The British Retreat Across New Jersey, January to July, 1778

As found in the book, "The Hessians The Revolution", By Edward J. Lowell.



The Hessians would appear not to have liked Philadelphia. Wiederhold, returning from captivity, and from his sentimental parting at Fredericksburg, calls the Quaker City “a meeting-place of all religions and nations, and consequently a mishmash of all sects and beliefs, and not less a confluens canaillorum,” and believes “that it does not yield to Sodom or Gomorrah in respect to all the vices.” [Footnote: Wiederhold’s Journal.]

Another officer complains of the climate, and says that the forests make the neighborhood unhealthy. Plants and animals do not acquire their proper size in Pennsylvania, according to this observer, and the people are sickly and prone to madness, “a craziness of the senses, coming rather from poor than from overheated blood. . . . Not one person in a hundred has a healthy color.” It is probable that the difficulty of getting fresh provisions in the half-blockaded town was not without influence on these judgments. Philadelphia has probably changed less in appearance since 1778 than any other large city in the Northern States. The Hessian officer praises the straight streets, the sidewalks of broad stones, the gutters, and the awnings. He laughs at the provinciality of the shopkeepers, who advertise “Tobacco, as good as the best imported,” and represents the arts and manufactures as being in a very backward state. No sort of work is done in ivory, steel, stucco, bone, embroidery, or silk. “The English send them all that, and all that they send is welcome. And, moreover, the American, and particularly the Philadelphian, is so conceited as to think that no country on earth is more beautiful, happier, richer, or more flourishing than his hardly budding state.” Such, however, is not the feeling of the writer of the letter. “If the honorable Count Pen,” says he, “would give me the whole country in exchange for my commission, with the condition that I should live here all my life, I would hardly take it.” [Footnote: Schlözer’s “Briefwechsel,” vol. iii. p. 149—153; vol. iv. p. 115—117.]

In the early part of December, Sir William Howe marched out from Philadelphia to bring on a general engagement. The armies were opposite each other in the neighborhood of Chestnut Hill, about eleven miles from the town, for three days, apparently preparing for a battle—marching, countermarching, and skirmishing; and then the English general, thinking Washington’s position too strong to be attacked, slipped very quietly back to Philadelphia.

Two foraging expeditions were made during this month, at the end of which the British army went into winter quarters. Eleven redoubts were built between the Delaware and the Schuylkill, the line running over Morris’s Heights, and each of them was occupied by a captain and fifty men, who were relieved every twenty- four hours. The picket line was intrusted to Provincials near the Schuylkill, and to the Hessian chasseurs near the Delaware, the latter being posted at Holland Ferry and Greenwich Point.[Footnote: MS. journal of the Jager Corps.]

While Washington’s army at Valley Forge was suffering from want of almost all the necessaIies of life, the British in Philadelphia had what they needed, and spent the winter in rest, health, and gayety. They were not crowded; many houses of absent rebels being used for barracks, and some of the soldiers being quartered on the inhabitants that remained in town. The service was light. Sir William Howe, who had already asked to be recalled, was gay and easy-going. The city did not seem very full of soldiers. The Americans only so far succeeded in cutting off provisions as to make them very dear.[Footnote: MS. journals of the Jäger Corps, the Grenadier Battalion von Minnigerode, the Regiment von Alt-Lossberg (Heuser).]

I pass over the skirmishes of the winter and spring, which were unimportant, whether Englishmen, Hessians, or Tories were engaged. The last, indeed, were principally interested in plunder.[Footnote: MS. journal of the Jäger Corps.]

On the 18th of May, 1778, a farewell festival was given to Sir William Howe, and on the 19th and 20th that general made a fruitless attempt to capture a corps of twenty-five hundred men under General Lafayette, who had ventured near to Philadelphia. On the 24th Howe handed over the command of the army to Sir Henry Clinton. Before leaving America he sent a complimentary letter to Captains Ewald and Wreden of the chasseurs.[Footnote: Eelking’s “Hiilfstruppen,” vol. ii. p. 8.]

Meanwhile it had become known in Philadelphia that the King of France had concluded an alliance with the rebellious colonies, and that a French fleet might soon threaten the entrance of Delaware Bay, and cut off the communication by water with New York. In other words, as the good Germans put it to themselves, “a strong French fleet, with many thousand land troops and cavalry, had run out of Brest, and was coming to North America, under pretence of being allies to Congress, but really with the intention of acquiring a firm footing on that continent.” [Footnote: MS. journal of the Grenadier Battalion von Minnigerode.]

It was the approach of the French fleet, together with orders received from England, that induced Sir Henry Clinton to abandon Philadelphia and retreat to New York. A part of the baggage of the army was put on board the English ships, and about three thousand of the Tory inhabitants prepared to follow their protectors and abandon their native land. The streets, which had been like those of a German town in fair time, were now deserted. In front of many houses stood piles of furniture, to be sold at auction. The inhabitants went about with sad faces, but some of them rejoiced in secret.[Footnote: Dinklage’s Diary, quoted Eelking’s “HUlftruppen,” vol. ii. p.9.]

During the month of November the Anspach regiments had been brought from New York to Philadelphia. They were now shipped again to New York, instead of sharing in the march across New Jersey. It was said among the Americans that the British commander could not trust these two regiments. By the Germans it was said that they had shown their inability to march.[Footnote: Compare Washington, vol. v. p. 433, and MS. journal of the Regiment von Lossberg (Heuser), June 9th, 1778.] They were the regiments that had mutinied at Ochsenfurth.

From the 14th to the 18th of June, 1778, the English and Hessians were evacuating Philadelphia. In spite of the fact that much baggage had been sent off by sea, the train numbered about fifteen hundred wagons.[Footnote: Knyphausen to the Landgrave, July 6th, 1778.] Ships at the wharves and on the stocks were burned. The Americans did not interfere with these preparations, nor seriously harass the departing troops. On the 18th of June the march of the army began. The way lay by Haddonfield, Mount Holly, Monmouth Court House, and the Neversink Hills to Sandy Hook. Parties of Americans destroyed the bridges in front of the British, and hung on the flanks and rear. The heat was terrible; many men were killed by sunstroke. The New Jersey mosquitoes did their work so thoroughly that the soldiers’ faces were swollen past recognition[Footnote: Ewald’s “Belehrungen,” vol. ii. p. 352.] On the 25th of June nearly a third of the Hessians were overcome by the heat, and lay by the roadside.[Footnote: MS. journal of the Regiment von Lossberg (Heuser).] There were many desertions.[Footnote: Two hundred and thirty-six Hessians deserted during the march across New Jersey.—Knyphausen to the Landgrave, July 6th, 1778.]

It seems extraordinary, in view of all these difficulties, that the Americans did not succeed in embarrassing the retreat very seriously. Many of Washington’s subordinates considered it unwise to attack the retreating enemy. This opinion was principally enforced by Charles Lee, who, as senior major-general, was able greatly to hinder the execution of Washington’s plans. The battle of Monmouth Court House was not quite a victory for either side. The Americans were driven back by Clinton’s rear-guard, and almost put to rout, owing to Lee’s incompetence or indifference. It is true that Washington rallied his men and repulsed an attack, but the true object of the day was not accomplished. Clinton continued his march, with hardly the loss of a baggage wagon. In the first week of July the British army reached Sandy Hook, whence it was transferred by water to New York.

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