How did a little frontier settlement like Springfield become a battle ground, and of what importance was this village of a few score people and their widely scattered homes to his Majesty's forces to compel them to make several attempts to capture it? Two very good reasons may be simply deduced. As early as 1776 the advantages of an encampment at Morristown were evident to Washington and his advisors. General James Wilkinson writing in December, 1776, says that Morristown provided a safe place for an army of observation and for a winter camp; the chain of sharp hills protected its approaches; defiles in the rear would cover a retreat; the country thereabout abounded in forage and provisions, and it lay about equal distance from New York, Amboy, Newark and New Brunswick, while communication with West Point could be safely carried on through the hinterland.
Also, that chain of sharp hills, those masses of traprock and sandstone, on which Nature had labored for millions of years, were of the utmost strategic importance. With British men and arms swarming on their summits, Washington's little tatterdemalion army could be annihilated. New Jersey had become the center of the war, the "Cockpit of the Revolution" as Professor Leonard Lundin had called it, and sometimes only the men of Springfield and vicinity stood between the welldressed red-coated generals and their victory.
Elizabethtown had temporarily, at least, become the center of the elegant, social life of the American colonies, and to it flocked gentlemen of all shades of political opinion, and over the glasses of afterdinner wine, gossip and speculation, intrigue and strategy were indulged in freely and sometimes hotheadedly. Governor and Mrs. William Livingston's home was the center for patriots, and there often gathered Alexander Hamilton, General and Mrs. Nathaniel S. Greene, General and Mrs. Elias Boudinot, the John Jays, the French minister, M. Conrad Gerard, Don Juan de Mirallies from Spain, and others. The marquis de Lafayette and his retinue, and, of course, the Washingtons, besides lesser luminaries, enjoyed the hospitality of the gracious Elizabeth mansions. A garrison of regular army men gave color to the social whirl.
In Springfield, however, (in which town, of course, Millburn was then included), there was little of such grace and elegance to smooth the harshness of war. The homes were modest and every member of every family worked hard through long days to provide their daily needs. Raids on the little farmhouses were frequent and troublesome. A group of enemy soldiers would suddenly appear, swooping down in a foray for provisions. Newly baked bread, hot from the oven, milk, eggs, chickens, would disappear in the twinkling of an eye, and there was no defense against these attacks. The British camp on Staten Island was a constant threat, and it was soon apparent that the capture of Morristown would become an important objective.
We do not know how many of Springfield's men joined the regular army, but a very active militia of 1,000, largely recruited from Springfield, Union, Chatham, and Elizabeth, under Colonel Jacob Ford, Jr. was formed. Based on the number of Revolutionary soldier markers on the gravestones here now, practically every able-bodied man must have become a member; and a man's age was not of much importance. on the evidence of the headstones, Philip Denman, for instance, was 15 in 1780, Stephen Woodruff was 50, Henry Butterworth and John Meeker were both 16, and other ages varied widely.
In addition to the militia, the Association of Whigs included most loyal men, and from it a Committee of Safety was appointed whose executive directions every member of the Association was bound to obey. The organization of Minute Men contained boys and men, many too old or too young to fight with the regulars or the militia, who were ready at all times to assemble at a prenamed rendezvous. In critical times they took their guns and ammunition with them to church, and stories are told of grain left uncut in the fields, and religious services prematurely ended as the guns boomed their warnings and the tongues of fire leaped from the tops of the Springfield mountains.
On the mountains, observation posts were manned round-the-clock, to watch the crossings from Staten Island and the movements on Galloping Hill Road and other roads out of Elizabeth. Joseph Brant is said to be the man who actually fired the warning gun before the battle of Springfield. Joseph Brant's sister was Martha Mary, married to Jacob Taylor, a descendant of the first Taylors in Taylor Lane (Taylor Road), Short Hills.
For authentic information covering the Springfield area during the war years, we return again to the New Jersey Archives.
The Rev. James Caldwell opened an office in a building Called "The Vauxhall" at 40 Main Street (Millburn) for his duties as Army Quartermaster, and through his headquarters passed negotiations for most of the precious supplies needed by the Americans. 40 Main Street was the hardworking supply heart of the New Jersey campaign. Here were no frills not elegance, only the constant struggle to find shoes, clothing, hospital supplies and food for an impoverished army. A letter from General Maxwell to Mr. Caldwell points up the plight:
My old boots will never keep out wind or water if you can help me to a pair I would come down some day and have my measure taken. I have never had a pair of boots or shoes from the Publick yet, but it seems now that those who serve the Publick have no other place to go for their necessarys."
On December 17, 1776, the first real trouble here began. On the morning of that day a small detachment under Major Spencer guarding the main road between Chatham and Springfield, was amazed to see a large British force moving on Springfield. Knowing that his group was too small to take on such numbers, Spencer sent a swift messenger back to Chatham to report and get help. Quietly the Americans slipped out of Chatham. One group under Captain Brookfield advanced on the right of Springfield coming through Millburn, or "Vauxhall" as the report called it, probably coming over the path which is the present Hobart Avenue, or the railroad right of way; the other group under Captain Seely came down to the left of Springfield center on the Westfield road. By this time the British had taken possession of Woodruff's tavern, just west of the Church, and were sprawled all over the meadow behind it, the road in front of it, and in the fields across the street where the super markets stand today. The Americans held their fire until they were within pistol shot of the enemy and then they let go. The fighting was terrific and went on for more than an hour, when darkness coming on the Americans withdrew a mile up the road and lay with their arms all night intending to take action again at dawn. In the morning, the British had completely disappeared, and this was the first instance in New Jersey when British troops had turned their backs and fled from the Americans. For the first time the militia realized that their foe was not invincible.
Several minor clashes occurred during the next few weeks. General Washington himself reported them to Congress:
"There have been two or three little skirmishes between their troops and some detachments of the militia in which the latter have been successful and made a few prisoners. The most considerable was on Sunday morning (January 5th) when 8 or 10 Waldeckers were killed and wounded and the remainder of the party 39 or 40 made prisoners with officers?by a force not superior in number and without receiving the least damage." ... This was in Springfield, the Americans led by Major Oliver Spencer.
The British naturally were thoroughly piqued by the results of these engagements, and showed it in a story which appeared on February 10, 1777, in the New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury. The story is clearly a gross exaggeration:
"There are several marauding parties of the Rebels," the story goes, "scattered about the Jersies who rape and plunder the poor inhabitants ... On Saturday the 1st inst. (February 1st a smart skirmish happened at Springfield, New Jersey, between a party of nearly 4,000 rebels under the command of Sullivan, and the 42nd Regiment under Sir William Erskine. The rebels were attempting to pass a hill which would have given them considerable advantage. Sir William directed his highlanders to dispute the ground. Notwithstanding the great disparity in numbers the rebels soon gave up the point leaving 250 killed behind them. The British lost only 18 in killed and wounded."
It is obvious, today, that no battle of such proportions could have taken place here in February, 1777, but certainly the British Army could not have been expected to report publicly a defeat by a handful of farmers.
The militia were successful, it is true, but as usual in war, the peaceful inhabitants suffer no matter which side wins. The Rev. Caldwell was away on duty during most of these fights. He returned home during the second week of January to find a sad spectacle before him. The houses had been plundered, fences were broken and consumed, gardens laid waste and the fields turned into open commons. Both private and public records had been seized and destroyed.
Regretably enough most of this damage had been done to the patriots' homes by their Tory neighbors. The order then went out that all Tories leave town immediately taking with them only such necessities as could be carried with them. They begged for the customary 30 days notice to remove, but it was denied, and his Majesty's loyal subjects departed for Staten Island and elsewhere.
Except for food raids and occasional clashes, little fighting is reported in the immediate vicinity for some time thereafter, although Millburn men fought wherever needed.
Captain Thomas Parsil of White Oak Ridge Road, buried in the little cemetery there, died on July 4, 1778, from wounds received a few days before in the fighting in Somerset County. Captain Eliakim Littell of Hobart Avenue organized his dashing company at this time also, and so frequently swooped down on British forging parties that they were forced to abandon them for a while, according to counter-intelligence received.