Monday, February 12, 2018

Morgan's Rifle Corps Established and the Fog of War

Not long ago, I was poking around in the catalog for the library of the Daughters of the Revolution.  In it I found a reference to a book by James Graham entitled The Life of General Daniel Morgan, published in 1859. Googling the title and author led me to a full-text digital version of the book on Internet Archive.

In it I learned more about the corps in which my four times great grandfather, Benjamin Jennings, served during the Revolutionary War under Col. Morgan from at least July 1777 through December 1778 (muster and payroll records). I had always wondered where Morgan and his men were stationed before the battles of Saratoga and when and how they arrived in New York.

What struck me about Morgan's corps movements before Saratoga was the "fog of war" -- Gen. Washington's indecision about British Gen. Howe's objective during the summer of 1777. Would he support Burgoyne's drive to split the colonies or would he attack vulnerable Philadelphia, the capital of the his nascent nation? Washington had reluctantly determine to send Morgan's men north to support Gen. Gates in the Northern Department, but also wanted to keep him close if he was needed in the defense of Philadelphia. Those conflicting desires had Morgan and his riflemen on the move.

Title page from The Life of Daniel Morgan by
James Graham; courtesy Internet Archive

From Graham's book:

On the morning of the 13th of June, the day on which Morgan assumed the command of his regiment, Sir William Howe, leaving 2,000 men at New Brunswick, sent two strong columns of his forces, under Generals Cornwallis and De Heister, in the direction of the Delaware. The purpose of this movement was to induce Washington to quit his fortified camp at Middlebrook, and risk an engagement in defense of the quarter threatened. The front of Cornwallis' column reached Somerset court house by the dawn of day, when it was discovered by one of Morgan's detached parties. Intelligence of this movement of the enemy having been communicated to headquarters by Morgan, he at once advanced with his regiment to neighboring Somerset.

Being secured on their flanks by the Raritan and Millstone, the enemy were found too strongly posted to be approached without danger. But during the five or six days that they occupied this position, several spirited encounters took place between small parties of their force and detachments of the Rangers,[1] in which the latter were invariably victorious. Finding that Washington was not to be drawn into a disadvantageous engagement, and not daring to prosecute his seeming purpose of crossing the Delaware, the British general returned to New Brunswick on the 19th of June.

Morgan, in conformity with instructions he had received from headquarters[2], kept a vigilant eye upon the enemy. Their return to New Brunswick was signalized by several spirited attacks on their flanking parties by the Rangers.

One the morning of the 22nd, General Howe evacuated New Brunswick, and retired towards Amboy, setting fire to every building on his line of march. Washington, on being appraised of the retreat, detached three brigades (one of which was Wayne's), under Gen. Green, to fall on the enemy's rear, while Sullivan and Maxwell were ordered to cooperate upon their flank. The main body, in the meantime, paraded on the heights, ready to act as occasion might require.

As Morgan was posted in the immediate neighborhood of the enemy, he was first apprised of their movements, and thereupon he immediately pushed forward to annoy them. He first encountered a strong picket of Hessians, who were soon driven in upon the main body.  The latter were at this moment in full retreat across the bridge, a strong division of their forces being drawn up to cover the movement. Against this body, Morgan immediately directed the fire of his regiment; and after a fierce struggle of a few minutes, the enemy were force to give way, and to seek the shelter afforded by some redoubts which they had previously constructed on that side of the river. The advantage afforded them by the redoubts subjected Morgan to a momentary check; but Gen. Wayne's brigade arriving at this juncture, the contest was renewed with greater spirit than ever. After a short struggle, the British abandoned their redoubts, and retreated precipitately along the Amboy road.

Portion of the letter from George Washington to the Continental Congress
apprising them that a significant number of Howe's men had almost bren
captured; Washington's Writings, Volume IV; courtesy of Internet Archive

Morgan, followed by Wayne, kept close to the heels of the enemy; and before he gave up the pursuit, forced their rear guard, on several occasions, to face about, and exchange several sharp fires with his riflemen. For more than an hour, the contest was maintained with severe loss on both sides; and it was not until Wayne and Morgan advanced in the pursuit as far as Piscataway, that they ordered a halt. They had reckoned with confidence on the cooperation of Sullivan and Maxwell, in which event they felt assured, that the day would prove a disastrous one to General Howe. But this not being obtained, they paused awhile at Piscataway, to refresh their men, and then returned to New Brunswick. The opinion prevailed in the army after this battle, that had Maxwell arrived at the post assigned him, in time to take part in the contest, the enemy's rear guard of 1,500 men would have been cut off and captured.

In this action, Morgan greatly distinguished himself. His corps had fought with extraordinary valor; and, although it suffered severely in its repeated encounters with the enemy during the preceding few days, the loss of the latter was far greater. Morgan and Wayne, as well as their officers and men, were made the subject of very commendatory remarks in the letter which Washington addressed to the President of Congress, after the action. Honorable mention was made of "their conduct and bravery on this occasion," and the fact was specially noted, that "they constantly advanced upon an enemy far superior to them in numbers, and well secured behind strong redoubts."

The new and somewhat exposed situation of the main body of the American army, in its advanced position at Quibbletown, offered temptations to the British commander to make a fresh attack. The object of his first movement was to draw Washington from his entrenched camp, and bring on a general action. He now thought that a rapid movement of his force might enable him to turn the American left, and gain the heights in its rear, thus forcing Washington to fight at a disadvantage. Accordingly, on the night of the 25th, he recalled the troops which had crossed to Staten Island, and early next morning made a rapid movement, in two columns, towards Westfield. The right, under Cornwallis, took the route by Woodbridge to Scotch Plains; and the left, led by Howe, marched by Metucking meeting house. In addition, four battalions, with six pieces of cannon, were detached to Bonhamstown, in order to cover Amboy. Howe was to attack the left of the American army at Quibbletown, while Cornwallis was to gain the heights on the left of the camp at Middlebrook.

The marquee, or tent Washington used during the Revolutionary War circa 1909;
courtesy of The American Revolution Center

After the action of the 22nd, Morgan took post in advance of the the main body, and in the neighborhood of Woodbridge. On the morning of the 26th, the advance of Cornwallis was discovered, and soon after vigorously attacked. The conflict was maintained with spirit for half an hour, and with a severe loss on the part of the enemy. But, their main body coming up to the support of the advance, Morgan commenced retiring towards the camp. Washington, as soon as he heard the firing, comprehended how matters stood. He ordered a retreat to Middlebrook, after having detached a strong corps under Sterling, to secure the mountain passes on his left. Cornwallis continued to advance, and at length encountered Sterling, who, after a warm engagement, was obliged to give way to with the loss of three pieces of cannon. Cornwallis then pressed forward as far as Westfield. Here finding that his object had been foreseen, and provided against, he halted for two days, and then commenced a retreat to Amboy.

When it became known that Cornwallis had halted at Westfield, Gen. Scott's brigade and Morgan's corps were thrown forward to observe and annoy him. As soon as the retreat commenced, he was immediately attacked by those officers. Along the whole way to Rahway, a continued skirmish was kept up with the flanks and rear of the enemy, who lost a large number of their force in killed and wounded. They marched, however, in a compact body, and, leaving no opening for a serious attack, kept their assailants at bay. They reached Amboy, and crossed over to Staten Island by the 30th of June.

For some time previous to this period, the designs of the enemy baffled conjecture, and had been a source of great disquietude to Washington. It was now believed that a junction between Burgoyne and Howe was contemplated. Measures were at once taken by the commander-in-chief to counteract such a scheme. Nixon's brigade was sent to reinforce the northern army under Schuyler; Generals Parson and Varnum were ordered to march with their brigades to Peekskill; the division under General Sullivan was pushed forward to Pompton; and the headquarters, with the remainder of the army, were successively removed nearer to the Highland and to the Hudson; first to Morristown, then to Pompton, and afterwards to the Clove.

Several taverns were in operation on the Clove Road in what is now Suffern,
New York, Suffern's was the most noted as it was located at the juncture
of Clove Road and three other highways leading to New Jersey, the Hudson,
and to lower Orange County; courtesy of the Orange County Historical Society

Morgan, who, since the retreat of the British to Staten Island, had been posted at Chatham, was early advised of the movements of the army, and had received the necessary instructions to guide him.[3] He remained at this place for about a week; when the impression gaining ground that the enemy were about moving up the North river, he received orders to march northward.[4] He accordingly pushed forward as directed, and reached Hackensack on the second or third day following.

Everything, at this time, indicated that a conflict was at hand; and Morgan and his corps were eager for a better opportunity than had yet offered to distinguish themselves. But, again all was doubt and uncertainty as to the real object of the enemy's active and extensive preparations. Their fleet, having taken on board a large number of troops and stores, had dropped down the bay, encouraging the presumption that it was about putting to sea. The orders, which originated in a belief that the enemy intended moving up the Hudson, were accordingly countermanded; and Morgan, on reaching Hackensack, received directions to halt until further orders.[5]

He, accordingly, halted at this place for a few days. The intentions of the enemy still remained unknown, yet their great preparations rendered it certain that they meditated some important expedition. The only resource left the commander-in-chief in this emergency, was to dispose of his force in such a manner as to be in some measure prepared for the enemy in whatever they might appear. In the meanwhile, he exercised an untiring vigilance in watching their movements, and in guarding against surprise.

A few days elapsed, when news was received, which, for a time, seemed to furnish a certain clue to the enemy's designs. The fleet had left New York, with a very large force on board, and stood out to sea. Apprehending now that Philadelphia was the point threatened, as it subsequently proved to be, the commander-in-chief put the great part of his army at once in motion towards that city. The orders which reached Morgan on this occasion were as follows:

Camp at Kamapaugh, July 24, 1777,

To Col. Morgan

Sir: The enemy's fleet having left Sandy Hook and gone to sea, you are immediately, on receipt of this, to march with the corps under your command to the city of Philadelphia, and there receive orders from the commanding officer. You will proceed as expeditiously as you can by the shortest route; you will take no heavy baggage with you, but leave it to follow with an officer, and a proper guard. I am, sir, etc., George Washington

In less than an hour after the above order was received, Morgan and his corps were on the march to Philadelphia. On arriving at Trenton, he halted for a few days at that place, in obedience to orders to that effect.[6] The mind of the commander-in-chief was not yet altogether clear of doubt as to the real object of the enemy. But another day seemed to render this unmistakable. The fleet had appeared off the capes of Delaware, standing in. Morgan was advised of this fact by a note from Col. Naylor,[7] and in anticipation of orders, he crossed the Delaware, and pushed on without delay towards Philadelphia.

The several divisions of the army were now rapidly approaching the neighborhood of Philadelphia. The militia of Pennsylvania, and of the adjoining states, immediately took the field. The approach of the enemy was rendered seemingly certain, and every preparation was made to meet them. But, once again the commander-in-chief was involved in a state of uncertainty. The fleet, after hovering about the mouth of the Delaware bay for a day or two, stood out to sea in an easterly direction. Apprehending that the enemy's extraordinary movements might tend, after all, towards the [Hudson] Highlands, he at once took measures to strengthen the force in that quarter, by bodies of militia from New York and Connecticut.

To add to his perplexities, the intelligence of the fall of Ticonderoga, and of Burgoyne's advance, reached him about this time, accompanied by clamorous demands for large detachments from his army to reinforce that in the north. Feeling certain that General Howe's designs had reference to the section of country occupied by his army; reflecting, besides, that the defense of this section against the main army of the enemy was an object, superior in importance to any other existing, he felt reluctant to weaken his force in aid of the northern army, until these designs should be fully developed.

In the belief that the fleet had gone eastward, the army was put in motion towards the Hudson. A day or two previous to this movement, Morgan received orders to advance with his corps to Maidenhead.[8] He had accordingly marched, and was about crossing the Delaware in the neighborhood of Trenton, when counter orders were sent to him.[9] The army had not been in motion more than a day, when intelligence was received that the fleet had again appeared on the 7th off Sinepuxent Inlet, a place about fifty miles south of the Capes of Delaware. An immediate halt was hereupon ordered, with the determination to await the development of the enemy's plans.

The rapid advance of Burgoyne, now attracted the serious attention of Washington towards the north, whither the scene of our narrative is about to change. Two regiments had been already ordered from Peekskill in aid of the northern army; and more were speedily to follow. Among others, it was determined that Morgan's corps should be sent to that quarter.

[1] Daniel Morgan's Rifle Corps were called Morgan's Rangers, Morgan's Rifles, or Morgan's Riflemen.
[2] Headquarters, 15th June 1777. [To] Col. Morgan, Sir: His Excellency desires you will continue to keep out your active parties carefully watching every motion of the enemy; and have your whole body in readiness to move without confusion, and free from danger. He likewise requests that you make your men be particularly careful of their provisions, or they must often suffer. I am, Sir, Your most obedient Servant, Richard R. Meade, A.D.G.
[3] Mrs. Lott's Fram, 11th July 1777 [To] Col. Morgan at Chatham, Dear Sir: Upon a presumption that the enemy intend to move either up the North or East river, our army marched this morning from Morristown, and will proceed leisurely towards the Clove, unless we have some certain intelligence that they intend southward. Colonel Dayton, who is at Elizabethown, watching the motions of the fleet, will give you immediate information which way they go. If up the East or North river, you will follow directly, keeping upon the right flank of the main army. The road is rather better than the one we march. You need not harass your men, but come on leisurely; if there is any occasion to hurry, we will send an express to you. I am, dear sir, your most obedient servant, Tench Tilghman, A.D.C.
[4] Headquarters, 19th July, 9 o'clock, P.M., 1777. [To] Col. Morgan, Dear Sir: We have received your letter of this date. From the intelligence received this afternoon, we have every reason to believe that the enemy are about to move up the North river. It is, therefore, his excellency's orders, that upon receipt of this, you march your corps to the bridge, at the great falls, from thence to Paramus, thence to Kakegate, and thence to Haverstraw; there to observe the motions of the enemy; and, if they land on the west side of the river, below the Highlands, you are to take possession of the road to the forest of Dean Furnace, and oppose their penetrating that way. But, if the enemy push up the river, you are to get over the mountains to Fort Montgomery, and there wait for further orders. Your baggage (except what you think necessary for the men to carry), is to be sent by the nearest route towards this place, and from here to whatever place the army is, under a small guard. I am, dear sir, your most obedient servant, John Fitzgerald, A.D.C.
[5] Camp at Kamapaugh, July 24, 1777. [To] Col. Morgan, Rifle Corps, Dear Sir: Since I wrote to you the night before last, we found out that the intelligence which occasioned the order to you, was premature. His excellency, therefore, orders me to direct, that if you have marched to the northward of Paramus, you return and take post there. If you have not got so far on receipt of this, you are occupy some place near you which you may find most convenient for the reception of your men. If your baggage has not got far from you, you had better order it back immediately. I am, sir, your obedient servant, John Fitzgerald, A.D.C. 
P.S.--You will let us know where you are as soon as you have fixed upon a place. As it may be probable that the enemy may make an incursion from Staten Island, you will require no further instructions from headquarters to march and oppose him. J. F.
[6] Connell's Ferry, July 28, 1777 [To] Col. Morgan, Sir: Should this reach you before your arrive at Trenton, it is likely his Excellency's desire that you make a halt there until further orders. Should you have passed it, you are to stop at Bristol, there to remain until you hear from him. I am, your most humble servant, R. R. Meade, A.D.C.
[7] Trenton, July 31, 1777, [To] Col. Morgan, Sir: A letter from Mr. Hancock informs that the enemy's fleet yesterday in the offing, and desires that all the troops here should advance immediately. I think you had best get over your regiment as soon as you possibly can. I am, sir, your humble servant, Stephen Naylor, Col. G. D.
[8] Camp near Germantown, Aug. 9, 1777, [To] Col. Morgan, Sir: You will march, to-morrow morning, the corps under your command, for Maidenhead, in the State of New Jersey, and there halt till you receive further orders. In your march, as during your stay at that place, you will take every possible care in your power to restrain every species of licentiousness in the soldiery, and to prevent them doing the least injury to the inhabitants or their property; as nothing can be more disserviceable to our cause, or more unworthy of the character we profess, to say northing of the injustice of the measure. I am, sir, your most humble servant, George Washington
[9] Camp at Cross Roads, Bucks Co., Sunday, 10th Aug., 1777, 10 o'clock, P.M. [To] Col. Morgan, I have just received from Philadelphia, informing me that a large fleet was seen of Sinepuxent Inlet on 7th inst. You are, therefore, directed to halt wherever this finds you, and wait till we hear further of the matter. Let me know, by return of the express, where you are, that I may know how to direct for you when I have occasion to send you orders. I am, sir, your most humble servant, George Washington
P.S.--By ordering you to halt where this finds you, I mean upon the most convenient group near the place.

Benjamin Jennings (c1740-1815): A Morgan's Rifleman
British Surrender at Saratoga
Revolutionary War Soldier

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