The British plan for the winter of 1777 had been to disperse their brigades across New Jersey, where the units could live off the land to augment the tenuous cross-Atlantic supply line. George Washington’s recently proven proficiency at destroying isolated brigades made this plan untenable, so the British and their German allies retreated to a few massed positions in New York and New Jersey. This gave them security, but left the countryside in the hands of the Jersey Militia, who had been freshly galvanized by the American victories in the Ten Glorious Days. Now the British and Germans would have to send out fighting patrols in ever increasing numbers to forage for food and fodder. These foraging parties made attractive targets for increasingly large swarms of militia, soon reinforced by Continental troops.
Here are just a few of the 50-60 “skirmishes,” with the forces involved:
- January 6th: Springfield, NJ. A force of 50 Waldeck (a German principality) infantry and a few British light dragoons ambushed and captured. This action precipitated the British abandonment of Elizabethtown (modern Elizabeth, NJ).
- January 20th: Van Nest’s Mills (Millstone), NJ. 500 British, reinforced with with artillery, were attacked by Brigadier General Philemon Dickenson and about 400 militia, reinforced by a company of Continental riflemen. The British were driven off with heavy loss, to include a wagon train and several dozen head of cattle.
- February 1st: Drake’s Farm. A force of about a thousand British and Hessian troops, to include elite battalions of light infantry, grenadiers, and highlanders, attempt to set a trap for an American force. When the 5th Virginia Regiment tries to capture a small party of British foragers, they are surprised by the entire British force. The Americans launch a bayonet charge which breaks the grenadier battalion and buys them time to make good their escape.
- February 23rd: Spanktown (Rahway) NJ. Nearly 2000 British regulars under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mahwood, the British commander who nearly won the day at Princeton, attack a small American foraging party. As they launch what they expect to be a final assault they are ambushed by nearly 2000 previously hidden Continental troops. The British are driven from the field and pursued back to their fortifications in Amboy.
The Continental troops gained experience and confidence from these encounters. They would later put their new-found expertise to good use at Brandywine, Germantown, and Saratoga.
The British and Germans realized that this was going to be a long, hard war. Perhaps a few of them began to develop a new-found respect for their ragtag opponents. If nothing else, it seemed in the words of one British officer that an outing into the New Jersey countryside was like walking into “a Nest of Hornets.”
You can experience the Forage War from a participant’s perspective in Gideon Hawke #3: A Nest of Hornets!
A Nest of Hornets on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01NBI511Q/