Sir Henry Clinton inherited an unmitigated strategic disaster when he assumed command of the Crown Forces in North America during the spring of 1778. Previous campaigns had taught the newly-minted command-in-chief that if there was to be a complete victory for the British, it needed to be in a thoroughly decisive action on the battlefield against George Washington’s army. The battles for Long Island and Brandywine demonstrated that spectacular tactical victories on the battlefield meant nothing if the enemy were allowed to escape and fight another day. Moreover, what was supposed to have been a cooperative campaign with three major British armies in the summer of 1777 had ended in what was an embarrassing lack of communication, a surrender of an entire field army, and the expansion of what was an Anglo-American rebellion into an international affair. This change in tempo left Great Britain unprepared for both defending the vast reaches of its empire and conducting a growing war in North America. The government in London valued its possessions in India, Canada, and the Caribbean much more than the thirteen rebelling colonies. With limited resources, it became prudent to redeploy a large portion of the available force in North America to other places of higher value. This was certainly a crippling blow to an army that was already understrength, leaving it with limited abilities to conduct offensive action. Clinton would not have the manpower to effectively reconquer the colonies.
There was a loophole, however. Clinton’s army was then in Philadelphia and would need to move to its base to New York before portions were sent to other places. Transporting his force by sea was not possible with the available ships, making a march through New Jersey to New York the only logical choice. To be clear, the abandonment of Philadelphia, the redeployment of his army to New York, and the changing strategy were not Clinton’s ideas nor likely his desires. From the beginning of the conflict Clinton, for better or for worse, demonstrated the necessity of the need to crush the Continental Army in both tactical and strategic designs. Now that Clinton was the new British commander, he would have the opportunity to construct a campaign that might allow for such a lethal strike to Washington should his army appear.
The British evacuation from Philadelphia on June 16-17 of 1778 was smooth, and only after securing Haddonfield, New Jersey and beginning to push inland did the British forces meet significant resistance. The vanguard under Brig. Gen. Alexander Leslie consisted of the Queen’s Rangers, Hessian Jägers, British light infantry, and mounted dragoons. Along the way they fought a mixture of New Jersey militiamen and New Jersey Continentals from Brig. Gen. William Maxwell’s brigade that had been in Southern New Jersey operating out of Mount Holly since April. Maxwell and his fellow American commander, Maj. Gen. of militia Philemon Dickinson, understood they were vastly outnumbered, and only expected to delay Clinton. They instructed their scattered commands to destroy every possible bridge, particularly on the Rancocas Creek, and offer resistance from behind every hill, tree line, and fence in the face of the advancing British army. This strategy proved effective in slowing the progress of Clinton’s march, however, it also offered the British commander the opportunity to maneuver his forces in such a way so as to create the sought-after conditions for the decisive victory he had so long desired. It was clear in the early stages of the march that Mount Holly was the logical target as the small South Jersey town acted as a hub for the major road networks in the region. Mount Holly had served as the main American base of operations until June 20, when it was decided that the best chance for contesting Clinton was to finish consolidating their forces and establish a new line along Crosswicks Creek several miles further north.
While Maxwell and Dickinson made their preparations, Leslie’s vanguard and Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis’s division rested in Mount Holly. There, they awaited the arrival of Lt. Gen. Wilhelm von Knyphausen’s column escorting the wagon train from Moorestown several miles to the southeast. Once both wings of the British Army were united at Mount Holly, Clinton was faced with a new strategic obstacle; the small but now united Continental force under Maxwell occupying the area of Black Horse (Columbus), blocking the route Knyphausen was to take. The solution was quite simple: as Maxwell only had a few hundred men, Clinton would strike at Black Horse then feint towards Bordentown with Leslie and Cornwallis to draw Maxwell’s men in that direction, thus opening the way for Knyphausen to move unmolested. The movement worked in a general sense; however, Maxwell did not take the bait in full and concentrated the bulk of his men instead at Crosswicks. While Knyphausen would have a relatively unmolested march, Cornwallis’s column would need to use force to fulfill his dual objective of crossing the Crosswicks and shielding the Second Division.
The stage was set for the fight along Crosswicks Creek. Clinton intended to send the vanguard and Cornwallis over the bridge spanning Crosswicks Creek and then move northeast towards Allentown, all the while shielding Knyphausen and hoping to find Washington’s army and perhaps destroy it. As previously mentioned, Clinton hoped that his feint toward Bordentown would shunt the bulk of the Americans that way so that he could cross the creek without much opposition. While this worked in part, nearly half of the American force available, perhaps 800 men, took position on the ridge that ran along the north bank on Crosswicks Creek. This force was almost entirely made up of Maxwell’s Continentals, and for the first time in the campaign, these men were unified and able to fight a singular battle. In addition, American outposts were established along the Crosswicks-Chesterfield Road, ranging out to roughly about three miles away from the bridge. Finally, Maxwell placed a sizeable force on the creek’s south bank in the village of Crosswicks itself, while the rest remained on the wooded ridge on the north bank. The forward troops on the south bank formed around the Quaker Meeting House, which sat central in the village, and prepared to meet the British force that would move down the road towards them.
The British army awoke at 2 A.M. on June 23, ready to strike a blow at Maxwell and Dickinson. Capt. John Peebles of the 42nd Regiment of Foot noted the army began its march at roughly 4 A.M, upon which the Patriot outposts began to raise the alarm silently, alerting the Americans in the village that an enemy was coming towards Crosswicks. From his headquarters in Bordentown Dickinson received reports of Gen. Alexander Leslie’s feint toward his forward position at the drawbridge over Black’s Creek by the Lewis Mill, and informed Washington of the situation. “The Enemy are advancing very fast upon the Bordentown road—they are so superior in Horse, that they push our few, where ever they see them—from every present Appearance, they will pass by Trenton, they will meet great opposition at this Bridge, as I am determined to defend it, as long as it is possible.” While Leslie did his part, Clinton and the main army moved through Slabtown (Jacksonville), the site of the December 1776 action known as Petticoat Bridge, and on into Black Horse. Accounts are mixed on the intensity of the small fight that occurred in Black Horse; it is very likely that it mainly consisted of parting shots by an American rearguard on the British light troops that were pushing into the village. Meanwhile, Leslie’s diversion served its general purpose of having the American commanders think part of Clinton’s force was heading toward Bordentown.
With this intelligence Dickinson decided to shift the bulk of his militia to the area around Lewis Mill, just south of Bordentown along Black Creek to defend the drawbridge there, thus thinning out the defenses of the actual target, the Crosswicks Creek Bridge. Strategically, Dickinson really had no other choice; a British incursion in the immediate region of Bordentown could have significant consequences, such as the capture of Trenton several miles north or control of the vital ferries in the region. While the move made sense strategically, tactically it served to weaken the American line at Crosswicks, making Cornwallis’s task more achievable. The British advance would need to be made in concert and keep within a specific timetable to ensure a quick crossing that could keep pace with Kynphausen’s division, which was moving rapidly down the Monmouth Road to the east.
The Battle of Crosswicks
The feint toward Bordentown did not fool the fiery “Scotch Willie” Maxwell, a veteran of many hard fights. Maxwell had his New Jersey Continentals waiting at Crosswicks for the inevitable advance of Cornwallis. Both Clinton and Cornwallis left their headquarters at the Black Horse Tavern earlier on the morning of the 23rd, with the bulk of the main body. Leading the column was the best the Royal Army had to offer. As Clinton’s aide-de-camp, Andrew Bell, recorded, “Gen. Clinton, with Lord Cornwallis’ Column, consisting of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of Grenadiers and 1st and 2nd Light Infantry, with Hessian Grenadiers 2 Battalions, and 1st, 2nd and 3rd Brigade British, moved on at 5 o’clock A.M. to Crosswicks.” Moving along country roads, they passed by the “Sign of the Rising Sun,” a landmark inn, and wheeled right toward the village of Crosswicks. The 16th Light Dragoons and Queen’s Rangers (detached from Leslie) led the column, keeping their eyes peeled for any ambuscades that could be thrust upon them. The first sign of resistance came as the column moved through Recklesstown (Chesterfield), at which point a body of militia was spotted. Presumably acting as scouts, the militiamen retreated before any action could be taken. Upon the vanguard’s approach to the outskirts of Crosswicks, roughly a mile and half out, men of the Monmouth County militia operating on another forward post abruptly opened a harassing fire that was just enough to keep the British annoyed and slow down their march. British numbers quickly overwhelmed the militiamen, and they once again continued to move forward, inching closer to the bridge.
While still on the march, General Clinton received a report, possibly from a local Tory, that Maxwell was preparing to make a stand at Crosswicks Creek. Clinton promptly halted the march and dispatched the 16th Light Dragoons and the Queen’s Rangers up to the village to investigate the claim, while he followed close behind to gain a view for himself. Moving down the Crosswicks-Chesterfield Road, which led right into the village, the small force began receiving more concentrated fire from the American outposts, a sure sign of stiffening resistance. Andrew Bell remembered as the command approached the fringes of town:
About a mile before we reached Crosswicks, information was received that the rebels were making a show of resistance there. The 16th Dragoons flew to the place and received the fire of about 500 musketry, without loss. The rebels had retired over the bridge and destroyed it, which gave them an opportunity of getting off with safety and prevented us from pursuing them.
While the dragoons engaged the Continentals on the southern edge of town, Col. John Graves Simcoe and his Queen’s Rangers moved close behind. Simcoe, always diligent and opportunistic, spotted that the American line had insufficient numbers to hold the position south of the bridge. He quickly seized the initiative by dispatching a flanking party under the command of Ens. John Wilson of Capt. Francis Stephenson’s light infantry company, to work around the American right flank in hopes of preventing them from destroying the bridge. Meanwhile, the dragoons pushed forward and moved around the left flank of the Americans on the south side of the bridge. Once both parties were in place, the dragoons and rangers attempted to cut the Americans off with a pincer movement before the surrounded rebels on the south side of the creek could cross the bridge. The pincer was not sprung fast enough, and the American detachment made its escape. The flanking party under Ensign Wilson now took cover behind the south face of the Quaker Meetinghouse that sat in the center of town on the village green and waited for the rest of the Queen’s Rangers to arrive. Even though they failed to capture any of the Continentals, the pincer movement happened so quickly it caught the Americans by surprise and succeeded in stopping them from ripping up the bridge planks in their frantic dash for safety. Securing the bridge while it was still serviceable was the true victory for the British, as it meant they would be able to cross the creek that evening and continue their march. Some of the planks were gone, but the underlying rails that supported them were still in place, sufficient to bear men and horses.
At this very moment, as the close quarter action swirled along the creek, General Clinton, his blood up, rode up to the balance of Stephenson’s light infantry company, then only mere rods from the American line, and under a hot fire. Simultaneously, Colonel Simcoe brought up the rest of the Queen’s Rangers to Stephenson’s position in order to make a push toward the bridge and hit the American defenders holding it. With musket balls flying around him, Clinton eyed up the situation for several tense seconds, he then turned to Simcoe and ordered him to storm the north bank of the creek, then ordered the 16th Light Dragoons to send a detachment to support Simcoe’s right flank as the Rangers made for the bridge. This would prove to be the most critical action of the small battle.
The American line situated across the creek, meanwhile, was on a high, wooded elevation, where only a spirited and determined charge could break it. The ground on either side of the creek rose sharply, making it an easy and ideal defensive position for the rebels, which is likely the reason Maxwell selected the position for his 800 men to face off against Clinton’s numerically superior army. As a final touch to support the attack Clinton sent for Lt. John McLeod’s artillery, which was brought forward and deployed on the left flank just west of the Meeting House with a clear view of the bridge. After a few tense moments of preparing for the attack, Stephenson’s light company stepped off and moved rapidly out from around the Meeting House with bayonets glistening and charged the hundred yards or so to the bridge. On the other side, the New Jersey soldiers, realizing the determination of the assault heading their way, aimed and fired into the advancing, green-coated provincials in an effort to break up the attack. The Rangers moved so rapidly and efficiently that they reached the creek before the Americans could unleash a second concentrated volley. Realizing these provincials meant business and not wishing to engage in a hand-to-hand struggle, the hard-pressed Americans broke ranks and scattered up the slope into the fields beyond, where officers quickly reformed their battalions to deliver another volley. Nevertheless, amid the charge and breaking American lines, one determined Continental remained in danger’s way long enough to fire a second round at the charging Rangers. That well-aimed musket ball found Capt. Francis Stephenson, who was still leading the charge in front of his company. The ball slammed into his lung, seriously wounding him. This disgusted Simcoe, who later claimed that the shot that wounded his fellow officer came from a “Quaker with a long fowling piece.” Simultaneously, Clinton, who was still on the front line, succumbed to a moment of passion, commandeered one of the Simcoe’s companies, and led it into battle on the left, cheering the men on along the way as they went to the assistance of Stephenson. Farther to the right, on the eastern face of the Meeting House, the dragoons dismounted and, now behind a fence, opened fire on the rebels, pinning them down as the infantry advanced.
Amidst the cheers, Lieutenant McLeod’s two 3-pound guns made the situation more deadly by sending grapeshot into the backs of the fleeing Americans, successfully hitting a few and killing at least one. At the base of the creek, Lt. Thomas Murray of Capt. John F. D. Smyth’s ranger company, the same one Clinton had personally led to the front, tried to ford the creek thinking it passable, but found he would have to swim it. Murray successfully reached the other side before the rest of the company even got across. Temporarily finding himself caught in between the opposing battle lines, he quickly sought cover behind a tee, waiting until the rest of his command crossed. While Murray took cover, an American cannon rolled into position on the new line, then formed by Maxwell on the ridge’s crest north of the bridge. The gun fired at the British on the hill around the meetinghouse in hopes of inflicting damage and creating temporary confusion.
While the British were deploying for a final attack, a young Burlington County militiaman, Job Clevenger, showing more courage than most, rushed down to the bridge and tried to disable it one last time before the Rangers crossed in force. He had barely even begun his heroic journey when he was shot dead, his limp body rolling down the slope toward the bridge. The combined fire of McLeod’s guns and pressure from Simcoe’s Rangers proved too much for the American second line to endure and they began to pull back yet again to the backside of the ridge, giving up the bridge for good. Following up Stephenson’s light company, who led the charge over the bridge, came Capt. Richard Armstrong’s grenadier company of the Queen’s Rangers. Both of these companies, followed by the no- mounted dragoons, crossed the disabled bridge on its rails, and quickly stormed up the opposite embankment where they began to pursue the retreating New Jerseymen into the fields beyond.
The fight became a running one, spanning almost two miles, heading north. This second half of the battle generally consisted of the Continentals falling back, reforming, turning, and firing while the pursuing Crown troops remained hot on their heels, pressing their advantage. The north side of the creek was very open, with various gently rolling farm fields making up the landscape, a perfect environment in which the British troops could have the opportunity to operate at their best tactically. Eventually, the pursuing British ran into the stalwart 3rd New Jersey Regiment under the command of the able Col. Elias Dayton, standing in line behind Doctors Creek determined to make a stand. An intense firefight quickly opened as the other retreating American troops moved around the 3rd New Jersey and on to safety, while farther to the rear supporting the 3rd New Jersey was an American artillery company. Colonel Dayton, mounted behind his command, shouted orders and directed the determined little stand. In an instant his horse was shot from under him for the second time in the war. Despite the heavy British fire, the New Jersey Regiment held, convincing the pursuing Rangers and dragoons to pull back to their support. This final action effectively ended the first day of the battle of Crosswicks.
As the battle finally wound down on the 23rd of June, panting and exhausted soldiers on both sides remained fixed in their positions, waiting in anticipation of what was to happen next. With the end of the fighting, Clinton’s practical time for marching and establishing a secure camp was beginning to close. He needed therefore to be satisfied with securing the crossing, and went into bivouac in and around the town. The embattled and victorious Queen’s Rangers along with the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry stayed on the north side of the creek at the junction of the Trenton and York Roads. South of the bridge, the Hessian and British grenadiers camped between the village and the creek, while two brigades camped along the road to Black Horse. As a final measure, the elite Brigade of Guards covered the eastern flank, still expecting and receiving occasional attacks from the Monmouth County militia. Knyphausen with the 2nd Division camped two miles to the east, while Leslie took his brigade and occupied his foothold near Bordentown, protecting the rear. 
With the fighting over and the British beginning to show their cards as to their next move, Dickinson appraised the situation and dispatched a note to Washington at about 1:30 P.M.:
From every present appearance, I believe the Enemy intend their rout thro’ Allentown—Their Lt Horse with a party of Infantry appeared at the Bridge, by Lewis’s Mill—but have retired—a second party of Horse, came up to the Drawbridge, just after we had destroyed it, & gone off—they have also retired. I have about six hundred militia now upon their left flank, the remainder that march’d this way, shall act in the same manner—Genl Maxwell’s Brigade, will proceed immediately to Maidenhead. Two small Battns in the front, obstructing their march—& one small Battn on their right flank. 2, oClock By Colonel Morgans request, Captain Giles this moment came in, & left the Troops three miles in the rear—to inform me of their approach—they are so near this place, & the men so fatigued, that they will halt here this Evening & march in the morning for Maidenhead—the reason of their taking this rout, was the information received on the road—of the Enemy’s being near this place—a Lt Horseman this moment came from Lewis’s Mill, who informs me, that the Enemy have appear’d a second time, at that place.
With their respective stands near Lewis Mill and Crosswicks, Generals Maxwell and Dickinson had done all that could be reasonably expected with such a small force in the face of a large British army. With Clinton now heading towards Allentown, the New Jersey generals fell back in the direction of Trenton, then north to Maidenhead, where they would finally meet up with the main army moving inland from Hopewell. That evening, Dickinson’s final dispatch to Washington painted a clear picture of Clinton’s intentions:
The obstructions thrown in the Enemy’s way, have been, the destruction of Bridges, & the felling of trees, but those were of such a nature, as have fully satisfied me, their delay, was voluntary. The whole of General Clinton’s movement, since he came into this State, has convinced me of his wish, to bring on a general action—it does not admit of a doubt with the constant language, of the intelligent deserters—I do not mention this as a reason—but his Conduct, carries conviction with it. Unexpectedly, the Enemy made their appearance, about six o’clock this Evening, on the other side the Drawbridge—I take this to be, their advanced party, consisting of about seven, or eight hundred Men this is the Column, which I mentioned to your Excellency, that was advancing on the Bordentown road—but from the best intelligence, their main body, lays on the Allentown road—they were busily employed in pulling down a Barn, to rebuild the Drawbridge, but our Artillery & Musketry, effectually put a stop to their Operations, for this Evening—I have taken the necessary precautions, to prevent a surprise—& tomorrow, shall dispute the passages with them, unless they outflank us.
June 24: Final Actions at Crosswicks
The next morning at about 6 A.M., General Cornwallis, joined by General Leslie’s brigade on the south side of Crosswicks Creek, commenced crossing the rebuilt bridge and marched up to Allentown, four miles distant. Knyphausen was also then moving out from Imlaystown and marched three miles to the east of Allentown. Early in Cornwallis’s march, resistance was again met at Doctors Creek. The 3rd New Jersey Regiment had remained as a rearguard to contest the crossing of that small stream as the rest of Maxwell’s command marched for Maidenhead. Colonel Simcoe would have none of it and quickly ordered up McLeod’s guns to his support while he prepared to attack. McLeod rolled into position and speedily sent some hot iron over toward the Jersey Blues, convincing them to quit the post permanently and retreat towards Maidenhead. Several hours later, back in Crosswicks as the British rearguard was moving across the creek, American Col. Anthony Walton White arrived with a detachment consisting of Capt. John Ross’s Company of the 3rd New Jersey Regiment and some mounted militia. They moved up through the village and found the British engineers ripping up the bridge to stop White’s advance. Colonel White ordered Captain Ross to take his company down to stop the engineers. A spirited skirmish erupted, carrying on only until the British rear guard ended it by opening fire with their light 3-pounders. This last action the battle ended as the redcoats slipped off towards Allentown.
All factors considered, Sir Henry Clinton had passed through the most dangerous trial of his march. The strategic situation now changed dramatically after crossing Crosswicks Creek. General Knyphausen could march virtually unmolested toward New York. At the same time, Cornwallis placed himself to threaten Trenton and block Washington’s main army then coming over the Delaware River at Hopewell. The battle at Crosswicks benefited both sides in the strategic and political realms. Clinton successfully secured the vital bridge, which allowed his command to cross and be able to move onto Allentown and proceed with the next segment of his march to New York. For the Americans the action bought the time they needed to allow the main Continental Army to narrow the gap to intercept the British. The determined little stand along Crosswicks Creek slowed British progress down by at least twenty-four hours, as they had to rebuild the bridge and contend with the still-intact American force in front of them. This delay helped instigate the battle of Monmouth, the climactic moment of the march, several days later. While Clinton was unable to obtain the decisive victory he so craved over Washington, the battle of Crosswicks and the adjoining march showed the skill in which he handled his army, taking it through one of its most dangerous moments of extreme vulnerability and potential destruction. Although the battle is usually regarded as a footnote in the shadow of Monmouth, its purpose was paramount to the rest of the campaign and it was certainly recognized as valuable by those who were involved.
Nick Bunker, An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America (New York: Vintage Books, 2014). Bunker dedicates his first chapter to outlining the logistical, organizational, economic, social, and political issues created by Britain’s inability to effectively secure North America.
This view is expressed in various works dealing with the larger strategic concepts of 1778. Mark Edward Lender and Garry Wheeler Stone, in their ground breaking work on the Monmouth campaign, Fatal Sunday, express this view which is also shared by other prominent historians such as Henry Carrington, Andrew O’Shaughnessy, Robert Middlekauff, and Russel Weigely.
Philemon Dickinson to George Washington, June 22, 1778, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0518.
Dickinson to Washington, June 22, 1778, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0518.
Black Creek is a small tributary which empties into the Delaware River approximately a mile south of Bordentown proper. The creek’s width and distance are smaller in comparison to Crosswicks Creek, however, the Black Creek in the area of Bordentown offered a much better defensive position for the Americans than did the Crosswicks.
Andrew Bell Esq. “Journal,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society vol. 6 (1851-53). Bell failed to mention that the Queen’s Rangers were also in the vanguard towards Crosswicks. The mistake is easily understandable as General Leslie’s brigade, which the Rangers were a part of, had been the vanguard the entire march thus far and who now with the exception of the Rangers had been detached to make the feint toward Lewis Mill.
Dickinson to Washington, June 23, 1778, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0531.
Ibid.; Donald J. Gara, The Queen’s American Rangers (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2015), 134. Clinton did not mention in his memoir anything on Crosswicks. This may be because it was, compared to other engagements he was involved in, rather small and overshadowed by Monmouth only several days later, and Clinton was defiantly a front-line commander, as shown in other battles, so his presence in the immediate combat area was well within his character and therefore not likely significant for him to mention in his memoir.
Simcoe, A Journal of the Operations of the Queen’s Rangers; André, Major Andres Journal, 76; Peebles, Diary, 191; Archibald Robertson, Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762-1780, ed. Harry M. Lydenberg (New York: New York Public Library, 1930), 173. The amount of detail for the entire battle is sadly scant and relies totally on piecing together the available primary sources into a larger view. In addition, local traditions, oral interviews, Quaker records, and physically walking and exploring the area were important components to help support the primary sources. Crosswicks, compared with other battles, was a small affair and only seen as a necessary action to get across the creek. We must consider the shadow cast on its memory by Monmouth; however, the exhaustion experienced from the soaring temperatures and the march itself coupled with the international events then taking place all played a part in suppressing the memory of the battle.
Gara, The Queens American Rangers, 135; Robertson, Diaries and Sketches, 173; Simcoe, A Journal of the Operations of the Queen’s Rangers. A cannonball can still be seen in the northern face of the Crosswicks Quaker Meetinghouse, but it is most likely that the ball was added years after the battle during a repair job.
Joseph Bloomfield, Citizen Soldier: The Revolutionary War Journal of Joseph Bloomfield, ed. Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2018), 136. Drayton’s first horse was shot from under him at Germantown in October 1777.
Dickinson to Washington, June 23, 1778, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0532.
Dickinson to Washington, June 23, 1778, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0533.