"The story was more tangled than the under plot of a Spanish tragedy. It involved three marching American armies (plus a patchwork 4th) , two quarreling Hessian colonels, one incompetent British commander, and a beautiful widow in the village of Mount Holly."
Washington's Crossing, p.182
by David Hackett Fisher
Colonel von Donop sat at his desk and stared out of the window. It was almost Christmas and it was snowing, again. But, all was in order with his command. His soldiers, a mix of British battalions and German auxiliaries from Hesse-Kassel, were secure in their winter quarters. Burdenston, a sleepy crossroads with only one decent tavern, that didn’t have any domestic animals in its yard. The Colonel’s musing was interrupted when his adjutant burst in, “Mein Herr, the patrol has returned. Major Stirling, commanding the Highlanders at Blackhorse, reports rebel activity to his front. Here, sir … Mount Holy.”
“Mein Gott. When will these people realize that they are beaten? Doch! Have 1st Battalion fall in immediately with full marching order.”
Earlier that month Colonel Sam Griffin had crossed the icy, swollen Delaware under the very noses of the British. He had received orders from General Putnam in Philadelphia, to cross into New Jersey. He was to gather intelligence on British strength and readiness all along General Howe’s line. However, should any targets of opportunity present themselves, he was to use his own best judgement. The American battle group was comprised of Virginia artillerymen and New Jersey militia, civilian volunteers who undertook to arm and equip themselves. These men and boys were bolstered by regular Pennsylvania infantry. A little less than six hundred souls.
Passing through Moorestown, on the 21st of December, Griffin’s forces reached Mount Holly without incident. They wasted no time, a fortified redoubt was constructed on the Ironworks hill, south of the Rancocas creek. A Hessian guard post had been detected three miles north of the town, at the Petticoat bridge. Griffin’s next order to his men was to advance and reduce it. American fire rapidly overwhelmed the German defenders, who were able to withdraw. All that was needed now, was to wait for the British to react.
The next evening, the 22nd an important message arrived from General Washington, in the person of Captain Joseph Reed. The briefing that he presented to Colonel Griffin, outlined Washington’s coup de main, the American assault was imminent. That he, Colonel Griffin and the forces under his command would support the main action, by conducting a local diversion. That is to say, a deadly distraction to attract the attention of the British at Blackhorse (Columbus) and the Hessians at Burdenston.
Griffin understood the gravity of this request and quickly agreed, although feeling unwell and knowing how poorly supplied his companies were. His only request was for some pieces of field artillery, which he received. A couple of modest three-pounders, light and maneuverable, but no match for anything that the Royal Artillery would be bringing.
The American attack on the Hessian guard post, had its effect. On the morning of the 23rd, Colonel von Donop had quick-marched his Hessians to Blackhorse and joined forces with the Major Stirling and his British infantry. These were hard men, seasoned veterans, the 42nd
Highland Regiment. Raised in the spartan glens of Scotland, and in no mood for a bunch of disloyal pig farmers and ungrateful store clerks.
Von Donop’s force numbered about three thousand, this would include cavalry as well as artillery. The resulting firefight at the Petticoat bridge was brief. With no reports of any serious casualties on either side, Sam Griffin and his volunteers were able to fall back in good order to the town. Where, for the rest of the day, the Americans fought a running battle with the British. Delaying the inevitable, Griffin and his men fought house to house, and street to street, in order to keep the British forces engaged. The Volunteers and Townspeople endured withering musket volleys from the infantry. Excited artillerymen fired Round shot and Cannister, that whistled up and down High street causing random death and destruction.
Jager Captain Johann Ewald, commanding a Hessian sharpshooter company, reported that, “Some hundred men held a line on the hill, by the church. But, they retired quickly when their line was broken by our artillery”. According to Ewald, the Highlanders and Hessians wasted no time in celebrating their victory. Many homes were broken into and any liquor found, was liberated. Ewald used his time to find suitable accommodation for his Commanding Officer, Colonel von Donop. The Doctor’s house was deemed suitable, its only occupant being, the late Doctor’s beautiful widow.
Finally, as the low winter sun slid behind the Ironworks hill the shattered town became still. The Americans slipped out and filed into their prepared positions, behind the Rancocas. After a restless night the Townspeople awoke to a blistering cannonade. A Christmas Eve duel, between the British on the slopes of the Mount and the Americans ensconced by the Iron Works. Only when von Donop was satisfied that the Rebel positions had been sufficiently softened, would he order his infantry to advance to contact. When the Hessians crested the hill, bayonets flashing, they discovered that the American position was abandoned. Their foe had gone, before dawn. Back to the river and safety.
Accounts of the action were inflated by both sides, and real casualties only numbered between ten and twenty. The real impact came the next day when General Washington’s attack fell on the Hessian Barracks in Trenton like a hammer blow. Major Stirling’s Highlanders and von Donop’s Hessians were woefully out of position. They had been drawn too far south, and unable to support the Hessian Colonel Johann Rahl and the main Garrison. Colonel Rahl was shot twice through his side and died that day, bleeding in the snow with a great many of his men.
The American cause did not die, but instead received better support and a much-needed boost to its morale. Our town’s involvement in this Historic engagement became a chapter in a much greater story. One of courage and sacrifice that defines the American Revolution.
Sean W. Martin (British Army Retired)
Funding has been made possible in part by the New Jersery Historical Commission/Department of State and the Burlington County Board of Chosen Freeholders, Department of Resource Conservation, Division of Parks.
by Adam E. Zielinski
In the looming days of December 1776, the American Cause for independence faced its greatest threat: disillusionment from within. The Continental Army was in tatters, and General George Washington knew that unless drastic measures were taken, the game would be ‘pretty much up’ by year’s end. Learn of the lesser known skirmishes that took place immediately prior to the famous crossing of the Delaware River that produced victory at Trenton on December 26, and why these developments around Mount Holly, some only now we’re becoming aware of, had consequential impacts on Trenton, the American Revolution, and American history.
Mr. Zielinski is a writer and historian native to Mount Holly. He has been published with the Journal of the American Revolution and with the American Battlefield Trust where he writes educational materials for the K-12 curriculum. His research work contributed to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia’s new exhibit on Women’s Suffrage and Voting in New Jersey 1776-1807. He is a member of the NJSSAR and the Rev War Alliance of Burlington County. His first book, a biography on British mapmaker John Hills, is currently finding a publisher. You may find him online at allthingsliberty.com ; battlefields.org ; and adamezielinski.substack.com
by Alicia A. McShulkis
by David Price
The victories achieved by the American cause from December 25, 1776 to January 3, 1777 in the war for independence from Great Britain were the product of bold and imaginative leadership on the part of George Washington and his fellow generals, miscalculation by the enemy, and the fortuitous effects of weather as it related to the movement of troops and battlefield conditions. But those storied triumphs were also due to the heroic feats of people less well known to history who remain the “unsung heroes” behind our nation’s struggle for independence during its darkest days.
A historical interpreter at Washington Crossing Historic Park in Pennsylvania and Princeton Battlefield State Park in New Jersey, David is a contributing author to the Princeton Battlefield Society’s An American Revolution Diary, and his work has been recommended on various websites relating to the Revolutionary War.
David has spoken at numerous book lecture and signing events hosted by: multiple chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Sons of the American Revolution in Pennsylvania and New Jersey; the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum; the New Jersey State Library; the Old Barracks Museum; the Friends of Washington Crossing Park; the Nassau Club in Princeton, NJ; the Princeton Public Library; the Trenton Free Public Library; the North Jersey American Revolution Round Table; the American Revolution Round Table of South Jersey; the American Revolution Round Table of Northern Delaware; Historic Rock Ford, the home of Revolutionary War hero Edward Hand; the Historic Morrisville Society; and the Lawrence Historical Society.
David holds degrees in political science from Drew University and Rutgers University—New Brunswick, and was a nonpartisan research analyst with the New Jersey Legislature for thirty-one years. He is a member of various national and local organizations relating to the Revolutionary War—including the Friends of Washington Crossing Park, the Museum of the American Revolution, Crossroads of the American Revolution, the Old Barracks Association, the Princeton Battlefield Society, the American Battlefield Trust, and the American Revolution Round Table of South Jersey—and lives in Lawrence Township, NJ (known as Maidenhead at the time of the Revolution).
by Don N. Hagist
The First Full Account of the Men Who Came to America to Defend an Empire
Redcoats. For Americans, the word brings to mind a occupying army that attempted to crush a revolution against king and country. For centuries these soldiers have remained hidden despite their major role in one of the greatest events in world history. There was more to these men than their red uniforms, but the individuals who formed the ranks are seldom described in any detail in historical literature, leaving unanswered questions. Who were they? Why did they join the army? Where did they go when the war was over?
In Noble Volunteers: The British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution, Don N. Hagist brings life to these soldiers, describing the training, experiences, and outcomes of British soldiers who fought during the Revolution. Drawing on thousands of military records and other primary sources in British, American, and Canadian archives, and the writings of dozens of officers and soldiers, Noble Volunteers shows how a peacetime army responded to the onset of war, how professional soldiers adapted quickly and effectively to become tactically dominant, and what became of the thousands of career soldiers once the war was over.
In this historical tour de force, introduced by Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Atkinson, Hagist dispels long-held myths, revealing how remarkably diverse British soldiers were. They represented a variety of ages, nationalities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and many had joined the army as a peacetime career, only to find themselves fighting a war on another continent in often brutal conditions. Against the sweeping backdrop of the war, Hagist directs his focus on the small picture, illuminating the moments in an individual soldier’s life—those hours spent nursing a fever while standing sentry in the bitter cold, or writing a letter to a wife back home. What emerges from these vignettes is the understanding that while these were “common” soldiers, each soldier was completely unique, for, as Hagist writes, “There was no ‘typical’ British soldier.
DON N. HAGIST is managing editor of the Journal of the American Revolution. An expert on the British army in the American Revolution, he is the author of many books and articles, including British Soldiers, American War: Voices of the American Revolution (Westholme 2012) and The Revolution’s Last Men: The Stories Behind the Photographs (Westholme 2015). He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
Join us for a Revolutionary Day!! A Zoom presentation commemorating the 244th anniversary of the Battle of Iron Works Hill. The speaker's schedule if on the Battle of Iron Works Hill page, The Zoom link is below.
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Meeting ID: 839 6020 4823
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Meeting ID: 839 6020 4823