When Sir Henry Clinton woke up on the morning of June 24, 1780, his first thought must have been, "What happened?" How had a militia of farmer boys and men, aided by a few hundred regulars, been able to turn back 5,000 British soldiers with superior arms and experience?
Historians are still debating that question. "Why" they ask, "were so many attacks made on Springfield and vicinity, and then no effort made to push on through?" The situation at Morristown was desperate and the might of the British Army would have prevailed eventually, if they had continued to press.
Perhaps one good reason for the Americans' showing that day is that they were madder. In the mind of every man must have been a picture of his house being burned and his wife murdered. Indeed, a letter written just before the battle states the prevalent feeling:
(General William Irvine to his wife)
"In Camp at Short Hills June 18, 1780" "The enemy is still at Elizabethtown Point 10 miles from here ... We have been here 13 days without tents or baggage, no covering except boughs of trees and bark, but that is cool and pleasant in the heat of the day ... You may think your situation happy indeed my love when compared with that of the poor people of this part of the country. It grieves me beyond expression to see their distressed situation particularly that of the women and children. Murder and rapine await them wherever these barbarians come."
About this time the women and children were sent for safety to Round Hollow on the farm of William Reeve in what would now be Livingston. So it's little wonder then that the men fought with all the fury of which they were capable. The Hessians and other mercenaries on the other hand, who made up the bulk of the British army before Springfield, had been paid to kill, but not to be killed. Their hearts, perhaps, were not really in it. At lease two boys, the VanWert brothers, deserted that day, and hid until after their companions had left the area. They are supposed to have hidden in the attic of the Reeve house (now 155 Millburn Avenue, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Harvey Kahn). Another version of the old story says that they hid in the barn on the Stephen Meeker farm on Glen Avenue near Farley Road, but the house at 155 Millburn Avenue has long been known as "The Hessian House", and majority opinion gives that house the distinction of hiding the boys on the night of June 23, 1780.
As with the "Old Sow" and "Washington Rock" arguments, we take no sides, but present the two versions for the interest they hold. In any event the VanWert boys settled and married here, and are supposed to be the ancestors of many of that name in this locality.
The name "Van Wert" has been questioned because of its Dutch suggestion. Actually, mercenary soldiers were sent by their rulers from all over Europe. It was one way for a ruling prince to augment his treasury by hiring out his men to any foreign power which might want them. There was at that time, of course, no German Empire. The soldiers who fought for the British in the Revolution came from Westphalia, Waldeck, Hesse, Prussia, Jagern and other places. Westphalia and Holland adjoin. In border towns family names commonly share the nationality of the two countries so that there is no discrepancy about such a surname as VanWert, if that was the name. All these hired soldiers were loosely referred to as "Hessians", although only a part of them actually came from Hesse.
That "boys will be boys" even in the American Army awaiting an attack, comes to us in the diary of a youth of about 18 years of age who ran away from his classes at Yale to join a Connecticut Regiment. He lived to publish his Journal called "A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier," by Himself. He eventually found himself in camp waiting for the battle, on the mountain in a place "called the short hills", near Springfield. (Probably in some part of the present South Mountain Reservation). To while away the time, he and his young companions found some high and springy birch, walnut, and hickory saplings, 50 or 60 feet high, growing on the edge of a deep gully. Climbing the trees as high as possible, they would grasp the trunk and swing out over the gully, and as they gathered momentum would go up and down at a great rate until finally they would bend sufficiently to touch the ground, after which they would jump off and the trees would spring back into position.
One morning, however, he writes, the game did not go so well. We'll let him tell the story in his own words:
"One morning while swinging across the gully ... I suppose I was nearly 40 feet from the ground from which distance the tree snapped off short as a pipe stem. I came down feet foremost. The ground was soft so that it left me but little hurt, but I was still holding part of the tree that had broken off firmly in my grasp, and I brought it down with force and weight on my skull which knocked me stiff as a ring bolt. I was out several minutes, and it gave me severe headaches for several days after."
The officer in charge was furious and threatened them with discharge "because of indiscretion and levity".
However, he went through the battle suffering only his severe headaches as his only injury from the Battle of Springfield.
While we are gathering up loose ends in this chapter, we might also report on the probably origin of the name the "Old Sow" for the famous cannon. We are indebted to Dr. Charles Philhower, New Jersey historian, for this information. Dr. Philhower, like most of us, had thought that the name was some sort of affectionate nickname bestowed by the soldiers, until one day while being shown around the grounds of Edinburgh Castle, in Scotland, an old cannon referred to as "The Sow" was shown him. He queried his guide, remarking on the similarity of the name with our own piece. The guide explained to him that that size of cannon was always called a sow, and simply referred to the size of the casting. The iron castings ran directly from the smelting furnace to the troughtlike molds, and these molds were either called "pigs" or "sows" depending on their size. A minute's search in any dictionary will verify this fact, which seems like a very logical explanation.
The New Jersey Archives supply some interesting pictures of the other side of the historic struggle. In the first place, in the Spring of 1780, the British were sure that the Americans were ready to give up. A translation of a letter from General Knyphausen to Lord George German on March 27, 1780, says:
"By the best intelligence I have been able to get General Washington's Army of Morristown consists of about 5,000 men besides militia. There has been a great desertion amongst them. Tired of the War and Dissatisfied with depreciated value of their Money a general Discontent Pervades the whole Army."
Other letters and news items point to the fact that Clinton was convinced the Americans would desert or surrender if attacked with any severity. He may also have hoped to draw Washington into battle here so that an army from New York could strike up along the Hudson River and take over the weak river forts.
Washington's forces had just been through a winter in Morristown to rival the months at Valley Forge. The British had only contempt for the untrained militia, boys and old men without military experience, and bitterly resented their methods of fighting without regard to European military rules and tactics. They still could not believe that the Americans meant business, but thought they were influenced by a few agitators. A letter written by a British Officer to the papers June 20, 1780, says:
"as the rebels agreeable to their usual practice have published many glaring falsehoods relative to the movement into Jersey I have been induced from a regard for truth to send you the following account:" ... Then followed a report of the advance into Connecticut Farms and the fight there on June 7th. He complained that the Americans concealed their mortality statistics, and he excused his men's conduct in the following words:
"While the troops were advancing to Connecticut Farms the rebels fired out of their houses agreeable to their usual practice, from which circumstances Mrs. Caldwell had the misfortune to be shot by a random shell. What heightens the singularity of this lady's unhappy fate is that upon inquiry it appears beyond a doubt that the shot was fired by the rebels themselves as it entered the side of the house from their direction ... The manner in which the rebels aggravate this unfortunate affair in their publication is a piece with their uniform conduct. ... nor is it to be wondered at that a rebellion which is originated in falsehood is prosecuted with deceit. A soldier received with smiles one moment and the following butchered by a set of people who by their clothes can not be distinguished from the quiet inhabitants of the country, he may well be supposed to be exasperated; nor need we be surprised by their use of the torch to dwellings which they find hourly occupied by armed men who either want the generosity or spirit to close the present unhappy contest by a manly open soldierly like position. Whatever may be the humane wishes of the commander, human nature at times steps over the barriers of discipline ... accursed the set of men who from motives of private lucre or inordinate ambition have fanned a flame which if they are willing they are now perhaps unable to extinguish."
According to General Greene's report the Americans at the final battle of Springfield lost 13 men killed, 49 wounded, and 9 missing. The British, according to the American report lost 500 to 700 men in Springfield. These statistics, perhaps, may not be exaggerated as a letter written July 1, 1780, by the commander of the Jagers who had borne the brunt of the militia's vengence during the retreat to Elizabeth, wrote home to Kassel, Germany,
"I regret from the depths of my heart that the great loss of the Jagers took place to no greater purpose."
But the war for Springfield was over, and in fact, the British soldiers who left that day were the last organized forces to fight in New Jersey. In his "Cockpit of the Revolution" Professor Leonard Lundin of Princeton, writes:
"It is hardly too much to say that the fate of Morristown was more important for the outcome of the war than the fortunes of any other town in the United States, except Albany, and that the Watchung Mountains, of which probably few school boys outside New Jersey, have heard, were of greater significance in the contest than was Breed's Hill." Breed's Hill, of course, is more familiarly known as "Bunker Hill."
The newspapers of the times yield some interesting bits:
On January 16, 1780, an order was made prohibiting all officers, soldiers, militia men and camp followers from poundering or insulting the inhabitants of Staten Island, and all persons possessed of any articles of plunder should immediately deliver same to Rev. Caldwell at Springfield to the end that they may be returned to their proper owners. Order was signed by American Major General Lord Stirling.
Mrs. Washington passed through Springfield on her way to Philadelphia in 1780.
On June 19, 1780, three spies and horse thieves were hanged in Morristown. They were harboured by a Quaker who is now in custody and will receive the reward his conduct deserves.
William Reeve advertised that on June 23, 1780, a dark brown yearling horse colt has strayed from his place in Vauxhall, (June 23d was the day of battle!)
James Caldwell advertises that those who have accounts against him attend for settlement. The loss of so many of his papers makes this the more necessary while circumstances can be remembered, he says, and adds a postscript, "A list of the fortunate numbers in the 3d class of the U.S. Lottery may be seen at Mr. Woodruff's Springfield."
Another notice tells its own story. It is, "Daniel J., a soldier in Baylor's Light Dragoons requested a few months before his death that this method be taken to inform his wife who lives near Springfield, New Jersey, that he was executed the first of May last (1780) at Georgetown in South Carolina for desertion."
One more interesting story of Millburn's war days has come to light. Mrs. John Voorhees of Woodcrest Avenue has in her possession a written account of an incident which took place a few days after the battle. It was told by Jeptha Meeker, son of Timothy Meeker, Junior, to his nephew, Enoch Edwards, and later preserved in the papers of the Burnet family of Newark. The story goes:
A few days after the battle, Timothy Meeker, Jr. a militia sergeant, was repairing his fences along the road, near the old forge, later the Campbell paper mill (now Brookside Drive). All the lots in that vicinity, which would be the land now occupied by the Reservation extending across South Orange Avenue, had been filled with cattle, sheep, and hogs driven up out of the way of enemy, and now returned to their owners. While working, a party of men on horseback approached him, and asked for Timothy Meeker, as they had heard he had besides himself, two sons and four sons-in-law in the battle, and they wanted to talk to him. He told them he was Timothy. They asked him questions about his opinions, whether there were any Tories in the neighborhood, to which he replied that "no Tory would durst show his face here." They then asked him if people were angry because Washington had not brought his troops into the action. Meeker replied that Washington was right to let the militia fight them, for "we can like em, we can lick 'em," he emphatically stated. On hearing the dinner horn he invited the party to eat with them which invitation was accepted. Finally, after dinner and much discussion about the battle and the war in general, the party left. Just as he mounted, one of the gentlemen turned to Meeker and said, "Friend Meeker, you have treated us with so much hospitality and told your mind so freely, that I thought it would be ungrateful in me to withhold from you who I am." He then disclosed that he was General Washington. Meeker was struck dumb for a moment, but finally replied, "General, I don't know but what I have been spilling wheat, but you must lay it to my ignorance that I have been talking with so much vanity." To which Washington answered, "I know that you spoke the sentiments of your heart."
Sources for Revolutionary War chapters:
New Jersey Archives,
Vols. I to IV (New Series), 1776 to 1780.
The story of Washington's visit to the Meeker family has came from two sources. Mrs. John Voorhees of Woodcrest Avenue has in her possession a written account of the incident. It was supposed to have been told by Jeptha Meeker, son of Timothy Meeker, Jr. to his nephew, Enoch Edwards, and later preserved in the papers of the Burnet family. The other source is in "Pioneers of Old Northfield" by Lillian Collins Cook, a relative of the Meeker and Edwards family.