George Hanger ― His Adventures in the American Revolutionary War begin

"Jaegers Advance at Thornbury Farms" by Pamela Patrick White (White Historic Art)

PHILADELPHIA TO RHODE ISLAND

A late eighteenth century portrait of George Hanger, 4th Baron Coleraine. (Royal Collection)

Having pursued a chequered and colourful path in Europe, including a rake’s progress through London high society,[1] George Hanger reached New York City on May 16, 1778 and three days later set sail for Philadelphia to join the Hessian Jäger Corps as a staff captain.  He was not unduly surprised to find the two-day voyage up the Delaware fraught with danger, for the revolutionaries controlled the riverbanks, eagerly taking pot shots at passing vessels.  He arrived in the city on June 3 only to discover that it was about to be evacuated by the British and Hessians.

By now the war had been running for over three years but had hardly affected the revolutionaries’ control of the revolted colonies, though East and West Florida remained loyal.  By the beginning of 1777 the British had been forced to abandon Boston ― their last toehold in New England, had captured New York City, Long Island and Newport, Rhode Island, but, after initially occupying New Jersey, had had to withdraw from it in the face of reverses at Trenton and Princeton.  It was then that the plan for the Philadelphia campaign was devised.

If Philadelphia was threatened, then, according to Sir William Howe, the British commander-in-chief, it would be incumbent on George Washington, the revolutionary commander, to risk a battle to protect the capital of the confederacy.  “My opinion,” said he,” has always been that the defeat of the rebel regular [Continental] army was the surest road to peace.”  If it was crushed, not only one province but three would be the certain and immediate prize, for, he claimed, the destinies of New York and New Jersey were bound up in the fate of Pennsylvania, a combined region in which political inclinations were nearly balanced.  From such a secure and conveniently situated base the British Army could then proceed to subjugate, first Virginia and the Carolinas, and eventually Connecticut and Massachusetts.  It was a plan which he was confident would win Britain the war.

Unfortunately for the British, events did not turn out as expected.  They did indeed occupy Philadelphia, but despite the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown, the Continental army remained an ever present threat, confining the British to occupation of the city.  Apart from that post and those gained on the eastern seaboard, the British Army held not one single acre of soil on the mainland north of East Florida ― and to make matters worse, an army had been lost in the province of New York when Burgoyne capitulated at Saratoga.  All in all, the revolutionaries remained clearly in the ascendancy.

It was at this juncture that France entered the war on the side of the revolutionaries.  Every consideration now pointed to the desirability of concentrating British forces as far as possible.  So when Sir Henry Clinton arrived in Philadelphia on May 8 to supersede Howe, he brought with him orders to evacuate the city and, should he reach New York, to embark 8,000 men with artillery and stores for the West Indies and East and West Florida.

On reporting for duty, George would have expected to command a jäger company, but his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ludwig Johann Adolph von Wurmb, had other ideas.  Despite George’s assertions in later life to the contrary, he was never formally entrusted with the command of jägers but had in due course to make do with another arrangement as we shall see later.

At the start of the Philadelphia campaign the Jäger Corps had comprised four companies of foot jägers ― three Hessian and one Anspach ― and one mounted company, in all 865 men.  As their name implies, most were huntsmen and all were crack shots.  While at Philadelphia the Corps had been augmented by two newly arrived companies from Germany, increasing the total complement to 1,200, but had suffered materially by attrition.  For example, in the Battle of Brandywine two officers and six men were killed, whereas three sergeants and 35 privates were seriously wounded, the former of which and many of the latter died.  And so the losses continued during the numerous minor actions in which the Corps was engaged.  The élite of the Hessian troops, the jägers were employed to great advantage in leading the van of a marching army or protecting its rear, covering a withdrawal, reconnoitring, and conducting partisan warfare, particularly ambuscades.

A distressing scene had met George’s eyes when he landed.  Convinced the British were about to leave, many loyalists were placing their furniture and personal possessions on the pavement by their homes and frantically searching for means to convey them and their persons to transports off shore.  In the words of a lady who observed the chaos, “Her head grew dizzy with the bustle and confusion:.. carts, drays and waggons laden with dry goods and household furniture, dragged by men through the streets to the wharfs for want of horses; beds, boxes, trunks, chairs, tables etc turned out in the utmost confusion and haste.”  Waiting in the river were some 300 ships to transport them, surplus army supplies, sick or wounded soldiers, and enemy prisoners to New York.

Yet the deplorable fate of the loyalists was a mere sideshow to one of the trickiest of military problems:  how to evacuate an occupied city in the face of the enemy.  Clinton’s answer was to continue improving certain defensive works as a blind while destroying others and disposing of a mass of ordnance, firearms and military hardware, whether by taking it on board ship, burning it, or sinking it in the river.  Almost inevitably the utmost confusion was sown in the minds of the enemy, as evinced by the following report of June 10:  “The enemy at Philadelphia for three weeks past have been doing and undoing, one day extremely busy in fortifying and the next in demolishing.  In short, their manœuvres are so various as to render it utterly impossible to guess what measures they mean finally to pursue.”

Most of the occupying troops, some 17,000 or more, evacuated the city on the 15th and 16th, crossing the Delaware to New Jersey at Cooper’s Ferry.  Only the Jäger Corps and a few other detachments remained.  The night was clear and very pleasant, the air balmy and still, becoming “lazy” as the morning of the 17th broke hot.  It was then that they left, crossing to Gloucester Point on the New Jersey shore.  “They made no noise in evacuating the city but at the last moment left in the greatest haste, fearing perhaps that the Americans had heard of their intended departure and would attack them.  A lady who saw them leave said, ‘They did not go away ― they vanished.'”

The army began its march to New York in two columns:  one consisting of a baggage train of 1,500 waggons that extended for more than eight miles, and another composed of troops not needed for its protection.  The former was commanded by General Freiherr Wilhelm von Knyphausen, the general officer in charge of the Hessian forces, and the latter by Lt. General Charles Earl Cornwallis.  At times the columns united.  Walking beside the waggons were countless camp followers, predominantly women.

Almost immediately the New Jersey revolutionary militia began to swarm around the columns, continually sniping at them, destroying bridges, and felling trees across the roads in their path.  Later, as Washington crossed the Delaware in pursuit, detachments of Continental troops joined in.

Most often the Jäger Corps formed the van of a column or its rear, but occasionally protected its flanks.  By June 27, when Knyphausen’s leading column had come to rest on a beautiful plain just beyond Monmouth Court House, the Jäger Corps found itself posted in a large, very pleasant wood on the Trenton road, where after dark it was menaced by revolutionary militia.  George was later to recall, “I shall never forget the night before the Battle of Monmouth Court House.  It was uncommonly dark with frequent thunderstorms and rain.  It fell to my lot that night to have the outermost picket.  Never could man pass a more anxious time:  the fires all put out, the enemy’s patroles feeling us and firing every half hour and oftener at the advanced sentries; our men on sentry firing sometimes at the enemy’s patroles and sometimes at cattle in the woods, as soldiers will do when they hear a noise in the bushes, challenge, and gain no reply; the night so dark (taking it by turns every half hour with two lieutenants to visit the sentries) as not to be able to perceive our own men until we came close upon them and in danger of being fired at by our own men.  Such a night of anxiety and danger I never since passed, and blessed my God when the day began to dawn.”

Shortly afterwards Knyphausen’s column moved off bound for Middletown.  Thrown on to its left flank, the Jäger Corps had to skirmish with the enemy throughout the day as the column pushed ever deeper into the very difficult defiles of the area.  At times the situation became pretty desperate, as Captain Johann Ewald makes clear:  “… the terrain was so difficult to cross, because of the sunken roads, impassable underbrush, marshes, and many brooks which cut through the country here, that the greater part of the Jäger Corps more than once found itself in the dilemma of being cut off from the army, which happened to me several times today.  I thought that I was connected with the division and ran into whole swarms of Americans not over twenty to thirty paces away.  But since we took up the favorite cry of the great Frederick ― “Allons!  Allons!” ― and our jägers knew nothing else, we constantly got out of this business with honor.  Indeed, large groups of Americans penetrated several times between the intervals of the jäger platoons up to the waggons, killing men and horses.  Then, when they were driven back by the infantry escorting the waggons, they ran against the jägers and we were forced to fire on all sides.”

In the meantime Washington attacked in force Cornwallis’s column, which followed behind, precipitating the Battle of Monmouth.  It was a bloody affair in which Clinton, who was with the column, drove back the enemy across three ravines before continuing his march.  The enemy for propaganda purposes claimed victory ― a specious claim that has nevertheless percolated down in American history to the present day.

By July 1 the army had passed through Middletown and encamped on the heights of Navesink beside the sea.  While there the jägers, who were guarding the entrance to the heights, had two skirmishes with the enemy before crossing a pontoon bridge to Sandy Hook and moving into camp at Morris’s House on York Island.  By the 7th the entire army had passed either to New York or Long Island.

The march had been a most trying affair.  Conducted in almost unbearable heat, with temperatures reaching 96° F in the shade, it had seen many men die of sunstroke, no less than 59 during the Battle of Monmouth.  The Jäger Corps too was affected, as recorded, for example, in its journal on June 26:  “We lost three men on account of the dreadful heat.  The march was very fatiguing.  Being the last troops, we had constantly to deal with the enemy and suffered from a great shortage of water due to the exhausted or spoiled wells.  Consequently many of the jägers collapsed on the road and were dragged away on the officers’ horses, for we could not procure any waggons.  This happened very often during the withdrawal across Jersey.”  Moreover, when encamped, the entire army did not have a single tent, so that there was no protection from the heat of the sun or from the insects, which were a constant problem.  “We were,” says Ewald, “so terribly bitten at night by the mosquitoes and other kinds of vermin that we could not open our eyes for the swelling in our faces.  Many men were made almost unrecognisable, and our bodies looked like those of people who have been suddenly attacked by measles or smallpox.”  Nevertheless, a few moments of light relief occurred on June 24 when there was a total eclipse of the sun lasting four minutes from 9 am.  Despite all the difficulties faced by the troops, they still found many opportunities for undertaking unauthorised and widespread pillage, which, when New Jersey was briefly occupied in 1776, had done much to turn it against the Crown.

On July 21 the arrangement for George began to take shape.  In general orders volunteers were sought from the Hessian regiments to form a company of chasseurs to be commanded by him.  Comprising four officers, twelve non-commissioned officers, three drummers and 100 privates, they reported for duty four days later at Morris’s House before going into camp on Spuyten Duyvil Hill, the base for their operations till November.  One of the volunteers was a serjeant, Johann Carl Philip von Krafft, a soldier of fortune who has left a most interesting journal of his part in the war.  Born in Dresden in 1752, he had served as a lieutenant in the Prussian army, but tiring of garrison duty, he resigned in May 1776 and sought advancement in a more active role elsewhere.  After a series of adventures in which he crossed the Atlantic twice, he made his way to Valley Forge but was unable to obtain a commission in the Continental army as a captain.  Passing on to Philadelphia, he settled on becoming a Hessian serjeant in the Regiment von Donop.

Now reporting for duty as a volunteer, von Krafft records that he brought from his regiment “a very good letter of recommendation to the new captain of the chasseurs, who was an Englishman by birth and of the highest rank.  He had studied at Göttingen and was called George von Hanger.”

Spuyten Duyvil Hill lay between the Hudson River and King’s Bridge, which connected the northern tip of York[2] Island with the mainland of Westchester County.  Encamped beside the chasseurs was the Jäger Corps.  From then till the troops moved into winter quarters all were involved in patrols and small-scale warfare protecting York Island from incursions by the enemy, whose main force under Washington occupied White Plains to the north with its advanced posts at Valentine’s Hill and Philipse’s House, four miles from the outposts of George’s encampment.  Typical of what went on is described in the following entries in von Krafft’s journal:

1 August.  Saturday.  At daybreak we and all the jägers who were not on watch or picket had to patrol.  We chasseurs had the middle of the corps.  We marched a distance of about four English miles, when we arrived at an elevation where out of the near lying bushes three musket shots were fired.  The bullets killed the horse of a jäger who was riding on our flank.  We immediately marched up to the place and several more shots were fired.  Standing a little lower down now we could hear the bullets whistle over our heads.  We could see nothing.  It was very hazy and we could not see fifty steps ahead.  Some mounted jägers who had been sent forward came back and brought news that a considerable number of rebels had made a stand on another height and had field-pieces with them.  At this news we retreated in good order without firing a shot.  Our corps consisted of five foot and one mounted jägers, our chasseur company, and two three-pounder amusettes which had been given to the corps by the British.  Around these several jägers constantly remained with muskets and bayonets.

2 August.  Sunday.  Towards evening a loud alarm was given in our camp because some rebels showed themselves near the outposts.  We all had to turn out, but only to advance to the front of the camp.  Nor did we stay there long, for it soon grew quiet again.

As during the march across New Jersey, insects began to be a persistent problem in August.  For several days, Ewald relates, mosquitoes had arrived in vast swarms with the south wind, “which torment us extremely.  Moreover, all the bushes are full of large gray beetles, which because of their great numbers make such a loud hissing sound that one cannot hear during the night.”  By day they were plagued with swarms of flies.

On September 23, as part of a movement forward by Knyphausen, a detachment of some 30 chasseurs and jägers began advancing at 6 am to Philipse’s House in driving rain, opening the pretty church there and quartering themselves in it.  “Finally,” von Krafft reveals, “a search was begun and a large potato field was cleaned out and many other luxuries brought in.  Fowls, pigs and cattle were slaughtered, although everything had to be done secretly.  As usual when on the march, we received nothing but salt pork, biscuit and rum for rations.  In short we led, as the Hessians term it, a hussar life.  The rain continued with surprising violence so that we were glad to have got into such nice dry quarters.  We gathered hay and straw and made ourselves good beds.  For a mattress I had a cushion covered with green cloth, the covering of which I took with me when we marched away …  Constant complaints were made to the jägers and to us that cattle had been slaughtered, but the matter was not very closely investigated by the staff and other officers.  So we had good night quarters here.  The rain stopped during the night and it became clear again.”

The next day the detachment advanced farther to the 20-mile-stone, keeping to the right of it and ascending a height.  There they built huts in which to encamp till further orders.  “The foraging,” says von Krafft, “commenced again immediately, during which some of the soldiers began to plunder.  Many of the houses, which I saw afterwards, had been left in a deplorable state and the soldiers had made a good haul.  We were not forbidden to get provisions but very strictly admonished not to take anything from the people in their houses.  However, even when they were caught in the act, the punishment was not equal to the crime.  For a few days we had an abundance of good food and this was my only booty.”

By the 30th the whole of George’s chasseur company and the entire Jäger Corps had come up.  On that day he was involved in the aftermath of an action graphically described by Ewald in which Major Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee of the enemy worsted a detachment of jägers and captured one of its officers, Lieutenant Balthaser Mertz.  According to Baurmeister, “Captain Hanger was sent after the rebels with a flag of truce to take equipage and servants to Lieutenant Mertz.  However, Major Lee procured the lieutenant’s release because he had so gallantly defended himself .., and he returned with Captain Hanger.  His wounds, which are across the nose and on both cheeks, are not dangerous.  He has already been exchanged for another lieutenant.”

It was at this point that the Peace Commissioners, who had been dispatched by Britain to seek an accommodation, published a proclamation.  Dated October 3, it was their last despairing act in the face of Congress’s refusal to entertain negotiations short of independence.  Offering, inter alia, freedom for ever from taxation by Britain, it conceded everything that the revolted colonies had sought before the war began ― only matters had irretrievably moved on.

For form’s sake it was judged proper for Clinton to forward the proclamation to Congress by land from the outposts of the army and to dispatch a vessel with it to Philadelphia.  Accordingly copies were sent to the outposts of the Jäger Corps with orders to Lt. Colonel von Wurmb to deliver them to the most contiguous advanced post of the opposing army.

“I was,” says George, “the only Englishman in that corps.  Colonel von Wurmb therefore requested me as a favour (it not being my turn for duty) to go out with these proclamations and assigned as his reason that, as the other officers did not understand the English language, some mistake might take place from their not being able to explain matters and converse with the American officers.  Colonel von Wurmb certainly could have commanded me on this service, but to comply with a request or even a hint from him was but a small tribute of gratitude for me to pay to so good and amiable a man as well as so kind a friend.  It was therefore with the greater pleasure that I undertook this duty, but not without foreseeing the disagreeable consequences attendant on it, by which I might have lost my life and in the most unpleasant manner for a soldier and a gentleman.”

George concedes that he was perfectly aware of the temper of the revolutionaries, elated as they were by the reinforcements that their ally France was sending.  Already a French fleet was off the coast and French troops were in prospect.  Therefore “it was most natural to imagine that [Congress] would reject all proposals from the British Government, not only with scorn but contempt.”  So, on taking his leave of von Wurmb, George told him that he would endeavour to stay as short a time at the revolutionary outpost as possible, merely to demand a receipt, and push back with all expedition, for he was convinced that, if he remained a sufficient time for them to deliberate, he would be stopped and made a prisoner.  “The event,” he claims, “proved the truth of my conjectures.”

George here observes that the trumpeter and mounted jäger who accompanied him carried several hundred printed copies of the proclamation for him to distribute, as he went along, at the countrymen’s houses and in the towns through which he passed.  In Ferrytown[3], situated fourteen miles from the Hessian outposts, he distributed some hundreds.  About three or four miles farther beyond Ferrytown he fell in with a patrol of light dragoons who carried him to their officer at a house close by.  He commanded about 50 men.  “I gave him,” recounts George, “thirteen packets, one addressed to every State, and one to General Washington.  On reading a printed copy, he told me he did not know whether it was proper for him to receive such papers and that it was necessary for him to send to know the commands of General Scott[4] on that subject, who lay at the distance of about four miles.  I told him I was commanded to leave them at the first American outpost that I should fall in with, and with an air of nonchalance I added that, if he did not choose to receive them, I should leave them with the landlord of the house, but that it was but common politeness from one officer to another to give me an acknowledgement under his hand that I had left them at the house, merely to shew my commanding officer that I had done my duty, as I might otherwise be very severely reprimanded on my return to the British army and perhaps put under arrest.  In short, after a good deal of persuasion and telling him that the proclamation, whatever it contained, was nothing to him or to me as it came from the British Commissioners, and that certainly I should in a similar case not hesitate one moment in giving him a receipt, I procured a receipt from him and, taking a polite leave of him, rode off for our army with no small degree of speed and pleasure.  A few minutes after, he dispatched an officer with the proclamations to General Scott, but not before I had given every soldier who came round me one of them.”

On George’s return through Ferrytown, there were above 200 persons collected together and he was under some apprehension that they would stop him, as a few armed militia among them said that they knew not what business he had to deliver printed papers inviting the citizens of America to desert Congress.  He told them that he was under the sanction of a flag or truce and had done nothing but what the inhabitants requested.  “The populace,” writes George, “were nearly all in favour of me and requested me to continue my distribution of the papers, which I did and absolutely went so far at their request as to read one to the people as I sat on my horse and nailed one up against the public house before I departed.  I knew very well, from the distance General Scott was, that I could not be easily overtaken and that I had near an hour to spare.  I then made the best of my way home and met with a strong patrole of our corps within two miles of the town, when I returned without further interruption to the camp.”

As George correctly states, the very day of his excursion the admiral dispatched a cutter to Philadelphia with counterparts of the same packets that he had carried.  The moment the cutter cast anchor in the Delaware its lieutenant and his whole crew were made prisoner.  The lieutenant remained above a year in Philadelphia jail.  “I should,” George adds, “have been sent there also and have kept him company had I waited to receive General Scott’s commands, who, as I learned from the communication we held at the outposts, had sent orders to detain me ― but fortunately the bird was flown.”

On October 10 Knyphausen’s troops marched back to New York City and George’s chasseurs re-occupied their old camp on Spuyten Duyvil Hill.  As before, their time was spent in frequent patrols and in turning out in response to the many alarms.  While there von Krafft, who was involved in various clerical duties, was rewarded by George and on November 5 paid tribute to his generosity:  “Captain von Hanger, being pleased with my writing, gave me two guineas for my pains and half a guinea regularly each month for the future in addition.”  On the 15th, a very cold and snowy day, the chasseurs were disbanded and the men returned to their regiments to take up winter quarters.  The Jäger Corps moved to Flushing on Long Island.

It was then that Clinton appointed George as one of his aides-de-camp, presumably to facilitate liaison with Knyphausen and his staff in view of George’s fluency in German.  He would serve as such till the close of 1779, affording him ample opportunities to continue with his womanising ways.

George had not been above two months in America when he received distressing news from England.  By the time of his departure from there he had contracted a mortgage on his Berkshire estate of £13,000 and for some time had been resolved to sell it and take a general view of his financial affairs.  Little acquainted with them, he had been constantly raising money from time to time as he needed it.  Preparatory to a sale a survey of the estate had been conducted and it was valued at £24,000.  Unfortunately the surveyor whom he had left with a power of attorney died before the sale, and although George conferred a fresh power on his mother, it was too late.  Before its arrival from New York, the mortgagee foreclosed the mortgage and the estate was sold at public auction for little more than half its real value.  There was worse to come.  His mother later informed him that some outstanding debts amounting to several hundred pounds remained unpaid and that executions had been effected in his house due to the great deficiency in the sale of the estate.  “Thus I at once found myself several hundreds worse than nothing instead of not owing a shilling and having £8,000 or £10,000 in hand …  I now indeed and in truth became a soldier of fortune, for I was stripped and plundered of everything and, which was worse, left encumbered with debts.”

The year 1779 was free of campaigning in the northern and central theatres of the war, being marked by desultory operations such as the Connecticut coast raid too inconsequential to describe.  In the south, however, British arms had fared well.  Savannah had been captured, a siege of it by the French and revolutionaries had been broken, and a tenuous hold had been gained on lower Georgia.  Together with reports of considerable support for the Crown in the southern colonies, these events led the British to conclude that a strategy of pursuing the war from south to north offered the best chance of success.  To facilitate an expedition there while retaining sufficient troops at New York City Clinton ordered the evacuation of Newport, Rhode Island, which took place on October 25.  He subsequently had second thoughts and, in making a desperate attempt to retrieve the situation, involved George in what proved to be a very risky venture indeed, as George related many years later.

“The commander-in-chief, after having given orders to General Prescott to evacuate Rhode Island, destroy the works, and repair with the troops to New York, was induced, a few days after he had sent those instructions, from certain events that took place, to countermand these orders and sent me to Rhode Island for that purpose, giving me instructions to examine two particular works, and if I found them not destroyed, or capable by a few days’ labour of being put in their former state, General Prescott was by no means to evacuate the place.  I sailed in the Delaware frigate, Captain Mason[5], and although it is not above 180 miles from Sandy Hook, I was seven days on my passage, being forced to work up close under Long Island in the very teeth of the wind, as it blew very fresh throughout the whole course of it.”

At dusk on the evening of the seventh day the frigate cast anchor about a mile and a half from Newport harbour.  On her approach, there were two small armed sloops working out of it but on seeing the frigate they immediately put back, arousing strong suspicions that they were enemies and that the place had been evacuated.  There were, however, small rivers and creeks on the opposite shore of Connecticut and it was possible that they might have come from there and not from Rhode Island.  George consulted his friend Mason, who was clearly of opinion that from the length of their passage they had arrived too late and that the place had indeed been evacuated.  George was of the same sentiment, yet there was a chance that it might not be so, for, when frigates arrived, they always sent their boat in and the general might not have thought it necessary to send a boat from shore till the next morning.  George suggested to Mason how absurd he would appear were he to return to New York and find there that the troops had not left Newport at the time when he arrived.  At the same time he stated the magnitude of the business in which he was engaged and that he would never dare to show his face again to Clinton if he did not do everything that depended on himself.  He was therefore anxious to risk any danger in order to investigate the object of his mission.  He accordingly requested Mason to give him an armed boat, being determined to land in the dark and gain intelligence.

Complying with the earnest request, Mason gave George his ten-oared barge, two marines, a coxswain, and one of his lieutenants, making in all a party of fifteen men.  George timed it so as to enter the harbour at the end of the flood tide that they might have the tide with them on returning.  On their departure from the ship Mason enjoined the lieutenant strictly to obey George’s orders.  At the same time, being sensible of the imminent danger they would encounter, he requested George to act with the utmost prudence and circumspection, saying that  he would not, for ten thousand guineas, have the boat’s crew lost or taken prisoner as they had attended him as bargemen throughout the war.  The boat was well armed; each man had a musket and bayonet, with cutlass, pistols, etc. etc. and plenty of ammunition.  With oars muffled the party approached the harbour in silence, keeping close under the shade thrown on the water by the high craggy rocks on the right, which, with the darkness of the night, made the party so concealed from sight that when a sloop from the harbour tacked and came about not above 150 yards away, she was quite unable to perceive them.  They lay on their oars till she had completely tacked and stood half way over to the other side, when they proceeded to bring the boat to shore directly under the high bluff of Brenton Point, not far from the battery.  A boat might have passed within thirty yards and not have seen them.  George then landed with the two marines only, who wore sailors’ blue jackets to cover and conceal their red and white uniforms.  He ordered them to proceed when he proceeded and to lie down when he fell to the ground.  They then crawled up the precipice so as to be able to look just above the summit, where they remained some time to observe while George determined how they were to proceed.  He heard the sentinels challenge every now and then and cry, “All is well,” for they were quite on the alert, having spotted, as he was later informed, a man of war anchor off the harbour.  At last a patrol from the nearest picket, which from the fire George judged was not above 300 yards away, passed so near that he could distinctly hear them speak, and he heard two sentinels challenge the patrol, one on his right, the other on his left.  When the patrol passed, he knew that he had little to fear and that from the darkness of the night he could easily pass between them.  He accordingly ran across the road that they went down and, when over in the next field, which was very rough and bushy, he laid the marines down in order to set the position of their boat by the Pole Star, “which is immovable.  This every officer, especially of light troops, should be well acquainted with.  If I had not known it, I might have been easily taken prisoner in wandering along the cliff in search of the boat on my return.”

Looking about for a house from which he might take some person to gain intelligence, George fixed his eyes on two which, as far as he could judge by the lights in them, were about a mile away and quite at a distance from any others.  There were several nearer him, but they were too close to the pickets and patrols along the shore to suit his purpose.  With great caution and always lying down whenever he heard anything, he approached them.  They were about 200 yards apart.  In one he saw two lights, in the other only one.  He therefore made up to the latter and, laying the two marines down among the cabbages in the garden, he stood about ten yards from the door at the garden gate and hallooed out, whereupon an old woman came to the door and asked what he wanted and who he was.  George replied, “I am an officer come from town and am ordered over to Connecticut by the general on business.  I have lost my way in the dark and want to be put into the path to Brinton Point.  Pray send someone to the end of the garden to put me into it.”  She replied, “One of our family is gone to town and the other is gone to bed, but if he is not undressed, I will send him to show you.”  George had previously determined with his two faithful marines that, if he could not entice any one person out of the house, they would enter it and take someone away by force, but he dreaded the consequences, knowing that if resistance was made, they would be obliged to shed blood in their own defence.  His stratagem worked completely.  Out came “a fine young fellow, as straight and as tall as a poplar tree.”  The moment George saw him on the steps, he said, “Come along, my good man, just put me into the path to Brinton Point, and I will give you a dollar.”

Retiring a few yards from the garden gate, which the young man passed, and when at a sufficient distance from the house, George took him fast by the coat and, putting his pistol to his head, told him to look behind at the two marines, who had their bayonets pointed within two feet of his body.  He then charged him not to speak, pledged his honour that he would not hurt him, but that if he uttered a word, should he hear any soldiers passing, he would be killed and they would endeavour to make their escape through the darkness.  George took him into a rough place close by and made him sit down.  He then told him that he was a British, not a revolutionary, officer and had landed from the frigate off the harbour to gain intelligence.  He now gave him a half-joe[6] and repeated his assurance that he would treat him well, but that he must come along with them.  The young man’s fears at length subsided and he told George that the day before he arrived the British had evacuated the place and that a revolutionary force of 3,000 men now occupied it.

Judging with the marines that the ebb tide had begun and that the moon would rise in about an hour, George proceeded to the boat, walking alongside the young man with his hand fast in his right-hand jacket pocket, “for I knew too well to trust a New Englander’s promises.  Had he got a yard start of us, he would have alarmed the whole country.”

When they arrived within about 400 yards of the rock from where they had landed, they had the same road to cross on which they had seen the patrol pass.  As they lay down on one side of it, waiting for the passing of a patrol that they might hear where the sentinels were, their guide attempted to betray them, saying there was no danger if they went up the path.  “I knew better”, says George, “and now no longer trusted him but put it out of his power to do any mischief by taking my pocket handkerchief and stuffing the greatest part of it into his mouth that he should not call out.  At the same time I made one of the marines hold him fast by the left hand whilst I held him fast by the right.”  When the patrol had passed, they crossed the path and, on arriving at the brink of the precipice, George had, by keeping his eyes constantly on the Pole Star, set the boat with such precision that when he hallooed, “Mason, ahoy!” he was answered directly beneath where he stood, “Hanger, ahoy!” which were the signals fixed on before their departure.  They got the young man into the boat and rowed out of the harbour, the moon not rising before they were quite clear of it.  Summing up, George concludes, “Everything turned out well.  The tide and rising of the moon was well timed and with no inconsiderable degree of pleasure I arrived on board the Delaware frigate to the great joy of my friend Captain Mason.”

Unfortunately it was not possible to land the young man on the opposite shore or to send him back to Newport.  Mason therefore proposed putting him next day on the shore of Block Island, a few leagues away, but the fog proved so thick that they could not make it with safety.  They therefore stood out to sea and George was compelled to take him to New York.  On arrival there he provided him with quarters, drew provisions for him, and supplied him with necessaries.  It was intended to send him by the first flag of truce to Rhode Island or by the first boat to New London or some town contiguous to his home in New England, but he had not been six days in New York when he sickened of the smallpox and died.

The sudden disappearance of the young man, George admits, was certainly suspicious and it gave rise to many scurrilous reports in the Connecticut and Philadelphia newspapers grossly aspersing George’s character as an officer and a gentleman.  At first it was stated that the man had been murdered at Newport and thrown overboard at sea.  Later, when it became publicly known at New York that George had necessarily brought him there and treated him with kindness, a more just account was published, but one still adding that the man had been thrown into prison and had died there of jail fever.

From his being absent from New York for so many days, indeed above double the time usually required to make the passage, for the wind was foul nearly the whole way there and back, George had been given over for lost.  Some imagined that the frigate had sailed at night into the harbour and been captured, “though such croakers[7] little knew the abilities and judgement of Captain Mason,” while others supposed that George had landed and been taken prisoner.  Setting aside all such conjectures, he arrived just as Clinton was at dinner with fourteen or fifteen officers.  After relating the whole affair at table to Clinton and receiving his thanks in the kindest manner, George would never forget to the last day of his life a very singular remark of Clinton’s:  “I commend your prowess much, but at the same time I am sorry you risked so much, as it was not my wish you should venture so far, for upon my word, my dear Hanger, I believe if they had taken you at Rhode Island, they would have hanged you directly.”  George replied, “My dear general, that never entered into my head, it being totally impossible for the Americans to commit such an outrage on an officer sent by you in character of an aide-de-camp with orders to our commanding officer at Rhode Island.  I could be subjected to no other danger but of being imprisoned.  They could not surely be guilty of such an act.”  “You may think so, Hanger, ” replied the general, “but I give you my word I do not, for I know not what they would not do, and I am happy to see you returned safe.”  Sitting at the table was George’s “worthy and intimate friend,” Major John André, another of Clinton’s aides-de-camp, who in 1780 would be captured by the revolutionaries when on a secret mission and hanged as a spy.[8]

As the year 1779 came to a close, George received even worse news on the financial front.  He received a letter from his sister informing him that the Duchess of St. Albans, his godmother, was dead.  She had made a will in his favor but within twelve months before her death she had made a new one disinheriting him.  “Fate,” lamented George, ” had decreed this, together with many other mortifications, miseries and distresses which I was destined to suffer.  Doomed as I was to a life chequered with misfortunes by a Supreme Power, that same Power gave to me a vigorous constitution and a bold and undaunted mind to stem the current of adversity and bear up against a sea of troubles.”

 

Bibliography

Baurmeister, Carl Leopold, Revolution in America (edited and translated by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf (Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1957)

Ewald, Johann, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, edited and translated by Joseph P. Tustin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979)

Fortescue, Sir John, A History of the British Army, vol. III (London: Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1902)

Hanger, George, The Life, Adventures, and Opinions of Col. George Hanger (London, 1801)

idem, Colonel George Hanger to all Sportsmen, and particularly to Farmers and Gamekeepers (London, 1814)

Hufeland, Otto, Westchester County during the American Revolution 1775-1783 (Mamaroneck, NY: Harbor Hill Books, 1974)

Jackson, John W., With the British Army in Philadelphia 1777-1778 (New York: Presidio Press, 1979)

Journal geführt bei dem Hochlöblich Hessischen Feld-Jäger Corps während denen Campagnen der Königl. Grossbrittanischen Armee in North-America (Hessisches Staatsarchiv, Marburg)

Krafft, Johann Carl Philip von, “Journal”, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1882

Martin, David G., The Philadelphia Campaign June 1777-July 1778 (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2003)

Montresor, John, “Journals”, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1881

New York Gazette, June 1, 1778

Pearson, Michael, Those Damned Rebels: Britain’s American Empire in Revolt (London: Heinemann, 1972)

Reed, John F., Valley Forge Crucible of Victory (Monmouth Beach, NJ: Philip Freneau Press, 1969)

Stedman, Charles, History of the Origin, Progress and Termination of the American War (London, 1792)

Stryker, William S., The Battle of Monmouth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1927)

Syrett, David, and DiNardo, R. L., eds, The Commissioned Sea Officers of the Royal Navy 1660-1815 (Aldershot, Scolar Press, 1994)

Taaffe, Stephen R., The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777-1778 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003)

Trevelyan, The Rt. Hon. Sir George Otto, Bt., The American Revolution, 6 vols (London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1915-17)

 

[1]   For an account of George’s European adventures, see Ian Saberton, “George Hanger ― His Early Life,” Journal of the American Revolution (January 10, 2017).

[2]   Now Manhattan.

[3]   Now renamed Dobbs Ferry.

[4]   Charles Scott (c 1739-1813) was a brigadier general in the Continental line.  He had taken a prominent part in the New Jersey, Philadelphia and Monmouth campaigns and would be taken prisoner in the Capitulation of Charlestown.  In later life he became Governor of Kentucky.

[5]   The Delaware had been a revolutionary frigate that was captured on September 27, 1777 when she ran on to sand while fiercely cannonading Philadelphia.  She struck after being raked by fire from four cannon of the Hessian grenadier battalions.  Now serving in the Royal Navy, she had a complement of 200 men, an armament of 28 British 9-pounders, and was commanded by Captain Christopher Mason (c 1740-1801), who would die a vice admiral of the white.

[6]   A Portuguese gold coin in common circulation in North America.  It was worth about $8.

[7]   Croakers: a now archaic expression denoting persons who habitually prophecy evil or misfortune unjustifiably to the irritation of others.

[8]   For a biographical note on André, see Ian Saberton, ed., The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War (Uckfield: The Naval & Military Press Ltd, 2010) , 1: 100.

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4 Comments

  • Mr. Saberton, thanks for a most interesting article. One point I would question, however, is the belief that by early June Washington was confused regarding Clinton’s intensions. Allen McLane had been providing intelligence on the British evacuation plans since early 1778, and by May Washington was convinced of it. Also, on May 18th, debriefings of about fifty American prisoners of war, who escaped Philadelphia the evening before, provided first hand information on not only British evacuation activities but also information regarding how it was proceeding.

  • Ian, I would certainly appreciate details on the source of the information and the context surrounding it. Into the modern day intelligence reports come in all sizes and shapes, with their content of varying degrees of validity. I would wonder if Washington historians would consider that particular report as being his view.
    May I note mine was a minor point in a very fine article.

    • Ken, thank you for your reply and kind remarks. As to the intelligence quoted on page 4 of the article as printed, you will find it in one of the works on the Philadelphia campaign cited in the bibliography, though off-hand I do not recall which.

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