Saturday, September 13, 2014

Punk Hill and the Might Have Been

Often overlooked in the common awareness of the Revolution were the Forage Wars.  New Jersey was a particularly intense battleground as British and Patriot forces maneuvered to take from the land needed supplies.  There were numerous skirmishes, and in some cases, much larger and decisive battles were narrowly avoided.

On March 8, 1777, one such battle occurred at "Punk Hill" in New Jersey, in the vicinity of Perth Amboy, Metuchen and Edison.  According to a letter published on March 17, 1777 from a correspondent claiming to have seen a letter from American General William Maxwell, "the enemy had brought out all their troops from Amboy &c. supposed to be about 3000 and posted themselves on Punkhill: They brought artillery and a number of waggons, as if to forage, 'tho there was none left in that neighborhood worth notice." Maxwell sent a diversionary force to the British left and another force towards Bonhamtown to the British right to evaluate their strength.  Somewhere in the middle the fores engaged; the British withdrew in confusion.  The letter reports almost 20 killed and almost 40 wounded by the enemy.  In General William Maxwell and the New Jersey Continentals, Harry M. Ward sizes the British force at 2000.  He observes that "despite not much being accomplished, the action of March 8 further gave evidence of Maxwell's combativeness."

Howard Peckham, in The Toll of Independence, reports "a large British force under William Howe was attacked by Americans under Gen. William Maxwell," and the Americans suffered three wounded.

There are no clear markings as to the site of the battle; Punk Hill was also known as Strawberry Hill.  As near as I can determine, this is the area of Punk Hill (looking up Strawberry Hill Road and showing the hill):

What would have happened if the British had stayed to fight? Would more American militia been committed? Would the British have reinforced? A small skirmish, barely legible in the urban sprawl of this part of New Jersey, and another Might Have Been moment in the history of the war.

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