When War Came to the Thompson-Neely Farmstead

The War Years (1775-1783)

June 24, 2021
by David Price Also by this Author

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Gen. George Washington did not sleep here but many of his soldiers did—that is, on the grounds or nearby. The historic site known today as the Thompson-Neely house and farmstead is located in upper Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and is a featured attraction of Washington Crossing Historic Park (WCHP). In fact, it is the historic focal point of a visitor’s trip to the upper park at WCHP.[1] The house is the only building located within WCHP’s current boundaries to serve as a headquarters for several of Washington’s officers prior to the Continental army’s legendary Christmas night crossing of the Delaware River in 1776.[[2]]

In December of that year, a rebel army brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. William Alexander, known as Lord Stirling, encamped at the Thompson-Neely house in Solebury Township, two miles south of Coryell’s Ferry (New Hope today), although Stirling himself was headquartered at a nearby residence known as Blue Mount, later identified as Beaumont’s Ferry.[3] The soldiers were part of an exhausted army whose ranks were filled with men lacking winter clothing, shoes, stockings, and blankets, and reeling from a series of unrelenting setbacks during a near-disastrous New York campaign the previous summer and fall. As Washington put it, they had been “reduced by Sickness, Desertion, & Political Deaths (on & before the first Instant, & having no assistance from the Militia) [and] were obliged to retire before the Enemy.”[4] The American defeats in New York had segued into a long, punishing retreat through more than eighty miles of northern and central New Jersey and culminated in the army’s withdrawal across the Delaware River from Trenton to Pennsylvania during the first week of December in order to elude the pursuing Anglo-German forces.

Stirling’s force, when posted on or near the grounds of the Thompson-Neely house, comprised a total effective strength of 673 soldiers (excluding those reported absent, sick, on extra duty or on furlough). The brigade included Capt. John Fleming’s 1st Virginia Regiment (185 soldiers), Col. George Weedon’s 3rd Virginia Regiment (181), Col. John Haslet’s Delaware Regiment (108) and Miles’s Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment under Maj. Ennion Williams (199).[5] During this time, the Thompson-Neely house was used to care for convalescing soldiers, healing from wounds or suffering from disease or camp ailments, and served as a headquarters for several Continental officers, including: Capt. William Washington, the commander-in-chief’s second cousin, once removed; and eighteen-year-old Lt. James Monroe, the future fifth President of the United States—both with the 3rd Virginia Regiment.[6] They would each be wounded in the first Battle of Trenton on December 26, being among the few American casualties in that engagement.

The privations of the common soldiers in Washington’s army, particularly at this time, have been well documented, and those in Stirling’s brigade were no exception. Lt. James McMichael of Miles’s Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment reported that on December 9, following their river crossing to Bucks County, the soldiers in his unit “marched from near Trenton ferry to Thompson’s mill [the gristmill on the Thompson-Neely property] near Coryell’s ferry, where we encamped in the woods. Weather very cold.”[7] Capt. Enoch Anderson of the Delaware Regiment recalled that once on the Pennsylvania side of the river, “we lived, crouching among the bushes” (although their colonel was quartered in a house).[8]

Maj. Ennion Williams wrote to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety in Philadelphia on December 12 from his headquarters at Thompson’s Mill along Pidcock Creek on the Thompson-Neely property—named after John Pidcock, the first European immigrant to live on these grounds. The major informed the council that his regiment was “in good Spirits, tho’ thinly clad and penniless” and expressed his hope that the men would soon “be supplied with Cloths and part of their Pay at least.”[9] There followed a series of missives to the council from Thompson’s Mill in which he pleaded for desperately needed supplies.

Williams wrote two letters on December 13. In the first, he urged Owen Biddle, chairman of the council, “to forward to me immediately, such Clothing as you have ready, to the Number of 230 suits [uniforms]. They want Shirts, Shoes, Breeches, Waistcoats, Coats & Stockings, and about 50 Blankets; however such of these as you have, please send off without Delay to our poor Distress’d soldiers.”[10] His second letter that day emphasized the unit’s predicament: “The men are barefooted and very thinly clad, and have not received any Pay these three months.”[11]

In his next letter, on December 16, Williams acknowledged being advised of the council’s offer to provide 300 uniforms for his regiment in lieu of those that Williams claimed had been previously promised but then were designated for troops in other regiments. He wrote: “It will give me much satisfaction if I can get the 300 suits you mention to be sent to Lord Sterling, & unless it may happen thus favorable, I cannot see how it will be possible to make the Regiment satisfied for the Loss of the Suits made on Purpose for them, which I am too well inform’d are to our Mortification deliver’d out to other Regiments.”[12]

His patience wearing thin, the major’s two messages of December 17 struck a more acerbic note. In the first, he asserted that “unless you provide Shoes and Stockings on Purpose for our barefooted men . . . it will be impossible for our Regt to do Duty here much longer. Our Regiment have undergone as much Hardship and Fatigue as any in the Army since July, and is it unreasonable to request that they be as well provided?”[13] In the second letter, he wrote to Owen Biddle: “Is it not a thousand Pities that this Regt, which is now the strongest in the Brigade, and born its full Proportion of Hardships and Fatigue, should still suffer; they are good men, and in my opinion will yet be a Credit to the Province on which they pique themselves.”[14]

Williams appeared to be making limited headway in securing apparel for his soldiers by December 21 when he wrote: “The 58 suits of New Clothes, 58 of old, the Caps & Shoes have come to hand and are distributing.” Still, he was frustrated that “the 300 suits mentioned to be forwarded to Lord Sterling, I cannot hear anything further of, which I can’t account for.” And he observed that “Our men lay out in huts made of Boards in a rough manner.”[15]

The circumstances in which these and other Continental units found themselves, as reported by British intelligence, may very well have lulled Gen. James Grant, then commanding His Majesty’s forces in New Jersey, into a false sense of security. The general, by letter of December 21, sought to allay the concerns of Col. Johann Rall—who commanded the three German regiments (known as Hessians) occupying Trenton—about being vulnerable to an attack from across the river. Grant assured the colonel “that the rebel army in Pennsylvania . . . have neither shoes nor stockings, are in fact almost naked, dying of cold, without blankets and very ill supplied with Provisions.”[16]

Meanwhile, Washington and his generals—desperate to strike a blow that would restore the spirits of their soldiery, especially those whose enlistments were about to expire on December 31, and of Revolutionary advocates among the civilian population—planned an assault on Rall’s brigade that, according to the commander-in-chief, “necessity, dire necessity will—nay must justify.[17] His adjutant general, Col. Joseph Reed, emphatically agreed: “I will not disguise my own sentiments, that our cause is desperate and hopeless if we do not take the opportunity of the collection of troops at present to strike some stroke. Our affairs are hastening fast to ruin if we do not retrieve them by some happy event. Delay with us is now equal to a total defeat.”[18]

On Christmas Day 1776, the men of Stirling’s brigade who were physically able to do so slogged four miles south from the grounds on and near the Thompson-Neely property to McConkey’s Ferry, which is in today’s lower park at WCHP. In his diary entry for that day, Lieutenant McMichael wrote: “We have now received the glad news that marching orders have been issued. At sundown we marched down the Delaware to McKonkey’s Ferry [in] weather uncommonly inclement.”[19] There they joined in the army’s Delaware River crossing and march to Trenton “in a very severe Night, and . . . thro’ a violent Storm of Snow and Hail.”[20] From this ensued a dramatic victory over the German garrison—the first significant success enjoyed by Washington’s army and the beginning of its legendary “Ten Crucial Days” campaign from December 25, 1776 through January 3, 1777—that profoundly altered the course of the conflict. Britain’s secretary of state for America and chief war strategist, Lord George Germain, conceded as much when he acknowledged to Parliament, “all our hopes were blasted by that unhappy affair at Trenton.”[21]

The house on whose grounds Stirling’s brigade encamped is a stone structure built in three sections characteristic of farmhouses constructed by early eighteenth-century settlers in Bucks County, who typically replaced their log cabins or framed cottages with stone dwellings. During the Revolution, this structure would have comprised the original section of the building that dates from about 1740 (after 1788, its central section), a western wing added in 1757, and a second-floor addition to the original section thought to have been added around 1766; the final section—a two-story eastern wing—was added in 1788.[22] The house is located near Pidcock Creek, which provided power for the owner’s gristmill, and is today surrounded by a barn and nearby cluster of small outbuildings that are restored examples of structures from an eighteenth-century farm complex. The house has undergone several stages of construction and restoration over the years.

When the Continental army arrived at their doorstep in December 1776, two families occupied the Thompson-Neely house. They included Robert Thompson and his wife Hannah (he being her second husband), their daughter Elizabeth and her husband William Neely, and the Neely’s two young children—Jane and Robert. In contrast to their Quaker and Loyalist neighbors who failed to support or actively opposed the Revolution—and to those millers who refused to sell much-needed flour to Washington’s army out of political conviction or a disdain for nearly worthless Continental dollars—Robert Thompson and William Neely are thought to have sided with their fellow Scots-Irish in supporting the Patriot cause. The aging Thompson paid a double tax in 1779 in lieu of military service, and Neely served in the militia.[23] Indeed, sympathy for the Revolution among those of Irish descent was such that they, particularly the Scots-Irish, were a significant presence in the rebel army.[24] Consequently, one might presume that either or both men—if present when Stirling’s force appeared on their property—would have sought to reasonably accommodate the brigade’s needs. (The author is unaware of any documentation that confirms the presence or absence of any member of the Thompson or Neely family during the army’s encampment.)

The families operated a successful gristmill. Wheat was Pennsylvania’s principal cash crop in the eighteenth century, and the proximity of Bucks County to the Delaware River and Philadelphia facilitated its participation in the international market for flour.[25] The wealth derived from Robert Thompson’s thriving enterprise enabled him to expand the size of his stone house accordingly. A later version of the Thompson-Neely mill that dates from around 1870—the third such structure built on the property after the earlier mills were shuttered—survives to this day and, after being rehabilitated by the Friends of Washington Crossing Park, opened for guided tours in 2018.

The Thompson-Neely house is normally open for tours from April through November, but the house is currently closed to the public due to the rehabilitation that it and ten other historic structures at WCHP are undergoing as part of an $8.7-million project by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Visitors can take a guided tour of the mill and the grounds of the house. In addition, the other attractions at WCHP are open, including the visitor center with its exhibit area and gift shop in the lower park—the site of the 1776 Christmas night crossing—where tours are offered daily; and Bowman’s Hill Tower in the upper park, which in clear weather offers a fourteen-mile view in any direction. Tours of the Thompson-Neely mill and nearby grounds, and of the lower park, as well as visits to Bowman’s Hill Tower, must be booked online. Information is available through the visitor center (215-493-4076) or WCHP website.

The upper park at WCHP also features a memorial cemetery that is just a short walk from the Thompson-Neely house and lies between the Delaware Canal and the river. Here a row of modern headstones marks the spot where the remains of an unknown number of Continental soldiers repose in an expansive, bucolic setting. Only one of the headstones is marked with a name, that of Capt. Lt. James Moore of the New York State Company of Artillery, who died in the Thompson-Neely house on December 25, 1776 at the age of twenty-four from “camp fever,” commonly thought to be what we now know as epidemic typhus fever.[26] Moore’s superior, Captain Alexander Hamilton, described him as “a promising officer . . . who did credit to the State he belonged to.”[27]

The other headstones in the cemetery refer simply to “unknown” soldiers. Like Moore, they succumbed to exposure, disease and wounds during the winter encampment of 1776-1777, at a pivotal moment in a protracted struggle that “not only tried men’s souls but their bodies too.”[28] The Thompson-Neely farmstead may very well have been where many, if not most, spent their final days. No poet lamented their fate, as in this, from Philip Freneau’s elegy for the fallen at Eutaw Springs in 1781: “Now rest in peace, our patriot band; Though far from nature’s limits thrown, We trust they find a happier land, A brighter sunshine of their own.”[29] Even so, the soldiers who lie by the Delaware are well attended on a site graced by the river’s flow and nature’s verdant canopy. The curious or reverent gaze of generations of visitors and a venerable park’s continuing ministrations have borne lasting witness to the collective sacrifice of these young men.

The author wishes to acknowledge the ongoing efforts of Kimberly McCarty, Museum Curator at WCHP, to preserve and interpret the Thompson-Neely farmstead, and is grateful to her and the following individuals at WCHP for reviewing a draft of this article: Marisa Sprowles, Park Manager; Jennifer Martin, Executive Director, The Friends of Washington Crossing Park; and historical interpreters Thomas Maddock II and Bunkie Maddock.

 


[1]Marianna Thomas Architects (2014), Sustainable Future of Washington Crossing Historic Park: Master Plan 2014, prepared for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 32, s3.amazonaws.com/img.stateparkhq.com/files/dcnr_20032756.pdf. Since 2015, the park has been managed by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

[2]Peter Osborne, No Spot In This Far Land Is More Immortalized: A History of Pennsylvania’s Washington Crossing Historic Park (Yardley, PA: Yardley Press, 2014), 71.

[3]William W.H. Davis, History of Bucks County, Pennsylvania: From the Discovery of the Delaware to the Present Time (New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1905), 2:120, babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433081817318&view=1up&seq=140&q1=Robert%20Thompson.

[4]George Washington to Lund Washington, December 10-17, 1776, in This Glorious Struggle: George Washington’s Revolutionary War Letters, ed. Edward G. Lengel (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2007), 79.

[5]“Return of the Forces in the Service of the States of America, encamped and in quarters on the banks of the Delaware, in the state of Pennsylvania, under the command of his Excellency George Washington, Esq., Commander-in-Chief of all the Forces of the United States in America, December 22d, 1776,” in American Archives: Fifth Series, ed. Peter Force (Washington, DC, prepared and published under an Act of Congress, 1853), 3: 1401-1402, books.google.com/books?id=AtAxAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA1401&lpg=PA1401&dq=Return+of+the+Forces+in+the+Service+of+the+States+of+America,+December+22d,+1776&source=bl&ots=pt2opn2cAI&sig=ACfU3U11BaPmpHakhfKF9HKcpNiWjtsaZA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwimouyj1PbwAhXFUt8. This is an incomplete strength report for Washington’s army four days before the battle at Trenton on December 26, 1776. For what is thought to be a more complete account of the effective strength of Stirling’s brigade at the time, seeDavid Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 391; William L. Kidder, Ten Crucial Days: Washington’s Vision for Victory Unfolds (Lawrence Township, NJ: Knox Press, 2018), 78; and William S. Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1898), 351. Continental army regiments were often referred to by the name of a regimental colonel rather than their numerical designation, even when that officer had been captured or promoted, and this was the case with Col. Samuel Miles’s Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment (also referred to in historical accounts as the 1st Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment). Miles had been taken prisoner by the British on Long Island in August 1776, leaving Major Ennion Williams in command of the unit.

[6]Davis, History of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, 2:121, babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433081817318&view=1up&seq=140&q1=Robert%20Thompson.

[7]William P. McMichael, “Diary of Lieutenant James McMichael of the Pennsylvania Line, 1776-1778,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 16, no. 2 (1892): 139-140, www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/20083473.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A3186291f5c29a73bbe50e20c1d5037df.

[8]Enoch Anderson, Personal Recollections of Captain Enoch Anderson (Wilmington: The Historical Society of Delaware, 1896. Reprinted by The New York Times and Arno Press, Inc., 1971), 28.

[9]Ennion Williams to the Council of Safety, December 12, 1776, in Pennsylvania Archives, 1776-7 (Philadelphia: Joseph Severns & Co., 1853), 5:103, www.google.com/books/edition/Pennsylvania_Archives/fPMPAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Major+Ennion+Williams+to+Council+of+Safety,+Dec.+12,+1776&pg=PA103&printsec=frontcover.

[10]Ennion Williams to Owen Biddle, December 13, 1776, in Pennsylvania Archives, 5:105,www.google.com/books/edition/Pennsylvania_Archives/fPMPAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Major+Ennion+Williams+to+Council+of+Safety,+Dec.+13,+1776&pg=PA105&printsec=frontcover.

[11]Williams to the Council of Safety, December 13, 1776, in Pennsylvania Archives, 5:107,www.google.com/books/edition/Pennsylvania_Archives/fPMPAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Major+Ennion+Williams+to+Council+of+Safety,+Dec.+13,+1776&pg=PA107&printsec=frontcover.

[12]Williams to the Council of Safety, December 16, 1776, in Pennsylvania Archives, 5:112-113, www.google.com/books/edition/Pennsylvania_Archives/fPMPAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Major+Ennion+Williams+to+Council+of+Safety,+Dec.+16,+1776&pg=PA112&printsec=frontcover.

[13]Williams to the Council of Safety, December 17, 1776, in Pennsylvania Archives, 5:115-116,www.google.com/books/edition/Pennsylvania_Archives/fPMPAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Major+Ennion+Williams+to+Council+of+Safety,+Dec.+17,+1776&pg=PA115&printsec=frontcover.

[14]Williams to Owen Biddle, December 17, 1776, in Pennsylvania Archives, 5:117, www.google.com/books/edition/Pennsylvania_Archives/fPMPAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Major+Ennion+Williams+to+Council+of+Safety,+Dec.+17,+1776&pg=PA117&printsec=frontcover.

[15]Williams to the Council of Safety, December 21, 1776, in Pennsylvania Archives, 5:127-128,www.google.com/books/edition/Pennsylvania_Archives/fPMPAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Major+Ennion+Williams+to+Council+of+Safety,+Dec.+21,+1776&pg=PA127&printsec=frontcover.

[16]James Grant to Johann Rall, December 21, 1776, in Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, 334-335.

[17]George Washington to Col. Joseph Reed, December 23, 1776, in This Glorious Struggle, 82.

[18]Joseph Reed to George Washington, December 22, 1776, in The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution As Told by Participants, eds. Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1967), 510.

[19]McMichael, “Diary,” 140, www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/20083473.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A3186291f5c29a73bbe50e20c1d5037df.

[20]George Washington to John Hancock, December 27, 1776, in This Glorious Struggle, 89.

[21]Remarks by George Germain, May 3, 1779, in The Parliamentary Register: Or History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons during the Fifth Session of the Fourteenth Parliament of Great Britain (London: John Stockdale, 1802), 11:392, books.google.com/books?id=ekZFAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA392&lpg=PA392&dq=All+our+hopes+were+blasted+by+that+affair+at+Trenton.&source=bl&ots=B29fNIJzWY&sig=ACfU3U0z9ihHlzX7wfKXsC5DRXscyaTXOQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiO1oD6-YfhAhUPh-AKHS4sCYg4ChDoATAAegQIChAB#v=o.

[22]Osborne, No Spot In This Far Land Is More Immortalized, 72. See also Kimberly McCarty and Diane Nadler, Thompson-Neely House Interpretation Plan, Washington Crossing Historic Park (Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, 2017), passim.

[23]Frens and Frens, LLC (2004, November), The Thompson-Neely House, Washington Crossing Historic Park: A Historic Structure Report, 2-67. See also McCarty and Nadler, Thompson-Neely House Interpretation Plan, passim.

[24]Michael Stephenson, Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence Was Fought (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008), 29-30.

[25]Owen S. Ireland, “Bucks County,” in Beyond Philadelphia: The American Revolution in the Pennsylvania Hinterland, eds. John B. Frantz and William Pencak (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1998), 26.

[26]Davis, History of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, 2:121, babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433081817318&view=1up&seq=140&q1=Robert%20Thompson; Chris J.D. Zarafonetis, M.D., “Chapter VII: The Typhus Fevers,” in History of the Office of Medical History, Office of Medical History, U.S. Army Medical Department, 143, history.amedd.army.mil/booksdocs/wwii/infectiousdisvolii/chapter7.htm.

[27]Alexander Hamilton to the Provincial Congress, March 6, 1777, in The Works of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge (Federal Edition) (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), 9:44, oll.libertyfund.org/title/lodge-the-works-of-alexander-hamilton-federal-edition-vol-9#lf0249-09_head_017.

[28]Joseph Plumb Martin, Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier: The Narrative of Joseph Plumb Martin (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2006), 96.

[29]Philip Feneau, “At Eutaw Springs the Valiant Died,” in The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six, eds. Commager and Morris, 1194.

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