Engulfed in pitfalls 238 years ago – New Jersey State Quarter Coin

Today, the New Jersey State Quarter Coin tells the story of the defeat of the British at Fort Mercer (Red Bank) and Fort Mifflin (Mud Island) on October 23, 1777.

In the New Complete History of the United States of America, Volume VII, The Revolution, published 1905, John Clark Ridpath wrote of the Battle of Red Bank:


Despite Washington’s missing his stroke at Germantown, his army only twenty miles from Philadelphia, constantly menacing the British, combined with the American possession of the river, made Howe ’s position very uneasy and precarious.

Supplies could only come by ascending the river to Chester, then debarking and going on by land, always under peril of an American raid on the convoy.

The army could not be forced to a fight, probably not surprised, nor be permanently dislodged from the neighborhood so long as the State was still in rebellion; and for all the effusive loyalism it was so, and Howe had acquired for the British government little more than the ground his forces occupied.

Even to make sure of that, it was indispensable to open the river to supplies and establish communication between the army and the fleet; and we have shown what steps were to be taken.

At the British approach, the Billingsport garrison spiked their guns and withdrew, leaving the lower range of chevaux-de-frise unguarded; Lord Howe brought up his fleet, and by the middle of October his workmen had opened a narrow tortuous channel through the obstructions.

As to Hazelwood’s flotilla, the mongrel crews had regarded its defeat as indicating the hopelessness of the cause, and many both of officers and men deserted to the British; but he filled the gaps, and being given command also of the Continental vessels there, stood ready for renewed action.

He was to co-operate with the garrisons of about 400 Continentals in each of the two forts guarding the upper range—Rhode-Islanders under Colonel Christopher Greene at Fort Mercer (Red Bank), Marylanders under Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Smith at Fort Mifflin on Mud Island.

While this went on, news of Burgoyne’s surrender arrived.

There being no present object in holding the Hudson, and the crushing of Washington’s army with the clearing of the Delaware being the one grand British objective, Howe ordered Clinton to abandon the newly captured forts and send him at least 6000 men, and began to entrench from the Schuylkill to the Delaware.

Clinton accordingly dismantled the forts and retired to, New York, Tryon thoughtfully burning every house within reach.

The grand triune New York campaign had ended with holding in October exactly what they held in June, nothing at all except the vicinity of New York city; thanks to Burgoyne’s impracticable dreams, Germain’s dull incapacity, and the indifference or hostility of Burgoyne’s mates to his success, in percentages needless to compute.

Donop had fretted at his subordinate place, and was convinced that with a separate command he could strike a brilliant blow; and Howe finally gave him leave to carry Fort Mercer by assault “if it could be done easily.”

Accordingly, Donop on the 21st took 1200 picked Hessians, crossed the Delaware, and marched inland to Haddonfield to throw the Americans off the track; thence with Tory guides they proceeded rapidly and secretly southwest all day and night.

Early. the next morning they reached cannon-range of the fort in a thick wood, and began to plant batteries.

At half-past four in the afternoon Donop summoned the garrison to surrender, threatening to give no quarter; defied, his batteries opened fire, under cover of which he led a storming party toward the southern side, while another advanced on the north across a protecting swamp.

Greene’s small garrison could not man the outworks, and retreated within the central redoubt, the men crouching behind the walls so that the shouting Hessians who rushed upon it thought it deserted.

But a masked battery and battalion behind an angle of the works suddenly opened at once upon front and flank of the northern party, with such volleys of grape-shot and musketry that they broke and fled.

And when Donop’s companies had cleared the abatis, they were engulfed in pitfalls, while two armed galleys concealed in the bushes made havoc on their flanks.

Nevertheless, filling the ditch with the fascines they carried, they crossed to climb the glacis; but the Americans rose above the parapets as at Bunker Hill and swept the whole front rank away, Donop being mortally wounded, and his staff with more than half the other officers killed or disabled.

Some brave fellows succeeded in mounting the parapet, but were shot or struck down with bayonet or lance.

As twilight advanced, the whole force retreated; the wounded crawling into bushes or screaming for the quarter they had sworn not to give.

They had lost 402 in all, 26 being officers; the Americans had 8 killed and 29 wounded, several by the bursting of one of their own cannon, and a reconnoitering captain was taken prisoner.

Six British vessels carrying 120 guns had made their way up, and at sound of the firing engaged the American flotilla; but received so hot a return fire that they drew off, and waiting till morning, turned their guns against Fort Mifflin, against which a battery on the Pennsylvania shore had been unsuccessfully operating.

An attempt was also made to run floating batteries into the channel next that shore.

But the fort with the American vessels and floating batteries foiled the effort, and so raked the British fleet that it hurried to escape down the river, during which act the 64-gun Augusta and the 18-gun Merlin grounded; the former was set on fire by hot shot and blew up, the latter was abandoned and burned.

But the British resources were far too great to make a permanent holding of the river possible.

Howe, it is true, was thoroughly sick of his task.

His political plan was obviously a failure: the numbers of influential citizens who had come over did not change the fact that the country as a whole was averse to further British connection, except upon terms of virtual independence which there seemed no probability of Britain ever granting.

As for military conquest, if two years of war had won just three American seaports and not ten miles of interior, it was impossible to the point of absurdity unless Germain would send him immense reinforcements instead of censure for asking them.

He wrote this plainly to the ministry, and asked leave to resign his command.


The New Jersey State Quarter Coin shows beside a map view of the Rebel fort and works, on Mud Island and Red-Bank on the Jersey shore, circa 1777.

New Jersey State Quarter Coin