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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Battle of the Short Hills

     This is one of the least known and commented on battles, and yet involved a remarkable movement of men during the New Jersey campaign of 1777, and the efforts of General William Howe to force General George Washington into engagement.  As much a series of skirmishes as a battle, the action encompassed a broad area of central New Jersey, primarily in what is now Edison and Scotch Plains.  The "short hills" are in the shadow of the Watchung Mountains, where Washington's forces were encamped at Middlebrook.  American Generals Lord Stirling (William Alexander), William Maxwell and Thomas Conway established a line extending from Ash Swamp, to the Metuchen Meetinghouse.  Washington's main army was at Quibbletown, (now part of Piscataway).  Howe moved his forces from Staten Island where they had replenished supplies, across to Perth Amboy.  Under General Charles Cornwallis and General James Grant, they moved through Woodbridge, encountering pickets and proceeded onwards.  Action occurred at the Metuchen Meetinghouse and along Oak Tree Road; the Americans retreated to Ash Swamp, fought a delaying action and retreated to the main army.  They had bought time for Washington to withdraw; the British did not pursue.  Howard Peckham, in The Toll of Independence, estimtes American killed at 30 and 50 captured; British 6 killed and 30 wounded.  Estimates vary, but American forces number 2,500 and British and Hessions, 11,000; this was no small engagement and took place over a wide area.  Ultimately, as with so many other such incidents during the Revolution, it had no lasting significance, but did allow Washington to avoid the encounter that Howe sought, and led to British return to Staten Island.


    This image is the marker for Ash Swamp, now on the fringe of a golf course.  The other sites mentioned above are scattered through central suburban New Jersey.  As Revolutionary War battles go, this one included a fair amount of troops and widespread geographic movement.  Driving from point to point still gives a sense of the movement of troops and the geography of place, particularly when standing on Washington Rock State Park in the Watchungs and seeing, so we are told, what Washington saw of the Jersey landscape.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bunker Hill Redux

     I have been reading James Nelson's excellent and fluid book on the Battle of Bunker Hill, With Fire and Sword.  What is striking about the events after Lexington and Concord, and leading up to Bunker Hill, is the climate of blame, manipulation, personal aggrandizement and ambition among the British generals and political leaders on the one hand, and the American patriots, would-be generals and politicians on the other.  I read a recent political column about the 2012 election in which the writer quoted a political leader to the effect that the Republican primaries are simply about individual hatreds rather than policy.  To a greater or lesser extent, a comparable comment could be made about the efforts to resolve the American conflict prior to Bunker Hill, and the manner in which particular individuals jockeyed for position and tore at each other.  It is also intriguing to compare British General Thomas Gage and the attacks on him with some of the kinds of attacks on former President George W. Bush--even if he were to have done something that his critics wanted, they could not, and would not, ever acknowledge it.  We lament the current political climate, but we bred it, and were bred in it, from the beginning.  What has changed today is the instant communication; at the time of Bunker Hill, it was a fast ship that got a message from America to England in five weeks.


     Here is a view of the training field and the Bunker Hill Monument just beyond, in Charleston.