22 February 2012

The Capture of the "Blue Mountain Valley"

On 21 January 1776, the New York Committee of Safety learned of a British transport in distress off the coast of Sandy Hook, New Jersey.[i]  Near five o’clock on the morning of the 22nd, William Alexander, Lord Stirling received word of the troubled ship through a letter from the Committee and immediately set off for Amboy.  Described in the letter as “A galley-built ship” of between three and four hundred tons, it had “yellow sides, blue quarter-boards, with the trophies of war painted on the quarter-boards” and “six three-pounders on the quarter deck” with about twenty men on board,[ii] capturing the ship would be a blow to the British and make for a rich prize.  Upon receiving this news, Stirling immediately set out for Amboy.  Upon arriving there, he seized a pilot boat, and by two o’clock in the morning on the 23rd he set off with about forty men.  As he pushed off, three other boats from Elizabethtown, with about 120 men under the command of Colonels Elias Dayton and Edward Thomas, joined him.  The men set off for the British ship, which was about six leagues[iv] from shore, southeast of Sandy Hook.  By 10 o’clock in the morning the colonials had boarded the Blue Mountain Valley, commanded by Captain James Hamilton Dempster, without opposition.  Stirling gave command of the ship to a Mister Rogers, a sea captain.  Due to contrary winds, it took until the 26th for the ship to come in to shore.[v] 
The Blue Mountain Valley arrived at Elizabethtown Point where Lord Stirling and his troops placed it under guard until the New York Committee of Safety was able to take it under their care.  The captain and crew - numbering at least sixteen men - were given parole in the town.  The ship, which had sailed from London on 13 October 1775, carried coal, porter, and various foodstuffs, and was destined for the British soldiers in Boston.[vi]  Instead of assisting the British, the ship and its cargo were sold at public auction by the Americans on 18 March 1776.[vii]

[i] A pilot had apparently captured a man from the transport and reported back information about the ship to the New York Committee of Safety (American Archives Series 4, Volume 4, “New York Committee of Safety to Lord Stirling,” 21 January 1776, 796).  Sandy Hook is a narrow strip of land that projects northward from the Jersey coast, towards New York City, covering the southern end of New York Bay.  The main ship channel ran almost east to west, close to the northern end of the Hook.  This land was the only solid ground approaching the Harbor where fortifications within cannon range could be established. Whoever commanded Sandy Hook, therefore, commanded the entrance to New York Harbor.  Though it is probable that fortifications existed at Sandy Hook as early as 1680, it is certain that it was fortified by the British by the spring of 1776 (The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence.  Alfred T. Mahan, D.C.L., LL.D., Captain, US Navy.  Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1913, 65; and Sandy Hook and the Land of the Navesink.  Samuel Stelle Smith.  Monmouth Beach, NJ: Philip Freneau Press, 1963, 18). 
[iv] The actual distance of a league varied over time and location.  In English-speaking countries it is generally estimated to be about three miles.
[v] Naval Documents of the American Revolution Volume 3, 1775-1776.  Ed. William Bell Clark.  Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968, 959; and History of Elizabeth, New Jersey, Including the Early History of Union County.  Rev. Edwin F. Hatfield.  New York: Carlton & Lanahan, 1868, 422.
[vi] In the same letter as above, Ogden wrote that the Manifest, dated 30 September 1775, showed “107¼ chaldrons of coal, 30 bundles of hoops, 100 butts of porter, branded—‘Calvert,’ 225 bags of beans, 156 sacks of potatoes, 10 casks sour-krout, 80 live hogs, and 35 empty puncheons, for water,” shipped by Mure, Son, and Atkinson, of London.  (History of Elizabeth, New Jersey, Including the Early History of Union County.  Rev. Edwin F. Hatfield.  New York: Carlton & Lanahan, 1868, 423).
[vii] Documents Relating to the Revolutionary History of the State of New Jersey. Vol. I.  Extracts from American Newspapers. 1776-1777.  ed. William S. Stryker.  Trenton: The John L. Murphy Publishing Co., 1901, 68.

18 February 2012

Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence representing New Jersey - Part 2


            Little is known about the early life of John Hart.  Even the date of his birth is in question.  The earliest claim is about 1707 while the latest appears to be 1714.[i]  All sources agree that his birth was in the small coastal town of Stonington, Connecticut and that he moved with his parents at an early age to Hopewell Township in Hunterdon County, New Jersey.  Young John became a farmer and married Deborah Scudder in 1740.[ii]  The couple would have thirteen children - helpers on their 380 acre farm in Hopewell.[iii]
            Hart entered into politics in 1761, at which time he became a member of the Provincial Assembly of New Jersey.  He served in this capacity until 1771.  Hart also served as a judge in the Hunterdon County Courts from 1768 until 1775, despite his lack of schooling in law.  He opposed the policies of the royal government and attended the New Jersey Provincial Congress from 1774 to 1776, and was elected Vice President of that body on 16 June 1776.  During this time, Hart also served as a member of the Committee of Safety on two separate occasions.[iv]  About the time of his appointment to Vice President of the New Jersey Provincial Congress, Hart and four others were chosen to replace the New Jersey delegates at the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia.  Hart arrived in time to vote for independence, and signed the Declaration of Independence in August before returning to New Jersey.[v]
            Upon his return to New Jersey, Hart was elected to the state’s first General Assembly under their new constitution, where he accepted the speakership.  Hart was forced to flee very soon thereafter, however, as the British marched across New Jersey, chasing General Washington’s army to the Delaware River.  The British captured Patriots and destroyed property along the way, and Hart did not escape their wrath.  Hart’s family escaped and he went into hiding in the hills surrounding his land until the Battles of Trenton and Princeton had been decided in favor of the Americans, and the British army was vanquished from that part of the state.  When Hart returned to his estate, he found his house standing, but much of his property was otherwise destroyed.  Furthermore, Hart learned that his wife had taken ill in his absence and died.[vi]
            Hart remained in the service of his country as speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly until 1778, while simultaneously serving on the New Jersey Council of Safety.  He retired in ill health and died shortly thereafter, on 11 May 1779, at Hopewell.  Hart is buried at the Baptist Meeting House in Hopewell, New Jersey.  An obituary published in the New Jersey Gazette of 19 May 1779 noted that his death was “regretted and lamented” and that his character and contributions would “ensure lasting respect to his memory.”

The grave marker of John Hart in the Baptist Meeting House Cemetery in Hopewell, New Jersey.
                                                                                                                      Photos by: Dan Silva

[i]  The earliest claim is found on the website Colonial Hall, on the page John Hart by John Vinci, http://colonialhall.com/hart/hart.php (accessed February 18, 2012) while the latest is found in Lossing, Benson J. Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859 on page 87.

[ii] National Park Service. Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence - John Hart. July 4, 2004. http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/declaration/bio17.htm  (accessed February 18, 2012).

[iii] Cunningham, John T. Five Who Signed. Trenton: NJ Historical Commission, 1975; 17.

[iv] Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress. http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=H000288 (accessed February 18, 2012) and Cunningham, 17.

[v] National Park Service.

[vi] Ibid.

13 February 2012

Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence representing New Jersey

Fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  Of those 56, five represented the state of New Jersey.  Those men - Abraham Clark, John Hart, Francis Hopkinson, Richard Stockton and John Witherspoon - did not live nearly long enough thereafter to witness the creation of the country which their declaration had made possible.  The following sketches of their lives are meant to be brief; much of the information gathered for their presentation was found in sources which pre-date the Civil War (the more recent publications simply take from these eariler publications as well).  The sketches are by no means comprehensive, but they are a composition of the information obtained from earlier sources and arranged together in a single location.


from Cunningham's book

Abraham Clark was born in Elizabethtown, New Jersey (present-day Roselle) on 15 February 1726, the only child of Thomas Clark and Hannah Winans.  He grew up on his father’s farm, becoming a surveyor and a lawyer (though he was never formally trained or accepted as the latter).[i]  Clark married Sarah Hatfield (also spelled Hetfield) in 1748 and fathered ten children over the course of their marriage.  Two of Clark’s sons, Aaron (1750 - 1811) and Thomas (c. 1755 - 1789), served the Patriot cause during the war.[ii] 
            Clark held the office of sheriff of Essex County (among others) under the royal government, but around the year 1774 he became openly defiant against the British.  Because of his patriotic zeal, he was elected as a member of the First Provincial Congress of New Jersey in May 1775.  Clark was also elected to serve New Jersey at the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia.  After signing the Declaration of Independence while serving in the latter Congress, Clark wrote to his friend, Colonel Elias Dayton, “It is gone so far that we must now be a free independent State, or a Conquered Country.”[iii] 
            Clark had no intentions to be conquered, though.  He served the Continental Congress until 1778, and returned from 1780 - 1783 and 1786 - 1788.  In between, he served in the New Jersey State Legislature.  In 1786, before leaving the State Legislature, Clark, who was a slave-owner, sponsored a bill titled “An Act to prevent the Importation of Slaves . . . , and to authorize the Manumission of them under certain Restrictions and to prevent the Abuse of Slaves.”  Though the bill passed, Clark’s slaves were only freed upon his wife’s death in 1804.[iv]
            Clark was one of only 12 men to attend the Annapolis Convention, where he again represented New Jersey.  Although the men only met from 11 - 14 September 1786, they called for all of the states to be represented in a meeting to be held in May in Philadelphia.  This resulted in the Convention which drew up the U.S. Constitution.  Clark was elected to the New Jersey Convention to the Constitution, but did not attend due to ill health.[v]  Clark was opposed to the U.S. Constitution until a Bill of Rights was added.  He was elected to the Second and Third Congresses, serving until his death (from sun stroke) on 15 September 1794.  His obituary, which appeared in the 17 September issue of the New-Jersey Journal read, in part:
On Monday last, very suddenly, the Hon. Abraham Clark, Esq. member from this State, to the Congress of the United States, in the 69th year of his age. In the death of Mr. Clark, his Family has sustained an irretrievable loss, and the state is deprived of a useful citizen, who, for forty years past, has been employed in the most honorable and confidential trusts, which he ever discharged with that disinterestedness, ability, and indefatigable industry, that redounded much to his popularity.
Clark was buried in Rahway Cemetery in Rahway, New Jersey.  His stone reads:
                        Firm and decided as a Patriot
                        Zealous & faithful as a servant to the public
                        He loved his country & adhered to her cause
                        in the darkest hours of her struggles
                        against oppression
The graves markers of Abraham Clark (r.) and his wife, Sarah (l.) in Rahway Cemetery in Rahway, New Jersey.
Photo by: Dan Silva

[i] Cunningham, John T.  Five Who Signed.  Trenton: NJ Historical Commission, 1975; 18.
[ii] Both sons served in General Henry Knox’s Artillery Regiment under Captain Daniel Neil’s Eastern Company, New Jersey Artillery.   Both men mostly likely served in the Battles of Trenton and Princeton.  Thomas spent time as a prisoner aboard the retched prison ship Jersey.
Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence (DSDI), “Abraham Clark.” , accessed 13 February 2012.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Clark and his wife owned three slaves.  Ibid.
[v] Lossing, Benson J. Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence.  New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859; 192.

02 February 2012

Captain William Leslie's Grave

There is a small white church located on a U.S. highway nearly at the intersection of two Interstate highways in northern New Jersey.  There, a small Scottish flag flies over an easily missed gravestone in a small churchyard.  This stone was erected by an American Founding Father over the burial plot of an officer in the British Army during the Revolution.

William Leslie was born in 1751, the son of David Leslie, the sixth earl of Leven and the fifth earl of Melville in Scotland.  He arrived in Britain’s North American colonies as a lieutenant in the 17th Regiment of Foot in time to witness the British and Hessian attack on Fort Washington in New York. He joined General Charles Cornwallis on 27 November 1776 on his march across New Jersey in pursuit of Washington’s retreating army.  Leslie went into winter quarters with the rest of his regiment expecting a quiet winter.

George Washington, fearing the dissolution of his army and the end of the revolution, made a desperate attempt to turn the tides of war.  On the night of 25 December 1776, his army crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey and marched to Trenton – in the dark and in a sometimes violent snowstorm.  The result was an astounding surprise victory over the Hessian soldiers stationed in the small town.  Though Washington quickly took his prisoners and escaped back over the Delaware to Pennsylvania, he received reports that Trenton had not been reoccupied, and so he re-crossed the river with his army and occupied the town.  On 2 January 1777 General Cornwallis took the bulk of his army from Princeton and marched to meet Washington at Trenton.  Those left behind included the British 17th, 40th and 55th Regiments. 

After a day of skirmishing and a tense defense of the bridge over the Assunpink in Trenton, Cornwallis was unable to enter the town.  He ordered Colonel Charles Mawhood, commanding the forces left behind, to bring up 800 of his men to Trenton in the morning, when he planned to resume his attack on Trenton.  Washington had other plans, however, and secretly marched away at night, sending his army towards Princeton. 

As morning broke, General Hugh Mercer’s column and Colonel Mawhood’s detachment of the 17th and 55th (the 40th was left behind to guard Princeton) were surprised to see each other near the Stony Brook Bridge.  Nearly simultaneously, about 120 Pennsylvania and Virginia riflemen of Mercer’s force with another 200 just to their rear and the men of the 17th – with Capt. John McPherson commanding the left, Capt. Francis Tew the center, and Captain Leslie the right – charged toward an orchard on the Clark property.[1] 

The British fired first once they reached a fence about fifty yards from the American position.  Mercer quickly returned fire and the right flank of the British suffered the most from it.  Mawhood quickly ordered a bayonet charge and the Americans scattered, but not before General Mercer was struck from his horse and mortally wounded.  Gen. John Cadwalader, with one thousand Pennsylvania militiamen, quickly moved up to fill the void left by Mercer’s men, but they were also repulsed.  As the British began to gain the advantage, Washington himself rode up to reorganize and encourage his men. 

It was then Mawhood’s turn to retreat.  The Americans surrounded and captured a number of British soldiers, though others fled to New Brunswick or to meet Cornwallis on the road to Trenton.  Knowing Cornwallis was en route, Washington quickly surveyed the field of battle with his aides.  Viewing some British soldiers supporting an officer, the Americans approached to find Captain Leslie.

Though reports of his death are conflicting, Leslie was wounded near the beginning of the engagement.  Three men of his regiment, Lieutenant William Armstrong, Surgeon Andrew Wardrop and Peter McDonald reported that Leslie died immediately from two gunshot wounds – “one in the Heart, and the other on the same side, lower down.”[2]  Doctor Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who was with Washington’s army at this time, was acquainted with Leslie and his family.  The two men had been classmates at the University of Edinburg when Rush was gaining his medical education and has visited the family’s estate.[3]  Rush asked, and Washington granted, Rush’s request to watch over the young man, hoping to “return, in however small degree, a part of the obligation, I owe to his worthy family for the many kindnesses received at their hands while a student at Edinburgh.”[4]

Washington’s tired army began a march to the protection of the heights of Morristown as Cornwallis neared Princeton.  On their march to winter quarters, the American army halted at the small village of Pluckemin (a part of Bedminster Township today) on 5 January.  About midday, Captain Thomas Rodney of Delaware and about forty men from his regiment attended the funeral of Leslie in the churchyard of a small Lutheran church in order to bury Leslie with the honors of war, requested of Washington by Doctor Rush.  Along with Rodney and Rush, American Generals Thomas Mifflin, John Sullivan Henry Knox and George Washington himself attended.  Washington also permitted the captured British officers to be present at the funeral.[5] 

After the war, Doctor Benjamin Rush had a brown headstone erected, much to the happiness of the family of the brave young Captain William Leslie.  Though the original stone has been replaced, it bears the same epitaph.  The stone reads:

In Memory of the
Hon.ble Capt.n WILL.M LESLIE
Of the 17th British Regiment
Son of the Earl of Leven
in Scotland.
He fell Jan.y 3.d 1777 Aged
26 Year at the battle of
His friend Benj.n Rush M.D. of
hath caused this Stone
to be erected as a mark
of his esteem for his WORTH
and of his respect
for his noble family

This is how a small Scottish flag came to fly over an overlooked gravestone in a small churchyard on a U.S. highway nearly at the intersection of two Interstate highways in a small northern New Jersey town.

[1] Sheldon S. Cohen, “Captain William Leslie’s ‘Paths of Glory,’”  New Jersey History, v. 108, no. 1-2, spring/summer 1990; page 71.
[2] This was from MacDonald’s report.  Wardop reported that Leslie “no sooner received the shots than he instantly expired without a groan” while Armstrong only reported that Leslie “fell in the first fire.”  All reports are from ibid, 74.
[3] Doctor Samuel D. Grass, Lives of Eminent American Physicians and Surgeons of the Nineteenth Century, Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakistan, 1861; page 26. 
John Witherspoon, another signer of the Declaration of Independence and the President of Princeton University, also knew Leslie’s parents.  Before coming to the colonies he was a preacher in the small Scottish town of Paisley near their estate.
[4] Abraham Messler, Centennial History of Somerset County, Somerville, NJ: C.M. Jameson, 1878; page 78.
[5] Andrew D. Mellick, Jr., The Story of an Old Farm, Somerville, NJ: The Unionist Gazette, 1889; pages 385-6.