Saturday, June 1, 2013

Jingle bells across the Arthur Kill?

Just when you think you've heard about every Revolutionary War story about New Jersey, something else pops up.

A while back I wrote about American troops camping beside the Rahway River in Cranford during the winter of 1779-80. While others were stationed at General Washington's winter headquarters in Morristown, General William Irvine's men were part of the forward defense against potential raids by the British troops stationed on Staten Island. The Redcoats would often come to New Jersey in attempts to steal food and supplies from the locals and had even tried to kidnap Washington.

Morristown gets all the press, but soldiers stationed at the little-known cantonments in Cranford and other communities closer to Staten Island actually had a better time of it. Though everyone had to deal with the heavy snows and cold weather, it was far easier for commanders of the smaller groups to keep their troops fed and housed.

In the midst of this hardship, Washington formulated a daring plan to attack General Wilhelm von Knyphausen's British troops on Staten Island. The narrow Arthur Kill was frozen, offering a rare solid surface for troops to cross from Elizabeth or Perth Amboy. Perhaps Washington was thinking that American forces would be able to reprise the surprise Trenton raid that had turned the tide of the war for the Americans in December 1776.

General William Alexander (a.k.a. Lord Stirling) and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton met at Crane's Mills on January 13 and 14, 1780 to finalize the tactical aspects of the plan to be executed the following day. Rather than using Durham boats as Washington's troops had in the Delaware crossing, the Americans would be able to use land-based transportation: sleighs.

Yes, you read that right: sleighs. In what's been deemed one of the strangest military operations of the Revolution, Stirling and Hamilton mustered 500 sleighs to transport 2500 troops across the Arthur Kill. One would guess that the secrecy of the operation meant they didn't include jingle bells to the mix.

There's a good reason why there's no famous painting of this crossing to pair with Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware. Depending on which data source you consult (and there aren't many), the attack was cancelled either because the British had caught wind of it, or due to extreme cold weather. This, however, didn't stop Washington from ordering several smaller incursions on Staten Island throughout the winter months.

Six months later, von Knyphausen would lead these British troops unsuccessfully in the Battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield. You have to wonder whether those conflicts would have happened had the sleigh attack on Staten Island been executed successfully.

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