BOOK REVIEW: George Washington’s Revenge: The 1777 New Jersey Campaign and How General Washington Turned Defeat into the Strategy that Won the Revolution by Arthur Lefkowitz (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2022)
The six months following the battles of Trenton and Princeton have long been ill-treated by historians. With Washington perched at Morristown, Howe in New York, and the two armies in largely static positions near the Raritan River in northern central New Jersey, it may seem like there isn’t much to write about beyond the planning for what would become the Philadelphia and Saratoga campaigns. Many works, including but certainly not limited to Mackesy’s The War for America, Pancake’s 1777: The Year of the Hangman, and Ferling’s Almost A Miracle, help foster that impression, taking up little more than a handful of pages for some disconnected vignettes of Washington’s inoculation efforts and some skirmishes over forage, as if simply to remind readers of Washington and Howe’s whereabouts. The sweeping multi-part TV documentaries like Liberty: The American Revolution and the 13-part The Revolution which aired on the History Channel in 2006 avoid the topic entirely, giving one the impression that the year 1777 was one that, to paraphrase Monty Python, gave the months of January through July a pass and went straight on to August, when General Howe landed his forces at Head of Elk and very interesting things once again began to happen.
Some of the few works that choose to take a somewhat deeper dive into this period do so within a single chapter, either to set the stage for something else, as in McGuire‘s introductory chapter of Volume I of The Philadelphia Campaign, or as a closing act, like David Hackett Fischer’s finale in Washington’s Crossing. The single standalone book, War in the Countryside, written in 1977 by Frederick Detwiller, focused primarily on the actions of June 1777 and is out of print, with the few existing copies difficult to find outside of a handful of historical societies and university libraries.
With George Washington’s Revenge: The 1777 New Jersey Campaign and How General Washington Turned Defeat into the Strategy that Won the Revolution, Arthur Lefkowitz sets out to fill the gap and provide the first book-length treatment of this neglected period of the War for Independence.
After the defeats during the Ten Crucial Days between December 26, 1776 and January 3, 1777, the combined British and Hessian force in New Jersey under the command of General Charles Cornwallis was forced to reduce its footprint from a ninety-mile-long chain of cantonments to a fourteen-mile corridor along the Raritan River between New Brunswick and Perth Amboy. Washington established his headquarters at Morristown, to await the reinforcements authorized by Congress on September 16, 1776. What remained of the Continental army with Washington was detached to advanced posts near the British lines, working through the winter with parties of New Jersey militia to deny provender to the enemy in a series of sharp small actions known as the “Forage War.”
As the weather warmed and green forage for British horses was readily had without bloodshed, Washington was presented with a new challenge—with a second British army under Gen. John Burgoyne descending from Canada, and Gen. William Howe’s army situated halfway on the road to Philadelphia, where will Howe go? Will he go north to support Burgoyne, or carry out his unfinished task of taking the American capital? If he chooses to attack Philadelphia, will he go by land or sea? To be best prepared for any move by Howe, Washington called in his outposts and brought the Continental army together upon the crest of the Watchung Mountains at a camp called Middlebrook. In the end, Howe would choose Philadelphia, and by mid-June his army would attempt one last swipe at Washington and the Continental Army before evacuating New Jersey and boarding transports bound for the Chesapeake.
Following a meandering introduction that Lefkowitz freely admits is “a safe haven” for “some background information that evades deletion by my editors as being ‘off the subject’” the first chapter of George Washington’s Revenge tells the tale of the entire War for Independence, from the first shots at Lexington and Concord through the Boston and Long Island campaigns to the Battle of Princeton. It’s not until page 63 that we finally come to the 1777 New Jersey campaign. This is unfortunate, as the long wind-up saps the drama from the almost cinematic vignette Lefkowitz crafts at the beginning of chapter 2, when we meet Washington at a critical moment on a crossroads north of Princeton on the afternoon of January 3, 1777.
Chapter 4, “Shabby Ill-Managed Affairs” brings us to the Forage War, and Lefkowitz’s treatment of it as well as British logistics is well-done. Logistics, particularly British logistics, is a topic that rarely gets its due time in the limelight, so it is pleasing to see Lefkowitz cite the works of Arthur Bowler, as well as discuss the extensive material needs of Howe’s army and the challenges it had in meeting the needs of its soldiers and animals.
However, as with the introduction, much of the book suffers from a lack of focus, with frequent lengthy detours exploring other areas peripheral to the winter campaign in New Jersey. The greater parts of three separate chapters are devoted to the minutiae of the December 1776 pursuit and capture of American Gen. Charles Lee, British raids on Peekskill, New York and Danbury, Connecticut, and Burgoyne’s Northern Campaign. It would have been more germane to the story of the forage war if Lefkowitz exchanged one of these detours with an examination of Howe’s falling out with Gen. Hugh, Earl Percy. In command of British forces at Newport, Rhode Island, Percy clashed with Howe over the critical issue of supplying the army at New York with forage from the islands around Narragansett Bay. The breakdown plays out in full acrimonious detail in Lord Percy’s papers, found within the British Manuscript Collection at the Library of Congress, but instead this fascinating episode is relegated to one of the last endnotes at the end of the book. Additionally, the fact that there are more custom maps created specifically for this book illustrating the Danbury Raid and Northern Campaign (3), and with greater detail, than there are for all American and British operations in New Jersey (2), may make one suspicious that Lefkowitz’s interests lay elsewhere.
The next chapter devoted solely to the New Jersey theatre is chapter 7, where Lefkowitz does a succinct job of describing the consolidation of the American army and the establishment of the Middlebrook encampment, helpfully distinguishing for the reader the difference between the settlement of Middlebrook, the Middlebrook encampment of spring 1777, and the later Middlebrook winter encampment of 1778-79. However, he makes a thin argument for the use of fougasses, a type of entrenched land mine, in defense of the 1777 Middlebrook encampment, despite no mention of them in the correspondence of either Washington or Nathanael Greene. The absence of fougasses in Greene’s correspondence is particularly notable, as he was responsible for laying out the encampment and its defenses, ordering the construction of three redoubts on the camp’s western flank.
As Lefkowitz correctly points out, references to fougasses appear during the war, citing a map of Fort Mercer, a fortification built just south of Philadelphia on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River, drawn by the French artilleryman Capt. Thomas-Antoine de Mauduit du Plessis. In du Plessis’s diagram, fougasses are indicated at the salients, or the pointed tips of the earthworks, in very prominent and exposed positions in order to cause maximum damage to an advancing enemy. These points were protected by outer rings of abatis, or tangled felled trees, which the Hessian assault of October 22, 1777 never breached. Thus, it is unclear whether the fougasses ever saw action, if indeed they were even placed at all.
Americans had ample opportunities previous to Fort Mercer and Middlebrook to employ fougasses to potentially great effect—the heights at Dorchester, the lines at Brooklyn, and Forts Washington and Lee—but did not. Most notably, Captain du Plessis did not arrive at Fort Mercer to begin improving the works or potentially lay any fougasses there until at least the second week of October, post-dating the Middlebrook encampment by over four months. Without the context of their position, and the lack of documentation before October 1777, the likelihood is extremely slim that the stone piles Lefkowitz describes and photographs were fougasses employed for the defense of the Middlebrook encampment.
Chapter 8, covering the British evacuation of New Jersey in mid-to-late June 1777, is a model for what the rest of the book should have been. The narrative is tight and fast-paced, with photography and maps to help place the action.
With George Washington’s Revenge, Lefkowitz does indeed fill the gap with a much-needed work on this overlooked period. While intending to specifically tell the tale of the war in New Jersey, the several digressions dilute its focus. Yet, it still serves as a suitable introduction for the War for Independence as a whole during the first half of 1777, rather than specifically the New Jersey campaign. As one might expect with a work with the title like “George Washington’s Revenge,” its primary focus is on the American army; a fresh analysis of Howe’s command would have been welcome. Despite these quibbles, George Washington’s Revenge would be a worthy addition to anyone’s library.
Piers Mackesy, The War for America, 1775-1783(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 121-126; John S. Pancake, 1777: The Year of the Hangman(University: University of Alabama Press, 1977), 94-96; John Ferling. Almost a Miracle(New York: University of Oxford Press, 2007), 18-203.
Thomas McGuire, The Philadelphia Campaign, Volume 1 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2006), 5-62; David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing(New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 346-362; Frederick Detwiller, War in the Countryside(Plainfield: Interstate Printing Corporation, 1977).
Mss. of the Duke of Northumberland, Letters & Papers, Ms. 51, January – March 1777. British manuscripts project [microform]. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress Photoduplication Service, 1941-1945.2,652 microfilm reels; 35 mm. Microfilm 041 (D), Aln Reel 26.