The Partisan and the Queen’s Ranger


October 16, 2014
by Benjamin Huggins Also by this Author


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On November 6, 1779, Virginia major Henry Lee, commander of the Continental Army’s 2nd Partisan Corps, addressed a letter to British lieutenant colonel John Graves Simcoe, who eleven days before he had been trying to defeat in battle. “I am happy to hear by your polite reply to an offer dictated by the feelings of man for man, that you had already been supplied in cash by the friendship of a brother officer….” The New Jersey militia had taken Simcoe prisoner and Lee had offered to aid him with money. “Being employed in a similar line by our respective Generals,” Lee wrote, “it may not be amiss to appeal to me, should his Excellency [the governor of New Jersey] require contradiction to the reports propagated prejudicial to your character” (reports were circulating of Simcoe’s supposed cruelties during his raids into New Jersey).[1] Simcoe commanded the provincial Queen’s Rangers, like Lee’s corps a legionary unit, composed of cavalry and infantry, and like his corps often tasked with partisan missions.

"Light Horse Harry" Lee by Charles Willson Peale, 1782.
“Light Horse Harry” Lee by Charles Willson Peale, 1782.

As Lee hinted, his respect for Simcoe may also have derived from their similarities as commanders of dragoons and light infantry. Both were ambitious, enterprising, and bold. Both had risen fast to their respective commands. Simcoe had entered the British army as an ensign in 1771 and had risen to captain by October 1777, when General Sir William Howe appointed him to the command of the Queen’s Rangers with the provincial rank of major. In June 1778, Sir Henry Clinton, Howe’s successor as British commander in chief in North America, promoted Simcoe to lieutenant colonel.[2] Lee had joined the 1st Continental Dragoons as a captain in June 1776. By the following fall his troop (company) of dragoons was operating directly under General George Washington’s orders as a semi-independent partisan troop. In April 1778, at Washington’s request, Congress made Lee major-commandant of an “independent partisan Corps” of two troops of horse (soon increased to three troops). In the spring of 1779, Washington assigned a company of light infantry to Lee’s command and in the winter of 1780 Congress authorized Lee to raise two additional infantry companies.[3]

New Jersey militiamen had captured Simcoe during a raid into New Jersey that Lee later described as “among the handsomest exploits of the war.”[4] The Virginia major had been alerted to Simcoe’s attack too late to intercept the Queen’s Rangers, and the Jersey militia had captured Simcoe before Lee arrived on the scene. But Lee brought his Partisan Corps cavalry up in time to briefly engage the Ranger’s rear guard before they escaped to Staten Island.[5]

True to his promise, Lee wrote to New Jersey governor William Livingston, seeking to ease the conditions of Simcoe’s confinement, but the governor refused, explaining that the state held Simcoe in close confinement as retaliation for similar treatment of New Jersey officers held by the British.[6] Despite this, state officials freed Simcoe in December 1779 when an opportunity arose to exchange him for one of their own officers.

In spite of Lee’s offers of aid, Simcoe still viewed Lee as his chief military rival. Upon his return to Staten Island after his exchange, Simcoe’s first thought on military operations was to “conquer Lee’s corps.” He sought permission from Lt. Gen. Wilhelm von Knyphausen, temporary commander at New York while Clinton was leading an expeditionary army against Charleston, S.C., to execute plans “to beat up the enemy’s posts in the Jersies.” “The first enterprise [I] meant to attempt was, to surprise Col. Lee, at Burlington,” Simcoe later wrote. In his journal published after the war, the British colonel gave his reason for wanting to destroy the Partisan Corps: “Lee’s corps were excellently mounted and disciplined; he himself was active and enterprising, and had that weight in the Jersies, which capacity and power, with a very free use of it, could give to the possessor.” Thus, it was of high importance for any operation in New Jersey “to have seized upon Col. Lee and demolished his corps.” Simcoe received approval for the attack and began his preparations, but he had to abandon the operation in late March 1780 when his infantry were ordered to embark to reinforce Clinton’s army.[7]

But in June, when Clinton returned to New York with part of his army, Simcoe got his chance to engage Lee. At the Battle of Springfield on 23 June, Lee and his dragoons defended bridges over the Rahway River against Simcoe and his Rangers. Knyphausen commanded a corps of 6,000 British, German, and provincial troops that he and Clinton hoped could seize the Hobart Gap in Watchung Mountains behind Springfield and take Washington’s camp and supply depots at Morristown. Lee and his dragoons were asigned to the Maj. Gen. Nathanel Greene’s advance corps, seven regiments numbering about 1,100 Continentals, plus about 1,500 Jersey militia. Washington had tasked Greene with defending Springfield and Morristown as he moved the main army north toward West Point to counter an expected attack against that post by Clinton’s troops. Simcoe’s Rangers became the lead unit of the brigade Knyphausen sent to outflank Greene’s corps. Knyphausen had attempted a similar attack earlier in the month but the New Jersey militia had turned out in force to delay his march until Washington could move the army to Springfield. Knyphausen turned back after reaching Connecticut Farms and retreated to Elizabethtown, New Jersey.[8]

During Knyphausen’s first attack, Lee had been in Philadelphia preparing to move his corps to join the southern army, but Washington had ordered him back to Morristown. Lee’s infantry was in Virginia, but he marched to join the army with his three troops of dragoons, numbering about 120. He urged his infantry commander, Captain Allan McLane, to come north with all speed to join him: “Sacrifice all objects to an immediate junction, & be not delayed by any thing human … Here, in all probability will be a harvest of glory – Arrive in time to share” McLane, though, could not rendezvous with Lee for many weeks; Lee would oppose Simcoe with only his three troops of dragoons. Washington’s army had been short of cavalry, and the arrival of Lee’s dragoons at Springfield impressed observers and helped raise the spirits of the army. “Major Lee, from Virginia, has just arrived in camp, with a beautiful corps of light-horse, the men in complete uniform, and the horses very elegant and finely disciplined,” one observor recorded at the time. “Major Lee is said to be a man of great spirit and enterprise, and much important service is expected from him.”[9]

Lee soon found that important service. Shortly after launching his attack on the 23rd, Knyphausen split his force in an attempt to outflank Greene’s main defensive positions at Springfield. While keeping his main force on the Galloping Hill Road, the German general sent a brigade, led by Simcoe’s Rangers, over to the Vauxhall Road, which ran north of Springfield but joined the Galloping Hill Road west of that town just before entering Hobart Gap. Greene had assigned Lee to defend the Vauxhall Road, giving him some militia and a small detachment of New Jersey Continentals, to reinforce his dragoons. Greene also sent Col. Matthias Ogden’s 1st New Jersey Regiment to back up Lee. The Virginia major had two bridges to defend: Vauxhall Bridge and, about a mile west, “Littles” bridge, due north of Springfield. With Simcoe now leading the British brigade up the Vauxhall Road, he and Lee would finally have their long-sought battle.[10]

Lee set up a two-tier defense. In the fields and woods west of Vauxhall Bridge, Lee posted small parties of militia and his Continental infantry to slow the British advance. Lee deployed his main strength, his dragoons, behind Littles bridge, the key bridge protecting Greene’s left flank. That general was establishing a stronger defensive position in the foothills behind Springfield, but Lee had to hold Littles bridge until the general could extricate his forward regiments from their blocking positions at the bridges in the town. Ogden’s 179-man regiment was also available to help Lee hold the bridge. Thus Lee’s defense of Littles Bridge became crucial; the longer he could hold off the British brigade on the Vauxhall road, the more time he could buy Greene at Springfield.

Portrait of Colonel John Graves Simcoe (ca. 1881). Source: Archives of Ontario
Portrait of Colonel John Graves Simcoe (ca. 1881). Source: Archives of Ontario

Simcoe halted “for a considerable time” at Vauxhall Bridge for the British artillery to shell Lee’s troops west of the bridge. After firing, mostly ineffectually, for a time at the Rangers across the river, Lee’s men retreated to the position at Littles bridge. When Simcoe’s men advanced across Vauxhall Bridge they were unopposed.[11]

At Littles bridge, Lee dismounted his troopers and deployed them in “small bodies” in echelon on the heights behind the bridge to concentrate their fire on the road. Rather than cross the bridge and assault the ridge in the face of this heavy fire, Simcoe opted for a flank attack. He advanced his Rangers in column, then shifted them into line. The British colonel, outnumbering Lee, extended his line to the left, forded the stream with a small force under cover of his riflemen, and got around to a hill on the Virginian’s left flank. Lee, knowing Ogden was in support, immediately fell back. He retreated quickly to avoid a frontal attack while Simcoe’s small party was on his flank, but with too much order for Simcoe to attack him from the flank. Lee’s defense, though Simcoe had forced Lee to “give up the pass,” had prevented Knyphausen from being able to gain any advantage over Greene, who later reported that the major had disputed the bridge “with great obstinacy, and the enemy must have received very considerable injury.”[12] Lee and Ogden commenced a fighting retreat down the Vauxhall road toward its union with Galloping Hill Road at the Hobart Gap. Greene had been able to set up a strong defensive position in front of the gap and was able to dispatch two regiments to reinforce Lee and Ogden. But the contest at Littles bridge had ended the fighting between Simcoe and Lee. Simcoe’s Rangers were called back to Springfield to support Knyphausen’s push up the Galloping Hill Road.[13]

Lee’s strong defense of the Vauxhall Road to protect Greene’s flank was pivotal to the successful defense of the Hobart Gap. Tactically, Simcoe got the better of Lee. But the American major fulfilled his mission: protect Greene’s flank long enough to enable Greene to retreat to a more defensible position. The Battle of Springfield offered a preview of Greene and Lee’s cooperation in their coming campaign in the South. In particular, both commanders would find themselves in a similar tactical situation in March 1781 at Guilford Courthouse, N.C., and Lee would again be protecting Greene’s flank.

Despite their clash at Springfield, Lee continued to admire Simcoe after the war. In his memoirs, he described the British colonel as “a man of letters, and, like the Romans and Grecians, cultivated science amid the turmoil of camp. He was enterprising, resolute, and persevering; weighing well his project before entered upon, and promptly seizing every advantage which offered in the course of execution.”[14]


[1] Lee to Simcoe, 6 Nov. 1779, in Simcoe, Simcoe’s Military Journal. A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps, Called the Queen’s Rangers, Commanded by Lieut. Col. J. G. Simcoe … (1844; reprint by Arno Press; 1968), 267.

[2] Simcoe, 17, 62

[3] Washington to Theodorick Bland, August 1777, in Philander D. Chase, Theodore Crackel, and Edward Lengel et. al., eds., The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 11: 104; and General Orders, ibid., 11: 390-92; Washington to Henry Laurens, 3 April 1778, and n.2, ibid., 14:390-91; Washington to Lee, 9 June 1779, ibid., 21:116-17; and Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 16:159, 164

[4] Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States (1869 edition; New York: University Publishing Company), 301.

[5] Simcoe, 109-117; Lee, Memoirs, 301.

[6] Livingston to Lee, 10 Nov. 1779, in Carl E. Prince, et. al., eds., The Papers of William Livingston (New Brunswick, 1986), 3:206; Simcoe, 270.

[7] Simcoe, 135-36.

[8] For more on Knyphausen’s first attack into New Jersey, see Thomas Fleming, Forgotten Victory: The Battle for New Jersey-1780 (New York, 1973), 15-187.

[9] James Thatcher, Military Journal of the American Revolution… (Hartford, 1862), 200, entry of 15 June.

[10] Simcoe, 144; Fleming, 253-54, 268-69. Nathanael Greene called the second bridge “Littles” bridge in his report to Washington (see Greene to George Washington, 24 June (third letter), in Richard K. Showan, et al., eds., The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, 6:35).

[11] Simcoe, 144-45.

[12] Simcoe, 144-45; Greene to George Washington, 24 June (third letter), in Showan, et al., eds., The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, 6:34–39.

[13] Simcoe, 145. For the complete story of the Knyphausen’s second thrust into New Jersey, see Fleming, 221-289.

[14] Lee, Memoirs, 301.

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