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New Jersey – Winter 1777

Washington Assembles an Army Decisively Containing the British

Washington had secured the high ground in Morristown, New Jersey to hold defensive positions after driving Howe’s superior force back into New Brunswick and Amboy after winning battles at Trenton and Princeton. Washington stood at the right flank of the enemy’s position and, unless Washington was dislodged, Howe’s army could not move towards Philadelphia without great risk. Howe was forced to withdraw from advanced positions, as Marshall’s detailed review of the circumstance will reveal:

“The effect of the proclamation published by Lord and General Howe, on taking possession of Jersey, was in a great degree counteracted by the conduct of the invading army. The hope that security was attainable by submission was soon dissipated. The inhabitants were treated rather as conquered rebels than returning friends. Whatever may have been the exertions of the General to restrain his soldiers, they indulged in every species of licentiousness. The loyalists as well as those who had been active in American cause were the victims of this indiscriminating spirit of rapine and violence. A sense of personal wrongs produced a temper which national considerations had been too weak to excite; and, when the battles of Trenton and Princeton relieved the people from the fears inspired by the presence of their invaders, the great body of the people flew to arms. Small parties of militia scoured the country, and were collecting in such numbers as to threaten the weaker British posts with the fate which had befallen Trenton and Princeton.

“To guard against this spirit, the British General found it expedient to abandon the positions taken for the purpose of recovering the country, and to confine himself to New Brunswick and Amboy.

“This militia and volunteers who came in aid of the small remnant of continental troops, enabled General Washington to take different positions near the lines of the enemy, to harass him perpetually, restrain his foraging parties, and produce considerable distress in his camp.”

Washington charged Wayne with the task of preventing Howe from joining up with Burgoyne in the Hill Country of the Hudson. If Howe join Burgoyne, the Colonies would have been split and severely weakened. Washington needed a leader to cover the territory between the Delaware and West Point. “A general of extraordinary activity and intelligence was needed, in command of troops of such spirit and discipline as to be able to move at a moment’s warning” according to Stille. General Washington’s choice was Wayne and the troops in the Pennsylvania Line under Wayne’s command.

Consequently, the Pennsylvania troops were engaged in a number of conflicts, harassing the British to keep Howe contained in Amboy. There was action in Quibbbletown (New Market) New Jersey, January 24, 1777. Pennsylvania troops were active at Ashswamp in early February. Family records indicate that Joseph Hancock was at this conflict. Trussell’s compilation of the records does not indicate this. In Trussell’s account, Patton’s regiment was the only Pennsylvania detachment recorded in this area. Prior to or during the British buildup at Brunswick Joseph Hancock received a musket ball in the right shoulder during an attack on Sir Henry Clinton’s regiment guard on March 16, 1777. His recovery period is unknown. There is no indication in Trussell’s accumulation of detailed injury records of a March injury. This perhaps is further evidence that the record keeping was very loose or not preserved and accordingly, was often inaccurate. The 8th Regiment was surprised and somewhat battered by the British near Boundbrook on April 12, 1777. The following is a list of confrontations in which the Pennsylvania Line engaged prior to Howe taking to sea:

  • Quibbletown, NJ January 24, 1777
  • Ash Swamp, NJ February 1777
  • Boundbrook, NJ April 12/13, 1777
  • Bonhamtown, NJ April 15, 1777
  • Piscataway, NJ April 21, 1777
  • Amboy, NJ April 25, 1777
  • Piscataway, NJ May 8
  • Piscataway, NJ May 10, 1777
  • Metuchen, NJ May 17, 1777
  • Middletown, NJ May 26 & 27, 1777
  • Somerset Court House, NJ June 14, 1777
  • New Brunswick, NJ, June 22, 1777
  • Short Hills, NJ June 26, 1777

The Pennsylvania line began to acquire an excellent combat reputation. Stille provides a brief account of a Battle at Brunswick on May 2, 1777:

“On May 2, 1777, Washington attacked the British at Brunswick. No details were given but a letter from General Wayne to the Pennsylvania war Board dated June 3, 1777, regarding clothing and supplies included, ‘The conduct of the Pennsylvanians the Other day in forcing General Grant to Retire with Circumstances of Shame and Disgrace into the very eyes of the Enemy has gained them the Esteem and Confidence of His Excellency’ (Washington).”

An account by Tucker is as follows:

“Wayne brought enthusiasm and confidence to Washington’s army at a moment when the cause of independence faltered and friends in Great Britain despaired that a raw aggregation of men from scattered colonies could ever stand against British regulars in open combat. In the spring of 1777, the army was reorganized and strengthened by host of newcomers. Wayne was assigned to take command of the large body of troops lately recruited and now officially designated the Pennsylvania Line of the Continental Army.”

Washington remained encamped and heavily entrenched at Middlebrook, New Jersey near the Raritan for the month of June 1777. According to Stille:

“Various devices were resorted to by Sir William Howe to induce the Americans to evacuate their strong position and to meet him on the plains. Washington knew too well the great advantage he held to be tempted into making any such false step. Not only was he safe in his entrenchments, but he could move with equal facility to prevent Howe’s advance towards Philadelphia or any movement of his intended to form a junction with Burgoyne on the Hudson….. At length Sir William Howe, despairing of forcing Washington to meet him in a pitched battle, decided to approach Philadelphia by sea, and for that purpose embarked his troops at Staten Island immediately upon the evacuation of New Jersey.”

Washington had another problem. Disease was a constant threat to maintaining a fighting force and was often a bigger problem then causalities from battle. In his words he faced a more dangerous threat from the “fear of calamity which had proved more fatal than the sword.” In Marshall’s words:

“The small pox had found its way into both the northern and middle army, and impaired the strength of both to an alarming degree. To avoid the return of this evil, the General determined to inoculate all the soldiers in the American service. This determination was carried into execution, and an army, exempt from the fear of a calamity which had, at all times, endangered the most important operations, was prepared for the next campaign.”

The method of inoculation at the time was to swab an open cut with live disease. The patient experience up to a month of symptoms closely approximating the disease, and occasionally ended in death. The suffering of the troops would have been dreadful, particularly if they were forced to march to new encampment while recovering from the inoculation. Colonists volunteered for small pox inoculations and were bedridden and nursed through the dreadful experience. It is certain that such care was not to be the soldier’s fate.

Joseph Hancock’s confrontations with the British after joining Washington in Morristown in January 1777 were perhaps the most vigorous of his war experiences. Washington needed successful containment of the enemy as proof positive that a stable continental force was preferred to decentralized State defenses. The winter New Jersey campaign was significant by the very fact that the British failed to overcome the combined continental forces and subsequently retreated. Joining the main Army under Washington certainly enhanced the military insight of Joseph Hancock and his comrades. They saw the big picture and participated with thousands of other men in military maneuvers. In addition, they served under Anthony Wayne, who along with Morgan and Greene were the most able, bold, and aggressive generals in Washington’s army. If Wayne had commanded the British at this juncture of the war, Americans in all likelihood would have remained British subjects for a very long time and, with that, the entire fragile and serendipitous series of events that lead to the American form of government would have been lost.

Wayne’s typical tactic was to attack the British foraging parties and pickets at every opportunity to weaken not only their resolve but also their fighting capability. Unfed horses and troops made a poor army. Since in all probability the Pennsylvania Line had not yet been furnished with the preferred musket for conventional battle, it can be reasonably assumed that skirmishes at American instigation were with rifles. These would tend to be ambushes with the capability to attack from greater distances than would have been possible with muskets. Although Wayne, and most of the other Generals, despised rifles because of their lack of utility in being reloaded quickly and outfitted with bayonets for use in close combat, the rifle was still highly feared by the British. The reputation of the long brown-coated Pennsylvania troops put trepidation in the British for it was widely believed that all riflemen were excellent marksmen. Given his skill and the equipment he would most likely possess at this point in the war, in addition to the tactics common to Wayne, it is very likely that Joseph’s activity was lively, wrecking havoc on the enemy. His near miss with a fatal wound substantiates the danger he was in. After marching six weeks in the dead of winter, fighting the British, being wounded, and suffering from an inoculation in early summer, he marched on to much bigger and bloodier conflicts that were pivotal in deciding the ultimate outcome of the war.