The Battle for Fort Mercer at Red Bank, Gloucester County, New Jersey
by Jerseyman ©2011
In my article titled, “The Plantation Yclept Bromley,” I detailed the Hessian march to Fort Mercer. This article will provide more detail about the events leading up to the Hessian attack, the actual battle, and its aftermath. I hope these two separate articles will be read together for a more complete picture of what occurred on that fateful day in October 1777.
The Battle for Fort Mercer: A Contextual Summary
As America entered the second year of its rebellion against the Crown, the British sailed south from New York and landed General William Howe and his army on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay at Elkton, Maryland, after rejecting a more dangerous landing on the lower Delaware River. As the army marched north towards Philadelphia, sailors of the Pennsylvania Navy prepared themselves for the upcoming riverine battle. The river bottom already bristled with clusters of chevaux-de-frise, iron-tipped wooden spears anchored in stone-filled wooden cribs, ready to impale any British vessel which dared to sail up the Delaware. Only a handful of colonial river pilots knew the safe passage route through these river obstacles. American laborers worked on the New Jersey side to finish the forts at Billingsport and Red Bank while other crews made final preparations to the fort on Mud Island (Fort Mifflin). However, the continentals soon found Billingsport to be indefensible, and withdrew four miles upstream to concentrate on completing a much smaller fortification within the rather large Red Bank defensive position. Only a small garrison remained at Billingsport to guard the lower set of chevaux-de-frise. After withdrawing from the Brandywine battlefield, the British army continued its march towards Philadelphia. On the city’s outskirts, Washington launched a surprise attack at Germantown, which proved disastrous for the American troops and Howe’s forces moved in to Philadelphia during the second part of October (Jackson 1977:1-15).
Washington favored defending Philadelphia and the Delaware River primarily from Fort Mifflin, and as the British advanced on the city ordered Colonel Joseph Penrose “…to overflow the Ground upon Province Island, which will render it impossible for the Enemy to approach the Fort [Mifflin] in the rear and raise batteries against it” (Washington Letterbook 2 1777:152). The purposely broken dikes surrounding Province and Carpenter islands permitted waist-deep water to wash over the formerly dry ground in an attempt to prevent a British land attack against the fort. Historian John W. Jackson, writing in his 1986 work, Fort Mifflin: Valiant Defender of the Delaware, states,
At that time Hog Island, downstream from the fort, has also been flooded. Originally, Carpenters’ and Province Islands [sic] had been low marshy ground, intersected or bordered by Darby, Mingo, and Bow Creeks [sic] and the back channel of the Delaware River. They had been diked with earthen embankments to convert them to rich meadow land for local farmers.
The order to Penrose had been made by Washington with imperfect knowledge of the terrain along the Delaware’s banks. As early as July 9, he had pleaded with Thomas Wharton, President of the Pennsylvania Assembly, to have surveys made of the entire area; entreaties that were frequently repeated, and as often ignored. If these requests had been complied with, maps could have been prepared which would have disclosed slight elevations that remained above the flooded areas. On these knolls and dikes the British could, and later would, raise redoubts and batteries that would threaten the survival of Fort Mifflin. (Jackson 1986:25-26)
Upon achieving his primary objective—conquering Philadelphia—General Howe directed his military commanders to vanquish the American troops, destroy the Pennsylvania Navy, and open the Delaware River to British shipping under the control of Howe’s brother, Lord Admiral Richard Howe. During the entire British invasion period, from 2 October to 9 November, Commodore Hazelwood’s Pennsylvania Navy patrolled the Delaware River. His small fleet of row galleys, floating batteries and fire boats harassed the British naval fleet, provided protective fire for the forts and defended the chevaux-de-frise from removal. Howe realized that eliminating the forts guarding the river would be the key to a successful fight for the Delaware.
Preparatory to eliminating Fort Mifflin as a threat to British shipping, on 29 September 1777, General Howe ordered Lord Cornwallis and Lieutenant General Archibald Robertson of the Royal Engineers to conduct a preliminary survey of the fort and the surrounding lands from the east bank of the Schuylkill River. The men observed the fortification’s relatively weak northern palisaded wooden wall. Four days later, British Captain John Montrésor of the Royal Engineers led another reconnaissance foray. During the early 1770s, Montrésor designed and began construction of the fort on Mud Island as a defensive position to protect Philadelphia from French attacks, so the engineer had intimate knowledge of the stronghold and its location. Montrésor found enough dry land on Province Island to establish artillery batteries and construct a roadway to transport supplies and equipment. During Montrésor’s survey, the grenadiers accompanying him drove off a small American force from the Pest House (Dorwart 1998:36).
Subsequent to the survey, British forces began erecting artillery emplacements on Province Island and Carpenter’s Island. The guns arrived in wagons from Chester and from Philadelphia on 6 October 1777 and included two eight-inch mortars and two eight-inch howitzers (Montrésor 1881:462). Montrésor established two batteries to house these guns, including a large emplacement west of Mingo Creek which contained one 8-inch howitzer, one 8-inch mortar and six 24-Pounders. The second battery stood at the south end of Blakely’s road to the Delaware River and possessed just one 8-inch mortar and one 8-inch Howitzer. Montrésor placed two captured iron 18-pounders in an emplacement south of the Pest House on the lane to the hospital’s wharf. Up the lane from the 18-pounders, another emplacement held two 32-pounders (Montrésor 1881:452-463). A small artillery crew manned a single 32-pounder on a pier at the mouth of Mingo Creek. On the 20 October 1777, John Montrésor noted the arrival of a 13-inch mortar at the Blakely House the previous night and crews proceeded to move it from the house down to a new emplacement south of the battery at the end of Blakely’s road to the river (Montrésor 1881:468-469). In addition to all of these offensive artillery positions, the British also constructed three defensive redoubts: one northwest of the Blakely House; one southwest of the Blakely House; and one at the Province House Tavern, north of the Pest House, near Webb’s Ferry over the Schuylkill River.
During the construction and installation phase of these British gun emplacements and redoubts, the Pennsylvania Navy did its best to harass the English forces while they worked. The American troops at Fort Mifflin also fired artillery volleys at the enemy’s increasingly threatening positions on Carpenter’s and Province Island. Montrésor found the working conditions insufferable and noted in his diary that four days of heavy rains and the flooded meadows greatly hampered the army’s efforts to complete the gun emplacements. He also stated his resentment of the “rebels” for destroying the dams and dikes that formerly kept the marshlands and meadows on the island dry. After commenting on the swift and sudden attacks from the American row galleys, Montrésor wrote:
The Nights as well as the situations very unfavorable as the moon during the whole time rose early and clear & subject to discover us. After wading along the Causeways, through Cuts in the Meadows and Bog Holes and reaching the spot to work on–we had to fill the Ditch in the rear of a small Dyke with fascines even to get a footing to work. This Season, the fall of the year, the Waters are in general higher & the spaces they leave slippery and miry. (as quoted in Jackson 1986:33)
Upon observing the emplacement constructed on the night of 10 October, Hazelwood ordered three galleys and floating battery to attack the British position. The offensive action lasted for two hours before the English troops surrendered. Although likely overstated, Montrésor records that the “Rebels fired 3000 Cannon Shot at this battery” (as quoted in Jackson 1986:34). Fort Mifflin Commandant Colonel Samuel Smith finally realized the threat posed by these British gun positions and began to take action. He erected a two-gun emplacement on Mud Island north of the fort at a location opposite Province Island. He also stretched an iron chain just below the water’s surface on the back channel to prevent surprise attacks. Hazelwood came against the enemy’s land positions again on 12 October with an ensuing fierce fire-fight lasting 45 minutes or so. Eventually, Hazelwood withdrew his fleet, fearful of the larger British presence and of a possible flanking action (Jackson 1986:34).
With all emplacements nearly completed, Montrésor opened fire against the fort on Mud Island the morning of 15 October. The cannonade continued on 16 October, but then ended due to a shortage of ordnance. As British forces fired from its artillery positions on the Delaware’s Pennsylvania shore in an aerial bombardment on Fort Mifflin, Hessian Colonel Carl Emil Kurt von Donop requested the honor to crush the continental forces at Red Bank. On 22 October 1777, von Donop marched his large army of mercenaries to attack the fort, where a small and inferior force of Americans waited. The Hessians suffered a resounding defeat, losing many soldiers on the battlefield, including von Donop himself, during the 40-minute battle. The British dispatched warships to provide artillery support for the Hessians, but in maneuvering around the shallow water in front of the fort, the 64-gun ship AUGUSTA and the sloop-of-war MERLIN ran aground, representing a great military loss to the British, since both exploded and burned. During the Hessian attack on Fort Mercer, Lord Howe dispatched two ships to warp through the weakened chevaux-de-frise defenses and bombard Fort Mifflin. The riverine attack began about daybreak and continued until noon, destroying the fort’s northeast blockhouse and overturning some of the fort’s cannons. One incoming shell destroyed a quantity of ammunition and a section of the wooden palisades burned (Jackson 1986:50-51). Von Donop’s defeat at Red Bank temporarily thwarted Howe’s plans for river domination. Howe had ordered a large detachment of his troops stationed at the Province Island wharf, staged to invade Fort Mifflin, but withdrew the force upon the Hessian rout (Jackson 1977:15-18).
Howe became increasingly alarmed about the onset of winter and the lack of navigation on the Delaware. He knew that he must quickly eliminate Fort Mifflin as a threat to his combined naval and land forces. On 9 November 1777, Howe prepared his land batteries for saturation cannonading of the fort, particularly hammering the weak north palisade. Lord Richard Howe commanded his large warships to pound the fort’s western stone wall. Continual bombardment began on 10 November and persisted uninterrupted for the ensuing five days. The Pennsylvania Navy did what it could to harass the British, but the Americans failed to close off the fort’s back channel, allowing the enemy to move floating batteries into position for additional salvos against the embattled Mifflin. The British breached the wall and continued firing, leveling the fort in places. In its harassment campaign, the Americans broke the dikes along Carpenter and Province islands, allowing waist-deep water to encompass the enemy as it loaded and reloaded its artillery. Finally, during the night of 15 November, the continentals abandoned the fort and fled under the cover of darkness to the shelter offered at Fort Mercer, setting fire to what remained of Mifflin. With the main fortress gone, Red Bank became indefensible and Washington ordered it abandoned on 21 November 1777.
According to the William Faden map of the fight for the Delaware, at some point during the campaign against Fort Mifflin, a ship sank just west of Mud Island and the fort. Unfortunately, a careful review of primary and secondary source material failed to reveal any information about this vessel. Faden labeling the vessel as a “ship sunk” seems to imply that it had more size than a mere row galley. The failure of the cartographer to assign a name to the ship may indicate it was a vessel from the Pennsylvania Navy, which sank either during a naval engagement with the enemy or deliberately scuttled to prevent the British from sailing too close to the island or landing troops there (Faden 1778).
The Pennsylvania Navy sailed part of its fleet upriver to Crosswicks Creek in Bordentown in an attempt to save its vessels, but the British destroyed virtually all of them. Hazelwood ordered the row galleys and other smaller craft set afire and, according to Faden’s battle map, the collection of burning boats drifted with the tide until they became beached north of Gloucester Town. British shipping could, at last, reach Philadelphia and replenish the waning foodstuffs of the half-starved King’s army (Jackson 1977:19-23). The Americans wintered at Valley Forge and British General Clinton relieved General Howe in the spring of 1778. In a move to consolidate the British and Hessian armies back in New York, Clinton ordered the evacuation of Philadelphia and marched his forces overland in New Jersey to Sandy Hook and waiting marine transport, fighting the Battle of Monmouth along the way. As a closing chapter to the Revolutionary activity along the Delaware River, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania removed the primary ranks of chevaux-de-frise in 1784 at the behest of merchants who feared a continued interference and loss to shipping (Jackson 1977:22). Evidently the state did not remove all of the chevaux-de-frise, for dredging operations conducted during the mid-twentieth century removed additional barbed iron points from the original installation.
The ensuing quoted passages serve to place you, the reader, in the middle of the action to capture and to defend Fort Mercer. Whenever possible, primary-source documentation is preferred for a given historical event, rather than secondary, tertiary, and even quadruciary texts, which normally comprise little more than derivative accounts dependant on similar, but previously written, accounts. The summary provided above is a good example, in part, of derivative history, although it contains numerous references to primary sources. Furthermore, I carefully selected the secondary and tertiary sources cited as being reliable due to their own sources, recounted in endnotes and a full bibliography. I have provided the summary above to set the long quotes below in their proper context.
The Battle for Fort Mercer: The Hessian Aggressors
Below extracted from Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal [by] Captain Johann Ewald, Field Jäger Corps, 1979:97-104.
|Captain Johann Ewald|
I had the advanced guard with sixty jägers, followed by the Corps, the Minnigerode battalion, the Mirbach Regiment, two 6-pounders, two howitzers, the Lengerke and Linsing battalions, and Captain Lorey with twenty mounted jägers. This corps, under Colonel Donop, was ordered to seize by force Fort Red Bank, through which the garrison on Mud Island maintained its communication with the mainland. Colonel Donop volunteered for this expedition.
This corps was still less than a half an hour away from the Delaware when it ran into an enemy party in the vicinity of Newton Township, which withdrew over Cooper’s Bridge toward Burlington. I pursued it up to the end of a wood, where I discovered several hundred men on both sides of Cooper’s Creek, with whom I skirmished until about four o’clock in the afternoon, after which time they withdrew. The colonel, who continued his march with the corps, had ordered me to occupy myself with the enemy until nightfall, and then to follow the corps to Haddonfield. He wanted to mislead the enemy and conceal his march. At eight o’clock in the evening I arrived at Haddonfield, where I found the corps encamped in a quadrangle on the heights.
On the morning of the 22d, about four o’clock, the corps marched toward Red Bank in the same formation as yesterday, with the slight difference that I formed the rear guard with my company.
About nine o’clock we crossed the pass over Timber Creek, which has very marshy banks. A dam of several hundred paces extends across the creek, on which there are two wooden bridges. Two small plantations are situated on this and the other side. I was surprised that we did not leave here at least one jäger company to retain the mastery of this pass, since, after all, the success of our expedition was not yet assured. To be sure, there were the two battalions of light infantry ready for the Jersey post at Cooper’s Ferry, but they could not help much if Washington had gotten wind of this expedition, passed a strong corps across the Delaware, and stationed it at Timber Creek.
Our march went past Strawberry Bank. About one o’clock in the afternoon the corps arrived in a wood which encircled the left side of the fort at rifle-shot distance to the left bank of the Delaware. In this wood a captain and six men from the garrison of the fort fell into the hands of Captain Wreden, who had the advanced guard. They had been ordered to get fresh meat at a plantation and knew nothing of our approach.
The entire corps remained in column on the road in the wood. The men were permitted to sit down and told to eat, but since this day was not bread and provision day, very few had any bread to break or bite. The officers, especially, were not provided with anything. I had to march with the rear guard to the head of the corps.
During this time Colonel Donop, along with Colonel Stuart (who accompanied this expedition as a volunteer), Major Pauli, and Captain Krug of the Hessian artillery, had already reconnoitered the fort when I reached the corps. As soon as I arrived, the colonel ordered me to inspect the fort and to give him my opinion.
I approached the fort up to rifle-shot range and found that it was provided with a breastwork twelve feet high, palisaded and dressed with assault stakes.
On my way back, I met Colonel Stuart with a drummer who was to summon the fort, and right behind them I met Major Pauli, Captain Krug, and both adjutants of the colonel. All these gentlemen regarded the affair with levity. The only man who had any real knowledge, and looked upon the business as serious, was worthy old Captain Krug. I took this man aside and asked him what he thought of the undertaking, whereupon he answered: “He who has seen forts or fortified places captured with sword in hand will not regard this affair as a small matter, if the garrison puts up a fight and has a resolute commandant. We have let luck slip through our fingers. We should not have summoned the fort, but immediately taken it by surprise, for no one knew of our arrival. But now they will make themselves ready, and if our preparations are not being made better than I hear, we will get a good beating.”
Ater a lapse of a half an hour, Colonel Stuart returned with the following reply: “Colonel Greene, who commands the fort, sends his compliments and he shall await Colonel Donop.”
After this news, which the colonel did not expect, a hundred fascines were made at once by the battalions, and a battery of six regimental pieces [3-pounders], two 6-pounders, and the howitzers were mounted in the wood at rifle-shot distance from the fort. The Linsing Battalion under Captain Stamford (for Colonel Linsing had stomach pains at this time) was to make the attack against the left, the Regiment von Mirbach against the center, and the Minnigerode Battalion on the bastion to the left at the Delaware. The Lengerke Battalion was stationed at the Delaware to cover the rear against an enemy landing. One hundred men from each battalion were to carry the fascines, and march in a line at a distance of two hundred paces in front of the battalion. With these the ditch was to be filled, crossed, and the fort scaled with sword in hand. I placed sixteen good marksmen at the edge of the wood in the vicinity of the battery, who were to shoot at those men who showed themselves on the parapet.
This was the order which was given, and no one thought about axes or saws with which the obstructions and palisades could be cut down.
The battery began to play, and the three battalions advanced against the fort with indescribable courage. But they were received so hotly by the garrison, and by the vessels which had moved into position during the summons to rake the fort’s flank, that they were repelled with great loss, although several officers and a number of grenadiers scaled the breastwork. Colonel Donop himself and his adjutant, Captain Wagner, were mortally wounded at the edge of the ditch. Captain Stamford, who commanded the Linsing Battalion, was shot through the chest; Minnigerode through both legs; and the gallant Colonel Schieck, who commanded the Regiment von Mirbach, was shot dead at the barred gate. Night ended the battle, and the attacking corps reassembled at the spot from which it had departed for the attack.
Colonel Wurmb immediately ordered the Jäger Corps to move up to the edge of the wood to cover the retreat. He personally took the Grenadier Battalion Lengerke, which had protected the rear in case an enemy party had landed from the ships, and hurried with the battalion to the pass of the Timber Creek bridge to occupy it.
Since we had flattered ourselves in advance with a successful surrender, no retreat then was thought of, and no wagons brought to transport the wounded. The seriously wounded officers were carried on the guns and horses, and all the privates who could not drag themselves away on their wounded limbs fell into enemy hands. But since the enemy took the retreat for a trap, and had expected a new attack during the night, the men had to remain on the battlefield a whole night in the most deplorable condition without the slightest care, whereby the majority died of their wounds.
About midnight the entire corps arrived on the other side of Timber Creek, where arrangements were made at once to obtain wagons for transporting the wounded officers to Philadelphia. At eight o’clock in the morning the corps set out again, and crossed the Delaware during the night. The three grenadier battalions moved into cantonment quarters on the outskirts of Philadelphia; the Mirbach Regiment joined the line of the army; and the Jäger Corps returned to its post at the Morris house, where it arrived after midnight.
The loss in dead consisted of
Regiment von Mirbach
1. Colonel Schieck
2. Captain Bogatsky
3. Lieutenant Riemann
4. Lieutenant Wurmb
Grenadier Battalion Linsing
5. Lieutenant du Puy
6. Lieutenant Groening
Grenadier Battalion Minnigerode
7. Lieutenant Hille
8. Lieutenant Offenbach
and 143 noncommissioned officers and privates
The wounded consisted of:
1. Colonel Donop, right leg shot apart; captured.
2. Captain and Adjutant Wagner, both legs shot to pieces; captured.
3. Colonel Minnigerode, shot through both legs.
4. Captain Stamford, shot through the chest and right leg.
5. Captain Wachs, through the right leg, von Minnigerode.
6. Captain Hendorff, in the arm, von Minnigerode.
7. Captain Schotten, right arm shot off, von Mirbach.
8. Lieutenant Rodemann, through the left leg, von Linsing.
9. Lieutenant Waitz, through the neck and in the head, von Linsing.
10. Lieutenant Rieffer, left foot smashed, von Mirbach.
11. Lieutenant Berner, right leg shot to pieces, von Mirbach.
12. Lieutenant Gottschall, right knee smashed; captured; von Linsing.
13. Lieutenant Heymel, in the left knee; captured; von Minnigerode.
And 253 noncommissioned officers and privates, of whom not thirty men are convalescing.
Moreover, within eight days Colonel Donop, Captain Wagner, and Lieutenants Berner and Gottschall died of their wounds.
This day was especially sad for me. I lost five of my oldest friends, among whom was a relative, and four of my best friends were severely wounded. As long as I have served, I have not yet left a battlefield in such deep sorrow.
The principal mistakes of the attack were as follows:
1. We should not have summoned the fort, but attacked as soon as we arrived. Through this mistake the garrison was alerted, and the armed vessels gained time to draw near for the defense.
2. The plan of attack itself was faulty. We ought to have made the feint attack where the Linsing Battalion attacked, and the real attack in full strength there where the Minnigerode Battalion attacked, because we were covered on this side by the wood up to musket-shot range.
Moreover, the men who carried the fascines in a line should have marched in column around to one spot to fill up the ditch; as it was, the men merely threw the fascines in the ditch and no purpose was served. From my experience, the attack ought to have been made in the following manner:
An officer with twenty men, dispersed, should try to gain the outer edge of the ditch, where they continue to advance as well as fire upon those who are defending the breastwork.
At a distance of one hundred and fifty paces, an officer and fifty men must follow in column, who carry the fascines on their heads, and of whom ten to twenty men are provided with axes. These men carry their weapons over their shoulders. As soon as they arrive at the outer edge of the ditch, they through their fascines into the ditch so that it is filled in to a breadth of four to six feet. As soon as this happens, they jump into the ditch and those supplied with axes cut down the palisades and obstructions and attempt to climb up the breastwork, but remain on the berm.
A battalion follows at a distance of two hundred paces, which likewise approaches the ditch at quick step, crosses the bridge of fascines, and spreads out in the ditch. As soon as they have done this, they climb up the breastwork. The two wing companies remain on the berm and try to drive the enemy away from the parapet by their fire. The two middlemost companies scale the parapet, jump into the work, and attempt to overcome the garrison with the bayonet.
The second battalion follows at a distance of three hundred paces, which, if the first should be repulsed, then repeats the attack.
An attack in this manner surely would be successful, since it has vigor; and the Americans could not repel it as cheaply as they did, for they are said to have lost less than fifty men.
On the whole, this attack belongs to the quixotic variety, which occurs in wars at times. For it was impossible to capture this work without the aid of armed ships, which it had to be assigned to drive away the enemy vessels. But this was impossible, because the Americans had constructed very skillful chevaux-de-frise below Mud Island in the Delaware, where the entrance was blocked with a very thick chain.
In fact, the colonel was supposed to postpone his attack until the next day, the 23d, if he could not take the fort by surprise. On that day, two warships were to approach the chevaux-de-frise as closely as possible to drive away the enemy vessels by their fire. This occurred according to plan. The ships were the AUGUSTA, 64 guns, and the sloop MERLIN, 18 guns. But to magnify the misfortune, the Augusta ran into a sunken chevaux-de-frise and her captain had to blow up the ship, whereby an officer and twenty-six men perished in a boat that was sunk by the enemy.
And I suppose, too, that had we captured the fort, we would not have dared show ourselves in it because it was exposed to the water, and the enemy frigates and galleys could bombard it. We could, of course, mount batteries to drive away the ships, but heavy guns were necessary for this, and the heavy artillery of the army was already employed. But the attack took place to cut off the enemy’s communication with the Province of Jersey, which could also be done by a blockade.
In a word, Colonel Donop was a man of action. He had compared the siege of Mud Island with those of Bergen op Zoom and Olmütz, and had offered to capture Fort Red Bank with one grenadier battalion, which offended the pride of the English. They led him into danger and he fell, where so many men—indeed, so many really brave men—had to bit the dust.
The Battle for Fort Mercer: The American Defenders
Text below extracted from the Diary of Colonel Israel Angell, Commanding Officer, 2nd Rhode Island Regiment, Continental Army.
18 this Day we arrived at Red Banks about Seven oClock in the Evening after marching Sixty miles without Sleeping.
19 Rested this Day after Pitching our tents untill ten oClock in the Evening. Then both officers and Soldiers went to work and workt all night on our fort, as we Expected an attack that night or in the morning. This Day there was a heavy Cannonading on fort mifflin.
20th this morning the Cannonading Ceast untill the afternoon when the Cannon and mortars begun to play very brisk. more So than they had any time before. The greatest part of my Regt was in the fort as they Relieved Col Greens Regt.
21st Last Evening we had one man brought from fort Mifflin Dead and three more wounded, one mortal wounded, this accident happened by a Shell Coming into one of the portholes in the Block house, the Row[?] Gallie last Evening run down and attackt a Ship and a galley of the Enemys, and obliged them to tow off. This Cannonade was very Smart, the Enemy had landed on Log Island and was Endeavouring to Errect a battery but Could not effect it. This Evening we Recd Certain intelligence that the Enemy was a Coming to attack us, which oblig’d us to work all the night long.
22nd this day we Continued Dilligent on our works untill the after Noon about one oClock, when the Enemy Arrived within musket Shoot of our fort. we fired a Cannon or two at them on which they Retired, and kept Sculking in the woods untill half After four oClock, when they Sent in a flagg Demanding the fort but was answered that the fort was not to be Given up on any terms, in Reply to this, they answered that if we Still remain’d obstinate, our blood might be upon our own heads, for we should have no Mercy Shone us. our Answer was we asked for none and Expect none. So granted and in about ten minuts after then begun as Smart a fire as Ever I heard from Eight field pieces and two hoets[?] they had placed against us, at the Same time advanced in two Colems to attack our fort by Storm, when there begun an incesant fire Musketry which Continued forty minuts, when the hessians Retreated in the most Prescipited manner leaving 200 kill’d and wounded in the field, we Spent the greatest part of the Night in bringing in the wounded.
23rd This Day was Spent the Greatest part in bringing in the Slain and burying them and taking proper Care of the wounded, what time we had to Spair was Spent on our works, prepairing them for the Second attack, as we had inteligence of them Coming the Second time, but it only proved to be a Covering party for their Retreat, the Galleys made an Attack on the Agusta man of war as She had gotten aground and by Some Accident She took fire and blew up with a most terrible Explotion another twenty Gun Ship of the Enemys got a ground and they Set her on fire which also blew up, one fifty gun Ship got off Clear.
24th This Morning I was taken very Sick with a Violent pain In my head, but taking a puke I Soon grew better this Day we Spent in prepairing our works, at night I being Some poorily went out of Camp to Mr Joseph Lows there tarried.
25th This day Continued Peasible and Quiet between our forces and the brittish, one Malincully Accident happened this day in the after noon. Mr. James Haden a worthy young Gentleman belonging to my Regt. was Shott through his Bowels and Expired the night following. this accident happened by overhalling Some hessian Guns that was loded.
26 Nothing Remarkable happened. There was a movement on the west Side of the River of the Enemy Capt Coggeshal Olney and Lt. Sayles Come to Camp this day, and brought the news of our people Agoing upon Rhode Island as they came from that place.
27 this Day was an Exceeding Stormy day we Recd the news of the Enemys taking possession of Billingsport three hundred in Number, and that two hundred waggon loads of fasshins [fascines] Crossed Schuylkill
28th The Storm Still Continues or rather increases by the abundance of rain and an Excessive high tide all the low Country was Laid under water, our people was all Drownded out of the fort. no intelligence from the Enemy this Day.
29th Remains Stormy and Uncomfortable, about on oClock it began to break away, but Soon thickened up and begun to Storm again. Nothing Remarkable happen’d this day.
30th Col Donop Died last Evening half past Eight oClock in the Evening and was Desently Entered This evening Attended with all the honours of war. This Day it Cleared off and was a fine plesant Day.
31st This Day being a plesant day the Hessian Officers that was wounded was removed to philadelphia from Mr Joseph Lows where they had ben Carried after the Action.
November the 1st 1777 This Day about ten oClock in the morning, one Mucklewain a butcher from Philadelphia, and one Dick Ellis a Negrow man were both hanged here for being trators and Spies. And for guiding the Enemy to red Banks, we Recd. news this afternoon from General Varnum that the Enemy had Sent two thousand men to attack fort Mifflin, which occationed an Allarm among us.
The Battle for Fort Mercer: Defender Jeremiah Greenman’s Account
Below text extracted from Diary of a Common Soldier in the American Revolution, 1775-1783, 1978:81-83.
W 22. this morning are informed that a party of the Enemy crossed Cooper fery last Evening and was on their way through Haddonfield for this fort / Came a crost this morn from Fort Mifflin / had scarce an opportunity to git into the Fort, before a Flad came to Colo. Green, who commanded the Fort threatening to put the Garrison to [death ?] if he did not surrender it immediately, Colo. Green answered with disdain, that he would defend it ‘till the last drop of his Blood—as soon as the Flag had returned they opined 7 field peaces & 2 howitzers on the fort and played very smartly for about ten moments then rushed on very Rash that even Success could not justify its temerity / they attached on the North & South Sides, the North Side was a breast work within a nother which we cut off and made the Fort small as we had but few men to man it especially the Bigness it was wen we first arrived, the Parapet was high the Dikes deep / a row of strong pallesaids sallied out from the parapet on the gate on the South Side / we had a small place big enough for eight men to fight in which overlooked all the ground round the Fort which was surrounded with double abates / Both of the attacks where such as was expected / the artillery & Musquetry of the fort Great Slawter / they left their command’g officer dying on the Ground in his glacis, and retreated with hurry & Confusion / they raillied in the woods an dleaving thear Dead wounded & a few prisoners (which was under the walls of the Fort that could not handely retreat) in all amounting to about three hundred in our hands they returned to Philadelphia that Night—we feched in to the fort all the Wounded & dressed them shewing as [much] humanity as posable. Colo. Donop was attended with care / in the attack we lost 7 of our Regiment killed & 14 Wounded / [One] of the Killed proved to be my Capn. Shaw who was shot thro the Neck / in all Killed and Wounded it amounted to 31—
T 23. the fore part of this day implying ourselves in burying the dead 73 buried in one grave 4 or 5 in [an]other & C / about 9 o’clock the Ships Eagle, Summersit, Isis, agusta, Pearl Leverpool & several Fregates with a Galley, came up to the Chevaux de frize 500 yards from the fort, at the same time the Land Batteries & our gallies, & the British Squadron engaged and one of the Most Solumest Actions commenced, that may be seen by a soldiers eye, the Spectacle was magnificent, to se at once, the river covered with Ships, four great gire ships, in a blasé, floating on the Water / the Island & Main covered with Smoak & fire /
…F. 31. this day buried the Hasan Colo. [von Donop] who said previous to his Death I fall a Victim to my own ambition & to the averice of my prince; but, full of thankfulness for the good treatment I have received from my generous Enemy, he was buried with the Honours of War.
The Battle for Fort Mercer: The Americans Abandon the Fort and the Crown’s Forces March In
Text below extracted from A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution, Döhla, 1990:56, 59-61.
22 October 1777: Today the artificer [Wolfgang] Lippert, of our Artillery, died at Vauxhall in New York. After the battle at Brandywine Hill, General Howe captured Philadelphia. During the remainder of the summer nothing more of consequence happened, and Howe remained in his fortified camp at Philadelphia. The enemy, four miles below the city, between the city and Chester, had a strong fort on Mud Island, which had 24- and 32-pound cannon and a large complement of men. Also, the Delaware River was blocked by sunken ships and chevaux-de-frise. Also, not far from these forts, lay seventeen enemy ships, which in an emergency could support both forts. Already, in the middle of October, General Howe had detached Colonel von Donop with all the Hessian grenadier battalions, one regiment of light infantry, and two hundred Hessian jaegers to the province of Jersey in order to take Fort Red Bank by storm.
Colonel Donop and his troops attacked with the greatest bravery and ardor, because Donop said the fort should be named after him or he did not want to remain alive. However, the strong garrison, which was made up of the elite of the American army, and the heavy cannon in Fort Mercer on Red Bank, and the enemy fleet of seventeen ships that supported the fort with their fire power, killed so many Hessian grenadiers that the planned conquest of Fort Mercer was prevented.
Colonel Donop was driven back and fatally wounded, falling into the hands of the enemy; and he died of his wounds. He was, however, buried by the enemy with full military honors. All together, 22 Hessian grenadier officers, including 1 lieutenant colonel, 2 majors, and 7 captains, died on the spot, as well as 385 noncommissioned officers and privates from the four grenadier battalions; and more than 200 men were wounded. The Light Infantry had 170 men killed or wounded, and the Jaegers counted 49 dead or wounded. In order to carry out the plan and open the passage on the Delaware, a reinforcement was needed, and this included our two regiments…. [The Hessian reinforcements arrived on the Delaware during 10 November 1777]
16 November 1777: Now the warships that lay at Mud Island used their crews to clear from the river the chevaux-de-frise that had hindered the passage on the Delaware to Philadelphia. However, this could not be accomplished before the capture of Fort Red Bank.
18 November 1777: We were debarked in the Jerseys at Billingsport, which a short time previously had been taken from the Americans and wherein six thousand rebels would have had their winter quarters because it was large and had many barracks. Here, in severe cold, we had to camp in tents.
19 November 1777: General Cornwallis joined our troops with a Hessian grenadier battalion, the English Thirty-third Regiment, and one hundred Hessian jägers and twelve of ours, and assumed command. He came over at Chester from Howe’s army.
20 November 1777: We remained at Billingsport. Red Bank, the conquest of which was the purpose for the above troop movement, could be seen very clearly from here, and the enemy’s retreat cannon could easily be heard.
21 November 1777: We broke camp early, and Lord Cornwallis, with the entire army, marched eight miles to Kothtown.
22 November 1777: Our troops were to attack Red Bank. All preparations therefore had already been made, and it was to be taken by storm. However, the enemy vacated the fort during the previous night, despite their earlier determined resistance, tore down the barracks, tents, and warehouses, and set fire to the remaining fleet. Some ships bravely fired their cannon as they were engulfed in flames. When the troops entered, the fort and defensive positions of Red Bank were completely torn down and demolished. By the dismantling of this huge fort, which was provided with complete underground passages, a hidden magazine of flour, bread, meat and rum was found. The enemy also abandoned an indescribably large amount of cannon, munitions, and also other war equipment that were hidden therein. The fort was completely demolished and leveled. The cannon, which could not be taken because of their size and weight, were spiked and thrown into the Delaware.
Our troops remained not far from the fort for a few days, and after as much of the discovered supplies as possible were taken away in wagons and ships, they marched to Gutbod, drove the opposing rebels back from that place across an arm of the Delaware River, and again remained there a few days until the cavalry and baggage were shipped. Three hundred of the largest sloops from the warships took on board the army of Lord Cornwallis, so that only six or eight regiments remained there. On the same day, 22 November, toward evening, we entered Woodbury. This is a large, long, and wide spread, but beautifully laid-out village that is at the same time almost a city. It lies in a pleasant and fertile region and is populated for the most part by Quakers, who are very rich people. Here we built huts because the weather was exceptionally cold. We also caught pigs and cattle and slaughtered them. In this way we obtained meat, but seldom had bread. Now the English sailors were busily engaged raising the chevaux-de-frise at Mud Island and Red Bank and soon made a passage through which the ships, with the greatest caution, could sail, and where one ran aground. Only after some weeks was the passage completely open.
24 November 1777: We broke camp at Woodbury and moved forward some miles to Timber Creek.
25 November 1777: We continued our march to Gloucester, where we halted. This place lies on the bank of the Delaware River, is not very big nor symmetrical, but it does have an imposing town hall [Gloucester County Courthouse!]. This evening the Jägers, which were the rear guard and were posted on a bridge one-half hour from Gloucester, were attacked and surrounded by the enemy. However, two companies of light infantry hurried to their assistance and saved them from captivity. Lieutenant [Georg Hermann] Heppe was killed, and Lieutenant Hagen and a few jägers wounded, in the affair. This same evening the sailors set fire to a house. Through the day people were engaged loading the baggage, horses, and wagons. We encountered few residents in this region because most were, and fought as rebels, generally, the regular troops, as well as the militia, from the provinces of Old and New Jersey were the strongest of all the provinces engaged in this war.
The Battle for Fort Mercer in Memoriam: An After-Action Recollection Three Years Later
Text below extracted from Travels in North America in the Years 1780-1781-1782 by the Marquis de Chastellux, 1827:121-127.
We rose at six in the morning, and assembled in the dining-room, where a good breakfast was prepared for us by candle light. At seven we embarked, and crossing the Delaware, obliquely a little higher up, we landed at Billingsport. This is a fort constructed in 1776, to support the left of the first barrier of the chevaux de frise, destined to block the passage of the river. This post was of no use, for the fortifications having been commenced on too extensive a plan for the number troops which could be spared, it was thought proper to abandon it. They have since been reduced, which is the better, as they are now removed from some points which commanded the fort. The present situation of affairs, not drawing the attention of Government to this quarter, the fortifications are rather neglected. All the battery there was, consisted of one pretty good brass mortar, and five eighteen pounders, (English twenty-fours) which Major Armstrong, who commands on the river, and came to receive me, fired on my arrival. When America had more money, and leisure, she will do well not to neglect this post, as well as all those for the defence of the river. For this war once terminated, she will see no more European armies on the Continent, and all she can have to fear from England, in case of a rupture with her, will be a few maritime expeditions, the sole object of which can be to destroy shipping, to ravage the country, and even to burn the towns within reach of the sea. Unfortunately Billingsport belongs to the state of Jersey, which can reap on advantage from it; and that of Pennsylvania, whose safety it would constitute, has no other means to employ towards fortifying it than its own request, and the recommendations of Congress, which are not always attended to. However this may be, Philadelphia took other precautions for her defence, which depended only on the state of Pennsylvania, and to this advantage is united that of an excellent position, which will soon be made impregnable; I mean Fort Mifflin, whither we went on leaving Billingsport, still ascending the river The isle on which it is built, and that called Mud-Island, support the right of a second barrier of chevaux de frise, the left of which is defended by the fort of Red Bank; but it must be observed that the barrier only blocked the main channel of the river, the only passage by which it was thought that vessels could pass. Near the right bank is Hog-Island, about two miles long, the surface of which, like that of most of the islands in the Delaware is so low, that at high water, nothing is to be seen but the tops of the reeds with which it is covered. Between this island, and the main land, a small passage remained open, but the American s were persuaded that there was not water enough for any ship with guns to pass it. At the extremity of this channel, and in remounting it, we leave on the left a marshy ground, so surrounded by creeks, and inlets, as to form a real island, called Province-Island. This post was in the possession of the enemy; who established batteries there, which incommoded those of Fort Mifflin, but not sufficiently to make the Americans abandon it.
The English army were at that time in a singular situation: they had purchased and maintained possession of Philadelphia the price of two bloody battles; but they were still shut up between the Schuylkill and the Delaware, having in their front Washington’s army, which kept them in awe, and behind them several forts occupied by the Americans, which shut the passage of the Delaware. A large city, however, and a whole army must have subsistence; it became necessary therefore to open the communication by sea, and to secure the navigation of the river. When one recollects the innumerable obstacles the English had to surmount in the present war, it is difficult to assign the cause of their successes; but if we turn our eyes on all the unforeseen events which have deceived the expectation of the Americans, and frustrated their between concerted measures, one cannot but be persuaded that they were devoted to destruction, and that the alliance with France alone proved the means of their preservation. In this voyage, in particular, I saw fresh proofs of it every instant. When the place was pointed out to me where the Augusta, of sixty-four guns, took fire, and blew up in attempting to force the chevaux de frise, and farther,, on the remains of the Merlin, of two and twenty, which ran ashore in the same action, and was burnt by the English themselves, whilst the Hessians were vainly sacrificing five or six hundred men before the fort of Redbank, I figured to myself the English army starved in Philadelphia, retreating with disgrace and difficulty through the Jersey, and my imagination already enjoyed the triumph of America. But of a sudden the scene changed, and I saw nothing but the fatality which collected towards the channel of Hog-Island the waters long confined by the chevaux de frise, and recollected with pain, that on the 15th of November, three weeks after the fruitless attempts I have mentioned, the English succeeded in passing over the bar of this channel, the Vigilant, and another small ship of war; that they thus got up the river, and turned Fort Mifflin, the batteries of which they took from behind, and left the Americans no other resource but to abandon the defence of the chevaux de frise in all parts, and make a precipitate retreat by the left shore of the Delaware.
Taught by sad experience, the Americans have provided in future against the misfortunes which cost them so dear. I saw them with pleasure extending the fortifications of Mifflin’s-Island, so as to enclose the fort on every side, which will be surrounded also by the Delaware in place of a ditch; and as the garrison will have a safe asylum in souterrains, bomb-proof, this fort may henceforth be deemed impregnable. The plan of these works was given by M. du Portail; Major Armstrong showed me them upon the spot, and I found them correspond perfectly with the just reputation of their author.
We now had to visit Redbank; for which purpose we had again to cross the Delaware, which in this place is a mile wide. The gentlemen who was to do the honour there, was impatient to arrive. We had amused ourselves by telling him that the morning being far spent, and the tide about to turn, we should be obliged to omit Redbank, and return directly to Philadelphia. This conductor, whom we diverted ourselves in tormenting, was M. du Plessis Mauduit, who in the double capacity of engineer, and officer of artillery, had the charge of arranging and defending this post, under the orders of Colonel Green. On landing from our boat, he proposed conducting us to a Quaker’s, whose house is half a musket shot from the fort, or rather the ruins of the fort; for it is now destroyed, and there are scarcely any reliefs of it remaining. “This man, said M. de Mauduit, is a little or a tory; I was obliged to knock down his barn, and fell his fruit trees; but he will be glad to see M. de la Fayette, and will receive us well.” WE took him at his word, but never was expectation more completely deceived. We found our Quaker seated in the chimney corner, busied in cleaning herbs: he recollected M. de Mauduit, who named M. de la Fayette, and me, to him; but he did not deign to lift his eyes, nor to answer any of our introducer’s discourse, which at first was complimentary, and at length jocose. Except Dido’s silence, I know nothing more severe, but we had no difficulty in accommodating ourselves to this bad reception, and made our way to the fort. We had not gone a hundred yards before we came to a small elevation, on which a stone was vertically placed, with this short epitaph: here lies buried Colonel Donop. M. de Mauduit could not refrain from expressing his regret for this brave man, who died in his arms two days after the action; he assured us that we could not make a step without treading on the remains of some Hessians; for near three hundred were buried in the front of the ditch.
The fort of Redbank was designed, as I have said above, to support the left of the chevaux de frise. The bank of the Delaware at this place is steep; but even this steepness allowed the enemy to approach the fort, under cover, and without being exposed to the fires of the batteries. To remedy this inconvenience, several gallies armed with cannon, and destined to defend the chevaux de frise, were posted the whole length of the escarpement, and took it in reverse. The American, little practiced in the art of fortifications, and always disposed to take works beyond their strength, had made those of Redbank too extensive. When M. de Mauduit obtained permission to be sent thither with Colonel Green, he immediately set about reducing the fortifications, by intersecting them from east to west, which transformed them into a sort of large redoubt nearly of a pentagonal form. A good earthen rampart, raised to the height of the cordon, a fosse, and an abates in front of the fosse, constituted the whole strength of this post, in which were placed three hundred men, and fourteen pieces of cannon. The 22d of October, in the morning, they received intelligence that a detachment of two thousand five hundred Hessians were advancing; who were soon after perceived on the edge of a wood to the north of Redbank, nearly within cannon shot. Preparations were making for the defence, when a Hessian officer advanced, preceded by a drum; he was suffered to approach, but his harangue was so insolent that it only served to irritate the garrison, and inspire them with more resolution. “The King of England,” said he, “orders his rebellious subjects to lay down their arms, and they are warned that if they stand the battle, no quarters will be given.” The answer was, that they accepted the challenge, and that there should be no quarter on either side. At four o’clock in the afternoon, the Hessians made a very brisk fire from a battery of cannon, and soon after they opened, and marched to the first entrenchment, from which, finding it abandoned, but not destroyed, they imagined they had driven the Americans. They then shouted Victoria, waved their hats in the air, and advanced towards the redoubt. The same drummer, who a few hours before had come to summon the garrison, and had appeared as insolent as his officer, was at their head beating the march; both he, and that officer were knocked on the head by the first fire. The Hessians, however, still kept advancing within the first entrenchment, leaving the river on their right: they had already reached the abates, and were endeavoring to tear up, or cut away the branches, when they were overwhelmed with a shower of musket shot, which took them in front, and in flank; for as chance would have it, a part of the courtine of the old entrenchment, which had not been destroyed, formed a projection at this very part of the intersection. M. de Mauduit had contrived to form it into a sort or caponiere, (or trench with loop-holes) into which he threw some men, who flanked the enemy’s left, and fired on them at close shot. Officers were seen every moment rallying their men, marching back to the abattis, and falling amidst the branches they were endeavoring to cut. Colonel Donop was particularly distinguished by the marks of the order he wore, by his handsome figure, and by his courage; he was also seen to fall like the rest. The Hessians, repulsed by the fire of the redoubt, attempted to secure themselves from it by attacking on the side of the escarpement, but the fire from the gallies sent them back with a great loss of men. At length they relinquished the attack, and regained the wood in disorder.
While this was passing on the north side, another column made an attack on the south, and, more fortunate than the other, passed the abates, traversed the fosse, and mounted the berm; but they were stopped by the fraises, and M. de Mauduit running to this post as soon as he saw the first assailants give way, the others were obliged to follow their example. They still did not dare however to stir out of the fort, fearing surprise; but M. de Mauduit wishing to replace some palisades which had been torn up; he sallied out with a few men, and was surprised to find about twenty hessians standing on the berm, and stuck up against the shelving of the parapet. These soldiers who had been bold enough to advance thus far, sensible that there was more risk in returning, and not thinking proper to expose themselves, were taken and brought into the fort. M. de Mauduit, after fixing the palisades, employed himself in repairing the abattis; he again sallied out with a detachment, and it was then he beheld the deplorable spectacle of the dead and dying, heaped one upon another. A voice arose from amidst these carcases, and said in English, “whoever you are, draw me hence.” It was the voice of Colonel Donop: M. de Mauduit made the soldiers lift him up, and carry him into the fort, where he was soon known. He had his hip broken; but whether they did not consider his wound as mortal, or that they were heated by the battle, and still irritated at the menaces thrown out against them a few hours before, the Americans could not help saying, aloud: “Well! is it determined to give no quarter?” “I am in your hands,” replied the colonel, “you may revenge yourselves.” M. de Mauduit had no difficulty in imposing silence, and employed himself only in taking care of the wounded officer. The latter, perceiving he spoke bad English, said to him: “you appear to me a foreigner, Sir, who are you?” “A French officer,” replied the other. “Je suis content,” said Donop, making use of our language, “je meurs entre les mains de l’honneur meme.” [Translated “I am content; I die in the hands of honour itself.”] The next day he was removed to the quaker’s house, where he lived three days, during which he conversed frequently with M. de Mauduit. He told him that he had been long in friendship with M. de Saint Germain, that he wished in dying to recommend to him his vanquisher, and benefactor. He asked for paper, and wrote a letter, which he delivered to M. de Mauduit, requiring of him, as the last favour, to acquaint him when he was about to die: the latter was soon under the necessity of acquitting himself of this sad duty: “it is finishing a noble career early,” said the colonel; “But I die the victim of my ambition, and of the avarice of my sovereign.” Fifteen wounded officers were found, like him, upon the field of battle; M. de Mauduit had the satisfaction to conduct them himself to Philadelphia, where he was very well received by General Howe. By singular accident, it happened that the English that very day received indirect intelligence of the capitulation of Burgoyne, of which he knew more than they. They pretended to give no credit to it: “you who are a Frenchman,” said they, “speak freely, do you think it possible?” “I know,” replied he, “that the fact is so; explain it as you think proper.”
Perhaps I have dwelt too long on this event; but I shall not have to apologize to those who will partake of the pleasing satisfaction I experience, in fixing my eyes upon the triumphs of America, and in discovering my countrymen among those who have reaped her laurels.
The Battle for Fort Mercer: Isaac Mickle’s Account in Reminiscences, 1845:68-71.
…But Red Bank derives little of its celebrity from the fact of its being a decayed capital! Its name has not rung throughout Christendom for any judicial antics of which it might have been the scene in the seventeenth century, but for one of the most brilliant battles—we say it without fear of contradiction’—in our whole Revolution.
Fort Mercer which had been erected here to support the left of the upper chevaux-de-frize, sunk in 1776, to prevent the ascension of the British fleet, was originally designed for a garrison of twelve or fifteen hundred men. When Greene took possession of the works, having but three hundred men, he adopted the suggestion of M. de Manduit, an experienced French engineer, and threw out a large part of the fortification on the north, reducing it to a pentagonal redoubt of convenient size. A rampart of earth raised to the height of the cordon, a fosse and an abattis in front of the fosse constituted the whole strength of the post. The battery numbered fourteen pieces of artillery of small calibre.
Late in the afternoon of the twenty-first of October, 1777, Count Donop with a detachment of about twenty-five hundred Hessians crossed the Delaware at Cooper’s Point to dislodge Greene and the little handfull of republicans who defended this rodoubt. Owing to the precaution of the Americans in destroying the lower bridges on the intervening streams, the Count passed through Haddonfield and down the Clement’s Bridge road to the attack. He pressed several persons whom he found along the route into his service as pilot, among whom was a negro belonging to the Cooper family, called Old Mitch, who was at work by the Cooper’s Creek Bridge. A negro named Dick, belonging to the gallant Col. Ellis, and an infamous white scoundrel named Mcllvaine volunteered their assistance as guides. At the bar of the Haddonfield tavern, these two loyal fellows were very loud in their abuse of the American cause; but their insolence as we shall see was soon repaid.
On the morning of the twenty-second, the Hessians appeared at the edge of a forest north of the fort, almost within cannon shot thereof. Halting here to rest from the march, Donop sent an officer with a drummer to command Greene to surrender. “King George,” said the officer, “directs his rebellious subjects to lay down their arms, and promises no quarter if a battle is risked.” At which Greene deputized a man to mount the parapet and return the laconic reply: “We'll see King George damned first—we want no quarter!” The interview here terminated, and the officer returned to the Hessian camp.*
At four o’clock in the afternoon Donop opened a heavy cannonade from a battery which he had erected to the north-eastward; and at the same time the British ships from below the chevaux-de-frize began to thunder upon the little fort. Most of the balls from the latter fell too low, and entered the bluff beneath the works. After cannonading for a short time, the Hessians advanced to the first entrenchment. Finding this abandoned, they shouted Victoria!—waved their hats, and rushed into the deserted area before the redoubt; the little drummer before mentioned, heading the onslaught with a lively march.
When the first of the assailants had come up to the very abattis and were endeavoring to cut away the branches, the Americans opened a terrible fire of musketry in front and flank. Death rode in every volley. So near were the Hessians to the caponiere or looped trench which flanked the enemy when they set upon the main fort, that the wads were blown entirely through their bodies. The officers leading the attack, fought bravely. Again and again they rallied their men and brought them to the charge. They were mowed down like grass, and fell in heaps among the boughs of the abattis and into the fosse. In the thickest of the fight Donop was easily distinguished by the marks of his order and his handsome figure; but even his example availed nothing. His men repulsed from the redoubt in front, made an attack upon the escarpment on the west, but the fire from the American gallies drove them back here also with great loss; and at last, they flew in much disorder to the wood, leaving among many other slain the saucy drummer and his officer.
Another column made a simultaneous attack upon the south, and in the technical language of a soldier, passed the abattis, traversed the fosse and mounted the berm but they were repulsed at the fraises, and all retreated save twenty, who were standing on the berm against the shelvings of the parapet, under and out of the way of the guns, whence they were afraid to move. These were captured by M. de Manduit, who had sallied from the fort to repair some palisades. This brave Frenchman making another sortie in a few minutes, afterwards to repair the southern abattis, heard a voice from among the heaps of the dead and dying, exclaim in English, “Whoever you are, draw me hence.” This was Count Donop. M. de Manduit caused him to be carried into the fort. His hip was broken, but the wound was not at first considered as mortal. The victorious Americans, remembering the insolent message which their captive had sent them a few hours before; could not withhold marks of exultation.
“Well—is it determined,” they asked aloud, “to give no quarter?”
“l am in your hands,” replied Donop; “you may revenge yourselves.”
M. de Manduit enjoining the men in broken English to be generous towards their bleeding and humbled prisoner, the latter said to him, “You appear to be a foreigner, sir; who are you?”
“A French officer,” answered Manduit.
“Je suis content,” exclaimed the Count in French, “je meurs entre les mains de I'honneur meme.” [Or, “I am satisfied—I die in the very hands of Honor!”]
Donop was taken first to the Whitall house, just below the fort, but was afterwards removed to the residence of the Lowes, south of Woodbury Creek. He died three days after the battle, saying to M. de Manduit in his last moments, “It is finishing a noble career early; but I die the victim of my ambition and of the avarice of my sovereign.” To Col. Clymer he made the remarkable remark: “See here Colonel, see in me the vanity of all human pride! I have shone in all the courts of Europe, and now 1 am dying here on the banks of the Delaware in the house of an obscure Quaker.”
The Hessians retreated hastily towards Cooper’s Ferry. The main body went by way of Clement’s Bridge, some by way of Blackwoodtown, and some it is said by Chew’s Landing, near where they were met by a company of farmer’s boys and held at bay for some time. This detachment had with them a brass cannon which they are supposed to have thrown into the creek somewhere near the Landing.
Dick and Mcllvaine, the guides, having been taken prisoners by the Americans, were immediately hung within the fort for divers outrages which they had committed. Old Mitch, the other pilot, lived until recently to tell to groups of admiring Camden boys how terribly he was scared in this memorable fight. Resolved not to bear arms against his country, and being afraid to run away, he got behind a hay-rick when the battle began, and lay there flat on his belly until it was over. “But Lord, massa!” he used to exclaim in narrating the circumstance, “I gues I shuk, as de dam cannon ball came plowin’ along de ground and flingin’ de san’ in my face; and arter de Auguster blow’d up I tought for half an hour I was dead weder or no!”
The respected friend to whose MSS. notes we have before acknowledged our indebtedness, tells us that of the men under Col. Greene in this action many were blacks and mulattos. He was in the fort on the morning of the twenty-third of October, while the garrison were burying the slain, and cannot be mistaken as to the point. His account of the loss agrees with that contained in Ward’s letter to Washington, to wit: upon the American side, from Greene’s regiment, two sergeants, one fifer and four privates killed, one sergeant and two privates wounded, and one captain who was reconnoitering, taken prisoner; from Angel’s regiment, one captain, three sergeants, three rank and file killed, and one ensign, one sergeant and fifteen privates wounded; and from Capt. Duplessis’ company, two privates wounded. The Hessians lost lieutenant Col. Minigerode, three captains, four lieutenants, and near seventy privates killed, and Baron Donop, his Brigade Major, a captain, lieutenant and upwards of seventy non-commissioned officers and privates wounded and prisoners. Other accounts make the loss of the Hessians much greater; but as the action only lasted forty minutes, it is probable that this is not far from the truth. Several of the Americans were killed by the bursting of one of their cannon, the fragments of which are yet in the neighborhood.
The Hessian slain were buried in front of the fosse, south of the fort. The wounded were carried to Philadelphia by Manduit, and exchanged. Count Donop was interred near the spot where he fell, and a stone placed over him with the inscription “Here lies buried Count Donop.” [Mickle states: The last time we were at Red Bank, Donop’s head-stone was between two cart-ruts and almost overgrown with grass. The inscription on the stone is now entirely worn away.] The epitaph has ceased to be true—all that was left of the poor Hessian having been dug up and scattered about as relics. We doubt not that the Philadelphians who resort to this place in great numbers in the summer, began this outrage; but candor compels us to own that some Jerseymen have been guilty of exhibiting canes, the heads of which are set with teeth taken from the Count’s jaw!
The anecdote of dame Ann Whitall, which the compiler of the Collections [Barber & Howe, 1844] seems inclined to doubt, is so well authenticated that we cannot but believe it. The attack upon the fort commenced while this woman, the mistress of the first house on the river bank below Donop's grave, was busied in spinning. Presently, a shot from the Augusta or Merlin, whizzing through the hall, admonished her of her danger. She thereupon took her wheel into the cellar and actually continued her spinning throughout the afternoon. The house was used as a hospital after the action, and its floors are said still to show traces of the pools of blood which flowed from the wounded soldiers. This anecdote is certainly much more credible than one which Com. Barney mentions in connection with this action. One of the enemy’s gallies had a brass eighteen pounder, which told at every fire. The Americans on board the gun boats “soon became so well acquainted with the short sharp sound of her explosion,” says the Commodore, “that whenever it was heard, some one would cry out, Galley-shot! and this served as a kind of watch-word, at which all hands would lie down.” Dodging a cannon-ball—especially after the report— is by no means an ordinary feat!
As soon as the British had forced the chevaux-de-frize, Fort Mercer was abandoned and began to fall into decay. On the anniversary of the battle in 1829 a neat monument was erected upon the spot by a number of the New Jersey and Pennsylvania volunteers, which the Philadelphians have characteristically mutilated, by striking out the name of New Jersey from the inscription. The legend upon the monument modestly gives Greene one hundred men more than he seems to have had, and makes the number of Hessians five hundred too low.
The following notice of a visit to Red Bank by one whom the Reminiscent is proud in being able to call his friend, is too eloquent to be omitted: “The line of the embankment at Fort Mercer is yet plainly seen; and the place is now, as in the hour of our country’s peril, covered with a gloomy pine forest through whose branches the wind sighs dismally as if chanting a requiem for the spirits of the departed brave. Towards the close of a fine afternoon I visited the battle-ground. Here and there a sail dotted the Delaware, which lay calmly before me. A few solitary fishermen were pursuing their accustomed avocations upon the shore below the bank, and it seemed as if this secluded spot had ever been the abode of peace.
“I lingered until the shades of evening began to darken the distant landscape and enshroud the forest in gloom. The fishermen had gathered their nets and retired to their humble homes; and I was left alone, with no companion but my thoughts, and nothing to disturb save the gentle rippling of the waves upon the smooth pebbly beach. With reflections suggested by the occasion, I was slowly departing when the distant roll of a drum from Fort Mifflin, summoning the soldiers to evening parade, reminded me that war’s dreadful trade was not yet over—that the time had not yet come ‘when the lion and the lamb should lie down together,’ and all nations dwell in peace.”
Angell, Colonel Israel
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