The Ghosts of Red Bank

I   II   III   IV   V   VI   VII   VIII   IX   X   EPILOGUE

I


For much of the way he ran, staying to the sides of the winding roads as he kept an eye out for enemy soldiers who might appear. With the sounds of rustling leaves or faraway voices, Jonas Cattell darted off the way and onto woodland trails with which he had become familiar as a younger lad. In the safety of the bush, Jonas stopped, hands on his knees, to catch his breath. And then he ran again.


Now he was 19, a soldier in George Washington’s Colonial army. And for now, he was free -- again.


Like other rabble from American militias, the apprentice blacksmith had been taken prisoner in a skirmish and was locked in the basement of a favorite gathering place for the British soldiers, Indian King Tavern, in the center of the village of Haddonfield in southern New Jersey. The place of confinement was smelly and musty, dark but for the streams of light cutting from the breaks between the floorboards a couple of feet from his head.


Jonas had been there barely a day. At times the voices above his head were loud and raucous, and at times, perhaps when the soldiers had been called to duty, it was quiet, almost peaceful.


Then the voices and sound of boots thumping on the planks above returned. Jonas heard a voice, he surmised an officer, repeat the words "Fort Mercer" several times. Jonas had known of the place, overlooking a bluff along the Delaware River, 10 miles from Haddonfield. He heard a date, October 22, and then, in muffled voices discussion of an attack. The words stuck with him: "The Hessians shall attack the fort from the sides!"


When the noise from above quieted one night, Jonas and his mates planned their getaway.


The British, under Gen. Sir William Howe, had occupied Philadelphia across the river. For the forces occupying the colonies, there was reason for optimism, as they had less than three weeks earlier repulsed the Americans at the Battle of Germantown in Pennsylvania. While word of this victory had spread among the troops, they had not yet heard news of Gen. John Burgoyne’s surrender just days earlier to American Gen. Horatio Gates at Saratoga, a major colonial victory in which 6,000 prisoners were taken by the Americans.


The colonists had taken measures to secure the Delaware River and keep arms and supplies from the Philadelphia port. They booby-trapped the river with chevaux de frise, barricades of spiked logs bound together, anchored and submerged so as to pierce the hulls of passing ships.


The British had not taken the colonial challenge to their authority lightly, and had bolstered their military muscle with German mercenaries. A company of Hessians, encamped in Haddonfield, prepared to march to Fort Mercer.


They had sailed from Europe in mid-1776 and were among the first divisions of Hessians, 8,000 or more strong, to arrive on the western continent’s shores. Most had come from Hesse, and others hailed from a scattering of minor states in Germany. They were a proud lot, making up perhaps a third of the troops employed by the British to subdue the upstart colonists.


Spirits were high as they prepared their march from Haddonfield.


The ruse devised by the young Jonas Cattell and his comrades in the Indian King Tavern’s lockup had worked. Through the wooden planking over his head, Cattell called out to his captors, saying he was ready to give up the plans of his colonial superiors and that he felt betrayed by those for whom he had served. He asked to explain to the officer at guard.


He listened as the wooden bolt to the trap door above slid over the planking. The door opened, and the silhouette of a British soldier loomed over his head. Jonas’ comrades hoisted him into the opening.


"By your leave, sir, I ... " As he began his entreaty, the bayonet of the guard’s musket darted toward Jonas’ shoulder, grazing it.


Jonas, whose confinement had not dulled his nimble reactions, grabbed the barrel of the musket as it was just inches from his eye. Kicking his legs, he pulled the guard, gun and all, through the trap door into the hole below, falling on top of the man. Jonas’ fellow captives pounced at once. In seconds, the musket was loosened from the soldier’s grip and bayonet thrust into his chest. As his life oozed into the sand and cinder floor, the young colonials sprang to the opening above, some stepping on the dying guard to gain advantage for their climb to freedom.


One after another, they made their way from the cellar hole and, as if catapulted, coursed to the tavern door. No words were spoken as the escapees scattered and vanished into the long shadows of twilight.


Jonas Cattell, who was among the first out, knew his mission and, even in the growing darkness, knew his way. And he knew he must outrun the Hessians.


His marathon started on the King’s Highway as it had become known, but he often veered off the road for fear that he might be spotted and recaptured. Cattell well knew the side trails that had been opened by the Indians and made his way to the marshlands on the approach to the Delaware by moonlight. Following the edge of the swamp, Jonas made his way to Big Timber Creek, his only major crossing before the last leg to Fort Mercer.


Luckily, the tide was out. But even with that advantage and the low flow of mid-autumn, the river was deep and carried deceptively powerful currents. It was still dark and there was no ferryman around, and Jonas knew he had to ford and swim the roughly 150-foot width. He waited until the first sliver of the morning’s light and removed what was left of his tattered shoes -- really strips of deer skin he had fashioned as footwear -- and stockings. Jonas tied the stockings around each boot and secured them with a stout knot, and waded his way through the muck into the cool water, trying to forget the discomfort and concentrate on his mission. With the stockings between his jaws and shoes dangling over each shoulder, he began his swim.


The first half of the swim went smoothly, but then a tidal current took hold, pulling him downstream. While taking him off course, the current brought him closer to shore where his feet could touch the riverbed. At last, Jonas was able to slog his way ashore.


After catching his breath, he followed the banks back upriver to the trail and put his stockings and shoes back on. He had been at least two days without any substantial food or drink, save the gulps of water he swallowed during his swim. As his pace picked up to a gallop and then full run, he rationalized that a bellyful of food would only slow him down.


It was before dawn when the brigade of 1,200 or more Hessian soldiers under the command of Count Carl von Donop, began their march to Red Bank to put down the revolutionaries in their riverside fort. Von Donop had volunteered for the assignment, hoping to restore the reputation of his fighting force after its stinging defeat the previous year at Trenton.


The Hessians, outfitted smartly with tall, pointed helmets, trudged along the well-used trail lined with sycamores, hickories and oaks still clinging on to their summer leaves. They bypassed the deep waters of the Big Timber and followed the path of what years later would become known as Hessian Road. By the time they crossed Crown Point Road on their final approach to Fort Mercer, young colonial soldier Jonas Cattell had made his way over 10 grueling miles to the Red Bank site with news of the approaching enemy brigade.


Approaching the fort with waving arms, Jonas asked to be taken to Col. Christopher Greene of Rhode Island, commander of a small garrison of fewer than 400 men. A sentry accommodated him.


"The Hessians are afoot to take the fort, sir!" Jonas, almost breathless, told Greene. "From Haddonfield, sir. They will arrive and soon, if what I’ve heard is true."


Greene listened as he calculated the strategy of such an attack. Such a move, he thought, would play into a British plan to sweep American forts from the sides of the Delaware River in order to clear the shipping corridor to Philadelphia. The Hessians must have arrived a day or so earlier from Philadelphia.


"Ah, so General Howe wants to sweep us away. I believe this would also involve an attack on the other side of the river on Fort Mifflin," Greene said, thinking aloud. "Soldier, we shall prepare at once. What was your name?"


"Jonas Cattell, sir." Little more was heard from this young man, apprentice blacksmith, not a silversmith like the other herald of enemy attack, Paul Revere of Boston.


Greene mustered his soldiers and ordered the guns double shotted and primed. The men prepared their arms -- and waited.


By mid-afternoon the Hessians had arrived to within a cannon-shot of Fort Mercer, which was built over a series of trenches eight or 10 feet deep. The unfinished north side was protected by a wall, and behind it was a fortification of tree trunks and branches sharpened at their ends to repel attackers. The fort’s weak earthworks supported just over a dozen cannon.


The Hessian force of grenadiers, infantrymen, riflemen and artillery gazed from the edge of the woods, perhaps 300 feet away, as 10 heavy guns were set in place for the onslaught. Von Donop sent word with a messenger to the Americans: Lay down your arms or no quarter will be given.


Greene’s response came at once: "We ask no quarter, nor will we give any."


The formalities ended without further exchanges, around four in the afternoon, and the roll of Hessian drums heralded the first report of cannon fire. The Hessians advanced, but the Americans held their fire until the last moment.


A line of attackers who were first to storm the fort were mowed down almost to a man as a volley of heavy grape shot and bullets rang out from inside the redoubt. Others, scrambling to the sides of the fort were felled by musket balls fired from snipers’ hideaways in brush beyond the fort’s perimeter.


The Hessians believed the fort was abandoned, but the unrelenting fire from behind its inner ridge proved to be their mortal miscalculation. Bodies of Hessian attackers began to litter the battlefield and fort’s approach, some moaning and feebly attempting to drag themselves to a refuge. The Hessians’ cannon and superior arms inflicted some casualties on the American side, but the colonials had so secured themselves that most avoided enemy fire.


The scene grew more gruesome as smoke turned the battle scene into a hellish gray fog. Helmets, soldiers’ effects, bodies and pieces of bodies covered the bloodstained ground. The remains of soldiers who had attempted to penetrate at the abatis hung hauntingly from the limbs and tree trunks.


Many of the injured were carried to James and Ann Whitall’s stately Georgian home just south of the battlefield. Even as a cannonball from one of the Hessian guns crashed into the house, doctors continued to tend to the growing line of casualties. So many injured were brought in that their bodies were arranged in rows on the floors.


For some, death came in a most agonizing and gruesome manner. Cannon fire struck down two Hessian soldiers, whose heads were severed and not retrieved until after their commanders had given the order to retreat.


In the thick of the battle, a musket ball ripped into Von Donop’s hip. The count was carried to the Whitall mansion and tended to. The Americans held their ground in the fort and the rout continued until dusk, when the surviving Hessians retreated to the woods. The Americans lost 14 men and two dozen were injured. More than 500 Hessians were killed. Among them, three days after the battle, was Von Donop, who had been brought to a home along Crown Point Road where he died of his wounds.


Many of the wounded Hessians made their painful way to the former Quaker settlement of Woodbury two miles away. While some were to regain their health, others died and, still in uniform, were placed in graves a short distance from the town’s main street.


At the Red Bank battlefield, the bodies of those who had died were collected and hastily placed side-by-side in long trenches at the side of Fort Mercer facing the river. Many went to their final resting place without limbs that had been lost in the battle. The two Hessians whose heads had been taken off were placed next to one another. Their heads were also retrieved from the place where they had fallen and set above the shoulders of each, but it was impossible to tell whose head belonged to which body. The answer might forever remain a mystery.


Over the years, the weather and nature took their toll on this makeshift mass grave, and at times the bones of some became exposed. Ann Whitall saw to it that these bones were collected and reburied out of respect for the dead.


The American victory extended to the next day, when the British ships Augusta and Merlin, which had run aground, were bombarded. But as the generations passed, it would be said that not all of those who fell at the Battle of Red Bank would rest in peace.


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© Buzz Adams, August 2007