The Forage War: Spanktown

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.


Possible deployments at Spanktown, from A Nest of Hornets

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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The Forage War

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!

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Quill and Ink: Why Linear Tactics?

One of the common cultural images of the American Revolution involves lines of men standing fifty yards apart and trading volleys. To the modern observer, one of the first questions that comes to mind is: “Why?” Why would people stand there like that? Well, as usual, it’s complicated.

The Battle of Long Island

First of all, there is the question of firepower. A well-trained Eighteenth Century musketeer could get off roughly four shots per minute, with an effective range of less than one hundred yards. Skilled commanders would hold their fire the enemy was within fifty yards (“…until you see the whites of their eyes!”), to maximize the impact of the first volley. That first volley was especially critical because black powder weapons belched out great quantities of smoke, obscuring the target. Furthermore, muskets quickly fouled and had delicate mechanisms (a lost or broken flint immediately turned a firearm into a club), so it was a case of diminishing returns.

It was also necessary to keep soldiers under control. When placing so many soldiers in such close proximity, with loaded firearms, for safety’s sake it was critical to control who fired when. Otherwise, “friendly fire” and accidental shootings would have been even more common than they already were.

The threat of cavalry attack also demanded tight formations. Large cavalry formations could quickly close the distance to enemy troops and use their swords and shock effect to break up infantry units. To repel cavalry charges infantry units learned to form tight, three-deep squares, using musketry and bayonets to keep the horsemen at bay.

Considering these factors, there really was no other option than to keep the men close. The objective in combat is to impose one’s will on the enemy, and with black powder muskets the only way to generate enough firepower to physically stop a body of enemy troops from doing something was to form up tightly, get close, and “pour it on.” In most cases a high proportion of troops under fire from enemy musketry survived, although there were cases when units taken by surprise or poorly handled were annihilated. (Teaser: in my upcoming novel, A Nest of Hornets, a British grenadier company meets this fate at the Battle of Spanktown).

Battle_of_bunker_hill_by_percy_moranHaving said all that, combat in North America was different from combat in Europe. In the Americas distances were greater, troops less numerous, the ground more broken, and cavalry less prevalent. These factors forced commanders on both sides to adapt their tactics: there is compelling evidence that units on both sides adopted open formations, with up to a yard between soldiers, and also employed double, rather than triple lines. These adaptations made formations less vulnerable to incoming fire and enabled them to cover more ground. At Bunker (Breed’s) Hill in 1775, for example, the British used tight formations and attempted to trade volleys with the American militia, who fought from behind breastworks. As a result they suffered staggering casualties. They also learned to rely on bayonet charges. Their third attack at Bunker Hill was carried out with bayonets only, and succeeded. The British took this lesson to heart.

Starting with the Battle of Long Island the standard British tactics involved approaching to just within rifle range of American units and then rapidly closing the distance (often at a jog) until they could deliver a bayonet charge. This tactic served them well until the Continental Army gained enough experience and training to meet the British in the open field on something approaching equal terms. At Saratoga (1777) and Monmouth (1778) the Continentals proved that the British could no longer rely on the bayonet to always carry the day. But it would take three more years of bitter fighting until the Continentals and their French allies decisively proved the futility of the British cause at Yorktown.