Background image is Les Dernières Cartouches (The Last Cartridges) by Alphonse de Neuville

Friday, March 10, 2017

Project 1777 prequel: The Forage War in the Jerseys

Northern New Jersey in 1777 (Wikimedia Commons)
As I continue to prepare for my Carnage & Glory 1777 campaign, I've been playing out a few of the smaller skirmishes that took place in the winter and early spring of 1777, as the British tried to gather supplies in the Jerseys for their armies there and in New York.

Often these foraging parties came under attack by small bodies of Continental troops and larger forces of New Jersey Whig militia. Likewise, the Crown forces garrisons and their local patrols suffered repeated raids and shoot-and-run attacks by these same small rebel forces. These skirmishes escalated by the end of the winter to pitched battles, as the frustrated British commanders put larger and larger forces in the field in an attempt to catch and destroy the American raiders. These attempts almost always came to naught, however, as the Americans either melted back into the countryside or ambushed in turn the British detachments that were sent out to ambush them.

As in any insurgency, clear, factual accounts of engagements are hard to come by. Some of the American accounts of these fights are fairly hard to credit; time after time they claim few or no significant losses in encounters where British troops took heavy casualties. American unit records have largely been lost (or never existed in the irregular and chaotic early American army), and both official and unofficial communications are unreliable, as these were a regular channel for propaganda to the American population and rebel sympathizers back in Britain. So the only figures to go by are British ones, which show that the army took heavier losses in this "non-campaign campaign" than they did in the battles over New York the previous summer: over 900 men killed, wounded, or missing. Clearly, whatever the true story of the American losses, British forces were suffering badly.

Very ragged and hairy Crown Forces (
Some of this likely has to do with the difference between the conventional European military practices the British were accustomed to and the war they were fighting in America. With some exceptions, European armies went into winter quarters once the autumn campaigns were over and didn't come out again until spring.Troops spent their time in military garrisons or commandeered civilian lodgings where they had protection from the elements, regular meals, and time to recuperate from the stress of marching and combat. Being forced into constant action or reaction by rebel attacks wore down the morale, the health, and the readiness of troops expecting a quiet winter. The Hessians defeated at Trenton had been on a constant state of alert for weeks before the battle, and so were exhausted, mentally and physically, when the attack came (a fact often overlooked in the mist of American myths about drunken Christmas celebrations). And the reverses suffered by British and German arms in that winter campaign both heartened the Americans (who had lost battle after battle the previous summer and given up one the second-largest city in the colonies) and appalled and depressed the British and German forces (who found the Americans' transformation from military greenhorns to stalwart adversaries nothing short of astounding).

Thus the large part of British troops quartered in the Jerseys were continually deprived of rest, recuperation, and rations by the constant alarms and raids of the American militia. Eventually most of the outlying billets were brought in closer to the main army cantonments in New York and on Staten Island. Where the initial line of outposts and garrisons in New Jersey had stretched from Burlington (opposite what are today the northeast suburbs of Philadelphia) to Hackensack (on the Jersey shore of the Hudson opposite the captured Fort Washington), the Crown forces perimeter shrank back to a tiny area encompassing Elizabethtown, Amboy, and Brunswick; the result: overcrowding, disease, and further plummeting morale.

British dispositions before the battle of Trenton (Boston Public Library)

European armies were also much closer to their own supply bases. The British had to either import supplies across the Atlantic or find them in the Americas. The campaign in New York and New Jersey the previous year had resulted in very poor relations between the Crown forces and the country people, especially in New Jersey. Although New Jersey had a significant population of Loyalists, the Crown forces had done little to protect them from their Whig neighbours. Moreover, British and German forces had behaved in an wholly undisciplined manner, looting and destroying civilian property; particular damage was often visited on rebel houses, businesses, and public buildings (non-Anglican churches were favourite targets of pillage and arson), but Loyalist dwellings were not immune from attack.

Even as he retreated into the Watchung Mountains for the winter, General Washington issued orders to the militia and Continental forces to bring away from the low country any food, forage, or farm animals that might be of use to the British. Farmers alienated by plundering and other mistreatment over the previous summer and autumn might not have favoured the rebel army, but they had no incentive to run any risks to supply the British.

British and German troops in New York suffered less than their comrades in the Jerseys (Getty Images)
The Royal Navy could bring some supplies from Europe, both equipment like small arms, artillery, and tents, and raw materials like cloth for uniforms, hard-baked bread, and preserved meats and cheeses. And British Canada could supply grain and coal. But none of these sources could easily supply the mountains of straw, hay, oats, and grass that horses, the 18th century army's prime movers and troop carriers, needed for feed and bedding. Nor was it economical to ship large quantities of wood for fuel. So the Army had to send patrols out into the countryside to gather by force or purchase what small supplies still remained, as well as what food for humans and animals for traction could be easily found. These patrols were attacked, so escorts were arranged for them. The escorting forces were ambushed, so huge sweeps by brigade- or division-sized forces were organized; even these found themselves raided, assaulted, or continually sniped at from ambush.

The ensuing combats might engage forces numbering several score or several hundred on each side. Scottish Highlanders and Hessian and other German troops were often employed as seeming the most foreign and alarming to the locals, and these often took the brunt of this petite guerre or "little war". A regiment of Highlanders lost 70 men in early January; a German regiment 70 more a week later. In late January, a force of militia and Pennsylvania riflemen forded a waist-high river to outmaneuver a British column of greater numbers and, surprising them, chased them from the field, taking from them over 40 wagons and nearly 300 horses, cows, and sheep.

In what was probably the largest engagement of this so-called Forage War, a force of six battalions of British troops (one light infantry, one grenadier, and four line battalions) was ambushed by an American force of seven Continental regiments. The British, in a fighting retreat to Amboy that has been compared with the retreat from Lexington, lost 70 to 100 men killed, wounded, or missing to alleged American losses of 4 dead and 9 wounded.

Only after reading about these winter battles did I finally come to understand why, when General Lord Cornwallis set out to surround an American outpost at Bound Brook that was believed to hold 800 men, he assembled a force of 4,000 jaegers, grenadiers, Guardsmen, and light dragoons that planned converge from four directions on Benjamin Lincoln's tiny force. British commanders by the spring of 1777 were reacting like American colonels in post-Tet Vietnam; no one knew what was waiting "out there". Scouting was impossible; intelligence was unreliable; American officers knew British movements almost before they made them.

To learn more about the Forage War, check out this Wikipedia article or read David Hackett Fischer's excellent Washington's Crossing. The Forage War is also addressed in Mark V. Kwasny's Washington's Partisan War, 1775-1783.

For more information on British Army logistics during the war, this article by MAJ John A. Tokar and this piece by MAJ Eric A. McCoy are good introductions. For more in-depth examinations, read Chapter Four of Edward E. Curtis's The Organization of the British Army in the Revolution (online in its entirety here) or Arthur Bowler's Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in America, 1775-1783.

Next time: Some accounts of recreated Forage War battles.

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