The Battle of Bound Brook - April 13, 1777

By Ernest R. Bower

(Reprinted with permission)

     After the American victories at Trenton (Dec. 26, 1776) and Princeton (Jan 3, 1777), both armies paused to rest and refit. The British, who in mid-December had controlled almost all of central New Jersey now found their army restricted to the area from Perth Amboy to New Brunswick. The morale of the British and their Hessian Allies had hit an all time low. In a space of a little over a week they had let almost certain victory escape from their grasp.

     Although victorious, Washington’s Army had been greatly depleted and worn out by the rapid pace of the winter campaign. American forces concentrated around Morristown with major advanced posts at Princeton and Bound Brook. Enlistments ran out, men returned home, others fell ill to smallpox. Just weeks after stunning the world with two consecutive victories, the American Army still struggled to survive. Winter weather and Washington’s strategy of denying the British the ability to easily forage for supplies in the countryside, bought some time for the Americans to gain strength. But as spring approached, spies brought word that the British were planning to launch an attack on Morristown. In the English camp the problems of supplying forage had been solved by early March but indecision and bad weather prevented a decisive offensive move. Greatly overestimating the strength and condition of Washington’s Army, the English still found themselves on the defensive as April approached.

     The most direct route toward Morristown passed through Bound Brook which the British believed was guarded by 1000 men. This American garrison which actually consisted of around 500 men and 3 cannon, blocked the passes through the First Watchung Mountain. Any attempt to move toward Morristown would have to face this force. In mid February, a plan had been developed for surrounding and capturing Bound Brook but cold weather postponed the attack. On April 12th 1777, the plan was finally put into motion. Shortly before midnight, the first of a large British contingent of almost 4000 soldiers and 10 pieces of artillery moved northwest out of New Brunswick. They were followed hours later by the remaining British and Hessian elements. Led by General Cornwallis and moving in four separate columns, the army silently marched along the country lanes of Middlesex and Somerset Counties toward the unsuspecting Americans.

     Shortly before dawn on April 13, 1777, the first shots were fired in the Battle of Bound Brook. As thousands of British and Hessian soldiers attacked, the American defenders largely caught by surprise, attempted a defense of the town. However, the overwhelming strength of the English forces doomed the effort and the Americans with their commanding General Benjamin Lincoln were forced to retreat into the hills. The British captured 3 cannon and a number of officers and men. However their victory was a hollow one. Because the four columns had not been able to coordinate, the attack was largely made piecemeal and failed to fully surround the town before the Americans could react. Instead of capturing an expected 1000 prisoners and inflicting a major blow to Washington’s Army, the British had just a handful of prisoners and an impressive but rather useless triumph. Most of the American soldiers and their General had escaped to defenses atop the mountain and still blocked the strategic passes across the Watchungs. Any possible intention to advance further had to be abandoned. The victorious British and Hessians turned to pillaging the town. By early afternoon the destruction was over and the entire English army was on the march back to New Brunswick.

     The Battle of Bound Brook was the first major offensive operation of 1777 by the British Army in New Jersey directed specifically at the American Army. While earlier English military movements had been performed to collect much needed supplies, the Bound Brook operation was explicitly designed to capture large numbers of troops, high ranking American officers and possibly clear a line of advance towards Morristown. While it was indeed the first significant British victory of 1777 in central New Jersey, the Bound Brook operation failed in all its major objectives. By the evening of April 13th, the Americans had reoccupied the town with reinforcements. Increased American vigilance prevented any other sudden movements toward Bound Brook. Gone for good was the element of surprise. Six weeks later Washington’s entire army was strong enough to move from Morristown to the Watchung Mountains just north of Bound Brook. This movement checked any British intent to move across New Jersey to the Delaware River and Philadelphia. It also tied up Howe’s British Army in New Jersey until late June-long enough to prevent him from actively supporting Burgoyne’s Canadian invasion without jeopardizing his own goal of capturing Philadelphia.

     Howe’s Army sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and finally captured Philadelphia on September 26, 1777. General Burgoyne’s Canadian invasion force was surrounded and surrendered to American forces at Saratoga New York on October 17, 1777.

Comparison to Other New Jersey Battles

Also by Ernest R. Bower

     The Battle of Bound Brook on April 13, 1777 involved approximately 3,300 British/Hessian troops and between 300-500 American troops. If the latter phases of the Battle (in which there was no more real fighting but only tactical troop movements) are included, then the American force jumps by another 300-600+ men. Thus a total force involved of anywhere between 3,600-4,300+ soldiers and 13 pieces of artillery. The battle lasted approximately 60-90 minutes.

     By comparison, the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776 involved approximately 1,500 Hessian Troops/British Dragoons and approximately 2,600-3,000 American troops. Thus a total force involved of between 4,100-4,500 soldiers and 13 pieces of artillery. The battle lasted approximately 60-90 minutes.

     The Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777, presents a bit of a mystery since it is uncertain how many American troops actually were involved (Washington had about 5000 men at Trenton on Jan 2 but at least 500 were left behind, and an unknown number were detached to guard the wagon train to Burlington, in addition an unknown number of militia left the column during its march to Princeton). But for the sake of argument, 4500 soldiers of the American Army can be said to have fought at Princeton (a large number of whom were still marching from Trenton while the battle was being fought and therefore did not actively participate). The British force was between 600-800 troops. Thus a combined force total of between 5,100-5,300 soldiers with approximately 16 cannon. The Battle lasted approximately 60-90 minutes.

     The Battle of Monmouth Court House on June 28, 1778 was the largest land battle in New Jersey and involved over 10,000 soldiers and approximately 40 pieces of artillery. The battle lasted approximately 20 hours.

     The Battle of Red Bank on October 22, 1777, involved approximately 400-500 American troops and 3,000-3,500 Hessian troops for a combined force total of between 3,400-4,000 soldiers. The battle and preliminary maneuvers lasted about 5 hours.

•  “Colonel Von Donop, the young Hessian commander at Bound Brook was mortally wounded leading his men against Fort Mercer at Red Bank, Gloucester County, N.J. on October 22, 1777.

He died soon after, a prisoner of the Americans and is buried among his fallen soldiers on the battlefield.”

•  “General Lincoln, the American commander at Bound Brook, was wounded at Saratoga New York in the fall of 1777.  In 1780 he was captured at the siege of Charleston South Carolina but exchanged.  In 1781, General Washington gave Lincoln the honor of receiving the British surrender at Yorktown Virginia in 1781.  Lincoln later served at the Secretary of War and Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts.  He died in Boston in 1810.”

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