The Battle of Springfield
June 23, 1780 at Springfield, New Jersey
After the Battle of Connecticut Farms had foiled Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen’s expedition to attack General George Washington’s army at Morristown, New Jersey, Knyphausen and Lieutenant General Henry Clinton, British commander-in-chief in North America, decided upon a second attempt. Although the British were initially able to advance, they were ultimately forced to withdraw in the face of newly arriving rebel forces, resulting in a Continental victory.
The battle effectively ended British ambitions in New Jersey.
Facts about the Battle of Springfield
- Armies - American Forces was commanded by Gen. Nathaniel Greene and consisted of about 2,050 Soldiers. British Forces was commanded by Gen. W. Knyphausen and consisted of about 2,550 Soldiers.
- Casualties - American casualties were estimated to be 23 killed, 89 wounded, 9 missing, and 10 captured. British casualties were estimated to be 25 killed, 234 wounded, and 48 missing.
- Outcome - The result of the battle was an American victory. The battle was part of the Northern Theater 1778-82.
Under the command of Knyphausen, British forces attempted an invasion of New Jersey in the spring of 1780, speculating that local residents, fatigued by the war, would welcome them. Originating in Staten Island and marching through Elizabethtown, Knyphausen intended to capture the strategic Hobart Gap, enabling a march on American headquarters in Morristown.
British forces consisted of elements from the Brigade of Guards, the Cheshire Regiment, Black Watch, 43rd Regiment of Foot, Royal Regiment of Artillery, 17th Lancers, 1st American Regiment (Queen's Rangers), Jäger Corps the Musketeer Regiment von Donop, and Musketeer Regiment von Bose.
Springfield had been the site of frequent raids and plundering missions by British forces earlier, resulting in a particularly vigilant population. One raid known as the Battle of Connecticut Farms, resulted in the burning of the community, in what is now Union Township, New Jersey, when Hannah Caldwell was killed.
When Knyphausen moved in force toward the Hobart Gap, American troops, consisting of regular troops from Rhode Island, troops under Major "Light Horse" Harry Lee, and New Jersey militia, decided to take a stand in the small village of Springfield. As it turned out, Washington had held his general headquarters in Springfield until the day before but left the defense to Major General Nathanael Greene.
On June 23, at 5:00 AM, Knyphausen’s force advanced for Elizabethtown Point, with the Queen’s Rangers and the New Jersey Volunteers in the vanguard. They overwhelmed the American outposts at Elizabethtown, capturing several men and three small cannons.
Warned by retreating men, Brigadier General William Maxwell sent Colonel Elias Dayton’s 3rd New Jersey Regiment to guard the Galloping Hill Road and Lee’s 2nd Partisan Corps to the Vauxhall Road. Soon afterwards, the advancing Loyalist troops engaged Maxwell, who fell back toward Connecticut Farms with the rest of his brigade. Meanwhile, Greene ordered the planking to be destroyed on the Vauxhall and Galloping Hill bridges over the Rahway River.
Greene organized his left wing, at the Galloping Hill Road, into four successive lines of defense. Connecticut Farms was to be held by Dayton’s 3rd New Jersey and some militia under Brigadier General Nathaniel Heard. Behind Dayton, Colonel Israel Angell with his 2nd Rhode Island Regiment, reduced to only 160 men, was to defend the Galloping Hill Bridge. Behind Angell, at a bridge over the west branch of the Rahway, Greene positioned Colonel Israel Shreve and his 2nd New Jersey Regiment and, behind Shreve, Brigadier General Philemon Dickinson commanded a detachment of New Jersey Militia.
On the American right wing, Greene reinforced Lee and his 2nd Partisan Corps at the Vauxhall Bridge with Colonel Matthias Ogden and his 1st New Jersey Regiment. In reserve, at Bryan’s Tavern up on the high ground of the Short Hills, Greene retained the rest of Maxwell’s and Stark’s brigades.
The New Jersey Volunteers under Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Barton, now approached Connecticut Farms and engaged Dayton’s force, who were well positioned in an orchard and behind a thicket. Outnumbered more than two-to-one by the defenders, Barton’s men made little progress.
However, Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe with his Queen’s Rangers outflanked the Americans on the left and attacked them from the rear. Dayton and Heard’s men were quickly swept away and Connecticut Farms was in British hands. Heard and some of his militiamen retired northward and reinforced the defenders of the Vauxhall Bridge.
Knyphausen now diverted the Queen’s Rangers, the New Jersey Volunteers, the Guards Battalion and most of his other British troops from the Galloping Hill Road northward to the Vauxhall Road, in the hope of outflanking the defenders of the Galloping Hill Bridge. Meanwhile, Knyphausen himself advanced on the bridge with 3,000 men, comprising the British 37th and 38th regiments and most of the German troops.
At the Galloping Hill Bridge, Knyphausen bombarded Angell’s defenders with six cannons, which the Americans answered with their only available gun. As the American artillery ran low on wadding, James Caldwell, the Continental Army chaplain who had lost his wife during the Battle of Connecticut Farms, brought up a load of hymn books published by English clergyman Isaac Watts to use instead.
“Give ‘em Watts, boys!”, he advised. After heavy exchanges of fire and two unsuccessful attempts to charge the bridge, the British 37th and 38th regiments and the Hessian Jägers forded the Rahway and, in 25 minutes of tree-to-tree fighting in the woods, drove the Rhode Islanders back to the bridge over the west branch of the Rahway defended by Shreve and his 2nd New Jersey Regiment.
The British quickly followed up the retreat, driving back Shreve and Angell, who only narrowly foiled an attempt to outflank them by the British 38th Regiment and the Jägers. Recognizing the danger of Shreve and Angell being encircled, Greene recalled them to Bryant’s Tavern; abandoning Springfield to the enemy.
As directed by Knyphausen, Major General Edward Mathew had left the Galloping Hill Road and crossed northward to the Vauxhall Road. Halting on a height above the Vauxhall Bridge, he bombarded its defenders with his artillery until 11:00 AM, when he attacked, with the Queen’s Rangers and New Jersey Volunteers fording the Rahway on either side of the bridge.
Lee and his detachment made a fighting retreat of almost two miles to the upper west branch of the Rahway and positioned his men in echelons, so that they could fire out of the woods onto the road. They were soon joined by the advancing Loyalist troops, who assailed them from front and flank, driving them back again; this time all the way to the slopes of the Short Hills. Here, they were reinforced by the 400 men of Stark’s two Continental regiments and a cannon.
This, and the presence of an increasing number of militia gathering on the slopes of Newark Mountain, persuaded General Mathew to halt his advance. As the militiamen began to engage Colonel Barton’s New Jersey Volunteers, Mathew became concerned about the possibility of a counter-attack on his flank by Washington’s main army, and he turned his column back southward to the Galloping Hill Road to rejoin Knyphausen.
When Mathew’s column reached the Galloping Hill Road, they joined Knyphausen in Springfield. Knyphausen ordered Mathew to capture the Heights of Springfield to the northwest of the town. Mathew sent forward Lieutenant Colonel Edward Thomas with the Guards Battalion, who stormed the heights, routing the militia defenders. This was as far as the British advance was ever to get.
Having failed to clear his path to Hobart Gap, Knyphausen was disheartened by the numbers of New Jersey Militia who were gathering on the Short Hills and he decided to call off the attack and return to Elizabethtown Point. Knyphausen ordered the New Jersey Volunteers to burn down Springfield. Only four houses were spared;every other building was burned to the ground. It has been claimed the four buildings spared were Loyalist houses but this is disputed by local historians.
The British withdrew in two columns, one taking the Galloping Hill Road, the other the Vauxhall Road. The column that took the Galloping Hill Road came under constant sniping fire from New Jersey militiamen in the woods and incurred substantial casualties. The Hessian Jägers were detailed for the rear guard but found themselves low on ammunition. They suffered five men killed and another five captured during the withdrawal.
They were relieved as rearguard by the 37th Regiment, who had more success in fending off the militia. The column on the Vauxhall Road had their flanks and rear guarded by the Queen’s Rangers, who foiled most of the militia’s attempts at ambush. At midnight, Knyphausen led his division back over a bridge of boats from Elizabethtown Point to Staten Island.
The British resorted to burning and looting. Only four houses remained after the battle. After setting fire to Springfield, they retreated to the shore, and crossed over in haste from Elizabethtown Point to Staten Island, on a bridge of boats. Clinton had lost a rare opportunity for the conquest of New Jersey, and possibly the destruction or dispersion of Washington's army.
The British goal of reaching Morristown was thwarted and the Battle of Springfield marked the last invasion of the British into New Jersey and removed the danger of final defeat of the Continental forces.
This was one of the last major engagements of the Revolutionary War in the north and effectively put an end to British ambitions in New Jersey. Because the decisive battles of the war moved further south, the Battle of Springfield became known as the "forgotten victory."