George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Brigadier General William Maxwell, 27 February 1779

From Brigadier General William Maxwell

Elizth Town [N.J.] Feby 27th 1779


Since my last, which was writen imediately, after the affair of the day before yesterday,1 I have collected the following particulars—The party which attempted to surprise this post was Commanded by Colo. Sterling of the 42nd Regt & composed of the following Corps—to wit—the 42d & 33d regts—a party of Welch Fuzeliers, together with a full company of Light Infantry of the 2d Battalion of Guards—Lt Colo. Webster commanded the 33rd—the Light Infantry was commanded by Lt Colo. Garth. Lrd Cathcart was also with them.2

The whole, amounting (in my opinion) to a Thousand—embark’d about seven in the evening at Long Island, nearly opposite to New-York, and landed to my left, on a very wet & difficult salt meadow, between two & three oClock in the morning.

They speedily dispatched a party Comd by Ld Cathcart to the Govenors house—who luckily was not at home.3

After surrounding the Town, and perceiving their design was frustriated—they imediately march’d for their boats which were paraded at Crains ferry—They burned the Barracks. the shoolhouse (in which was a small quantity of provision) the armourers shop & two or three barns.4

Upon our persuing them from the Town the cattle & horses they had collected fell into our hands—In order to affect a safe retreat, they moved their boats from Crains ferry better than a mile up Newark Bay & marched their troops along the meadows edge to them—Our Artillery could not follow & their Gun boats covered their embarkation.

They made a small stand about half way between the Town & ferry, during which time their wounded were put on board their boats—amounting to about twenty or thirty—A few well directed shot from Capt. Randolphs Artilery induced them to continue their retreat leaving two killed on the ground.5

There principle pilots were Cornelius Hetfield—Jno. Smith Hetfield & Capt. Luce all late of this Town.6

Your Excellency may rely upon the utmost vigilance & attention to the security of this post—If I could by any means be furnish’d with a few horse—it certainly would be attended with more security and many other advantages—I was at a great loss thro’ want of them that morning—& continued much embarrassed, untill some Country people assembled who were on horse back.

Inclosed, you have a return of killed wounded & missing, which I hope your Excellency will reckon very small, considering the Enemy’s well concerted and conducted plan for a compleat surprise.

Two prisoners only were taken, I mean of the enemy—Five of our missing were taken at the Govenors house being part of a small guard stationed there.7 I am Your Excellency’s Very Humble servt

Wm Maxwell

Copy, in John Laurens’s writing, enclosed in GW to John Jay, 1 March 1779 (second letter), DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169.

2Col. Thomas Stirling’s immediate subordinates on this expedition were Lt. Col. James Webster (c.1743–1781) of the 33d Regiment of Foot and Lt. Col. George Garth (d. 1819) of the 2d Battalion of Foot Guards. Webster, who had become a lieutenant in the 33d Regiment in 1760, attained the rank of lieutenant colonel of that regiment in April 1774, and he commanded the regiment after the promotion of its colonel, Charles Cornwallis, to major general in September 1775. Webster performed ably during the Battle of Monmouth Court House in late June 1778. During the summer of 1779, he commanded the British post at Verplank’s Point, N.Y., across the Hudson River from Stony Point, and in December 1779 he sailed south with the British expeditionary force that captured Charleston, S.C., in May 1780. Webster participated in the subsequent campaigns in the Carolinas until 15 March 1781, when he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Guilford Court House.

George Garth, who had entered the British army in 1755, became lieutenant colonel of the 2d Battalion of Foot Guards in February 1772 and was promoted to colonel in February 1779. Appointed a brigadier general during the spring of 1779, Garth commanded a small expeditionary force that raided New Haven, Conn., in July 1779, and he was captured by the French the following October while sailing from New York to take command in Georgia. After his exchange in 1781, Garth served as a major general in the West Indies. He was promoted to full general in 1801.

William Schaw Cathcart (1755–1843) had studied law before becoming the tenth Lord Cathcart upon the death of his father in August 1776. His military career began in June 1777 when he purchased a cornetcy in the 7th Regiment of Dragoons. Almost immediately obtaining leave to serve with the 16th Regiment of Light Dragoons in America, Cathcart distinguished himself in the attack on Fort Clinton, N.Y., in October 1777. The following month he became a first lieutenant in another British cavalry regiment stationed in America, the 17th Regiment of Light Dragoons, and on 10 Dec. 1777 he was commissioned a captain in that regiment. While retaining his captaincy in the 17th Light Dragoons, Cathcart in July 1778 received provincial rank as colonel of the British Legion, a recently raised Loyalist corps composed of both infantry and cavalry. During 1778 he also became an aide-de-camp to Gen. Henry Clinton. On 13 April 1779 Cathcart was promoted within the British army to major of the 38th Regiment of Foot, and on 19 Aug. 1779 General Clinton appointed him acting quartermaster general of the army until the new quartermaster general arrived. Resuming command of the British Legion, Cathcart sailed with it to Savannah in December 1779 and subsequently participated in the siege of Charleston, S.C., until April 1780, when ill health induced him to turn over command of the British Legion to Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton and to return to New York. Joining the 38th Regiment on Long Island, Cathcart subsequently served as adjutant general of the army until further health problems obliged him to resign that position on 1 Aug. 1780 and to sail to England at the end of that month. Cathcart continued, nevertheless, to be active in army, diplomatic, and political affairs for several decades, rising to the rank of full general in 1812 and serving as British ambassador to Russia from 1812 to 1820.

3An extract from a letter from an unidentified American correspondent, dated 25 Feb., that was published in the New-Jersey Journal (Chatham) for 2 March, gives the following account of the British attempt to capture Gov. William Livingston: “Last night the enemy, supposed to consist of about one thousand men, landed on the meadows, about two miles above Elizabeth Town Point, and marched with the most profound silence towards that village, but intended to surround Governor Livingston’s house (which is situate about one mile to the west of it) before they alarmed our troops in the town. They accordingly took possession of the Governor’s house at five o’clock in the morning, his Excellency himself having been providentially prevented from lodging there that night by the importunity of a friend who pressed him, on his way thither, to stay the night with him. The only part of his family in the house were two young ladies, his daughters [Susannah and Catharine Livingston], who had been alarmed, before the enemy made their appearance, just long enough to dress themselves. On demanding his papers, after having made a fruitless search for his person, his eldest daughter [Susannah Livingston], with great composure, carried the officer to a drawer filled with intercepted letters from London, taken in a British vessel, which they pocketed with the greatest avidity, and after having loaded themselves with part of the precious intelligence, carried off the remainder in the drawer itself. The officers in general behaved with great politeness, and exerted themselves in preventing the soldiers from plundering.” The extract concludes with remarks commending Colonel Stirling for his gentlemanly behavior, Maxwell and the local militia for their responses to the British raid, and several local women for acting “with indefatigable alacrity” to save provisions stored in the town’s schoolhouse after it was set on fire. (This extract also was published in the Royal Gazette [New York], 10 March.)

On 29 March, Governor Livingston, hearing that he was the target not only for capture but also for assassination, wrote a sarcastic letter to the British commander in chief, Gen. Henry Clinton, demanding that he disavow “such dark proceedings” (Prince, Livingston Papers description begins Carl E. Prince et al., eds. The Papers of William Livingston. 5 vols. Trenton and New Brunswick, N.J., 1979–88. description ends , 3:49–50). Clinton replied on 10 April with equal sarcasm that “I should not blacken myself with so foul a crime to obtain so trifling an end,” and the exchange ended with Livingston’s long point-by-point rejoinder of 15 April (Prince, Livingston Papers description begins Carl E. Prince et al., eds. The Papers of William Livingston. 5 vols. Trenton and New Brunswick, N.J., 1979–88. description ends , 3:54, 56–58).

4The New-York Gazette: and the Weekly Mercury for 1 March included a report of 27 Feb. that described burned “Rebel stores” at Gov. William Livingston’s home as consisting of “above 100 barrels of Flour, salt beef, pork, soap, candles, &c. and 30 puncheons of rum.” Destroyed “in another store,” after supplying immediate British wants, were “between 20 and 30 barrels of flour, with some tierces of beef, and near 1000 loaves.”

5An extract from a letter of 1 March by an unidentified American officer at Elizabeth, published in the New-Jersey Gazette (Trenton) for 3 March, closely parallels Maxwell’s account of this raid (see also Hatfield, Elizabeth, New Jersey description begins Edwin F. Hatfield. History of Elizabeth, New Jersey; Including the Early History of Union County. New York, 1868. description ends , 471–74). Gen. Henry Clinton’s account in memoirs does not mention the capture of Governor Livingston as part of his purpose. “I was tempted,” Clinton wrote, “by the uncommon mildness of the season to beat up the enemy’s quarters. In this view an attempt was made to surprise one of their brigades that lay at Elizabeth Town under a General Maxwell, in the success of which I was much disappointed, as the troops for that service had been drawn from the interior of Long Island and put on shore in the night within three miles only of the town before any alarm could have possibly reached the enemy. But unfortunately some of those untoward accidents to which night movements are liable defeated my purpose, by retarding the progress of the detachment until the whole brigade had time given them to escape” (Willcox, American Rebellion description begins William B. Willcox, ed. The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents. New Haven, 1954. description ends , 117).

6Cornelius Hatfield, Jr., had been appointed a captain in Brig. Gen. Cortlandt Skinner’s Loyalist corps, the New Jersey Volunteers, in February 1779. Both his brother, John Smith Hatfield (1749–c.1800), and William Luce, a ship captain who earlier had spied for the British, recently had experienced the confiscation of their estates by the Patriots (see Bakeless, Turncoats, Traitors and Heroes description begins John Bakeless. Turncoats, Traitors and Heroes. Philadelphia, 1959. description ends , 157, 186–87, and Hatfield, Elizabeth, New Jersey description begins Edwin F. Hatfield. History of Elizabeth, New Jersey; Including the Early History of Union County. New York, 1868. description ends , 388, 468–69). For the later detention of John Smith Hatfield, who went to Canada after the war, see Livingston to GW, 14 May and 24 June 1782, both DLC:GW; GW to Guy Carleton, 10 June 1782, P.R.O. 30/55, Carleton Papers no. 4764; and Carleton to GW, 20 June 1782, DLC:GW.

7A copy of the enclosed casualty return is in DNA:PCC, item 169. It lists one rank-and-file soldier as killed, one lieutenant and three privates as wounded, and one sergeant and eight privates as missing. A British report of 27 Feb. in the New-York Gazette: and the Weekly Mercury for 1 March indicated that “several of the Rebels were seen to fall, and many carried off wounded, a Rebel officer and twenty two prisoners were taken.” Hessian major Carl Leopold Baurmeister wrote in his dispatch of 27 Feb. from New York that the attacking force numbered “twenty-five hundred English infantry” and that “some thirty rebels were taken prisoners, but only a few were wounded or killed. The English, on the other hand, had twelve men killed and one officer and twenty-eight men of the Guards wounded after the magazine and barracks in both towns had been set on fire. Secrecy and order were wanting in this attack. Moreover, the retreat in flatboats did not take place during the high tide. Since the large armed ships could not come close enough to fire artillery and so dampen the rebels’ spirit, we had some men killed after they were already in the boats” (Baurmeister, Revolution in America description begins Carl Leopold Baurmeister. Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776–1784, of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces. Translated and annotated by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf. New Brunswick, N.J., 1957. description ends , 257–58; see also Ewald, Diary description begins Johann Ewald. Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin. New Haven and London, 1979. description ends , 158–59).

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