A motorist travelling northbound through New Jersey along Interstate 295, which tracks the east bank of the Delaware River from the Delaware Memorial Bridge, passes opposite Philadelphia, and ends a short ways beyond Trenton, might think he or she is in Europe, based strictly on fleetingly observed exit signs rather than any resemblances evoked by the surrounding flatlands. Turn-off markers for towns such as Florence, Mantua, Berlin, Swedesboro, and even Runnemede flash by, creating an allusive and elusive sense of déjà vu. The most attention-getting sign, however, for this readership at least, does have a truly European connection. It’s the one for “Hessian Avenue,” and it commemorates the approximate approach-route traversed in 1777 by Col. Carl von Donop and his 1200 seasoned professionals drawn from three grenadier battalions, a fusilier regiment, and the corps of Jägers. They were headed towards their fatal and futile assault on the determined defenders of Fort Mercer, a critical link in the riverine defensive network that threatened to choke off the British high command’s ability to adequately supply its troops and the residents of occupied Philadelphia.
Turning down Hessian Avenue—which is likely one of only a handful of streets in the United States named for a foreign enemy of the Republic—you drive for about two miles westward, past one-story bungalows, Cape Cods, and a V.F.W. meeting hall, until arriving at the gate to the Red Bank Battlefield Park, administered by Gloucester County. On the left, in front of an amusement and picnic area, is a long red shed with a viewing window (more on that later); straight ahead is the red-brick James and Ann Whitall house, dating from 1748 and the home of the unfortunate and unwilling Quaker hosts to what was surely one of the more astounding battles of the Revolution; and to the right are the outlines and vestiges of the works of Old Fort Mercer. There is a scenic and commanding view of the Delaware from a set of eroded bluffs, which the Whitall house and the fort overlook. The latter’s strategic value is immediately apparent. About a half-mile directly across the river is Fort Mercer’s sister link, Fort Mifflin, situated on what was once an island and now subsumed into the same land-mass as Philadelphia International Airport. The city of Philadelphia is easily viewed through a tree line on the bluffs adjacent to the northern boundary of Fort Mercer’s perimeter.
In the fall of 1777, Mercer and Mifflin were the twin bastions which, supplemented by the gun-boat galleys of the Pennsylvania Navy, sunken chevaux-de-frise, booms and chains, fire ships, and the natural obstacles posed by shoals and shifting sand bars, created the cordon which blocked Adm. Sir Richard Howe from convoying supplies upriver to his brother’s army of occupation in the former capital of the United States (see map at top). It was infeasible to bring adequate provisions overland to supply Gen. Sir William Howe’s force of 15,000 soldiers plus the resident civilians, and by October the British army was on half-rations. Thus commenced the dramatic British effort to achieve breakthrough via the bombardment of Fort Mifflin by shore batteries on the Pennsylvania side and by the Royal Navy, and to eliminate the covering fire Mercer provided to Mifflin by means of a Hessian crossing of the Delaware. That crossing would be less famous (and the ultimate results disastrous) when juxtaposed with the ones carried out by the Americans at the end of the preceding year.
The fort that von Donop’s Hessians assaulted on October 22 consisted of unfinished but nevertheless formidable earthworks, with some portions possibly layered with timbers. It was surrounded by trenches with sharpened abatis—fabricated from the orchards of the unhappy Whitalls—scattered throughout, which were intended to break up any attacking formation. Today, only the outlines of Fort Mercer’s earthworks and the trenches remain. Those vestiges are roughly in the shapes of a pentagon and of a larger, acute trapezoid placed right next to each other; by contemplating those shapes, the visitor can readily appreciate the Americans’ winning strategy. Simply put, the fort was too large to be defended by its small garrison of approximately 500 men, comprised of two Rhode Island regiments, some New Jersey militia, and Continental artillery. So Fort Mercer’s resolute commander, Col. Christopher Greene (a veteran of Arnold’s epic march on Quebec and a distant relative of Gen. Nathanael Greene), with the advice and direction of the French fortifications expert Thomas-Antoine, Chevalier de Mauduit du Plessis, placed his entire force within the pentagon and abandoned the trapezoid. (Greene’s statue stands atop a tall column which is planted squarely within the footprint of the fort, which can readily be seen from the Pennsylvania side of the river as one drives to or from the airport.)
The Hessians came on in two waves in the late afternoon. One assault wave, personally led by von Donop, attacked the pentagon/citadel from the east and was cut to pieces. The other wave, coming from the north, effortlessly rushed into the trapezoid, which thereupon became a killing field as a result of withering fire from inside the pentagon and also from shelling originating outside the fort, delivered by Pennsylvania Navy galleys hugging the east bank of the Delaware. Von Donop was grievously hit in both legs and captured. He died within several days, and he was initially buried right outside the Whitalls’ house. A staggering one-third of his courageous command were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. A marker at the fort apprises the visitor of words attributed to (or placed in the mouth of) the expiring von Donop:“It is finishing a noble career early; but I die the victim of my ambition, and of the avarice of my sovereign.” American casualties were relatively light.
More substantial than the marker about the Hessian colonel is a low, long stone monument with several bas-reliefs commemorating the battle and Gen. Hugh Mercer, the fort’s namesake. The heroic Mercer had also died of his wounds, in his case suffered at the Battle of Princeton earlier in 1777. Mercer’s sculpted head is topped by a tam o’shanter, reflecting his Highland origins—he had once served as a surgeon’s mate in Charles Stuart’s Jacobite army at the Battle of Culloden—only to find death, like von Donop, far from his original homeland and on a Quaker farm in New Jersey.
Scattered around the fort are a number of cannons. One, set upon a concrete carriage and pointing towards the river, bears the royal coat of arms; there are also a couple of damaged ones, exhibiting blown breeches. They are said to be relics of the sixty-four-gun ship HMS Augusta, one of the most powerful ships of Adm. Howe’s Delaware River squadron. Augusta ran aground in an attempt to support the Hessians’ assault; peppered by fierce American counter-fire from the land and the river galleys, its powder magazine ignited the next day, October 23, and it blew up spectacularly. The volcanic detonation resonated for many miles, and was audible well north of Philadelphia. The guns with the blown breeches/barrels on display today had been salvaged by the Americans and, according to their present markers, exploded on being test-fired.
A guide at the park (who imaginatively used a spontoon instead of a pennant) mentioned to me during one of my visits that at the time of the celebration of the Centennial in 1876, the Augusta was raised with the intention of transporting her the very short distance upriver to Philadelphia to be put on exhibit. She sank once again whilst being towed and convoyed. Her remains were displayed (subject to charged admission) on a spit off Gloucester City, New Jersey; her bones were visible until the 1930s, and some of her remnants adorn a room in the Daughters of the American Revolution headquarters in Washington, DC, as paneling.
Now, back to the aforementioned red shed. Somewhat jumbled together within, and without any apparent labeling, is an astonishing collection of military artifacts salvaged from the Delaware: grapeshot, housing boxes to secure the chevaux-de-frise obstacles, chains, sections of a log boom, hot-shot tongs, an anchor, and scores of projectiles. The visitor must peer through a window at this unilluminated assemblage, but there is something particularly evocative about viewing this mute evidence of the violence and desperation of the long-ago struggle for control of the river.
Fort Mercer eventually had to be abandoned, and Fort Mifflin, on the verge of complete obliteration by British ship and shore batteries, was abandoned as well. By November 1777, the defenses of the Delaware had been reduced and removed. The river was open. Philadelphia was now securely in the hands of the Crown, at least for the coming winter months.
On a visit to the park in April 2018, I was initially quite impressed to see clusters of individuals walking the fort’s paved pathways while fixedly staring at their iPhones; my naïve assumption was that there was an app available that served to explain the historic site. However, the same knowledgeable guide I have just mentioned informed me, with an air of understandably disappointed bemusement, that these people were in fact avid players of Pokemon Go, intent upon searching for augmented-reality cartoon monsters in a setting where any modest meditation about the events of 241 years ago would certainly conjure up far more meaningful specters. O tempora, o mores.
Fort Mercer was part of an original defensive system designed in 1776 by the famous Polish engineer and intrepid patriot Tadeusz Kosciuszko; he is commemorated at the Red Bank site by a plaque commissioned by the Copernicus Society of America.
Von Donop’s grave marker is gone, and there is an apparently unverified claim that his skull is in the possession of Rutgers University. See historicplacessj.blogspot.com/2011/01/is-this-skull-of-count-carl-von-donop.html. Historian-traveler Benson Lossing reported in the late 1840s that he saw the marker (which he also sketched), describing it as a “small, rough sandstone, about fourteen inches in height.” Due to the depredations of vandals, Lossing was only able to make out this portion of an inscription: “DONOP WAS LOST.” Lossing added that the Hessian commander’s skull was in the possession of a “physician of New Jersey”—perhaps part of the chain leading to its present possessor? Benson J. Lossing, The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution (New York: Harper, 1859), 2: 84.
Thomas Paine reported in a letter to Benjamin Franklin that while he was between Germantown and Whitemarsh, well north of Philadelphia proper, “we were stunned with a report as loud as a peal of a hundred cannon at once . . . [we] saw a thick smoke rising like a pillar and spreading from the top like a tree” —the classic mushroom cloud. Quoted in John W. Jackson, With the British Army in Philadelphia 1777-1778 (San Rafael: Praesidio Press, 1979), 71.
See the picture and description of the “New Jersey Room,” one of the DAR Museum’s “Period Rooms” shown on their website: www.dar.org/museum/dar-museum-period-rooms.
For information about the Red Bank Battlefield Park: www.co.gloucester.nj.us/depts/p/parks/parkgolf/redbank/default.asp.