The Battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield 1780 by Edward G. Lengel. (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2020)
Famed Washington historian Edward G. Lengel (editor-in-chief of the Papers of George Washington and author of General George Washington: A Military Life) reminds readers that the recognizable titles of some Revolutionary War battles were not the only ones that made a difference in the course of the conflict:
We have all heard and likely read about the big battles of the American Revolution. Names like Trenton, Saratoga, and Yorktown resonate in our ears. But what about all the smaller battles that took place by the hundreds, often fought away from but related to the bigger battles? It is the contention of this series that these smaller actions, too often ignored, had as much impact, if not more, in shaping the outcomes of the American War of Independence. [page XI]
The inaugural contribution of Lengel for Westholme Publishing’s “Small Battles” series focuses on the New Jersey battlefield near Elizabethtown in 1780. The narrative begins (in Chapter 1, “Armageddon In View”) with Washington’s precarious position in 1780. Although he was obsessed with recapturing New York City, he was worried about the position of the French fleet and whether he could count on French General Rochambeau’s support. Washington’s situation was improved compared to previous years, however, because by 1780 the Continental Army was no longer an inefficient, undisciplined force. It was now an organized and experienced army, led by talented officers such as von Steuben, Lafayette, Greene, Wayne, and Knox.
At the same time, the British forces under Gen. Henry Clinton saw ultimate victory slipping away from them. Although they were still as strong as they were when the Revolution began, the British were fighting a defensive campaign against the French in the Caribbean, which was draining necessary resources. The hoped-for support of Loyalists had been more than disappointing. Finally, the morale of the British forces was at an all-time low, and Clinton’s lack of enthusiasm for winning was problematic to the war effort.
The second chapter is an intensive play-by-play description of the Battle of Connecticut Farms (June 7, 1780), between the forces of Washington led by the unappreciated Gen. William Maxwell versus British and German armies under the command of Gen. Wilhlem von Knyphausen. British and German war atrocities (especially the tragic story of Hannah Caldwell) were used by the Patriots as war propaganda: “The affair was reminiscent of the Jane McCrea incident that so embarrassed John Burgoyne in 1777.” (p. 34) The battle, a Patriot victory, showed that the German command was in terrible shape. Valuable resources were lost, nothing was accomplished, and Loyalist support continued to erode: “Loyalists in New York, for their part, were ‘vexed,’ blaming Wurmb and Knyphausen for failing to push their advantage. It was just one more wedge of distrust separating King George III’s military leaders from the Americans they had supposedly come to defend.” (p. 48)
While Washington continued to worry about the condition of his forces and getting resources for them, his officers were concerned about the possible actions of General Clinton (Chapter 3, “Clinton Arrives”). American soldiers under the combined command of Gen. Nathanael Greene, “Lighthorse” Harry Lee and Jedediah Huntington next proceeded to an engagement at the Battle of Springfield on June 23 against Knyphausen, the Jäger corps, and Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers. Mixed communications led to a civilian house being set on fire by the British, prompting Loyalists to put the entire town of Springfield to the torch. American casualties were light, while Knyphausen’s actions again wasted men, time, and material. The burning of Springfield was used as cause celebre for Patriot resistance to British “savagery.”
Lengel’s Conclusion explores the effects of both the Battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield. The fortunes of the Americans waxed as those of the British waned, and Washington could now focus on planning a campaign with Rochambeau’s forces in 1780 and 1781. Meanwhile, Clinton returned to New York City and worried about assassination, complained about shortages from London, and cursed the actions of Loyalists. Although the New Jersey battles did not turn the tide of the war, they revealed the predicaments of both the opposing sides.
The Battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield 1780 is a fast read, but it also serves as a worthy resource about the final years of the Revolution. Excellent maps are included in each chapter, helping the reader to better understand the details of the battles. Lengel’s addition of several illustrations of combat scenes, soldiers, and portraits of all the major figures is a fine touch. The next book in the “Small Battles” series will have a ready and eager audience.