On February 23rd, 1777 the British and Americans fought one of the largest battles of the Forage War at Spanktown, near modern-day Rahway, NJ.
Increasingly frustrated by American attacks on their foraging parties, the British command unleashed Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mahwood, the aggressive British commander who very nearly won the day at Princeton. With four British infantry regiments, plus a battalion each of light infantry and grenadiers, Mahwood was well-equipped to challenge any American Continental or Militia units that stood in his way.
Happening upon a small American foraging party covered by a brigade of New Jersey Continentals on a nearby hilltop, Mahwood deployed his troops for battle. He launched a grenadier company on a wide flanking movement, preparatory to a massed bayonet assault. The British moved confidently, prepared to overcome American resistance with cold steel. Then the Americans sprang the trap.
The New Jersey units were bait. Hiding in ambush was a Pennsylvania Brigade including Colonel Edward Hand’s 1st Pennsylvania (formerly called both Thompson’s Rifle Battalion and the First Continental Regiment). The grenadier company unwittingly marched across the front of the hidden Pennsylvanians, who sprang from concealment and fired a volley which annihilated the flanking force. Both the New Jersey and Pennsylvania brigades now maneuvered aggressively against Mahwood’s remaining troops who, outnumbered and outflanked, fell back. The light infantry and grenadier battalions fought a brief rearguard action as the infantry regiments withdrew. Lieutenant Colonel Mahwood must be credited with escaping with most of his force intact, but the retreat soon turned into a route.
The British were not only driven from the field with significant losses, but the Americans pursued them all the way to the British stronghold in the Amboys. It must have been an agonizing defeat for the British hero of Princeton. More importantly, it foretold the successes of a Continental Army that, in eight months’ time, would bring General John Burgoyne to heel at Saratoga.
You can experience the Battle of Spanktown from a participant’s point of view in the novel A Nest of Hornets.
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