A number of twentieth-century local historians contend that a battle or skirmish occurred in current-day Hainesport Township, Burlington County, New Jersey. In more recent years, artists have even prepared fanciful paintings of how the military exchange may have appeared. The bridge in question afforded a crossing over the South Branch of Rancocas Creek along the old road to Philadelphia from Mount Holly. The State Assembly approved an act in February 1794 to create a more direct route for this highway along today’s Marne Highway (C.R. 537). This more direct route became popular and the old road quickly fell into disuse and travelers soon abandoned it completely. But what about the supposed battle during the American War for Independence? Did it happen? Although no references to the battle can be found in the standard nineteenth-century sources, including Woodward’s History of Burlington County, I quote below what local authors such as George DeCou and Henry Shinn have written on the subject:
In George DeCou’s Pamphlet No. 1, Historical Sketches of Mount Holly and Vicinity, he writes,
Andrew Bell, General Clinton’s confidential secretary, tells in his Journal of a skirmish at the bridge over the south branch of the Rancocas—called Bally Bridge Creek—in General Clinton’s reports—in which five Americans were killed and two captured. Let us quote from Bell’s interesting Journal, which is the only account of this episode that we have today: “At a small distance from this town (Mount Holly) a bridge was broken down by the rebels which, when our people were repairing, were fired upon by those villains from a house, two of which were taken prisoners, three killed and the other two ran into the cellar and fastened it so that we were obliged to burn the house and consume them in it.”
This historic incident occurred near the bridge on the old Philadelphia Road which crossed the Rancocas about two hundred yards above the present railroad bridge at Hainesport. At the time of the Revolution, this bridge and the village near it, now known as Hainesport, was called “Long Bridge.” The present lane leading from the Lumberton Road to the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Fenton Middleton, which is beautifully located on the bluff overlooking the creek is said to have been part of the old road. Some of the piling of the original bridge may still be seen on the eastern bank at low tide. The exact location of the house in which the soldiers were burned is not known, although it probably stood on the bluff to the west of the Middleton residence and probably nearly opposite the bridge. In the woods east of Smithville there is an entrenchment that undoubtedly was thrown up by the American forces when it was learned that General Clinton had evacuated Philadelphia and had started on his march across New Jersey.
What is wrong with this quote? Well, DeCou states emphatically that Andrew Bell “…tells in his Journal of a skirmish at the bridge over the south branch of the Rancocas.” Really? I don’t see any mention of the Rancocas in Bell’s journal (quoted further down in this essay) and certainly NOT specifically the South Branch! Furthermore, DeCou mentions “Bally Bridge Creek.” Bally Bridge or, more correctly Belly Bridge, stood in Eayrestown along modern-day Bella Bridge Road in Lumberton Township.
In DeCou’s Pamphlet No. 2, Historical Sketches of Mount Holly and Vicinity, he is not so certain about what he wrote in pamphlet No. 1. He writes in No. 2:
General Clinton, who camped at Evesham (Mount Laurel) on the night of June 19, 1778, shortly after the evacuation of Philadelphia by the British Army, broke camp early on the 20th and part of his troops passed over “the Great Road,” as it was called, through Union Mills and over Long Bridge near Mr. Middleton’s residence to Mount Holly. It is probable [underlining added for emphasis] that this bridge was the scene of the skirmish described by Andrew Bell, confidential secretary to General Clinton, in his Journal. It is now known, however, that General Clinton’s forces were divided at Evesham, part going through Fostertown and Eayrestown to Mount Holly, and consequently it is possible that the fight may have taken place at the bridge over the Rancocas on Pine street in that town. According to Mr. Bell’s account, British soldiers who were repairing the bridge, which had been destroyed by the Americans, were fired upon by an American patrol stationed in a house near the bridge and five Americans were killed. William Edmond, of Hainesport, informed the writer that his great, great grandfather was burned to death during a fight at Long Bridge, which seems to uphold the tradition that the incident took place at Hainesport rather than in Mount Holly.
DeCou apparently derived information for his statement regarding Clinton’s Army dividing at Evesham from a letter that Major Richard Howell (2nd New Jersey – American) wrote to General Washington:
From Haddonfield, 20 June, ... before we Left our Detachment, the Genl. [Maxwell] had no Intelligence and, being acquainted with the Country, I have procured such as was in my powr. ... The Enemy march’d in 3 Columns, the first approached Ayres Town yesterday, the 2d [column] arriv’d at foster town & the 3d did [not?] move. This day the 1st [column] arrived at Mt Holly, 2d at Ayres town (perhaps at Holly) & the 3d March’d to Moor’s Town. Genl. Leslie commands the advanced Column of perhaps 2000 men, Gen. Clinton the 2d perhaps of 5000 men & Gen. Kniphauzen the Last of 2000 also. Each of these divisions has a great many Waggons, artillery & pontoons. They have many Deserters & move with great Caution & Slowly … Their March has been obstructed as much as possible & their flancks harrass’d by our parties. The General is now posted at Black Horse, where he will contend every advantageous post. The Militia are Collected & collecting, resolv’d to do great things. P.S. The Inhabitants are villianously plundered & some Houses burnt.
Having Clinton’s forces split between Fostertown and Eayrestown likely represents an accommodation of the road system in the area and there is nothing in this quote to suggest that one of the columns crossed at Long Bridge. Regarding DeCou’s other statements in his second pamphlet, I am dubious about William Edmond’s recollections about his great, great grandfather.
Fast-forward twenty years from DeCou’s two pamphlets and you arrive at Henry Shinn’s work, The History of Mount Holly. It is in this book that the folklore (perhaps “fakelore”) is permanently cemented into the history of Burlington County. Shinn writes:
Andrew Bell, Clinton’s confidential secretary, wrote in his journal on June 20:
“At a small distance from this town (Mount Holly) a bridge was broken down by the rebels which, when our people were repairing, were fired upon by those villains from a house, two of which were taken prisoners, three killed and the other two ran into the cellar and fastened it so that we were obliged to burn the house and consume them in it.”
Bell’s account is the only existing record of this incident. It occurred at Hainesport on the old road from Philadelphia, the bridge spanning the Rancocas about two hundred yards above the present railroad bridge. The names of the patriots who died there are unknown.
It is rather obvious to me that Shinn took his information directly from DeCou’s Pamphlet no. 1, only Shinn made the event more certain than even DeCou did.
Now that I’ve quoted the local historians, I present below the original primary-source information on what happened during the British overland march through the Jerseys in June 1778:
British General Henry Clinton led the Crown’s forces out of Philadelphia in June 1778 to make a daring crossing of the Jerseys to arrive at Sandy Hook and sail for New York. Based on received intelligence about this pending move, General Washington wrote a letter on 24 May 1778 to Philemon Dickinson of the New Jersey Militia and requested that he and his forces “…give the Enemy some annoyance, if Jersey is their route; It is said, that by cutting away the Bridges over Ancocus and _____ Creeks and obstructing the Roads, their March may be considerably retarded and rendered much more circuitous.”
General knowledge provides that Clinton led his men out of Haddonfield through Evesboro on 18 June and encamped for the night at Evesham (now Mount Laurel) Meetinghouse. Meanwhile, the wagon train, extending some 12 miles in length, lumbered up the Kings Highway towards Moorestown and Mount Holly, where the two armies would rejoin. Clinton planned this division of the army so the poorly maintained roads would better accommodate the march. The next day (19 June), Hessian Captain Johann Ewald, who traveled with Clinton’s forces, recorded the following in his journal:
The 19th. The army marched off one hour before daylight, as it had the day before, going by way of Fostertown. Toward midday the army arrived on the left bank of Belly-Bridge Creek, where the enemy had destroyed the bridges. There were still two beams left here, and since I had the advanced guard, I immediately tried to cross over with eighty jägers to take post on the other side of the water, by which the workmen on the bridge were protected. I found a very suitable post on a hill, which I occupied. I then took thirty jägers with me to patrol the area ahead. When I had ventured one hour further on, it seemed to me from my map that the terrain in the distance indicated I must not be far from Eayrestown, where the army was headed according to my idea of the march. I sent back a jäger who was to guide a lieutenant and thirty men to the place I had left, and I continued on my march.
After a half an hour’s time, I caught sight of several roofs of houses in a hollow. I ordered ten men forward to skirmish, who fired in a little while and beckoned to me with their hands. I followed at once and found the creek. There was a bridge over it next to a mill, on which people were working to destroy it. The mill was occupied by riflemen, who boldly fired when they discovered us. But since I let fly in earnest at the windows of the mill, they abandoned the mill and bridge and ran away into the nearest wood. I immediately occupied the bank on this side of the bridge with twenty men. I then ordered a corporal and ten jägers to cross the beams of the bridge, occupy the mill, and barricade the entrance, which I reported instantly to my chief. During this time the army had crossed Belly-Bridge Creek and encamped in a long quadrangle. I received reinforcements of 150 jägers and orders to maintain the post. Toward evening the carpenters arrived with the construction wagon and the bridge was repaired. I received from the Commander in Chief his thanks and the compliment that I had saved the army a longer march by my diligence.
The 20th. At daybreak the army set out, passed the defile of Eayrestown, and toward midday encamped in an irregular quadrangle on the heights of Mount Holly. On this march the head of the queue and both flanks were constantly annoyed by the enemy.
The 21st. The corps under General von Knyphausen, consisting of the Stirn and Loos brigades, the grenadiers, the Ranger Corps, and the provincials, which was marching to the left of the army by way of Moorestown rejoined the army here. We received the news that Washington intended to cross, or had already crossed, the Delaware near Trenton in order to get in front of us.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Tory and Loyalist Andrew Bell, once the confidential secretary of General Clinton, traveled with General Alexander Leslie and his forces as they rode through the countryside to protect the wagon train. He kept a journal during the evacuation across the Jerseys and on Saturday, 20 June 1778, recorded the following information:
S. 20th,—Marched from this place [Haddonfield] at 4, and met with no interruption from the Rebels the whole day. Saw a man sitting by the road side who belonged to the forementioned party, and had been wounded by the Yagers with swords, in a dangerous way. He proved a deserter from the 28th Regiment—(executed.) A light horseman of theirs was found in the wood, wounded, yesterday, but was so obstinate as not to tell the route his comrades had taken. We arrived at Mount Holly at 11 and halted. The Rebels, to the number 1300 under Maxwell, had been here 16 days, and marched with precipitation yesterday morning, having received information from a Yager who deserted to them. Major Joe Bloomfield was among them.—The inhabitants had sent all their effects out of this place, but were sorry for it when they met with such civility from the army. At a small distance from this town a bridge was broken down by the Rebels, which when our people were repairing, were fired upon by those villains from a house, two of whom were taken, three killed, and other two ran into the cellar, and fastened it, so that were obliged to burn the house and consume them in it.
June 21, S.—Remained here [Mount Holly] all day. At 9 o’clock A.M., Gen. Knyphusen arrived with his Division from Haddonfield by way of Moorestown; had had no kind of interruption.
There is nothing in the quote above from Andrew Bell that even hints the bridge was Long Bridge. Furthermore, on the following day, Bell records that Knyphausen arrived and encountered “…no kind of interruption.” This statement strongly suggests that Long Bridge remained intact or relatively so, allowing the wagon train to cross the creek unimpeded. Since General Leslie had already arrived in Mount Holly, the bridge in question could be any of up to four bridges that spanned the creek in the immediate area of the Rancocas, not to mention other bridges that crossed smaller streams. Regarding the action at a bridge that Bell references, it is possible that Bell received some garbled intelligence concerning what Captain Ewald encountered at Eayrestown or some other military action at one of the other bridges in the Mount Holly area. A number of these bridges are depicted on Ewald’s map from 1776. He depicts the location of Long Bridge and even New Long Bridge, the current crossing of the Rancocas on Marne Highway, since he prepared his journal and his maps many years after the war from the field notes he recorded during the American War for Independence.
So, did a skirmish occur at Long Bridge? It is certainly possible, but it is just a possible that it occurred at one of the other bridges near Mount Holly. The flimsy documentation provided by the twentieth-century local historians fails to hold up when exposed to the light of modern evidentiary standards.