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British Descent on Elizabethtown, New Jersey

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol II. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

February 26.—Yesterday morning a body of the British, consisting of the 42d and 33d regiments, and the light infantry of the guards, in number about a thousand, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Stirling, attempted to surprise the troops and inhabitants of Elizabethtown. They embarked at Long Island the evening before, about seven o’clock, and landed on the Salt Meadows, better than a mile to the left of Crane’s ferry, between two and three in the morning. From thence they .were conducted through a very difficult marsh to Woodruff’s farms, which lies directly to the left of the town.

The guard at Crane’s ferry having discovered their landing, immediately despatched the intelligence to town, where the alarm being sounded, the troops were afforded an opportunity to collect. The number and movements of the enemy remaining doubtful by reason of the darkness, the troops were marched to the rear of the town, where the Whig inhabitants likewise retired.

A detachment of the enemy was despatched to the governor’s house,1 while the main body advanced to. the skirts of the town, and from thence proceeded along the rear until they fell into the Brunswick road on the right. The governor happened to be absent from home that night, but if he had not, they would have been unsuccessful in this instance likewise, as the family received timely notice of their approach.2

Finding themselves completely disappointed in every expectation, they made their visit in town very short; however, during their small halt, they set fire to the barracks, the school-house,3 (in which were stored some few articles of provision,) and a blacksmith’s shop. So soon as they began their retreat to their boats, General Maxwell marched such of his troops as were yet in reserve against their rear; the number of these, however, was small, several parties having been detached at different times to hang upon them.

About half way between the town and ferry, the enemy perceiving their rear in danger, from the sudden advance of our troops, and the assembling of the militia, faced about and paraded, as if for action. A few well-directed shot from our artillery induced them to renew their retreat, leaving two dead on the field. Perceiving an embarkation at the ferry would be attended with considerable hazard, their boats were moved better than a mile up Newark Bay, while the troops marched along the meadow’s edge, in many places up to their middles in mud and mire. A galley and two or three gun boats covered their retreat at this place.

The American loss, exclusive of a few aged inhabitants whom the British took with them, but have since sent back, are, one private killed, two officers, to wit, Brigade Major Ogden and Lieutenant Kencastle, with four privates wounded, and seven privates missing. Major Ogden, who was reconnoitering the enemy shortly after their landing, very narrowly escaped being made prisoner; he was wounded in his right side by a bayonet, but we hope not dangerously.

The Rev. Mr. Hunter, chaplain to the brigade, on returning from the governor’s house, where he had been to give the alarm, was made prisoner by them in the night, but he had the address very soon after to make his escape.

The enemy’s loss we cannot ascertain, except the two killed, whom they left behind, two made prisoners, and one boat taken. Cornelius Hetfield, Smith Hetfield, and Captain Luce, late of Elizabethtown, were their principal guides. They had collected a considerable number of horned cattle and horses, but their retreat was so precipitate, that they were obliged to leave them behind.4


1 Governor William Livingston.
2 The only part of the governor’s family in the house, were two young ladies, his daughters, who had been alarmed before the enemy made their appearance, just long enough to dress themselves. On demanding his papers, after having made a fruitless search for his person, his eldest daughter, with great composure, carried the officers to a drawer filled with intercepted letters from London, taken in a British vessel, which they pocketed with the greatest avidity, and after having loaded themselves with part of the precious intelligence, carried off the remainder in the drawer itself. The officers in general behaved with great politeness, and exerted themselves in preventing the soldiers from plundering.—New Jersey Journal, March 2.
3 To the honor of the sex, it is to be remembered, that while the school-house, which had been made a repository for provisions, was on fire, the women, abandoning their own houses and effects, rescued the public stores from the flames with indefatigable alacrity.—New Jersey Journal, March 2.
4 New Jersey Gazette, March 3.