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)