Washington described his time at the Continental Army’s encampment at Morristown, New Jersey from 1779 to 1780, as “The Hard Winter”. American logistics had broken down, so the Continental Congress abdicated their responsibility and told the states to supply their own troops. Many troops went weeks without seeing meat or bread, sometimes days without seeing anything at all. Washington resorted to foraging the countryside to prevent his army from starving to death. The weather was colder than the winter at Valley Forge, with 23 major snow storms, including one that dumped four feet of snow on the encampment. Of the 12,000 Continental soldiers that entered winter quarters at Morristown in December 1779, 4000 had deserted by June, and of the remainder, 1/3 were unfit for duty.
British General Henry Clinton, whose troops were snug in New York City for the harsh winter, sought to take advantage of the Continental Army’s weakness. With the focus of the war moving elsewhere, the Southern colonies and the Caribbean for instance, Clinton surmised that he had one last shot at Washington, before other theaters made demands on his resources in New York. Washington, however, did not choose Morristown for its amenities, but for its tactically and operationally favorable position.
The encampment at Morristown was close enough to bottle up the British in New York but far enough away to permit Washington some reaction time when Clinton sortied. Furthermore, the only approach was via Newark Bay, and Morristown was screened from any landing there by the Great Swamp and Watchung Mountains. Any British landing force would have to make an amphibious landing in marshland, then a long approach march through hostile New Jersey countryside only to force one of the passes through the mountains just to fight a battle on the other side in constricted terrain against a dug in enemy under proven leadership. Clinton sent the Hessians.
In early June, 1780, Hessian General Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen took the cream of Clinton’s army and crossed from Staten Island to bring Washington to battle. Knyphausen’s army consisted of the best of the Prussian regiments, the British Guards regiments, the Highlanders, the Royal Artillery, dragoons, the Queen’s Rangers, and two regiments of New Jersey Loyalists. Knyphausen’s 6000 men were thought to be more than enough to defeat Washington’s famished and mutiny wracked army.
On 7 June 1780, Knyphausen’s army landed at Elizabethtown Point in New Jersey. He planned on making the 11 mile march to Hobart Pass and be through the mountains before Washington could react. It was not to be. Knyphausen was spotted and the cry went up throughout New Jersey, not unlike Lexington and Concord five years before. A brigade of New Jersey militia formed at Springfield on the near side of Hobart Pass. Knyphausen met them at the small hamlet of Connecticut Farms just outside Springfield.
Stiffened by the presence of Washington and his personal guard, the militiamen made the British and Hessians pay for every foot they moved forward. They turned every house into a fortress, and every tree into a firing position. Nonetheless, Knyphausen took the village, but could see even more Americans forming in the pass. Disorganized, and bit surprised at the strength of the resistance thus far, Knyphausen impotently burned Connecticut Farms to the ground, and withdrew back to Elizabethport.
Two weeks later, Knyphausen tried again, however he knew he’d never be able to force the pass. Washington would know within minutes of his assembling to march. Clinton devised a trap. This attempt was a feint to draw Washington into a battle to the west of the mountains. Knyphausen would again march on the Hobart Pass, this time with a diminished force, and engage the militia around Springfield. He’d be the bait. Washington had spent the entire war trying to bring the British to decisive battle on his terms, and Clinton planned to give him one. As the battle against Knyphausen was fought at Springfield, Clinton expected Washington to march around the British flank and cross the mountains west of Newark. Clinton would then destroy him with a strong reserve as Knyphausen quickly disengaged from Springfield and turned on Washington. On 23 June 1780, Knyphausen marched on Hobart Pass. But this time, he met not only a horde of New Jersey militia, but also Continentals under Nathaniel Greene.
Greene had John Stark’s composite New England Brigade, “Light Horse” Harry Lee’s Legion, and William Maxwell’s New Jersey Brigade. Greene met Knyphausen at Elizebethtown, far forward of where the Hessian expected. Knyphausen attacked and Greene deftly withdrew fighting a running battle all the way back to Springfield. With Washington nowhere on the battlefield, Clinton and Knyphausen assumed their plan was working.
Washington knew of Clinton’s reserve, and had no intention of falling for the trap. The Continental Army was in no condition to attack in any case. The times were desperate, but not as desperate as they were when he pulled off the miracle at Trenton. The British were going to have to come to him. If Knyphausen wanted to make a fight of Springfield and Hobart Pass, Washington had Greene oblige.
Knyphausen fought up the Galloping Hill road toward Springfield, with Green fighting him every step of the way. The ruins of Connecticut Farms was an apt reminder to the New Jersey militia of what waited for their homes if the British won. At the bridge across the Rahway River, the Americans made a stand, and an artillery duel developed. When the Americans began to run out paper wadding, the Continental Army’s head chaplain, Reverend James Caldwell, who lost his wife in the Battle for Connecticut Farms, ran into Springfield and came back with box of hymnals. The hymnals were published by English clergyman Issac Watts. Caldwell and the gunners tore them up, and stuffed them in barrels with the cannon balls. The chaplain exclaimed, “Give’ em Watts, boys!”
The spirited defense of the Galloping Hills Bridge forced Knyphausen to send a column on the Vauxhall road to outflank the Americans. As the column got further away, it was threatened with being isolated and destroyed. The column eventually reconsolidated back on Galloping Hill road after its commander became concerned with the number of militia organizing on Newark Mountain and in the Short Hills, out in the open but just out of range. Fortunately for Knyphausen, the Queen’s Rangers found a ford and the British and Hessians crossed. Greene withdrew back into Springfield where again the Americans made the British, Hessians, and Loyalists fight for every building and street.
When Knyphausen was sufficiently bloodied, Greene pulled everyone back into the Hobart Pass, taunting his opponent to follow. But by late afternoon, it was obvious Clinton’s plan had failed and Washington wasn’t coming. Knyphausen called off the attack and declined to pursue. Clinton’s reserve was too far away to be of any use forcing the pass even if he wanted to, and there seemed to be thousands of additional American militia converging on the battlefield from all over northern New Jersey. Dead mercenaries can’t spend their pay.
In a last act of defiance, Knyphausen fired Springfield as he withdrew. He left only four buildings standing, because he was informed they belonged to Loyalists. All he did was signal to the Americans who the Loyalists were, so they just tore them down for building materials, completing the destruction of Springfield. Clinton withdrew his army back to Staten Island the next day.
The Battle of Springfield provided a significant boost to the flagging American morale after the disastrous winter. The destruction of Connecticut Farms and Springfield solidified American resolve against the British and proved an effective recruiting tool, not to mention increased the American population’s generosity towards supplying the Continental Army. The Battle of Springfield was the last major battle in the northern theater of the American Revolution. Greene’s experience in New Jersey — fighting, withdrawing, and fighting again, would come in useful when he was assigned to take command of the Southern Department later in the summer.