Among the battles and skirmishes to take place in New Jersey during the War of Independence, the Battle of Bound Brook was an early, though not crushing, defeat on the record of the Continental Army in New Jersey. Near what is recognized as the first Middlebrook Encampment, a small but stinging setback was brought upon the troops and militia of the rebel Americans, whose victory at Trenton (commemorated in the famous image on canvas, and coin, of Washington crossing the Delaware), closely followed by success at the battle of Princeton, had only recently been enjoyed. Much of the war fought in New Jersey in the winter and early spring of 1777 was a "foraging war", with the occupying British garrison at New Brunswick (numbering 17,000 soldiers at its height) resorting to raids of local farmers and merchants to sustain its forces. In the end, it was the success of the Americans in the area in foiling these foraging raids, many in January of that year, that fired the determination of the British to retaliate with a concerted attack on the garrison at Bound Brook.
Much of what is known of the Battle of Bound Brook comes to us from the diary of Johann Ewald, a Hessian in the service of the British. Directed by Cornwallis to develop a battle plan that would avenge British losses during the unsuccessful foraging raids of January (Van Nest's Mill, near present-day Manville; Spanktown, now part of South Plainfield; and Quibbletown, now part of Piscataway), Ewald's plan for the predawn darkness of April 13th, 1777, from New Brunswick, put two columns of troops, with cannon, on the attack from the southeast, fording the Raritan at night between American outposts to avoid detection. A third column attacked from the west--where the engagement was the fiercest--and nearly succeeded in the capture at the Van Horne House of General Benjamin Lincoln, garrison commander, which had been Ewald's and Cornwallis' prime objective. A fourth column moving along the Watchung Ridge from the east was to arrive to cut off any escape from the garrison at the Raritan River to the hills and ridgeline to the north. Under attack by three columns, with the fourth arriving late, the American rebel garrison at Bound Brook was routed by the attack of Cornwallis' troops and Scottish highlander and Hessian mercenaries.
Success in the attack came mostly from surprise, but the support of the attack by mercenary forces was crucial. Regular British columns of the day were often spearheaded by German soldiers of fortune, the shocktroop Hessians. Recognized as fearsome fighters, under Generals Cornwallis and Howe the treasury of the British crown paid the Hessians to aid regular British troops in the dispatch of the American rebels and to secure the American economy in traction to the crown's colonial empire. As shocktroops, they often led British military engagements, and were often the facing troops in the British rear guard. Several accounts remain of Hessian brutality to the American civilian populations they encountered.
The British never consolidated their gains after the Battle of Bound Brook, preferring to withdraw to New Brunswick after their avenging strike. In succeeding weeks, the Americans would regroup; and later, in June of 1777, Lord Stirling, close friend of General Washington and second in command of the Continental Army, would lead American forces and achieve a narrow victory over the British in the Battle of Short Hills. The British garrison eventually would leave New Brunswick, to disembark from Staten Island and to be sealifted in frigates around the DelMarVa peninsula for an assault, via the Chesapeake Bay, on Philadelphia from the south.
May 10. 2nd Continental Congress opens in Philadelphia.
July 4. Continental Congress approves Declaration of Independence.
November 16. Fort Washington, NY falls to the British, and Washington evacuates Fort Lee, NJ.
Nov. 20- Dec. 8. Washington retreats from Fort Lee west to Pennsylvania across the Delaware.
* December 13. General Lee is captured by British in Basking Ridge.
December 25-26. Washington and 2,400 troops cross Delaware River back to New Jersey, march to Trenton, and surprise Hessians at the Old Barracks, Trenton.
January 1. Lord Cornwallis takes command of the British Army in Princeton.
January 2 Battle of Trenton.
January 3. Americans defeat small British force at the Battle of Princeton.
January 6 - May 28. Washington's troops spend winter at Morristown.
April 13. * General Benjamin Lincoln and a small band of Americans are attacked by a much larger force of English troops at Battle of Bound Brook.
June * Washington moves his entire army to the first Middlebrook Encampment in Somerset County, where he can observe the British troops in Perth Amboy and New Brunswick. The presence of approximately 5,000 American troops just north of Bound Brook disrupted British plans for taking Philadelphia during that spring. The delay also prevented the British from sending reinforcments north, contributing to the critical American victory at Saratoga, New York in October 1777.
June 26 * Lord Stirling leads Americans to victory in the Battle of Short Hills.
September 26. British take Philadelphia
September to October. Washington builds up defenses at Red Bank on lower Delaware River.
October 22. Americans defeat attacking Hessian troops, then abandon Fort Mercer.
November 15. British take Fort Mifflin, PA.
December -May. Washington and 12,000 troops survive bitter winter at Valley Forge, PA.
March 21. Britsh and Loyalist troops raid Hancock's Bridge.
June 28. Critical American victory at Battle of Monmouth.
December 11 * Washington sets up headquarters at Wallace House. Almost 10,000 soldiers camp at Middlebrook and other areas of the county during a relatively mild winter. The encampment established the first military training academy for artillery officers at Pluckemin, the first training program for army surgeons and the formation of the General Friedrich von Steuben's first light infantry corps.
August 19. Major Henry Lee attacks the British fort at Paulus Hook (Jersey City).
October 28 * British Major John Simcoe leads raid through Elizabethtown to Bound Brook burning the Dutch Reformed Church and Court House at Millstone (then called Somerset Court House), an unsuccessful attempt to draw the militia into an ambush.
December 1 * Continental army locates at Jockey Hollow near Morristown for the most severe winter of the century.
June 7 - 23 Invasion of Elizabethtown and Springfield.
July 1 - 8 Washington headquarters at Dey Mansion, Wayne.
June 30 Congress abandons Independence Hall in Philadelphia and reconvenes in Princeton.
August 23 * George and Martha Washington arrive at Rockingham.
September 3 America and Britain sign Peace Treaty in Paris, France.
November 2 * Washington writes Farewell Address to the Armies at Rockingham.
Winter encampments were the necessary acknowledgments of rest and repair that eighteenth century armies gave to the harsher weather and energy requirements of the season. Middlebrook, as it was known, is the name given to the tributary that runs from the Watchung hills down through the gorge at Chimney Rock above contemporary Bound Brook. The Revolutionary garrison formed in the area, and the cantonment included the colonial bridge sites across the Raritan in what is now modern Bound Brook. From the heights above the flats of Bound Brook, and along the Watchung ridge, commanding views east and southeast to old Elizabethtown and the Amboys, were available; similarly to the south and southwest to New Brunswick and Princeton. If an immediate strategic retreat were called, the relative safety in the foothills of Morris and Sussex lay just behind to the north.
The strategic location would find further use at what is known as the Second Middlebrook Encampment, with the winter reserve of American forces as they faced the continuing occupation of New York by the British, following the rebels' victory at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. The Second Encampment is remembered for the contribution of its commanding General Washington, and of Von Steuben, Inspector General of the Continental army who is credited with harnessing the social energies of revolution into the disciplined fighting force that American regulars needed to become in order to defeat the larger and more well financed British army of occupation.
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