George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Arthur St. Clair, 11 February 1780

From Major General Arthur St. Clair

Springfield [N.J.] February 11. 1780


The Enemy made an incursion into this State this Morning about an hour before Day, in three different places from Staten Island, and one from Paulas Hook—A par⟨ty of a⟩bout three hundred commanded by Colonel Simcoe ⟨lan⟩ded at Woodbridge—A small party in Raway Neck,1 & the most considerable Body at DeHarts Point, and marched to Elizabeth Town—The Guards at Elizabeth Town and Woodbridge were timely aprised of their approach; and retreated to some little distance from both these Posts, and were not attacked—& have sustained no other loss than having each one Man wounded.

I have not been able to asscertain the Force of the party that came to Elizabeth Town. The two Persons that were made prisoners there seem extreemly ignorant of it, and had followed the Troops in order to plunder.

There Numbers are said to have been two Thousand, which is improbable, but from General Sterling and General Skinners both being with them, they must have been considerable[.] A Number of Houses in the Town have been stript of every thing, and ten or twelve of the Inhabitants carried Off—The Party at Woodbridge committed no outrage of any kind upon either the Persons or Houses of the Inhabitants, but carried off about thirty Head of Cattle.

Their principal aim seems to have been the Guard, and missing of that they staid a very short time. On their retreat they were followed by the Horse Patroles, some of the Militia, and the Troops, who say they wounded several but none were left on the ground. The party that landed at Raway, in a very obscure place, plunder⟨ed⟩ two houses and carried off two Men, and seem to have had no other object—But the surprising a party of fifty Men seems too triffling to have been the design of so large a Party as that at Elizabeth Town—Whatever it may have been the finding the Guard so alert probably induced them to desist. The party from Paulas Hook consist’d of about three hundred Horse, and landed at Hackinsack.

The Person I had sent to New York, and who had been detain’d at Paulas Hook, inconcequence of Orders, the day before, to suffer no person to go ⟨out,⟩ came over with them2—They proceeded some distan⟨ce into⟩ the Country, and from the rout they persued he thi⟨nks in⟩tended to have pass’d the Cedar Swamp, and were very perticular in their Inquiries, about the situation of your Quarters, and where I was quarter’d and the guards that were posted betwixt Hackinsack & Morris Town—He says perticularly that after marching some way into the Country, he heard an Officer ask the Commandant where they were going—He replyed, he could not tell them that but they had more than Thirty Miles to March that Night—That in a short time after this, finding the Snow very deep & the Roads not broken they returned and he was dismissed.

If their design was an attempt upon your Excellencys Quarters, the other partys were intended to direct our attention from that Party of Horse that were to have marched upon our left Flank, and I hope you will pardon me for hinting that there is not a sufficient Body of Troops near enough, to render you secure.

Had they been designed to have fallen upon our Rear which they might have done, they had Troops enough to have given us full Occupation, and them the Opportunity.

But supposing either of them it is difficult to account for their retiring so soon without even attacking the Elizabeth Town Guard, which was not above a quarter of a Mile out of Town.3

The Person from New York says that the East River is still open; & in general gives the same account of the situation of the Shipping, Guards and Quarters of the General Officers as I had the honour to transmit to your Excellency in a former Letter.4

His account of Paulas Hook is not an accurate one It consists of a pretty large Redoubt, with a smaller one within it capable of containing about One hundred & fifty.

The Barracks about ten Rods without the Works, which are5 Abbatied to the land side, but not to the Water, and not one peice of Cannon planted that Way—that the Garrison consists of about Six hundred Men, from which they Detach daily a serjeants Guard to the Green Island, about a Mile from the Hook and lower down the River—and that they have ceased to send the Reinforcement I mentioned before for some days.6

I have had no authentic Intelligence from Staten Island for some days, and indeed it is very difficult to obtain—T⟨he⟩ Inhabitants in general cry out so much a⟨gainst⟩ Morris Hatfield that I have not employed him and they are all affraid of being detected by his Brothers on the Island—I expect however to hear from thence by tomorrow Night and if it is of concequence will transmit it immediately to your Excellency—I still think Busquorqua7 Corps may be taken Off. I am Sir Your most Obdet servant

Ar. St Clair

LS, DLC:GW; ADfS, O. The text in angle brackets, where the LS is mutilated, is taken from the draft.

1Rahway Neck also was known as Tremley Point (see Map 4).

2St. Clair had been waiting for the return of this spy since 7 Feb. (see his letter to GW of that date; see also his letter to GW of 10 Feb.).

3Two days later, deputy quartermaster general James Abeel provided GW’s aide Richard Kidder Meade with further details on this attack. Abeel’s letter to Meade, dated 13 Feb., reads: “The following Intelligence was given me this day by a Person from Elizabeth Town & I believe may be depended on as fact—Vizt:

“That a Party of between 4 & 500 Horse and three thousand foot under the Command of Genl Gray crossed Powle’s Hook on thursday last [10 Feb.] and marched as far as the West end of Colo. Schuylers Swamp and intended to march on to Morris Town by Way of the Notch, the light Horse were to endeavour to bring off his Excellency, & the foot to take the Rout towards Chatham to support the Horse if they succeeded in their interprize and to bring off a Number of Cattle belonging to the Publick in their Rout which are at Horse Neck—Genl Skinner & Coll Stirling to cross with about 2000. men at Elizabeth Town & Colo. Simcoe with 300 Horse & some foot to cross at Raway to draw our attention that way, but the Snow being so deep in the Swamp that Genl Gray cou’d not advance a Sennal by 5 Rockets was given to Genl Skinner that it was not possible to advance & by Skinner with 5 Rockets from the Bridge at Elizth Town to Simco, which occasioned their return to Statin Island & the other Places they crossed, 10 or 12. P[ieces] of Artilery lay in readiness at Deckers Ferry to be transported to DeHarts Ferry—That all the Inhabitants on York & A part from Long Island were embarked & had recd Amunition & Cloathing & were to guard the City—that 87. Sleds had Crossed from New York this day Week to Statin Island with Amunit[i]on and Provision, that the River was passable on the Ice from Powles Hook to Long Iland—that all or most of the B[r]ittish Troops were come off from Long Island to N. York & Staten Island, that 3000 Men were on Staten Island—he brought me 3. Papers but one has been taken away & the Other two you will herewith recieve, I make no doubt his Excellency has long err had this Intelligence but fear he shou’d not I now send it.” GW docketed the letter (DLC:GW). Maj. Gen. Charles Grey had returned to England in November 1778.

Capt. George Beckwith, aide-de-camp to Lt. Gen. Wilhelm von Knyphausen, after learning that GW was quartered some distance from the main army encampment at Jockey Hollow, formulated this plan to “carry off” GW (Simcoe, Operations of the Queen’s Rangers, description begins John Graves Simcoe. Simcoe’s Military Journal: A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps, Called the Queen’s Rangers, Commanded by Lieut. Col. J. G. Simcoe, during the War of the American Revolution . . .. 1844. Reprint. New York, 1968. description ends 131). The attempt to surprise and capture GW was the primary objective of the raid; all other attacks were diversionary, as Knyphausen made clear in his report to Gen. Henry Clinton. In his report for 7 Feb., Knyphausen stated: “General Washington, having taken up his Quarters at a distance from his Army, under the protection of a small Corps of Infantry, it appeared practicable to surprise that Body, with Cavalry and to penetrate to the neighbourhood of Morris Town; to favor this Incursion by different Movements into Jersey, to take place at the same time, seemed not only requisite but eligible in other respects, it was intended, to strike at Perhumus [Paramus, N.J.], where the Rebels had between Two & Three hundered Men, by Marching a Corps from Kingsbridge; to carry off their advanced Post at Hackinsac by crossing with a small Body near Fort Lee, to attack a Detachment of about Three hundered Men, Cantomed [cantoned] at Newark Mountain Meeting[house] by a movement from New York; and to endeavour to surprise the Rebel Posts, at Cranes Mills, Elizabeth Town, Raway and Woodbridge by different Movements from Staten Island: One hundered and Twenty Dragoons were to cross the North River from the City of New York, to penetrate by a particular Route to the Neighbourhood of Morris Town and in their Retreat to fall back upon a Body of Infantry, posted at Newark Mountain Meeting to receive them: Detachments of the 17th Dragoons were drawn from Long Island by crossing at Whitestone and the Cavalry of the Queens Rangers marched from Staten Island to New York, upon the Ice.” Knyphausen indicated that the “general Incursion into Jersey” would have taken place on the night of 8 Feb., but “a sudden fall of Snow and Rain put a Stop to the Movement.” On 9 Feb., Knyphausen received intelligence that the Continental outposts at Newark Mountain Meetinghouse and Paramus had been withdrawn, and he presumably canceled those attacks. In his report for 10 Feb., Knyphausen recorded: “A Body of Cavalry passed into Jersey, but were obliged to return after a march of between five and Six miles; the Snow which fell the 7th & 8th Instants, having rendered the Roads impassable: Detachments passed this Night from Staten Island, into Jersey; but the Rebels having got alarmed in different places, the Troops soon after returned to their respective Cantoonments” (Knyphausen’s report, 1 Jan.–24 Feb. 1780, MiU-C: Clinton Papers).

The objective of the raid was generally known in the city. New York printer Hugh Gaine wrote in his journal entry for 11 Feb.: “The Light Horse and Regiment of Foot went out last Night, with a Design as was said, to surprise G. Washington at Morris Town, but they all returned in Half an Hour after they set off, the Weather proving unfavorable” (Ford, Journals of Hugh Gaine, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed. The Journals of Hugh Gaine, Printer. 1902. Reprint. [New York] 1970. description ends 2:80).

The force of 300 cavalry that attacked from Paulus Hook and Hackensack, N.J., was the main attack designed to seize GW. This force, including the hussar company of the Queen’s Rangers and the 17th Light Dragoons, has assembled at New York between 8 and 9 February. The corps probably was commanded by Lt. Col. Samuel Birch or Maj. Oliver De Lancey, the field officers of the 17th Light Dragoons. The thrusts by forces from Staten Island, under the command of brigadier generals Cortlandt Skinner and Thomas Stirling, were, as Knyphausen indicated, diversionary attacks designed to draw attention from the main attack force. Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe of the Queen’s Rangers attacked Woodbridge with 200 infantry but no cavalry. Simcoe stated in his journal that the mission of the cavalry force to capture GW became “impracticable” because freezing rain encrusted the top of the snow and cut the fetlocks of the horses (Simcoe, Operations of the Queen’s Rangers, description begins John Graves Simcoe. Simcoe’s Military Journal: A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps, Called the Queen’s Rangers, Commanded by Lieut. Col. J. G. Simcoe, during the War of the American Revolution . . .. 1844. Reprint. New York, 1968. description ends 134).

Local newspaper accounts focused on the plundering of Elizabeth, N.J., by Stirling and Skinner’s corps. The 16 Feb. edition of The New-Jersey Gazette (Trenton) reported of this raid: “On Thursday night last [10 Feb.] the enemy, under the command of Generals Stirling and Skinner, visited Elizabethtown entirely upon a plundering party.—Among other houses, they plundered Doctor Barnet’s, Messrs. William P. Smith, William Herriman, Matthias Halsted and Doctor [William] Wynantz [Winants]; the two former in a most barbarous manner. The house of Mr. Smith they searched throughout for Mr. Elisha Boudinot, who they thought was concealed there; but fortunately both he and Mr. Smith lodged out of town.—After terrifying the women and children, they heroically marched off with their plunder and five or six prisoners. Thus is the British army reduced to mere marauding parties,—our army or fortresses they durst not attack; but if a town is left with women and children in it, their valour is certainly displayed there.”

The New-Jersey Journal (Chatham) of 16 Feb. reported: “On Friday morning last [11 Feb.] the enemy, consisting of about six hundred, made another excursion from Staten-Island to Elizabeth Town and Rahway. The guards in town were too vigilant to be surprized, and too few, being only a Captain’s guard, to make any effectual resistance. The enemy were commanded by the nominal General Skinner, whose cruelty was equal to his known cowardliness. Women and children were stripped with every mark of unrelenting barbarity, and received not only threats but blows. In some houses, elegant looking glasses, and other furniture, which they could not carry off, were wantonly dashed to pieces. The town has not before suffered so much by plundering since the beginning of the war. No regard was paid to the condition of widows or aged persons. An aged widow who was blind, and not any way connected with the war, was stripped and plundered with insults and awful threats. Some inhabitants are of opinion that General Stirling, who commands upon the Island, was in town, which is improbable, from the cruelty of the expedition, which seems to have had no other object than plunder, to provide a supply for the needy Skinner, and his low and abandoned companions. Protection was granted by Skinner to a few of his particular friends; and, after a short stay, he retired, carrying off seven of the inhabitants, who have since returned on their paroles.”

For more on these raids, see Ford, Journals of Hugh Gaine, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed. The Journals of Hugh Gaine, Printer. 1902. Reprint. [New York] 1970. description ends 2:79–80; Simcoe, Operations of the Queen’s Rangers, description begins John Graves Simcoe. Simcoe’s Military Journal: A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps, Called the Queen’s Rangers, Commanded by Lieut. Col. J. G. Simcoe, during the War of the American Revolution . . .. 1844. Reprint. New York, 1968. description ends 130–34; and Freeman, Washington, description begins Douglas Southall Freeman. George Washington: A Biography. 7 vols. New York, 1948–57. description ends 5:147.

5The previous two words are written in the margin in a different hand.

6For St. Clair’s previous mention of this reinforcement, see his letter to GW of 7 February.

7St. Clair wrote “Busquerques” on the draft. For St. Clair’s proposal to attack Lt. Col. Abraham Van Buskirk’s battalion, see his letters to GW of 2 Feb. (letter 1 and letter 2); see also his letter to GW of 4 February.

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