James W. Whitall (1717-1808) was a prominent Quaker businessman and farmer in the southern region of New Jersey. In 1739 he married Ann Cooper (1716-1797), a devout, no-nonsense Quaker, and together they built a house situated on a farm consisting of over four hundred acres of land along the Delaware River in Red Bank, New Jersey. Completed in 1748, the house offered a commanding view of the southern Philadelphia skyline, and it was from this house that James operated his many enterprises, which included farming his lands and orchards, raising livestock, and running a ferry service that transported people and goods between New Jersey and Philadelphia. Their house was always filled with people, from their nine children (six sons and three daughters), and as many as thirteen indentured servants.
The lifestyle of the wife of a successful entrepreneur was somewhat troubling to Ann Cooper Whitall, as she wrote in her journals of her difficulties in raising a proper Quaker family. Several disheartening entries discussed her fear of death, how she dreaded the future, and how she was saddened that her boys chose to play ball, skate, and go fishing on “First Day” (Sunday) rather than attend Quaker Meetings. Yet her duty as wife and mother carried her beyond her sadness, as she grew into the steadfast matriarch of the Whitall family. When she completed the last of her three journals in 1762, she wrote no more.
Around 1766 an extension was added to the house, which allowed the kitchen area to expand, and offered James a separate room where his business could be conducted. This pleased Ann, as it offset her husband’s business affairs from the mainstay of a traditional Quaker home.
When war broke out in 1775, life changed dramatically for the Whitall family. In the spring of 1777, as a proactive effort to block British warships from navigating up the Delaware, the Continental Congress ordered a fort built on the north end of the Whitall farm, and the lands in the center of the Whitall apple orchard were seized for the project. Fort Mercer (named in honor of Brig. Gen. Hugh Mercer who died at the battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777) was designed and built by Polish engineer Thadeusz (Thaddeus) Kosciuszko. Fort Mercer consisted of a series of earthworks, surrounded by a ditch, with wooden spikes mounted on log palisades, all facing towards Philadelphia. Chevaux-de-frise (portable wooden frames affixed with wooden spikes aimed at the enemy) were strategically placed around the fort. In addition, several chevaux-de-frise were built with their wooden spikes topped with sharp metal points; these were sunk just below the water line in the Delaware River, with the intent of puncturing the hulls of any British warship or transport ship that sailed up the river to Philadelphia. Across the river was Fort Island Battery.
British troops, under the command of Gen. William Howe, defeated American forces at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, and went on to capture Philadelphia on September 26. The occupation of this once-capital city required unrestricted control of the Delaware River, yet the waterway was protected by forts and the chevaux-de-frise. Even George Washington noted, “without the free navigation of the Delaware I am confident that General Howe will never remain in Philadelphia.” Any effort by the British to clear up the river would be met with retaliation from the Rebels at Fort Mercer and Fort Island Battery.
In order to remove the hazards posed by the Rebel soldiers at the fort and the sunken chevaux-de-frise, the British planned to take out Fort Mercer. Meanwhile, George Washington put Col. Christopher Greene of Rhode Island in charge of the fort’s defense.
Such war-like activity disrupted the Whitall family, and as Quakers they were erroneously accused of being Tories due to their pacifist tendencies.
Job Whitall, one of the older sons who, as a married adult, still lived in the Whitall house, wrote about the atrocities of war that befell their farm, beginning with the arrival of rebel troops. On October 10, 1777, Job wrote in his journal, “the militia turned us out of the kitchen, ye largest room upstairs and ye shop and took our hay to feed their horses.” On October 12 he wrote, “Colonel Green took 15 tons of hay, 60 bushels of wheat, 1000 cedar boards, 85000 rails, 2000 stakes, 50 white oak posts.” This act further infuriated Ann Whitall, but there was not much she or her husband could do; the Whitall’s were in their sixties, and most likely in no physical shape to deal with the pillaging.
By mid-October 1777, about 900 Hessian troops under the command of Col. Carl von Donop were dispatched from Philadelphia to attack Fort Mercer. Intelligence for the Hessians reported less than 600 Rebels at the fort, armed with even less firepower. Von Donop and his men sailed across the Delaware several miles north of the fort and quartered themselves in Haddonfield, New Jersey, in preparation for a march inland to attack the fort from behind.
Colonel Green, who had taken quarters in the Whitall house, advised the family and the indentured servants to move out of the house and away from the impending danger. They packed as many provisions and housewares as they could and made several trips to a nearby home of relatives. Their last trip was on the morning of October 21. Greene moved out of the house and into the fort on the same day. Ann Whitall returned later that day to check on the house, and decided to stay. Despite the advice of Colonel Greene, Ann could not be persuaded to leave.
Jonas Cattell, an eighteen-year-old apprentice blacksmith in Haddonfield, learned on the night of October 21 of the Hessian plans for a surprise attack on the fort; the next morning Cattell ran ten miles to the fort to warn Colonel Greene.
The players were in place: the rebels were stationed in Fort Mercer, the Hessians were marching inland from the east, and the British warships HMS Augusta and HMS Merlin were anchored in the Delaware, just off the coast of New Jersey, and south of the chevaux-de-frise.
On the afternoon of October 22, Ann Whitall went to the second floor of the house and set to work at her spinning wheel. Around 4 p.m. the battle started. She chose not to look out her window at the battles on her farmstead and in the Delaware, mostly due to her Quaker beliefs in despising war. Only when a cannonball fired from a warship crashed through the brick outer wall and rolled across the hall into the room where she was spinning did she decide to relocate herself and her spinning wheel into the cellar, and there she waited less than an hour until the battle was over.
Through cunning and deception, the Rebels dealt the Hessians a severe blow; over 500 enemy troops were killed or wounded, including the mortal wounds suffered by von Donop, who died a few days later; his body buried in an unmarked grave on the bluffs of the Delaware River on the Whitall farm.
The Whitall house turned into a field hospital for the Hessian soldiers. Doors were removed and used as make-shift operating tables. The family room window, which faced the Delaware, became the disposal portal for amputated limbs. The humanitarian side of Ann Whitall came into play, as she dutifully assisted the medics and cared for the wounded enemies. While offering care to the sick and dying, she scolded the wounded Hessians for coming to America to butcher the people as she carefully dressed their wounds and offered them food and water. Towards those wounded Hessians who complained, she curtly reminded them that they “had no one else to blame but themselves for bringing this misery upon them.” After her duties as nurse concluded, Ann Whitall left their beloved farm and rejoined the rest of her family.
The Battle of Red Bank was a victory for the Continental Army, but it was short lived. In early November, British warships launched a bombardment on Fort Island Battery. On the night of November 15 the Continentals evacuated the island and escaped to Fort Mercer. With word that 2,000 British troops under command of Lord Charles Cornwallis were headed to Fort Mercer, Colonel Greene decided it was best to evacuate as well, and abandoned the fort on November 20.
When the Rebel soldiers left the Whitall property on November 21, Ann’s son Job noted in his journal they took “two mares . . . bread, pie, milk, cheese, meat dishes, cups, spoons, and then took shirts, sheets, blankets, coverlets, stockings, and breeches.” On November 24, he wrote that the invading British soldiers ransacked the farm and took “small pots, 50 pounds of tanned oxen hide, 4 or 5 flitches of bacon, a thousand feet of wood boards.” The soldiers also “burned 2 or 3 thousand Barrel staves & heading, and took father’s winser chair and left it in the woods.”
The Whitall family did not return to their house until April 1778. They were greeted with ravaged lands and blood-stained floors inside their house. They blamed the Continental Congress for the carnage, and never forgave the Continental Army for what they did to their property. On April 17, 1779, James Whitall submitted a bill for damages to his property from the aftermath of the Battle of Red Bank in the amount of the £5,760, 1s. to the State of New Jersey Legislature. The petition was ignored and the bill was never paid.
Despite the rejection for compensation, the Whitall family continued their business endeavors well after the war. A yellow fever epidemic struck the Philadelphia region in 1797. Despite being careful during the epidemic Ann contracted the illness and died on September 22. The epidemic also claimed the lives of two of her children and two of her grandchildren. Ann was eighty-one years old when she died. James Whitall continued his enterprises until his death in 1808, at the age of ninety-one.
James and Ann Whitall are buried in unmarked graves (as was a customary Quaker practice) at the Woodbury Friends Burial Ground, in Woodbury, New Jersey. Today there are placards at the site noting that somewhere on the grounds are their final resting places.
The Whitalls had nine children: Zather, James, Job, Hannah (died in infancy), Benjamin, Joseph, Hannah (lived to adulthood, died of yellow fever), Sarah, and John. From birth records in the Library of Congress, transcript dated March 24, 1973. Mary Ellen Hill, “Ann Cooper Whitall,” Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine Vol. 111 No. 8 (October 1977), 814.
Devout Quakers did not believe in slavery, but indentured servitude was acceptable.
Jo Ann Wright, The Diary of Ann Whitall (Woodbury, NJ: Gloucester County Historical Society, 2012), 15.
Hill, Ann Cooper Whitall, 814.
Fort Island Battery, also known as Fort Mud Island, was built in 1771 on Mud Island, situated in the middle of the Delaware River. It was renamed in 1795 to Fort Mifflin, in honor of Thomas Mifflin, a solider and later a member of the Continental Congress.
Hill, Ann Cooper Whitall, 815.
Florence DeHuff Friel, The Diary of Job Whitall (Woodbury, NJ: Gloucester County Historical Society: 1992), 10.
Frank H. Stewart, History of the Battle of Red Bank (Woodbury, NJ: Gloucester County Historical Society, 1927), 4.
Hill, Ann Cooper Whitall,815.
Samuel Stelle Smith, Fight for the Delaware (Monmouth Beach, NJ: Phillip Freneau Press, 1970), 35. Jonas Cattell was quite the runner, once covering 160 miles in two days. Today, in honor of Cattell, there is a ten mile run from Haddonfield, NJ to Red Bank, NJ, held every year on a Sunday near October 22. A special award is given to the first teenager to complete the run.
The story of the cannonball sailing into the second floor of the Whitall House and witnessed by Ann Whitall may just be a legend. There is no evidence today of any damaged brick outer wall on the second floor of the house. However, the State of New Jersey bought the Whitall House in 1971 and restored it, perhaps destroying any evidence of a cannonball strike during the renovation efforts. But a picture of the house from the Delaware River vantage point shows that the second floor façade on the north side of the building (where her spinning room is located) is more windows than shutters or brick; perhaps, statistically speaking, a cannonball had a better chance of going through a window than going through a wall. A newspaper report from May 26, 1936 in the Courier-Post, Camden, New Jersey, discusses the report and contends that a cannonball that burst through the house while Ann Whitall was spinning was retrieved, and the hole in the wall was plastered over (from an article in the Frank H. Stewart Collection at Rowan University titled: “250th Anniversary of Gloucester County, NJ,” May 26, 1936).
Ralph D. Paine, The Battle of Red Bank (Woodbury, NJ: Gloucester County Historical Society DAR, the Ann Whitall Chapter, 1926).
Hill, Ann Cooper Whitall, 815.
René Chartrand, Forts of the American Revolution 1775–83(Oxford: Osprey Publishing, Ltd., 2016), 24.
Friel, The Diary of Job Whitall, 10.
It may have turned out better for James if he submitted his bill for restitution to the Continental Congress, as Ann’s brother, John Cooper, served in the Congress at the time.
For a discussion on the last years of Ann Whitall’s life, see “New Jersey Woman’s History: Ann Whitall,” www.njwomenshistory.org/discover/biographies/ann-cooper-whitall/, accessed August 15, 2019.
It probably should be noted that von Donop’s grave was marked, and that during the anti-German sentiment attending the outbreak of World War One a mob desecrated the site, tossing von Donop’s bones into the Delaware river.
The cannon ball story may be spurious for another reason, since one of the advantages of Fort Mercer (and presumably the Whital house) was that it was situated well above the river and that ships could not elevate their guns enough to bombard it. Otherwise they surely would have pounded the place into rubble at some point in the campaign.
One cannot really tell the story of the battle of Fort Mercer without mentioning Maj. Thomas Mauduit du Plessis’ role in modifying Kosciuszko’s design of the fort, which was too large to be defended by the men available. He cut the place in two by building a traverse through the center, and Greene only manned the one half.
The Chevaux-de-frise (or as the Continentals called them, stackadoes) were in the river, not on the land. The perimeter of the fort was ringed by abattis; an obstacle formed by branches, or whole trees laid in a row, with the sharpened tops directed outwards, towards the enemy, each tree tucked into the next. Like barbed wire (which hadn’t been invented yet), these would delay the approach of the enemy and increase the dwell time they would spend under your fire.
Yes, there is so much more to the story that goes beyond this article. Here’s something I came across during my research:
“In a memorandum given in December, 1914 by great-grandson John G. Whitall (born 1830), all of the Hessians were buried south of Fort Mercer in a bluff. Colonel von Donop’s grave was marked with a rough stone with the words “Count Do” on one line, and “Nop” on the second line. In 1865 the Delaware River claimed about 30 to 40 feet of bluff of the Whitall property, and all of the Hessian graves, including von Donop’s, were washed away. This memorandum also claims that the fabled cannonball fired in the upstairs wall of the Whitall House came from the Fort, and not from the warships.” (From papers in the Frank H. Stewart collection at Rowan University)
I’m still not sure about the veracity of this source, as John G. Whitall went on to say that Benjamin Franklin invented Chevaux-de-frise!
The Whitall house certainly sits high above the Delaware, and parallel to where the fort once stood. It would have been one “magic cannonball” to sail that high from a warship. But maybe J.G. Whitall was correct that it came from the fort. But being a magic cannonball, perhaps it came from the farm’s Grassy Knoll?
And as you said, the fort was surrounded by abattis. They were made from the apple trees which the Continentals cut down from the Whitall Orchard. Yet another reason the Whitall’s detested the Rebels.
I encourage everyone to visit this Battlefield. It has a lovely park with well-maintained monuments and a beautiful view of the Philadelphia skyline (if you can tolerate the planes taking off and landing at nearby Philadelphia International Airport)
The term chevaux de frise described a number of configurations of spiked obstacles, including both on land and underwater. On land, they were often used in conjunction with abattis, but had the advantage over abattis that they could be relatively easily assembled from pieces cut in other places and brought to the site, and also moved or rearranged. Chevaus de frise were widely used on land throughout the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth. Here’s a photograph of some used in the American Civil War: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheval_de_frise#/media/File:Cheval_de_frise_petersburg_civil_war_02598.jpg
Nice article. I discovered JAR quite by accident, and have been referring it to friends and history buffs. All of the articles are well researched and written. You are a gem! I went on Amazon and purchased the yearly complications for 2016 through 2018. These books are a great value.
Best regards, John C