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THE way of the historian is hard. When I was asked by the Daughters of the American Revolution to tell them of some battle of revolutionary times occurring in New Jersey in the month of March, I thought that the task would be easy, and that I could without difficulty find the record of some important conflict which marked the month of storms. I busied myself in history, searched eagerly for information in the numerous biographies of Washington, thumbed my well-worn copy of Lossing's Field Book, and pored diligently over Barber and Howe's Historical Collections, with their amusing illustrations and amazing text; but I was unable to discern anything remarkable about the month of March in the way of New Jersey battles. Many thrilling events came to pass and many valorous deeds were done in those days in the old Province of Nova Caesarea, but they all seem to have happened in some other month. Why March? Is it because Caesar was killed on the Ides of March of which the soothsayer bade him beware? Is it because, by some impulse which defies explanation, the fathers decreed that every President of the United States should assume his office on the Fourth of March? It is a most unjustifiable day, coming in an inclement and disagreeable season; an inconvenient day, a ridiculous day. The fathers did many wonderful things and their choice of Inauguration Day is not the least marvellous of their performances. I will admit that they were almost infallible, — although they used to quarrel among themselves very much after the fashion of modern statesmen — but I venture to suggest that they fell into lamentable error about Inauguration Day. Surely they should have been more considerate if they had anticipated the fatal colds which dignitaries in future years would contract in doing homage to the coming chief. Washington City is very pleasant in the later spring, and Congress might well amend the law if it can spare the time from enacting legislation about railways, rivers and harbours, and the awful trusts which trouble so many easily worried people.

In despair, I feared that I might be compelled to draw upon my imagination and invent a battle; but I hesitated lest I should share the fate of the ambitious school boy who, in competition for the prize offered "for the best composition" presented the following essay:

I will tell you the story of George Washington. He was born February 12, 1726. He was educated at West Point and, after graduating, served in the Mexican War. When the French and India War broke out, he was made Captain and General and Major, and performed many important services. In 1759 he resigned and married Miss Martha Augusta and lived on his estate at Mount Vernon. In 1743 he was elected President and took an active part in public affairs. He fought many battles, and finally captured General Lee and his whole army, April 19, 1865. He finally surrendered at Yorktown and the war ended in 1760. He served two terms as President but refused to serve a third time having taken a severe cold from a ride in the rain. He died at Mount Vernon, aged sixty-seven.

This reads very much like a newspaper obituary notice or a sketch from the pages of Who's Who.

I come back to my quest of a battle. Although it receives its name from the god of war, the month of March was not a battle month in the Revolution. In March, 1776, I note the fights at Hutchinson Island, Georgia, and at Nook's Hill, Massachusetts; in 1777, there were Perth Amboy, Punk Hill, and Westfield, New Jersey, and Wood's House and Peekskill, New York; in 1778, there was Thompson's Bridge, New Jersey; in 1779, Briar Creek, Georgia, and West Greenwich, Connecticut; in 1780, Paramus, New Jersey; in 1781, Clapp's Mills and Wetzel's Mill, and Guilford, North Carolina; in 1782, Morrisania. New York, and Tom's River, New Jersey. There were also the two I intend to relate briefly. They were all minor engagements, and no one but the antiquary ever heard of them, except Guilford.

It is sufficient for me to speak of two small fights — or, more accurately, of one fight and one massacre — which took place in March, 1778 — the skirmish at Quinton's Bridge, March 18, and the attack at Hancock's Bridge, March 21. Both of them occurred in Salem County, New Jersey. They are described in Barber and Howe's book, the account being taken from Johnson's History of Salem — books which seldom meet the eye of any one save the collector of Americana.

Towards the close of February, 1778, a detachment of British troops came down the Delaware from Philadelphia, then the headquarters of King George's army, to Salem, thirty-five miles away. There were five hundred men, commanded by Colonel Abercrombie of the Fifty-Second Regiment. Their purposes were predatory, and they plundered at will; they were also spying out the resources of the country. After a few days, they returned by water, as they had come, carrying their booty with them.

On March 17, 1778, a force selected from the Seventeenth and Forty-fourth Regiments, mostly Scotchmen, numbering between twelve hundred and fifteen hundred, went down the river under the command of Colonel Charles Mawhood of the Seventeenth, aided by Majors Sims and Simcoe. They encamped at Sharptown, and next morning they marched into Salem, expecting to surprise Colonel Anthony Wayne, who had charge of the militia in that part of New Jersey. They could not catch that wary fox napping, and he declined to be taken unawares. As soon as Mawhood held Salem, the Loyalists, or Tories, gathered about him, and made up two companies, who, that they might not be mistaken for Regulars, wore a uniform of green, faced with white, and cocked hats with a broad white binding; and they were known as "Greens." From them he learned that there were about three hundred militia at Quinton's Bridge, posted on the south side of Alloway's Creek, under Colonel Benjamin Holmes; and he resolved, as he said, "to chastise the insolent rebels," as he was pleased to call the American people, "for daring to show resistance to his Majesty's arms." He robbed the farmers of horses enough to equip a troop.

Holmes was not to be taken by surprise any more than Wayne, and he made such preparations as he could to meet the enemy. On March 18th, before daylight. Major Simcoe with his battalion advanced to a point about half a mile from Quinton's Bridge, and there in a swamp and in the woods on the bank of the creek, and also in a two-story brick house and a barn, the main body hid, thus forming an ambuscade, which later on proved to be fatal to many of the militia. When the arrangements were completed, a few of the red-coats and some of the light-horsemen came out, riding and marching down the road in a taunting manner, behaving as if they were challenging their foes to a contest.

Captain William Smith, of the Second Battalion of Salem militia, was in command. His men were aroused to anger, and were eager to attack the provoking British. They had been instructed to hold their ground and defend the bridge. But a little Frenchman, Lieutenant Decoe, persuaded Smith to go over and ''drub the insolent rascals." Smith got on his horse and called to his men, who with more courage than wisdom, and wholly unsuspicious of the trap, rushed after him, across the bridge, in a disorderly column, with no attempt at military order. Smith called on his men to hurry, saying, "We will have them before they get to Mill-hollow," — a ravine about two miles from the bridge. So on they went, militia-like, more a mob than an army,— looking not in the barn, or the house, or in the swamp, but childishly pursuing what they believed to be a fleeing foe. Scarcely had they passed the house, when from house and barn and from behind fences poured a withering fire. Smith was brave enough, and he vainly strove to rally his men; but their surprise was complete, and he could not form them into line. Out came the light horsemen from the woods, but now the rebel horses, with loyal attachment to the American cause, refused to advance. They did not like the noise of combat and they punished their captors by declining to go to the front. The militia, fighting in small squads, retreated across the bridge, with a loss of between thirty and forty men.

The loss would have been greater had not Colonel Elijah Hand, of the Cumberland militia, arrived most opportunely. He had been informed by Holmes of the arrival of the British in Salem, and hurrying to Quinton's Bridge, reached there with his regiment just as the battle was at its height. Occupying the trenches which Smith's men had unwisely abandoned, he poured such a fire upon the British that their advance was checked. His two pieces of artillery did good service.

Just here was displayed a signal act of bravery which deserves especial mention. Private Andrew Bacon, after the militia of Smith had crossed the bridge, seized an axe and set himself to the task of cutting the draw so that the enemy could not effect a passage. He persevered in his chopping, under a fierce fire, until the draw was destroyed; and then as he retreated to the trenches he received a wound which made him a cripple for life; but he was past eighty years when he died. His heroism completely saved the day. Unable to cross the bridge, the British gave up the fight and retired to Salem.

Mawhood was chagrined, and determined to send Simcoe forward the next day with all the men who could be spared from Salem. Holmes and Hand resolved that "no British soldier should eat bread or set his foot" on their side of Alloway's Creek, as long as there was a man left to defend it. During the remainder of the day and that night they strengthened their position and arranged their plans. At ten in the morning the British advanced in battle array, their bands playing, in order, Chinese fashion, to intimidate their rustic antagonists. Holmes had placed his men in their intrenchments in such a way that he could fire upon the invaders from the front and on both flanks. In their effort to gain the bridge, the British were so assailed by musketry and by the two invaluable pieces of artillery, that they were thrown into confusion, and very soon abandoned the fight and retreated again to Salem.

Mawhood now renewed the congenial occupation of plundering the farmers, in which he was more successful than he was in actual warfare. A day or two after his repulse, he addressed to Colonel Hand a characteristic and impudent letter. The fatuity of the ordinary English officer during the Revolution passeth all understanding. After his decisive repulse, he says, with a mighty self-assurance, "Colonel Mawhood * * * proposes to the militia at Quinton's Bridge and the neighborhood, the officers as well as private men, to lay down their arms and depart, each to his own home." He proceeds to promise, if that be done, to go back without further depredations and to pay for the cattle, hay, and corn which he has taken. If his proposal is declined, he announces his purpose to attack, to burn and destroy the houses of the citizens, and to "reduce them, their unfortunate wives and children, to beggary and distress," and he adds a list of the names of those who "will be the first objects to feed the vengeance of the British nation."

A silly and stupid creature this Mawhood; a type of the slow-witted English officer of his day and generation; one of the dull and pompous martinets who vainly supposed that they could overcome a brave and intelligent people by waving a sabre and crying out "Disperse, ye rebels, disperse! " The reply of Hand was dignified and determined. After calling attention to the inhumanity exhibited at the battle of the Bridge, he says: "Your proposal that we should lay down our arms, we absolutely reject. * * * Your threat to wantonly burn and destroy our houses and other property, and reduce our wives and children to beggary and distress, is a sentiment which my humanity almost forbids me to recite, and induces me to imagine that I am reading the cruel order of a barbarous Attila, and not of a gentleman, brave, generous, and polished, with a genteel European education." I wish that I could quote the whole letter, for it is marked by a simple eloquence and a wonderful calmness of tone under severe provocation. Mawhood did little to carry out his threats, but what he did was characteristic.

There were about four hundred militia at Hancock's Bridge, and Mawhood conceived the plan of making a night attack upon them. Major Simcoe, with a force of regulars and Tories, was sent for the purpose, with orders to "spare no one— put all to death— give no quarter." The British were carried by boats for a part of the way, and after a short, rapid march, reached their destination to find that the militia had departed, with the exception of a small guard quartered in the house of Judge Hancock. Entering the house, they quickly mastered the little force, and killed the Judge, a few noncombatant Quakers, and the guard of some twenty-five. But few escaped or were made prisoners. Most of them were slaughtered as they slept, or murdered as they vainly endeavored to save themselves, for the deed was nothing short of murder, the killing being wholly unnecessary. After this valiant performance, the plunderers went back to Philadelphia, carrying the fruits of their robberies.

Years later Simcoe — who became lieutenant governor of Upper Canada — attempted in his "Journal" to excuse his butchery, and to take great credit to himself for his achievement, saying airily of his slaughter of non-combatants — "Events like these are the real miseries of war." Of the final withdrawal of the troops from Salem County, he says: "The enemy, who were assembled at Cohansey, might easily have been suppressed, but Colonel Mawhood judged, that having completed his forage with such success, his business was to return, which he effected." True enough; he went forth to steal, and his success lay in that enterprise, not in honourable warfare. If he had been a soldier, and not a mere marauder, he could easily have overwhelmed with his superior numbers and his well-drilled soldiery the raw and undisciplined troops of Holmes and Hand. In fact, he failed miserably.

The affair at Hancock's Bridge was really not a fight; it was a massacre. But the story of the Salem expedition reveals the courage and patriotism of the citizens of New Jersey. The motto "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" applies as well to those farmer boys with their fowling pieces as to the trained soldiers of the Continental line. Trivial as these contests seem in comparison with the struggles of great armies in the war 1861-1865, they speak to us of the bravery and fortitude of our ancestors, and kindle in our hearts an admiration for those sturdy patriots who lived in "the times that tried men's souls."

Source: Published privately, In the Olden Days: Papers, Colonial and Revolutionary, at the Literary Collector Press, c1905, Greenwich, Connecticut

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