On this day in 1778, a contingent of New Jersey militia wins a victory at the Battle of Quinton’s Bridge. Well, sort of. The victory was barely won, and it came at a heavy price. Just a few days later, the British would return to massacre more people, including some pacifist Quakers.
It couldn’t have felt too much like a victory?
At the time, George Washington’s army was in winter quarters at Valley Forge and the British army was in Philadelphia. Both armies sometimes foraged for food and supplies in nearby New Jersey—and they tried to stop the foraging efforts of the other side. In March 1778, British Colonel Charles Mawhood was leading one of these expeditions.
Mawhood captured the town of Salem on March 17. Once there, he learned that some local militia were stationed at nearby Quinton’s Bridge. The militia hoped to keep Mawhood from crossing Alloways Creek; they also intended to protect their cattle herds from British foragers.
Mawhood decided to “chastise the rebels.” He would lay a trap for those New Jersey militia!
On the morning of March 18, Mawhood sent British troops to conceal themselves in and around a house near the bridge. He also purposefully sent a small contingent within view of the Patriot militia. Could he lure the Americans into thinking they had the advantage?
If only the militia had realized that they were looking at more than just a small group of British foragers.
One French officer reportedly urged the senior American officer then present, Captain William Smith, to lead the militia across the bridge and “drub those insolent rascals.” When Smith saw the small British group apparently retreating, he thought he had the British right where he wanted them. He ordered his men to replace the planks that they’d taken from the bridge earlier. He was ready to pursue the would-be foragers!
The British retreat was a hoax, of course. The larger British force soon emerged from hiding and encircled the New Jersey militia. The Americans were badly outnumbered and now their retreat back across the bridge was blocked, too.
A handful of militia tried to cross the creek without using the bridge, but they drowned. More probably would have been killed but for the timely arrival of American reinforcements, led by Colonel Elijah Hand.
Some said Hand’s arrival was providential.
Mawhood ended up retreating, but he soon returned to the area. On the evening of March 21, his men attacked militia who were sleeping at Judge William Hancock’s house. Hancock himself was a pacifist Quaker and a Loyalist, but his home had been commandeered by the Patriot militia. The pacifist and his brother would be bayoneted to death along with the others.
As these events unfolded, Mawhood demanded that Hand surrender. If Hand refused, Mawhood promised to “burn and destroy” local homes and “reduce them, their unfortunate wives and children to beggary and distress.”
Despite the massacre on the 21st, Hand still would not comply, instead calling Mawhood’s demand a “cruel order of a barbarous Attila.” Such threats, he told Mawhood, would simply harden the resolve of the Patriots.
“We have taken [arms] up to maintain rights which our dearer to us than our lives,” he concluded, “and will not lay them down till either success has crowned our arms with victory, or, like many ancient worthies contending for liberty, we meet with an honorable death.”
Determination. Honor. Courage. How AMERICAN.
Arthur Dudley Pierce, Smugglers' Woods: Jaunts and Journeys in Colonial and Revolutionary New Jersey (1960)
Benson John Lossing, The Pictorial Field-book of the Revolution (1850)
David F. Burg, The American Revolution (2009)
John Warner Barber & Henry Howe, Historical Collections of the State of New Jersey (1846)
Patricia A. Martinelli, New Jersey Ghost Towns: Uncovering the Hidden Past (2012)