“a large number of Hessians were advancing”

Continuing the account of MARGARET HILL MORRIS of events during December 1776 when she and her children were living with her sister in the small town of Greenbank, New Jersey on the Delaware River, where British, Hessian and American troops were active:

11th. After various reports from one hour to another of light-horse approaching, the people in town had certain intelligence that a large body of Hessians were come to Bordentown, and we might expect to see them in a few hours. About 10 o’clock in the morning of this day, a party of about 600 men [American militia] marched down the main street. As they passed along, they told our doctor and some other persons in the town that a large number of Hessians were advancing and would be in town in less than an hour. . . . On the first certainty of their approach, J. L. [John Lawrence] and two or three others thought best, for the safety of the town, to go out and meet the troops. He communicated his intention to one of the [American] gondola captains, who approved of it and desired to be informed of the result.

The gentlemen went out, and though the Hessian colonel spoke but little English, yet they found that, upon being thus met in a peaceable manner on behalf of the inhabitants, he was ready to promise them safety and security, to exchange any messages that might be proper with the gentlemen of the galleys [commanders of the American naval vessels]. In the meantime he ordered his troops to halt. They remained in their ranks between the bridge and the corner of Main Street, waiting an answer from on board. J. L. and T. H. [T. Hulings] went down to report what had passed, and told Captain Moore [leader of the American militia] that the colonel had orders to quarter his troops in Burlington that night, and that if the inhabitants were quiet and peaceable and would furnish him with quarters and refreshment, he would pledge his honor that no manner of disorder should happen to disturb or alarm the people. Captain Moore replied that, in his opinion, it would be wrong in such a case to fire on the town, but that he would go down and consult with the [American] commodore and return an answer as soon as might be.

Accepting the offer of Loyalist Dr. Jonathan Odell to act as an interpreter (both men spoke French), the Hessian colonel gave these instructions.

He desired the doctor to tell the gentlemen of the town to the same purport as above, with this addition: that he expected there would be found no persons in the town in arms; nor any arms, ammunition, or effects, belonging to persons that were in arms against the king, concealed by any of the inhabitants; that if any such effects were thus secreted, the house in which they were found would be given up to pillage; to prevent which it would be necessary to give him a just and fair account of such effects, which account he would forward to the general, and that if we acted openly and in good faith in these respects, he repeated his assurances, upon the honor of a soldier, that he would be answerable for every kind of disorder on the part of his troops. They remained in profound silence in their ranks, and the [Hessian] commandant with some of his officers came into town as far as J. L.’s, where they dined, waiting the [American] commodore’s answer.

A mini-flotilla of American war vessels patrolled the Delaware River during the winter of 1776-1777. Morris often described them. In the illustration of armed vessels on Lake Champlain in October of 1776 are examples of both galleys and gondolas. GALLEYS, such as the Washington (second from left) were round-bottomed, two-masted vessels, designed to be rowed or sailed, carrying up to ten long guns. GONDOLAS, such as the New York (third from right) were narrow flat-bottomed, single-masted boats, also designed to be rowed or sailed, carrying a small number of guns. (The vessel at center is the schooner Royal Savage.)

. . . [T]he commodore had received intelligence of a party of Hessians having entered Burlington . . . and had ordered up four galleys to fire on the town wherever any two or three persons should be seen together. Captain Moore met and hailed them . . . but the wind was so high that he was not heard or not understood. The four gondolas came up, and the first of them appearing before the main street, J.L., T.H.,and W.D. went down upon the wharf and waved a hat—the signal agreed on with Captain Moore for the boat to come ashore and give the commodore’s answer in peace. To the astonishment of these gentlemen, all the answer they received was first a swivel shot. Not believing it possible this could be designedly done, they stood still, and J.L. again waved his hat and was answered with an 18 pounder. Both these fires, the gondola people have since told us, were made with as good aim as could be taken, as they took it for granted it was at the Hessians they fired. However, as it was impossible to conjecture that such conduct could have happened or to suspect such a mistake, ’tis no wonder the town was exceedingly alarmed, looking upon it in the light of a cruel as well as unprovoked piece of treachery.

Upon this news, the [Hessian] commandant rose calmly from table, and his officers with him went out to eight or ten men who had come to the door as a small bodyguard. He turned to the doctor as he went into the street and said he could easily dispose of his people out of the possibility of danger, but that much mischief might be done to the town and that he would take a view of the gondolas and see what measures might be necessary on his part, but that he should be sorry to be the occasion of any damage or distress to the inhabitants. He walked down the street and sent different ways three sentinels in Indian file together to view and report to him what they saw.

These being now and then seen at different times induced the people on board [the naval vessels] to believe that the houses were full of Hessians, and a cannonade was continued till almost dark in different directions, sometimes along the street, sometimes across it. Several houses were struck and a little damaged, but not one living creature, either man or beast, killed or wounded. About dark the gondolas fell down a little way below the town, and the night was passed in quiet.

While all this tumult was in town, we, on our peaceful bank, ignorant of the occasion of the firing, were wondering what it could mean, and unsuspecting of danger, were quietly pursuing our business in the family, when a kind neighbor informed us of the occasion and urged us to go into the cellar as a place of safety. We were prevailed on by him to do so, and remained there till it ceased.

The quoted passages are from National Humanities Center, 2010: nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/. “The Revolutionary Journal of Margaret Morris of Burlington, N.J., December 6, 1776, to June 11, 1778.” The illustration by C. Randle is also from this source.

posted December 17th, 2015 by Janet, CATEGORIES: American soldiers, British soldiers, Hessians, Loyalists, Morris, Margaret Hill, New Jersey


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