Sunday, January 11, 2015

Places: Somerset Court House

The  area around Somerset Court House in central New Jersey saw an extraordinary amount of Revolutionary War military activity. Reason: it was on the main approach between north Jersey and Princeton, and between Princeton and New Brunswick, a British stronghold in Jersey. Not unexpectedly, the militia around Somerset Court House, now Millstone, New Jersey, saw  action on several occasions. Somerset lay in that "middle area" between the British and American outposts, which had some  quite vicious but little-celebrated fighting. Besides being in a strategic crossroads, the area around Somerset Court House was full of thriving farms with an abundance of crops and animals. During the winter in particular the ground was often frequented by British foraging parties from near by New Brunswick.


After General Washington took Trenton for the second time and fought past the British under General Cornwallis at  Princeton on January 3, 1777, he faced  being caught between Cornwallis and the main the British Army around New Brunswick. But Washington's troops were exhausted after weeks of marching and fighting in extreme weather with inadequate food and clothing. So His Excellency decided to send his beleaguered regiments up the Millstone River valley toward Morristown, which could provide a suitable and secure winter quarters. Morristown was protected by the Watchung Mountains, which could be strongly fortified at the passes to stop a British attack.

 After the rebels fought at Princeton, Washington moved north to Somerset Court House. The advanced guard, part of the Delaware Line, came upon the village of Stone Brook (seat of Somerset Court House)  15 miles up the valley from Princeton, arriving around at twilight. However, the British had already evacuated supplies desperately needed by the Patriots. And the Americans were simply to exhausted to pursue. But within a few weeks, the winter war for forage between both sides would be in full swing and the area around Somerset was one of the prime battle grounds of that campaign.

The Forage War Begins

New Jersey General
Philemon Dickinson
At the urging of General William Maxwell, New Jersey Militia General Philemon Dickinson, and others, Washington  ordered his Continental regiments  and the local  New Jersey militia to engage  British outposts, patrols, couriers and most especially forage parties Washington wanted to to contain, harass and tire the British and Loyalists so they couldn't (or wouldn't) leave the main bases at New Brunswick and Amboy without sending considerable forces of say 1500 to 2000 men. The militia responded to this call with enthusiasm. Thus began a series of actions in the middle of what was normally the quiet time in 18th century warfare. But warfare in North America, especially the war for independence took a different turn.

Battle of Millstone or Van Nest's Mill


On January 20th, 1777, British Lieutenant Colonel Abercromby, with 500 men and several cannon, went on a foraging party towards Hillsborough. American militia patrols spotted them and sent word back to  General Dickinson that "the enemy were out plundering." Dickinson  had around 400 men in hand plus a company of 40 or so Pennsylvania Continental Riflemen under the command of Captain Durkee from the Wyoming Valley. The British were posted at a bridge over the Millstone River, near Abraham Van Nest's mill, about two miles from Somerset Court House. The Millstone ran into the nearby Raritan River. Abercromby had placed three field pieces on a hill, about 50 yards from the bridge to prevent any rebel forces from crossing there. The rivers were covered with a crust of ice and the water beneath, about waist high by most accounts, and of course ice cold.

Millstone River Today

The Action

Seeing the bridge crossing protected,  Dickinson ordered his men down river (towards the Raritan), where they broke through the ice and waded  into the cold waters that reached well above their knees. Dickinson  divided his forces, sending one force to meet the front of the British wagon train, while a second moved to flank them. One wing of the American attack successfully surprised the British wagon train in the lane near Van Nest's Mill, cutting it off before it reached the main road and the bridge toward New Brunswick. Well placed  fire struck horses from the first wagon, halting the train,  Panicked, the wagon drivers scattered. This caused the British to beat a hasty retreat to the bridge, leaving their booty behind. But when the pursuing militiamen reached the bridge, the Hessian rear guard fired grape shot from its artillery to cover the retreat. After an exchange of fire across the river, the British withdrew. As was the case with most such actions,the actual combat was brief. The British taking the brunt of causalities and lost around a dozen prisoners and twice that in killed and wounded. The British admitted that the rebel surprise attack "occasion'd such disorder Amongst the Waggon Drivers that 42 Waggons were left behind." They also lost 104 horses, 115 head of cattle, and about 60 or 70 sheep. Valuable livestock denied the enemy in winter quarters and most needed by the always deprived rebels.

Militias defeat Regulars: How Could this Happen?

This was no major battle or great victory. Yet it proved significant. Stalwart and determined, these once disparaged New Jersey militia men had gained confidence and were less in awe of redcoats and Hessians due to American successes Princeton and Trenton. Even before Trenton, exaggerated reports of enemy depredations across the Jerseys began to stir the fires of revenge and retribution in many (but not all).  This was not the only instance when anger fired up the militia into ferocity against enemy regulars and Loyalists. In fact, it would become a growing theme throughout the remainder of the war. So in many ways, the action at this place called Somerset Court House was a harbinger of greater things to come.

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