Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Skirmish at Petticoat Bridge: December 23, 1776

The Skirmish at Petticoat Bridge: December 23, 1776
Written by Rev. Dr. Norm Goos and Earl Cain

What you are about to learn in this story, I hope, will change the way you think about that most famous battle on Christmas night, 1776, forever. The British spy, Barzella Haines reported to the Hessian commander at Bordentown, Col. Carl Von Donop, Barzella said: "They were not above 800 (at Mount Holly), near one half boys, and all of them Militia, a very few from Pennsylvania excepted…He knew many of them who came from Gloucester, Egg Harbor, Penn’s Neck and Cohansey. They were commanded by Col. Griffin."  

Fighting was normally much reduced during the winter months. Winter’s here in New Jersey were brutally cold, with a lot of snow in the years during the Revolutionary War. The Delaware River was clogged with ice flows. But during the month of December 1776, three separate but cooperating groups of Americans were harassing the British troops bedded down in the Trenton area for the winter (Washington’s Crossing - David Hackett Fisher, p. 194). In the North, the Hunterdon County Militia under Gen. Philemon Dickinson was continually harassing the British troops posted at Princeton and other places above Trenton. In the West, General James Ewing’s Continentals and Pennsylvania Militia were staging cross-river raids to harass the guards and patrols sent out by the 1500 Hessians commanded by Col. Johann Rall stationed at Trenton. Col. Griffin's 600 Gloucester and Cumberland Militiamen in the South moved threateningly toward Mount Holly and drew Col. Von Donop’s 3,000 Hessian troops out of Bordentown and to the East. Additionally, the Middlesex County Militia was harassing the British supply lines that stretched from Trenton east to New Brunswick. The British were surrounded by American militia growing angrier by the day. To make matters worse, the most competent British battle commander, General Lord Charles Cornwallis, was in New York packing to leave to go home to London to visit his wife and family until the spring. Maj. Gen. James Grant, who was only a mildly competent leader, to say the least, had taken Cornwallis's place. George Washington's trap for the British was fully baited and ready to be sprung.

Col. Griffin had his troops at Mount Holly on December 17. This made the Hessians in Bordentown nervous and so they began moving part of their troops south toward Mount Holly. The Americans moved north from Mount Holly a few miles to the hills overlooking Petticoat Bridge. Remember, “hills” in South Jersey could be a fifteen foot rise in elevation. As the Hessians continued to move south, Col. Griffin and 600 militiamen attacked them at Assiscunk Creek where it is crossed by Petticoat Bridge on December 21. The place where the skirmish occurred is marked today on Petticoat Bridge Road, about a mile west of where Jacksonville Road crosses Route 206 (GPS 40.05320 -74.74262). The temporarily outgunned Hessian troops withdrew about a mile and awaited reinforcements comprised of the rest of Von Donop’s soldiers. The next day, on December 22, the full Hessian troop complement attacked the American militia which wisely withdrew to Mount Holly. As far as can be proven, only two militiamen from what we now call Atlantic County were wounded at Petticoat Bridge, Private Stephen Ford (this writer’s 4G Grandfather) and Private Simon Lucas; 2 or 3 others were killed. Lt. Isaac Hickman reported in his PA: “While out this time he was engaged in a skirmish with the Hessians in which our forces were beaten with a loss of two or three men killed” (Unfortunately, we do not know the names of these two or three brave men). The Hessian records record that two Hessians and two British soldiers were wounded as well. Pvt. Stephen Ford's PA records: "Sometime after the Battle of Petticoat Bridge, between the Americans and the Hessians, while stationed at the village of Slabtown (Jacksonville), and at a time when this declarant was standing a sentinel, he was wounded in the knee by a Hessian….Being disabled by his wound from active service." On the 23rd, the American militia withdrew from Mount Holly as the Hessians took over the town. Pvt. David Somers wrote in his PA: “We retreated to the bridge in the town (Mount Holly) where we made a stand but were too weak to encounter the army and retreated to Moorestown…” Interestingly enough, these 3,000 Hessian troops had now been drawn far enough east that they could not help Col. Rall’s troops in Trenton when Washington would attack. Ewald claims that over 100 men were killed or wounded in total, counting both sides (Ewald, p. 39).  If the Hessian troops could only be kept in Mount Holly for a few more days!

As the Hessians moved into Mount Holly, most of the town folks moved out. It seems that only one woman stayed behind, a young widow whose deceased husband may have been a relative of a local physician. Col. Von Donop was invited to stay at the house where she was staying and it seems that love (or a reasonable facsimile) kept him there. In the journal of Mount Holly resident Margaret Morris, it was noted: "All the women removed from the town except one widow of our acquaintance." Col. Griffin kept his troops close by to be sure to keep the Hessians’ attention. On December 24 Gen. Washington received the good news about Col. Griffin's successful diversion and completed his plans to cross the Delaware River on Christmas night and attack the Hessian troops stationed at Trenton.  One of Col. Von Donop’s key officers, a Capt. Ewald, recorded his thoughts in his diary regarding these activities. His diary was only found in the 1970s in Germany and was translated into English by United States Army Maj. Joseph Tustin who was a member of the Gloucester County Historical Society. Here is what Capt. Ewald wrote on p. 42: "The Colonel, who was exceedingly devoted to the fair sex, had found in his quarters the exceedingly beautiful young widow of a doctor (he confused the relationship). He wanted to set up his rest quarters in Mount Holly, which to the misfortune of Col. Rall, he was permitted to do…” Page 44 added: “This great misfortune, which surely caused the utter loss of the 13 splendid provinces of the Crown of England, was due partly to the extension of the cord (widely spread troop placements), partly to the fall of Col. Donop, who was led by the nose to Mount Holly by Col. Griffin and detained there by love.” Page 45 concluded: “Thus, the fate of entire kingdoms often depend upon a few blockheads and irresolute men."  

The translator and publisher of Capt. Ewald's diary researched the matter further and found only one widow in the records of the Middle States whose deceased husband was related to a doctor. Her name was Betsy Ross; her husband, John Ross, was from Gloucester County, and the doctor was Alexander Ross. John Ross died early in 1776 (see Joseph Tustin’s article “The Mysterious Widow of the Revolution”.  GCSHB #17: Dec. 1979.)

This is an interesting theory, but it is only a theory, one that at this point can neither be definitively proven nor disproven (however, this story is seen as probably true by both respected historians, Fisher and McGuire). Von Donop's embarrassed troops retreated from Mount Holly to Princeton on December 27.


About the Authors
Rev. Dr. Norm Goos and Earl Cain are members of the Col. Richard Somers Chapter, New Jersey Society, Sons of the American Revolution. During a research effort, thirty pension applications have been uncovered from the men of the 3rd Battalion, Gloucester County Militia. Those pension documents, diaries, and correspondence from George Washington, Col. John Cadwallader, Hessian Captain Johann Ewald, and many more, provide this account of the Battle of Petticoat Bridge. Rev. Goos' 5th great-grandfather, 1st. Lt. Jeremiah Leeds and Earl Cain’s 4th great-grandfather, Pvt. Stephen Ford were in the battle, their words are part of the story.



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