Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Red Bank on the Delaware: a Revolutionary footnote

On our recent trip to National Park in Gloucester County, we found a little-known Revolutionary War site -- the Red Bank Battlefield. Not to be confused with the town of Red Bank in Monmouth County, this field was named for its naturally red soil and earned its name through a courageous, patriotic stand.

Today, the city of Philadelphia takes several miles of the Delaware River coastline, but in revolutionary times, the community was a lot smaller. The site that's now National Park was several miles downriver, making it a good location for a fort to protect the vitally important city and its port from British invasion. For that reason, in 1777 the fledgling United States built two forts on either side of the river. The one on the New Jersey side was named Fort Mercer, after Brigadier General Hugh Mercer, who'd perished during the Battle of Princeton.

Later that year, however, the British occupied Philadelphia via overland march, and General Howe sent about 2000 Hessian troops across the river via Haddonfield to destroy Fort Mercer on October 22. A land-based attack wasn't expected, but the fort was prepared to a degree: Washington had already sent two Rhode Island regiments for defense. When they refused to surrender, the Hessians responded with a broad cannonade, attempting to breach the earthen works protecting the fort. Once they'd made a hole in the wall, they expected the Americans would either surrender or flee, but instead the patriots responded with what was described as shower of musket fire and grape shot. Several hundred American soldiers defended their ground fiercely, killing, wounding or capturing nearly 400 Hessians and forcing the remainder to retreat. U.S. casualties were relatively few, with 14 killed and 23 wounded.

The victory, though relatively small, was a morale builder for the new country, with one observer describing it as "one of the most glorious stands ever made by patriots fighting for home or country." The satisfaction was short lived, as General Nathanial Greene ordered the fort abandoned and destroyed after Fort Mifflin was taken by the British.

Today, the fort's earthen works and a few cannons still remain among the memorials to the bravery of the patriots who defended the fort. You can also check out the nearby home that served as a hospital for soldiers on both sides, including the Hessian commander Count Karl Emil Kurt von Donop, who died from his battle wounds. The house's owners, James and Ann Whitall, were observant Quakers, and Ann tended to both the Hessians and Americans. While being eminently humane, Ann apparently didn't put up with those who commented on the crowded conditions in the makeshift hospital. She reportedly told them that they should "not complain who had brought it upon themselves."

Those who died during or after the battle were buried nearby, giving rise to eerie goings-on. According to legend, some of the burial ground was close to the banks of the Delaware, and the inevitable erosion exposed the bones of the dead. Mischief makers would come to collect the bones and sometimes would rap them against the Whitalls' windows, until Ann had her sons collect the unearthed bones and reinter them in a more secure area.

We didn't see any bones or ghosts while we were there, just the house, memorials and a nice picnic and recreation area. No word on whether any dispatched Hessians stop by the picnickers to ask to borrow their Grey Poupon.

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