This Day in History: “Give ’em Watts, boys!”
On this day in 1780, the Battle of Springfield is fought. The conflict was “one of the crucial turning points of the War for Independence,” as noted by historian Thomas Fleming, despite the fact that it has been “largely ignored by most historians of the American Revolution.”
To be honest, Americans should have lost the battle, and the Revolution probably should have ended right there. But the Patriots got a lucky break! It turns out that British General Henry Clinton was a bit paranoid. He didn’t trust his subordinates as much as he should have, and the resulting lack of communication crippled the British effort.
Clinton had a good plan for a two-pronged attack on George Washington, then at Morristown. He would attack Washington from his current position in the South. In the meantime, he wanted Hessian Lt. General Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen to attack from New York.
The plan would have worked so much better if only Clinton had told Knyphausen.
Instead, Knyphausen was on his own in New York, and he decided to take action. He, too, knew that Washington’s army at Morristown was not doing well. The army had barely survived a very tough winter, but now many soldiers were deserting. On June 6, Knyphausen launched an attack, marching his soldiers out of Staten Island into New Jersey.
The strength of the resistance in that state shocked Knyphausen. The New Jersey militia came out in full force, and they managed to hold back the British army long enough for Washington to maneuver into better position.
Many unsung sacrifices were made that day. One New Jersey Mayor watched his son—a member of the militia—get bayoneted mere yards from his home. A reverend’s wife died as she tried to protect her children in the back room of their home. Sadly, the shot was taken by mistake. A British soldier saw a shadow and thought she was an American sniper.
The fighting finally broke for the night, but Knyphausen planned to resume his attack the next day. His efforts were halted when he received a message that Clinton was en route. For two weeks, he waited for the British General. Mild skirmishes ensued, but no major fighting broke out.
In the meantime, Washington became concerned that the British were about to attack West Point. He left to personally oversee an effort to bolster the post, and he left the “fighting Quaker,” Nathanael Greene, behind with a force of men.
The British attacked again on June 23. The battle that followed that day was long and hard fought. It reflected the much more controlled and disciplined nature of the Continentals by this point in the war. And it showed the dedication and perseverance of the New Jersey militia.
The Americans were badly outnumbered. They engaged in a series of fights, followed by orderly, fighting retreats. Greene had a planned last stand on the heights overlooking Springfield. He’d buttressed this strategy by adding reinforcements—and a cannon! However, after a long day of fighting, Knyphausen declined to participate in that final engagement. Instead, he ordered the nearby town of Springfield burned.
You won’t be surprised to hear that every house burned except some houses belonging to Loyalists. Once the town was set ablaze, the British retreated.
It was an American victory, but it didn’t feel too much like it. The countryside was ransacked. Most of a town was gone. The cost of the war was plain for all to see. If only those Americans could have known that the end was not too far away.
The victory at Yorktown was only 16 months away.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
American Revolution: The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document Collection (Spencer C. Tucker, ed. 2018)
Benson J. Lossing, The Pictorial Field-Book of The Revolution (1860) (Vol. 1)
Edward G. Lengel, The Battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield, 1780 (2020)
Thomas Fleming, The Battle of Springfield (NJ Historical Commission, 1975)