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This Day in History: American militia win the Battle of Millstone

On this day in 1777, American militia win the Battle of Millstone. The engagement followed immediately in the wake of George Washington’s unexpected victories at Trenton and Princeton.

After Princeton, both armies retreated: Washington moved toward Morristown, while the British moved toward New Brunswick. It was then that the so-called Forage War began! Between January 4 and March 30, nearly 60 small skirmishes were fought, often by the local militia. “These men were inspired by the American victories at Trenton and Princeton,” David Hackett Fischer explains, “and they were angry about the [British] occupation of New Jersey.” Militia “attacked where they saw an opening, killed a few Regulars, and disappeared into the countryside. Each success encouraged more militia to take the field.”


There was another motivation for these skirmishes, though: supplies. Washington needed supplies, of course, but he also wanted to stop the British from getting supplies for themselves. Washington wrote to Congress: “Our Accounts still confirm [the Enemy’s] want of Forage, which I hope will increase. If their Horses are reduced this Winter it will be impossible for them to take the Feild in the Spring.”


These efforts paid off. One Hessian commander wrote that “it is a bitter task to obtain the necessary forage, for the rebels keep a sharp watch on our foraging. From four to five English miles from here they have left nothing more on the farms that can be delivered to us.”


One notable engagement occurred on January 20. A British foraging party had taken supplies from the farm and gristmill of Abraham Van Nest. The foragers were on their way back to New Brunswick when they ran into American forces. First contact between the British and Americans was likely made near Millstone River by troops in two Wyoming independent companies. These companies were soon reinforced by 400 militia and 50 riflemen led by General Philemon Dickinson.


British artillery were defending the bridge, so Dickinson’s men had to cross the still icy river in waist deep water. Cold and wet, they emerged on the other side and engaged the British forces in a 20-minute battle. Accounts vary a bit, but a letter in one Philadelphia newspaper reported: “In order more effectually to prevent our men from crossing, the enemy had placed three field pieces on a hill, about 50 yards from the bridge, when our men found it impossible to cross there, they went down the river, broke through the ice, waded across the river up to their middles, flanked the enemy, [and] routed them . . . .”


As the British retreated, they left behind the supplies they’d obtained. Dickinson later reported that “[we] brought off 107 horses, 49 wagons, 115 cattle, 70 sheep, 40 barrels of flour–106 bags and many other things.”


Not only this battle, but also other skirmishes in the Forage War proved important, although you do not hear much about them. They were morale boosters for Americans who had spent much of 1776 being chased out of New York and across New Jersey. And they were equally demoralizing for a British army that had once thought it would easily squash our bid for independence.


Primary Sources:

David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (2004)

John U. Rees, “The road appeared to be full of red Coats . . .”: An Episode in the Forage War: the Battle of Millstone, 20 January 1777 (Military Collector & Historian: Journal of the Company of Military Historians; Spring 2010)

Letter from George Washington to John Hancock (January 12, 1777)

Letter from George Washington to John Hancock (January 14, 1777)

Letter from George Washington to John Hancock (January 17, 1777)

Steven M. Richman, The Battle of Millstone (Journal of the American Revolution; October 22, 2014)

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