At the rivers of Springfield, New Jersey,
Seventeen eighty, on June twenty three,
No King’s grenadier could beat Green or Lee.
In answer to their ranked, ordered folly,
We gave them musket and rifle volley;
And when lack of wadding silenced our noise,
Our minister then said, “Give them Watts, boys!”
There we fought with Presbyterian hymns,
Wadded up in our rifle barrel rims.
And with God turned back every foreign horde
Who in grenadier hero made their lord.
Those murderers, even in their retreat,
Pillaged and burned our town from every street,
Our children would be safe from future raids,
Only if through this we turned England’s blades.
Per Scriptum E. Wesley - Mackinac Center Intern
Known as the "forgotten victory," the Battle of Springfield demonstrated the American spirit and English animosity more than perhaps any other battle in the American War for Independence. Here, American militia and Continental infantry, some with wadding from Presbyterian hymnals, turned back a British-Hessian army of more than twice their strength. Their British opponents were those who hired foreign mercenaries to betray their own countrymen, because not enough men in England were willing to do so. This was the last major battle in the north, and a climax in the enduring tale of American liberty.
The year was 1780, and in the midst of Benedict Arnold's betrayal, British General Clinton ventured south to the Carolinas. During Clinton's absence, Hessian Lieutenant General Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen decided to risk a march through New Jersey. After the humiliating defeat of the Battle of Connecticut Farms at Hobart Gap, Knyphausen was forced to withdraw, while Washington planed a night attack. Clinton rushed back with reinforcements from the Carolinas, and was furious to find out that Knyphausen had started without him. Clinton found out the hard way how mercenary leadership functions in the context of conflict. The Hessian Knyphausen was a mercenary, fighting for money, not his own empire. He was fighting a war that was not his own, and had little to lose in an adventure. Washington, believing that Clinton would make for West Point next, marched on ahead to West Point, leaving only about 1,500 regulars and 500 militia at Morristown to defend New Jersey under the charge of General Nathanial Greene. Because Clinton expected that Arnold would soon turn over to British command the fort at West Point, he instead ordered on June 23rd that Knyphausen once more approach Hobart Gap, while Clinton himself moved up the Hudson to stop Washington from rescuing Green.
Knyphausen began mobilizing his overwhelming force of 5,000. Meanwhile, Greene, being ridiculously outnumbered, began taking up positions along strong geographic locations. He placed divisions of men along the rivers surrounding Springfield, particularly on the bridges across the Rahway River. The planks of the Galloping Hill Road bridged were removed nearer the town, and to the north, the Vauxhall Road bridges were destroyed. Under the command of Colonel Elias Dayton, the 3rd New Jersey with extra militia formed up on the Galloping Hill Road near Connecticut Farms. Behind the 3rd New Jersey, the 2nd Rhode Island, commanded by Colonel Israel Angell, held the first bridge. The 2nd New Jersey under Colonel Israel Schreve defended the second bridge. Behind this bridge, General Greene himself supervised another line on the heights outside of Springfield composed of the New Jersey militia under Major General Philemon Dickinson. North of the town, Major Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee formed a second set of lines along the bridges of the Vauxhall Road, with the 1st New Jersey under Colonel Mathias Ogden as support. Stationed at Bryant's Tavern, a final force including two New England regiments under Brigadier General John Stark and what remained of the New Jersey Brigade under Brigadier General William Maxwell was set up to reinforce both lines. Meanwhile, Knyphausen's British-Hessian army set out from Staten Island and moved through Elizabethtown with a force including the Musketeer Regiment von Bose, Jäger Corps the Musketeer Regiment von Donop, Cheshire Regiment, Brigade of Guards, 43rd Regiment of Foot, 17th Lancers, Royal Regiment of Artillery, 1st American Regiment (the Queen's Rangers), and the Scottish Black Watch.
American to American, the battle ironically opened with the Loyalist Queen's Rangers striking Daton's 3rd New Jersey and militia. Daton held out initially until the Ranger's finally outflanked him and forced him to mesh with Angell's men across the bridge. Knyphausen then sent more divisions to the north in order to flank Angell, and created a simultaneous front and flank attack at the fire of his signal gun. This attack failed twice due to impregnable American defenses backed with a rear cannon. Eventually, Knyphausen's men fanned out and crossed the few feet deep river. Angell held out for a total of five assaults before finally falling back and joining Schreve at the second bridge. Knyphausen once again brilliantly fanned out and crossed the second river, as well as bringing the 20 artillery pieces to bear and forcing the 38th regiment past the right flank of the Americans. However, the progress of this brilliant move was suddenly slowed when gunfire erupted from a stone house nearby and militia counterattacked. The sheer force of British-Hessian strength finally forced the Americans to the heights and Greene's headquarters. During one of these encounters, Dayton's men were driven back to a Presbyterian church and began to run out of gun wadding. The regiment Chaplain, Reverend James Caldwell, promptly entered the church and garbed the all familiar Issac Watts Hymnals; hymns that were sung by Americans everywhere. Passing out the inspiring lyrics, he charged his regiment, "Give them Watts, boys!" Initially, Lee's men on the north were faced with the same sort of pressing defeats, being forced to leave the bridges after fierce fighting. However, Greene sent Stark's two reserve regiments north to Lee's relief on the Short Hills. This brought the British assault on the north side to a standstill. Rather than attack the heights, the British retreated back to Knyphausen, burned and looted the entire town of Springfield, and left the field for New York. This battle was the last major encounter in the north, and gave General Greene defensive experience for his vital battles in the south that were to come.
Although overshadowed by later southern battles like Yorktown, the Battle of Springfield was crucial in shaping the war in the north, and is important for symbolic reasons if for nothing else. It is perhaps the most symbolic battle in the entire American War for Independence. King George III referred to the War as a "Presbyterian Rebellion." Nowhere is George III's claim more symbolically validated than at Springfield. Another fact to note, is that because the War was so controversial in England, George III couldn't find enough British recruits, and therefore used public money to hire a Hessian mercenary army to betray and destroy his own countrymen in American, in spite of the fact that many Englishmen were virtuous enough not to fight. At Springfield, not only were Hessians involved in the fighting, the battle was directed by Knyphausen, a Hessian. Defeating Knyphausen was an American triumph over the King's trademark of betrayal and tyranny. The British further degraded their cause and revealed their spite by cruelly burning the entire town of Springfield rather than retreat as gentlemen. "Give them Watts, boys" is rightfully the motto of this battle, and represents the victory of Christian America over betrayal and injustice.
Image of the Battle of Springfield NJ 1780 from Wikipedia