Saturday, April 28, 2012

1777: The Forage War, Vol I.


Charge Bayonets, The depleted Virginia regiments, short on officers, were often consolidated
to form provisional units or employed in detachments during the Forage War, supporting reconnaissance and
outpost actions by Pennsylvania and New Jersey Militia.

          There are two pictures of battle in the 18th century.  On one hand the regular battalion in line:  close ordered ranks, officers to the front, colors centered, section fire on command.   On the other hand, the myth of the embattled farmer:  skulking behind trees and rock walls, bounding away in a loose and open order.  The truth lies somewhere in the middle.  It certainly was the discipline of the Continental Line that won decisive victories, however, when we consider the major actions or set piece battles in the French and Indian War or the American Revolution there are actually very few.   Instead conflict predominantly involved small unit actions which set conditions for the decisive actions (involving divisions or armies) to take place.  Consider the year 1777: Princeton, Short Hills, Brandywine,  and Germantown in the New Jersey/Pennsylvania Theater.  Four set piece battles involving divisions or higher took place in the theatre (althought some of Washington's troops were sent to New York to participate in Oriskany, Bennington, Saratoga [Freeman's Farm and Bemis Heights]).  Only two of these Battles achieved the tactical decision that Washington sought:  Princeton and Saratoga.   The point is that the American Revolution, like it's predecessor, the French and Indian War, was a small war ( petit guerre or partisan war, in the parlance of the time).   It was this style of making war that set the conditions for the decisive battles of every campaign.  
          During that same year of 1777, while the Continental Army was in winter quarters in the hills of Morristown, New Jersey, there were numerous strings of small unit actions involving both regular and irregular, or partisan, troop formations.  From the hills of Morristown, Washington was able to control the roads heading from New York to Pennsylvania between the Passaic and Raritan rivers.  If the Crown forces were to make a move from Manhattan or Staten Island, they must cross directly through his patrols.  If Howe moved to attack Philadelphia from Amboy and New Brunswick, he would leave Washington in his rear, effectively cutting British lines communication and supply with New York.[1]   Instead, Howe's redcoats sat on the coast of New Jersey, foraging and awaiting better weather for the spring campaign.  From January to July there were at least nine engagements in the vicinity of  the village Quibbletown alone, ranging from contact between foraging parties to battalion and brigade sized skirmishes [2].

The Seat of the Forage War:  The Province of Jersey..., by Von Ewald, Bloomsburg Univ. Archives [3]
           We have an excellent record of the partisan "Forage War" of 1777 from the diaries of Jaeger Captain Johann Von Ewald and his contemporaries, letter-books, orderly books, and other primary sources.  Ewald describes these small unit actions in detail,

          "On the 12th [January] we received information that the enemy was marching towards Quibbletown and Bound Brook, and from this time on we patrolled constantly in those areas...The jaeger post now became quite serious, since Bound Brook and Quibbletown were less than an hour's march away.  The teasing now occurred daily, and when they did not visit us, we rendered the honors to the Americans.  Not only did the men have to stay dressed all day and night, but they had to be kept together, the horses constantly saddled, and everything packed."[4]

         This constant contact between Continentals, Crown forces, and Patriot and Loyalist militia happened by design on the part of Washington.  In order to give his exhausted army time to recuperate after the successful winter Trenton-Princeton campaign, Washington would launch a partisan war to spoil any effort for the Crown forces to consolidate, forage for supplies, and destroy the tiny Patriot army at Morristown, or to take Philadelphia and the rebel Congress...

[1] Dixon and Hunter, Virginia Gazette, No. 1352, 11 Jul 1777, (1).  Colonial Williamsburg Rockefeller Library Archives.
[2] West Jersey History Project,, accessed 26Apr12.
[3] Bloomsberg University Archives,, accessed 26Apr12.
[4] Von Ewald, Johann, John Tustin, trans., Diary of the American War,  Yale University Press, New Haven and London1979. (p. 52).

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