Baptism of Fire, Brunswick, New Jersey, June 1777

The Soldiers Return by Pamela Patrick White, White Historic Art (whitehistoricart.com)

In late May 1777 the new recruits in Col. Samuel Blachley Webb’s 9th Connecticut Regiment of the Continental Army mustered in a rough formation on the village green in Wethersfield, Connecticut. General Washington had ordered his recruiters to forward all available men immediately, “even in groups of 20,” to join his Army at Morristown, New Jersey. The enemy juggernaut in New York was stirring and Washington’s Army was badly outnumbered.

As he departed Wethersfield with a small detachment of men, Sgt. Simon Giffin of Capt. Cabel Bull’s company noted in his diary, ”May 30, 1777 marched from Wethersfield to Middletown & lodged at Landlord Fennels.” From there he continued on a circuitous route following the main post roads south to Durham and Newhaven, then west through Stratford and Fairfield, then north to Danbury, and finally west to Peekskill where they crossed the Hudson River and turned southwest. In his journal he noted, “June 16, 1777 marched to Pittino and from there to Morristown. Rained very hard; lodged there.”[1]

Their journey of some two hundred miles had taken eighteen days, a slow pace for men who would later march twenty to thirty miles a day even in deep snow. Whatever the season and weather the main post roads were deplorable, rough dirt trails meandering over the countryside, strewn with rocks, ruts, and tree roots. As was his usual custom, our stoic company sergeant noted that it was raining heavily, failing to notice that their dirt pathways had become quagmires of mud which clung to their shoes, spatterdashes and breeches, slowing their progress, and adding to the general misery of their hike.

From Giffin’s notes we know that he lost a man as they marched towards Morristown. He reported, “June 7, 1777 marched to Danbury & drew provisions. [then] marched to a place called Ridgebury and lodged there … this night a man departed, one Alexander Graham.” The official record put it differently: “Private Alexander Graham deserted.”[2] A year later, Giffin reported the rest of the story in his journal. On July 16, 1778 four men in his brigade were each punished one hundred lashes for various offenses. Giffin wrote, “Alexander Graham was one of them that was whipped [he] deserted from us June 7 at Ridgebury. He has enlisted three times in different regiments.” By enlisting three times he had pocketed three enlistment bounties. It was a common problem at the time; they called it “bounty-jumping.”[3]

At Morristown, Giffin found the camp empty except for a few guards; the army had moved further south to the Middlebrook Valley. Washington’s spies had reported that a British Army of more than 12,000 infantry and artillery had departed Staten Island, barged over the Arthur Kill strait, and were marching from Perth Amboy down the old “King’s Highway,” recently renamed the “Post Road,” towards Philadelphia.[4] On June 9 an additional 2,000 Redcoats were observed departing Staten Island for Perth Amboy. By then Washington’s force at Morristown had grown to almost 9,000 Continentals. They were outnumbered but strong enough to harass and inflict heavy casualties on an enemy column strung out on the road towards Philadelphia. Washington moved his army south to the Middlebrook Valley (near Bound Brook, New Jersey) where he was only eight miles from the enemy and their main supply base at Brunswick. From Middlebrook Washington could observe and strike at the enemy column, and, if the redcoats suddenly pivoted and came directly north against him, he could quickly fall back to strong defensive positions in the Watchung Mountains, or further back into the hills around Morristown.

On the morning of June 17, 1777, after spending a night in the abandoned Morristown camp, Giffin’s detachment turned south again in a driving rain. They had been ordered to join the far right wing of the main army near the village of Pluckemin, New Jersey. Fearing that the British might try to get around behind him, Washington left orders for all late arrivals to be sent out as reinforcements to his flanks. At Pluckemin Giffin’s detachment rested for a day, and then they were ordered to rejoin the main army at Middlebrook. By that time the lead elements of the enemy column had moved three miles west beyond Brunswick to Somerset. It seemed an ideal moment to strike out at the heavily-laden enemy strung out for miles along the narrow post road.

Washington called in his generals and planned a coordinated attack to be launched on June 22. He divided his army into three wings. Gen. Nathaniel Green with three reinforced brigades was to attack the enemy’s lead columns at Somerset, pushing them back towards Brunswick. Meanwhile Gen. William Sterling was to position his brigade outside Brunswick where he would attack the middle of the British column and seize the bridge over the Raritan River, thus closing off the enemy escape route back to New York. Washington would hold the balance of his Army at Middlebrook where he could respond as needed.

Giffin’s detachment moved forward with General Sterling’s force to the outskirts of Brunswick. Giffin reported,

June 20, 1777 marched about a mile and was about to gain Brunifish [Brunswick] but was ordered to halt. Lodged in the woods all night.

June 21, 1777 marched about 3 miles and encamped. Stayed until after dinner, struck tents and marched about 2 miles to a fine green and pitched our tents again. I was ordered to mount the General Guard and to keep there until about 12 o’clock at night; and then was ordered to join the regiment. I did so and marched with the Army to go to Brunifish [Brunswick] which we came to by the light of the break of day.

What the Americans didn’t know was that on the 19th of June, the British had suddenly reversed the direction of their march, falling back from Somerset through New Brunswick towards Perth Amboy. Washington had been suspicious of the enemy’s intentions as his spies reported that the British regiments had left their wagons and supplies in Brunswick as they passed through, suggesting that the move further towards Philadelphia was a ruse. Washington correctly surmised that General Howe wanted to lure the Americans out of their strong defensive positions in the Watchung Mountains for a fight on open farmlands where the superior firepower of British professionals would crush the rebels.

In a letter Washington reported to John Hancock,[5]

June 20, 1777 Middlebrook Headquarters

Sir: As I informed you [earlier], the main body of the enemy … has returned to Brunswick again, burning as they went several valuable dwelling houses …. We had constantly light troops hovering around them …. I am inclined to believe that General Howe’s return, thus suddenly made, must have been in consequence of the information he received that the people were in and flying to arms in every quarter to oppose him …. Geo. Washington

General Greene’s scouts quickly detected the British change of direction and he dispatched riders to Generals Washington and Sterling calling for an immediate attack rather than waiting for the planned date of June 22. Unfortunately, the three American brigades had lost contact with each other and the messages did not get through. Giffin’s notes confirm that General Sterling held his men outside Brunswick, delaying his attack until the original date of June 22. By then most of the enemy had already passed back through town and on towards Perth Amboy. Giffin reported in his journal,

June 22, 1777: This morning the enemy began to burn the houses and destroy all the things that they could not get away. Our People began to play them with their field pieces and then with some small arms fired. But not many more than 3 of the enemy were killed, with one shot from our people and one wounded.

We marched into Brunswick and crossed the [Raritan] River and made a halt on a hill above the River in which time part of the army belonging to Gen’l Green came up with the rear of the enemy and had a smart fire for some time making the enemy retreat from one breastwork to another for some time.

I returned over the bridge with all the Brigade and lodged in the house close by the stone church. I drew provisions. We stayed all day at Brunswick.

As Giffin reported, General Sterling’s men quickly seized their objective, the main bridge over the Raritan River. From the top of a hill above the south bank of the river they could see the enemy moving off in the distance plundering, and setting fire to houses and barns as they withdrew towards Perth Amboy.

One of the key elements of the battle which Giffin failed to mention was the weather.[6] It was raining heavily on the morning of the 22nd and therefore it was virtually impossible for men on either side to discharge their weapons. Eighteenth century muskets and cannons were primed with a dash of gunpowder which was exposed to the open air. In a pouring rain it was virtually impossible to “keep your flash powder dry.” When the spark from a flint or match failed to ignite the wet powder, the weapon would not fire. The Americans at Brunswick might well have inflicted heavy losses on the enemy if their communications had been better and if the weather been more cooperative. As it was, General Sterling’s men followed the retreating British Army down the main road along the Raritan River towards Perth Amboy. One English witness reported that the retiring troops wreaked vengeance on the countryside burning house after house on the road to Perth Amboy: “all the Country houses were in flames as far as we could see. The Soldiers are so much enraged they will set them on fire, in spite of all the Officers can do to prevent it.”[7]

Then, on June 26 the sky cleared, and the weather turned hot and muggy. The invading Armies of British and Hessian troops broiled in the heat and humidity of a New Jersey summer day. They had been marching for a week under continual harassing fire, carrying heavy backpacks, muskets, rations, and ammunition; they were exhausted, and their canteens were empty. In contrast, the local militiamen were dressed in loose-fitting, linen hunting shirts and breeches with broad brimmed hunting hats. They knew the terrain, and all the sources of potable water; and they fought like Native Americans, hitting the enemy where they were weakest, then disappearing when the enemy brought out their heavy cannons. The militiamen were furious; British foraging parties had been plundering their farms and villages all winter and now they were burning homes and barns as they passed through the countryside. Given an opportunity to even the score, the militia rushed forward in the thousands. The enemy withdrawal to Perth Amboy became an angry running battle with dozens dropping on both sides of the fight from the heat, humidity, and musket fire.

During the enemy withdrawal, Webb’s men were deployed along the high ground at a place he calls “Leying Bruck” (Loring Brook, New Jersey) in case the enemy turned and counter-attacked. The next day the Regiment moved again: “June 24 marched to take advantage of a high hill, they call it Linkdon Gap.” This was probably Lincoln Gap at the southern-most end of the Watchung Mountains. Sterling’s Brigade had orders to block possible enemy counter-attacks against Washington’s right flank.

Of course an ordinary soldier like Sergeant Giffin was generally unaware of the strategic implications of what was happening around him. Giffin mentioned the burning homes and the running battles with the British as they withdrew towards Perth Amboy, but he seemed completely unaware that the battle was not over yet. As Sterling’s Brigade was encamped at Lincoln Gap, the predicted attack came on June 25, but at the opposite (north) end of the mountain chain, against Washington’s left flank. On June 24 the rains had stopped and Washington moved his Army down from the hills to Quibbletown (now New Market) for a possible strike at the enemy as they loaded on barges at Perth Amboy. The next day British General Howe suddenly ordered his Army to advance north towards Scotch Plains, New Jersey. It seemed to Howe that Washington might have moved his Army far enough forward that a quick push north and then west might place his enveloping forces behind Washington’s left flank, closing the American escape route to the north. Howe, in fact, was very close to succeeding, but he hadn’t included three factors into his plan: the weather, the irate New Jersey Militia, and the stalwart flankers of the Continental Army.

The British plunge to the north ran into the left wing of Washington’s army on the road between modern Woodbridge and Scotch Plains. There a ferocious battle developed between the thirsty, over-heated, and exhausted British invaders and the infuriated but vastly outnumbered American left wing. The Americans fought off two vicious assaults, blocking the road long enough for Washington’s army to retreat behind them and into the forested slopes of the Watchung Mountains. By late afternoon on the 26th the British attack faltered; low on water, exhausted from the heat, humidity, and constant fighting, they again began falling back towards Perth Amboy. The next day, June 27, the weary invasion force began boarding barges for the return trip to Statin Island.

The British proudly proclaimed the fight a victory; they had lost only seventy casualties while the Americans had lost more than one hunded. The Americans were equally convinced of their success. The British advance into New Jersey was stopped and the American capitol in Philadelphia was safe for now. The plundering of the British Army had left smoking ruins and an infuriated public from Perth Amboy west to New Brunswick and north to Woodbridge and Scotch Plains.

As the confrontation ended, a still potent British army of some 30,000 infantry and artillery was again concentrated in the five boroughs of New York City, and a massive fleet of warships and transports was anchored in the harbor. Where would they strike next? One good possibility might be a push up the Hudson River to join with two British Armies moving down from Canada towards Albany and further south on the Hudson River. To counter that possibility Washington began moving his army north towards the Hudson River.

Return to the Hudson River

On June 28, 1777 Sergeant Giffin’s detachment departed Lincoln Gap, marching north through Morristown to Pompton and Peekskill. Back on the Hudson River the regiment rested for a week (July 3-10). On July 11, Major Ebenezer Huntington rejoined the regiment with the last of the new recruits from Wethersfield bringing with them with new “frocks and overalls.” Giffin’s notes continue,

July 3 – 10 Lay at Peekskill. Nothing remarkable happened.

July 11 This morning I attended prayers and after prayers paraded to [receive?] part of the Regiment that was in Wethersfield … [which] came in this day with the Major of the Regiment and we all drew frocks and overalls.

In a letter to General Washington, Colonel Webb wrote of his arrival at Peekskill and of the receipt of troubling news from the north.[8]

Peekskill Friday July 11, 1777 Major Huntington arrived with the [balance of the regiment] and we barracked them on the inhabitants, the weather being such as was impossible for them to encamp; confirmation on this day received of our people evacuating Ticonderoga, and that they are retreating towards Fort Edward.

British General Burgoyne’s Army had brushed aside the Continentals guarding Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain and was pushing ahead towards Fort Edward on the Hudson River. A few days later Colonel Webb again wrote Washington, commenting briefly on the exhausting efforts of his men who had been fighting in New Jersey:[9]

July 14, 1777 it is raining heavily … and the men seem to be in good health… notwithstanding the very fatiguing march they have had lately from Peekskill into the Jersey’s and back again.

At Peekskill Webb’s Regiment was attached to General Varnum’s Brigade with orders to assist in guarding the King’s Ferry crossing and its three major defensive fortifications, Forts Independence, Montgomery, and Clinton.   On the 14th Washington ordered Putnam to “collect all boats for the more speedy transportation of the main Army from the Jersey’s to the (east) shore.” If the enemy began a successful push up the Hudson, Washington wanted to merge all of his forces in opposition.

The situation at Peekskill was perilous. While two British Armies were advancing towards Albany on the Hudson, the largest of the them, some 30,000 men in New York City, were probing American defenses on the lower Hudson River sending forces upriver towards the three American forts protecting the vital King’s Landing. Giffin wrote in his journal,

July 16, 1777 one ship, a schooner, and two row galleys came up the North River as far as King’s Ferry which occasioned the whole camp to be alarmed and all the troops laid on their arms.

Two days later the enemy flotilla sailed back down the Hudson again, leaving everyone at Peekskill with a bad case of nerves. Sergeant Giffin, however, was too busy to take notice of the tension. He spent two weeks (July 12-26, 1777) on a special assignment with General Israel Putnam’s personal guards at Crompond, New York in Westchester County.

At the time Washington was receiving reports of British Naval activities in New York. Webb wrote in his journal,[10]

Peekskill Tuesday July 15, 1777. By a man from New York we have information that most of the [enemy] army have embarked, together with their baggage, artillery, wagons, & etc.; he says they are going on some expedition, he conjectures that New England is their objective & some 3,500 are left to garrison New York and adjacent islands.

A few days later Washington received further confirmation of enemy activities:[11] “July 20, 1777… there is a considerable fleet of [enemy] vessels [at] Sandy Hook, as near as I can count about one hundred and twenty mostly large ships.” Where were they going? Were they going up the Hudson River to Albany to join with the invasion armies from Canada? Or were they going out into the Atlantic to savage American coastal cities, perhaps Boston, Charleston or Savannah? Or were they going to make a return visit to Philadelphia by way of the Delaware River or Chesapeake Bay?

 

[1] The Diary of Quartermaster Sergeant Simon Giffin of Col. Samuel B. Webb’s Regiment 1777-1779, Connecticut State Library and Archives.

[2]Henry P. Johnston, The Record of Connecticut men in the Military and Naval service during the War of the American Revolution 1775-1783 (Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co., 1889), 249.

[3] John Ferling, Almost a miracle: The American victory in the War of Independence (London: Oxford University Press, 2007), 210.

[4] Leonard Lundin, Cockpit of the Revolution: the War for Independence in New Jersey. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1940), 313-25. See also Page Smith, A new age now begins: A people’s history of the American Revolution (New York: Penguin, 1976), 2: 884 – 87.

[5] George Washington to John Hancock. June 20, 1777, National Archives and Records Administration, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov.

[6] Lundin. Cockpit of the Revolution, 320 – 24.

[7] Nicholas Cresswell, The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell (New York: The Dial Press, 1924), 242.

[8] Samuel B. Webb, Correspondence and Journals of Samuel Blachley Webb, Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed. (New York: Wickersham: 1893), 1: 219.

[9] Ibid., 1: 219, 220, 298.

[10] Ibid. 1: 220.

[11] Israel Putnam to Washington, July 21, 1777, National Archives and Records Administration, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov; see Note 1 for this quote.

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5 Comments

  • Very cool! I love hearing Sgt. Giffin’s stories- and his frequent mentioning of King’s Ferry! One tiny comment; Forts Independence, Montgomery, and Clinton were at too great a distance to aid in the defense of King’s Ferry. Fort Independence, the closest, is about 4 miles off. Keep these Giffin tales coming!

  • Michael: Thanks for your comments. You are correct, of course. The 3 forts were built in the hopes of stopping British ships from sailing up the Hudson, not protecting King’s Ferry. I must tuck the Diary under my arm and sail up the Hudson some day. He has introduced me to a lot of new places to explore, such as West Point and Kingston. Simon left good notes on both places. Regards, Phil Giffin

  • Phillip: Great work putting Sgt. Giffin in the midst of these wartime movements. Your doing so really gives a personal touch to the larger picture, and the evolving strategies of both armies. And you don’t allow us to lose sight of the perils undergone by our Sgt. as he moves with the wave of the troops, traveling hundreds of miles, doing the bidding of his commanding officers in the worst of conditions. In this immersion of the big picture with the personal, you really give a nice balance: your essay reflects on the grand scheme of the war and the various and particular battles and skirmishes that are unfolding. And you do so from almost a novelist’s sense of action and anticipation, especially in the way you conclude your narrative. In this regard, I’m definitely looking forward to the next installment to see what is going to happen warwise and with the specific predicaments of our young Sgt. Giffin. Very informative and exciting piece of writing!

  • Dear Professor Held: As a man devoted to the study of 18th Century literature, and particularly Jane Austen, a magnificent writer, I thank you for your kind comments. My sturdy, steady, and dour old Sergeant left out as much as he included in his war diary. I hope my tapestry of contemporary writings by and about the 9th CT Regiment will provide a better appreciation of the sacrifices and accomplishments of the Revolutionary War generation. Reading an old soldier’s diary such as this should be a penance required of all who enjoy the fruits of their sacrifice. I thank you. Phi

  • The fruits of your sacrifice, Phil, are giving historical novices like me, and other more serious historians, a lot to consider as the microhistory of our intrepid Sgt. Giffin grows and infiltrates our consciousness– about the Revolutionary activities of the common man in the 1770’s and 80’s in the Continental Army. This is cliche, a bit, but you are bringing to light his growing heroism ( UNSUNG until now) as he advances in stature from a line soldier to a man with many responsibilities–as you’ve shown in your many articles about him. This is becoming, truly, a wonderful story of a craftsman, married, with a family, fighting for the Revolution. Intrepid, Indeed! His sacrifices seem HUGE.

    For many of us, reading your articles, and this journal (JAR) as a whole, you and your fellow writers have opened up many new areas of interest–on larger and smaller scales. Keep up the great research and writing. Oh, I can’t resist this aside: Our Dear Jane Austen, a lover of history, who once thought of writing a bio of Napoleon, would be all eyes and ears. She, too, revelled in the letters from her two sailor brothers (Captains, later to become Admirals) during the Napoleonic wars, and knew the microhistory of her era.

    Thanks, again, sir!

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