that of Lt. John Hogenkamp of the Bergen County Militia.[20]  An unnamed British officer, a part of Grey’s column, described the aftermath of the attack on Baylor’s as follows:

The Troops lay on their Arms till Break of Day, when moving forward, the Light-Infantry fell in with a Volunteer Company of Militia in a very Thick Wood and Swamp, these gave one Fire, which the 40th Company, commanded by Capt. [William] Montgomery, returned, and drove them off, leaving 6 Dead, but afterwards scampering across the Road, in Front of a Company of Grenadiers, three more were killed by them.  The Light-Infantry, in pursuing them, up to Tapan, where they were intirely dispersed, took five Prisoners, all of them wounded.[21]

One sentence in British deserter Francis McCarny’s deposition bears closer examination: “That Col. Cooper retired with his Militia without giving any information to Col. Baylor, the consequence of which was that the Enemy surprised and took near all the Regt.”  From the Mabie Tavern in the middle of Tappan to where the dragoons were cantoned in River Vale is 3.7 miles, a relatively easy ride for a mounted officer to give warning to the Continental troops.  So why did that not happen?

Relations between the cavalry and the inhabitants/militia was poor.  Two months earlier, Colonel Stephen Moylan led his 4th Dragoons into the county with orders from Washington to remove cattle and horses, a job he reluctantly complied with, writing to his commander-in-chief “there appears a great degree of cruelty in taking from a number of famillys, perhaps their only Support.  I am teased by the women, and with difficulty can prevail on my feelings, to suspend my giving to them their cows…”[22]  Relations with the 3rd Dragoons became much worse.  Continental troops, in this case primarily Virginians, considered most of the inhabitants as “disaffected” or Loyalists, and the militia not to be relied on.  Therefore, animosities were immediately stirred up when the cavalry turned their horses loose into farmers’ fields, consuming all the forage they found without payment.  This led to one of the more interesting clashes of a budding democracy, the civil government trying to enforce the law on the military.  A young militia private recalled the incident:

…the Major of Col. Baylors Regt. named [Alexander] Clough commanded in the absence of Col. Baylor.  The Quarter Master of the Regt. pressed a quantity of grain at the house of a farmer named Berry for the use of the Regt. & Berry took out a writ for the Qr. Master & Clough refused leave to the Sheriff to execute the writ, the Sheriff called out the Posse when the Regt. of Militia assembled and our Company were also assembled to assist the Sheriff.  But good men in the place interfered & the major allowed the writ to be served.  The major was soon after Killed when the Regt. were massacred at Tappan.[23]

Baylor, writing to Washington on 23 September 1778, had quite a different view of the event, explaining with some evident disdain “A Regiment of Militia which were here last evening to assist the sherrif in taking two of my men Prisoners deserted us, as soon as this news was heard, the Colo. himself could not be prevailed on to stay.”[24]

The fleet-footed colonel of the militia was Theunis Dey of Preakness, on the western edge of the county.  His son Peter was a sergeant in the militia, and a witness to the tensions between the cavalry and the local populace:

The Enemy had crossed a party over at Hoboken under Cornwallis & Gen. Grey & were marching up the river plundering & foraging.  There were no continental troops near but a Regiment of horse under the command [of] Lieut. Col. Baylor who kept 9 or 10 miles off.  During this time Col. Baylor moved his troops from Hackensac by us & went up to old Taapan without consulting our officers.  There was some ill will existing between Baylor’s Corps and our militia on account of Deponent’s father being called upon to aid with his regiment the Sheriff of Bergen[25] to serve civil process on Baylor’s quarter master & other officers for having taken Citizen’s Cattle by force, at the home of one Aaron Schuyler.  Baylor’s horse by this were placed for the night in barns at old Taapan which enabled Gen. Grey to get between us and Baylor in the night and he murdered almost all of them asleep.[26]

Did the “ill will” mentioned by Sergeant Dey lead the militia to leave the dragoons to their own fate, even in an unconscious way?  No one will ever know.  A surviving dragoon who escaped with a bayonet wound to his back had no question who was to blame:

…the Inhabitants of the place [Old Tappan] pretended to be very friendly to the cause of the Americans, and some of them made parties for the American soldiers and furnished large quantities of Spirits of the choicest kind for the troops – and the American soldiers supposing themselves safe and in the hands of their friends became merry to excess.  In the mean time the Torys sent off runners to New York to inform the Brittish of the situation of the Troops.  This applicant was sleeping that night in a Stone Barn at Tappan with many more of the troops.  There were troops quartered at almost every house in the place, and he must say it with regret that few of them were in a situation to defend themselves even had they been apprised of the danger which was surrounding them, owing to the corrousal a few hours previous as before stated.

The nature of this “unnatural rebellion” was never on clearer display: American militia were saved from destruction by two British soldiers, while Continental Army troops were left to their fate by the inhabitants they were ostensibly there to protect.

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Baylor Massacre burial site, looking north from the northwestern end of Old Tappan Road. Source: Wikimedia Commons]


[1] John André Journal, HM 626, The Huntington Library.  (hereafter cited as THL.)

[2] Baylor to Washington, Paramus, 24 Sept. 1778.  George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence, 13 Sept. 1778 — 10 October 1778, Library of Congress.  (hereafter cited as LOC.)

[3] Baylor to Washington, Tappan, 19 October 1778.  George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence, 26 September 1778 — 6 November 1778, LOC.

[4] Four of the vessels were burnt by state whaleboats before reaching Manhattan.  Sir Henry Clinton Papers, Volume 43, item 36, University of Michigan, William L. Clements Library.  (hereafter cited as CL.)

[5] The New-York Packet, and the American Advertiser (Fishkill,) October 1, 1778.

[6] Campbell to Sir Henry Clinton, Kingsbridge, 10 Oct. 1778.  Clinton Papers, 43:12, CL.

[7] John Graves Simcoe.  A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps called the Queen’s Rangers commanded by Lieut. Col. J. G. Simcoe, during the War of the American Revolution, Bartlett & Welford, New York (1844,) Page 90.

[8] Cunningham of Thortoun Papers, 1746-1782, John Peebles Journal, GD 21/492/6, Pages 42-48, Scottish Record Office.  (hereafter cited SRO.)

[9] André Journal, THL.

[10] A Provincial unit, the Volunteers of Ireland, commanded by Colonel Francis Lord Rawdon.

[11] Actually a detachment of 200 cavalry, drawn equally from the 16th and 17th Regiments of Light Dragoons.

[12] Examination of Francis McCarny and George Motisher, Highland, 29 September 1778.  George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence, 13 Sept. 1778 — 10 October 1778, LOC.

[13] Cornwallis to Sir Henry Clinton, New Bridge, 28 September 1778.  Colonial Office, Class 5, Volume 96, folio 165, Great Britain, The National Archives.  (hereafter cited as TNA.)

[14] Journal of Military Operations in America from 17 June 1778 to the 31st December 1779, Ms. B3/14, Woolwich, Royal Artillery Institution.

[15] Peebles Journal, SRO.

[16] The Journals of Lt. Col. Stephen Kemble, 1773-1789.  Collections of the New-York Historical Society for 1883, printed for the Society (1884,) Pages 162-164.

[17] Muster Roll of Captain Savage’s Company, 37th Regiment of Foot.  War Office, Class 12, Volume 5101, TNA.  The author wishes to thank Don Hagist for his assistance in researching the careers of these two soldiers.

[18] Pension Application of James Quackinbush, New York City, 9 Sept. 1836.  Collection M-804, Pension and Bounty Land Application Files, No. S15200, James Quackinbush, New Jersey/New York, National Archives and Records Administration.  (hereafter cited as NARA.)

[19] Deposition of Abraham Blauvelt, October 1778.  Papers of the Continental Congress, M 247, Reel 66, i53, Page 131, NARA.

[20] C.F. William Maurer.  Dragoon Diary, AuthorHouse (2005,) Pages 493-494.

[21] The New-York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, October 5, 1778.

[22] Moylan to Washington, Hackensack, 29 July 1778.  George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence, 24 July 1778 – 12 September 1778, LOC.

[23] Pension Application of David R. Bogert, 1832.  Collection M-804, Pension and Bounty Land Application Files, No. W3502, David R. Bogert, New Jersey, NARA.

[24] Baylor to Washington, Hackensack, 23 Sept. 1778.  George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence, 13 September 1778 – 10 October 1778, LOC.

[25] Adam Boyd of Hackensack, also a lieutenant in the militia.

[26] Pension Application of Peter Dey, Seneca County, New York, 5 Feb. 1834.  Collection M-804, Pension and Bounty Land Application Files, No. S15078, Peter Dey, New Jersey, NARA.

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  • Very interesting indeed.

    Both Moylan and Baylor had spent the first year of the war as aides to Gen. Washington before taking their mounted commands. It would be hard, therefore, to say they were rogue officers whose actions didn’t reflect the Continental cause. On the contrary, their units’ impositions on the local population, and resulting unpopularity, were the normal results of war. This episode shows that cost.

  • Most interesting. I grew up very close to the site of the Baylor Massacre so I am very familiar with the story, but I had never heard about the British deserters. Thank you!

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