Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Letter from the Forage War Sheds Light on a Forgotten Skirmish

I recently came upon a letter in the Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society written by New Jersey Brigadier General William Maxwell after a one of the many skirmishes of the so-called Forage War during the American Revolution.  The action took place on January 23, 1777 near Woodbridge, New Jersey, between Continental (and quite possibly militia forces) and a column of wagons escorted by two British regiments.  In his letter, transcribed by me below, General Maxwell chastises a Colonel Potter for not taking part in the skirmish:

"Westfield January 25th, 1777

Dear Colonel

I am really sorry that you with your Troops had not a share in the honour of the 23d for the enemy has got a very severe rub; their two Colo. & Commanders one killed the other severely wounded, 5 men left in one house and seven in another to our mercy, and one dead one left they could find, alto the wounded that could march did it; their ammunition wagons and chairs was stowed full as they could hold and we had not a man wounded and all performed with less than 200 men.  200 men of ours never came up to the action.  Had they come up we must have made them all prisoners.

The enemy is expected up today from Amboy.  I hope you with your troops will after breakfast to day, or a soon as you receive this, will proceed to Colo. Buckner’s Quarters.  I hope to Joyn (sic) you myself and if they come between us and Matesching Meeting House we will try to give them an uneasy passage.

I am Dear Colo. your most Humble servant

Wm Maxwell"
Maxwell, though a New Jersey Continental General, was at this time coordinating with both state troops from the New Jersey militia and with Continental Army forces from other states.  It was a time of great confusion, as East Jersey was still occupied by the Crown Forces and most Continental Army units were recruiting and reforming after the Battles of Trenton and Princeton.  The Colonel Buckner referenced in Maxwell's letter was Mordecai Buckner of the 6th Virginia Regiment.    Colonel David Potter, the recipient of Maxwell's letter, was, commander of the 2nd Battalion of Cumberland County (NJ) Militia, now serving as state troops far from their homes in southern New Jersey.

Potter's absence from the fight was regrettable, but Buckner's was criminal.

 In a letter to John Hancock on January 26th, 1777, Washington fails to mention Maxwell at all in connection with this skirmish, and gives credit to Buckner's Major (soon to be Lt. Colonel) Richard Parker for leading the advance while Buckner failed to come up in support.

   "On the 23d., a party of 400 of our Men under Col Buckner fell in with two Regiments of the Enemy, conveying a Number of Waggons from Brunswick to Amboy. Our advanced party under Colo. Parker engaged them with great Bravery, upwards of twenty Minutes, during which time the Colo Commandant was killed and the second in Command Mortally wounded. The people living near the Field of Action, say, their killed and wounded were considerable. We only lost two men who were made prisoners. Had Col Buckner come up with the main body, Colo. Parker and the other Officers think we should have put them to the rout, as their confusion was very great, and their ground disadvantageous. I have ordered Buckner under Arrest and shall bring him to tryal, to answer for so extraordinary a piece of Conduct."

Washington wrote to New Jersey Governor William Livingston on February 3, 1777, in which he provided a further account of the fight at Woodbridge and again failed to mention Maxwell.

"we have had two Skirmishes with large Bodies of the Enemy in which they have little to Boast of and would have had less, had not a Colo. of ours behaved Ill in each for which they are now under Arrest. In the first, two of their Regiments were opposed by our advanced Party of 160 Men, who behaved well, and if supported by the Main Body of about 260. under command of Colo. Buckner, would have done."

Buckner requested the right to resign his commission, but Washington insisted on a court martial:

    "Sir: It is not in my power to comply with your request on three Accounts, yourself, the Country at large, and the State you come from, Were the matter to remain undetermined, your Reputation must be ruined; at all events, every Officer would have reason to expect equal favor, and I shall be justly taxed with partiality. Would you reflect on the Impropriety of your Petition, you would certainly withdraw it. Resolved as I am to reward merit, and punish demerit, I shall refer your case to the judgment of a Court Martial, and shall be happy to hear that it acquits you. I am, etc."Buckner was tried at a Court Martial convened in Chatham, New Jersey under Major General Arthur St. Clair, though Washington's letters record that "Colo Buckner of the 6th Virginia Regiment who was under Arrest upon a charge of cowardice, broke his parole and went over to Bucks County, I suppose with an intent to make his Escape, but I dispatched a Troop of light Horse after him, who brought him back yesterday, and he is to take his tryal on Friday."  he was duly cashiered on February 9th having been found guilty of "Shamefully Misbehaving before the Enemy, in the Action of the 23rd. of Jan'y last" and of "Quitting his post and party in time of engagement."

Lt. Colonel Richard Parker clearly distinguished himself at the Woodbridge fight, and most contemporary accounts credit Parker with the victory.  Based on his letter to Colonel Potter, one might easily assume that Maxwell had been present, but a letter from Washington to Joseph Reed on January 24th strongly suggests he was unable to take part because his militia forces failed to arrive as ordered:

"Had there not been some mistake in point of time for marching the several brigades that were ordered upon that service, and particularly in delivering an order to General Varnum, I believe the rear of General Howe’s troops might have been a little rougher handled than they were, for if an express who went to General Maxwell the evening before had reached him in time to co-operate upon the enemy’s flank, for which purpose he was sent down the day before with a respectable force, very good consequences might have resulted from it; however, it is too late to remedy these mistakes"

It certainly sounds as if Maxwell had been meant to take part in the action of the 23rd but the absence of Potter's militia left only Parker to harass the enemy column and wagons.   Parker would serve under Maxwell once more later that year during the Brandywine campaign as part of his provisional light infantry corps. 

The identity of the two British foraging units they engaged near Woodbridge requires some sleuthing to establish based on fragmentary and contradictory records.   Rivington's New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury reported guardedly in its January 27, 1777 issue:

"A Skirmish has happened in the Jerseys between a foraging Party of the King's Troops and a Large Body of the rebels, in which it is reported, we have lost several waggons, but no authentic Particulars are come to hand."
Robert Prescott (1726 - 1815)

I am indebted to Todd Braisted who located an "Extract of a Letter from a Gentleman of Character at Morris-Town, to his Friend here [Boston] dated Jan. 30" printed The Freeman's Journal or New-Hampshire Gazette of Portsmouth, February 25, 1777.  This letter identifies the British units involved as the 28th and 37th Regiments, and is probably the source for this same information that appears in an 1810  Massachusetts Historical Society publication.  Based on theses sources, about 600 royalists formed the wagon escort moving from Brunswick to Amboy that was attacked on January 23rd near Woodbridge.   Both claim that a "Colonel Preston" was killed, though according to Todd there was no such British Colonel Preston in America.  Yet Maxwell's own letter says the regiments' "two Colo. & Commanders" were casualties, with one a fatality.

The commander of the 28th Regiment at this time was Lt. Colonel Robert Prescott, whose name is quite similar to Preston.  He survived the war, however, and I have not located any account of his wounding.   After the war went on to be a Major General by 1789 and ultimately was Governor-in-Chief of British North America in 1796.

As for the 37th Regiment, it was stationed in Rhode Island on January 23, 1777 so it is unlikely that it was the other British unit that took part in the fight near Woodbridge, NJ.  One can only surmise that someone confused the unit designation, perhaps mistaking the 33rd Regiment of foot, for example, which was based at that time in Amboy, New Jersey under Lt. Colonel James Webster, for the 37th.

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