There has been, as yet, no adequate recognition of the assistance rendered by the Navy, in the land campaigns of the Revolution; yet the successes of those campaigns were in no small part due to the Navy's work. Where can you read of the gallant and invaluable assistance that the Navy afforded the Army at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, and during those gloomy and almost hopeless days prior to these battles of our Revolution?
Every school child is familiar with the inspiring story of how Washington in 1776—defeated in the battles around New York—retired across the Jerseys with the enemy in confident pursuit; how—after receiving large reinforcements from Philadelphia—he recrossed the ice-jammed river through a blinding snow storm, and captured Rall's Hessians at Trenton; how he returned to the Pennsylvania side, and thence once more recrossing to the Jerseys, won the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777; but that is only half the story.
It was not by accident that Washington's Army found transportation waiting for it about December 8, when, gasping and depleted, it reached the Delaware; that the British fleet was not in the Delaware waiting for Washington's arrival; or that the British Army was forced to halt at the river bank, for want of boats. It was not the aroused citizens alone that furnished all the reinforcements received by Washington; it was no group of undisciplined men unused to the water that made possible the crossings of the Delaware. It was in these, and other respects, that the Navy gave its effective co-operation; it was thus that it made possible the victories that were so vital to Washington's campaign.
One of the main objects of that part of the Continental Navy which lay in the Delaware and of the Pennsylvania Navy was the protection of Philadelphia, the seat of the Continental Government. J. Fenimore Cooper in his History of the Navy wrote that "Philadelphia being the seat of government, the largest town in the country, and naturally strong in its defenses, more than usual attention was paid to the means of preventing the enemy from getting possession of it by water." British vessels maintained a close watch at the mouth of the Delaware Bay and in 1776, as well as in other years, they menaced the Capital City, hoping to form a junction with their army on the Delaware. They found the way barred by armed ships of Pennsylvania and the Continental Congress. For instance, in May of that year the Continental ship Reprisal (Captain Lambert Wickes) and the Pennsylvania ships Montgomery, Aetna, and thirteen other armed boats engaged the Roebuck and Liverpool in the lower Delaware near the mouth of the Christiana. The Continental schooner Wasp (Captain Charles Alexander) at the same time captured an enemy brig. There is no question but that this part of the Navy's mission was efficiently accomplished.
Now let us consider the situation as it was during Washington's retreat after his defeat around New York. The whole of the Jerseys was overrun by the enemy, and Congress, after making Washington dictator, had retired to Baltimore. While Washington was thus retreating—just managing to keep ahead of the British—the vessels of the Continental and Pennsylvania Navies with a large number of boats and barges combed the banks of the river, above and below Trenton, gathering in everything that would float.
At this time there were in the river several vessels of the Continental Navy. Among them were the frigate Delaware (Captain Charles Alexander), the frigate Randolph (Captain Nicholas Biddle), the Andrea Doria (Captain Isaiah Robinson), and the sloop Hornet; while the frigate Washington, under the command of Captain Thomas Read, and the frigate Effingham, commanded by Captain John Barry, were on the stocks unfinished. The Pennsylvania State Navy also had a large number of ships, and their mission and achievements were as national in character as those of the Continental Navy, except that they were, in general, confined to the limits of the Delaware Bay and river. In the early autumn of 1776 there were 768 bluejackets and marines, with a corresponding number of officers, serving on board twenty-eight Pennsylvania vessels.
Washington's army completed the passage of the river on December 8. So effective had been the work of the Navy, however, that when the British reached the river shortly after, not a boat was to be found, and their generals quickly decided that it would be impossible to cross until the river should freeze. Accordingly the British occupied Trenton, and spread up and down the eastern bank of the Delaware occupying towns and strong positions.
After crossing the river, Washington called for men and planned for the defense of Philadelphia. Of the reinforcements sent in answer to his urgent requests, a large number were bluejackets and marines. Some joined him in time to fight at Trenton, while others did not arrive until a few days before the Battle of Princeton.
The commanding officer of the frigate George Washington, Captain Thomas Read, volunteered for land service and, on December 2, was directed to join General Washington, with his officers, bluejackets and marines. They were assigned to the artillery. Captain John Barry, commanding the unfinished Continental frigate Effingham, also joined, but his biographers have so confused the facts in their praises of his services that it is difficult to set forth his achievements. In addition, Captain James Nicholson, in command of the Continental frigate Virginia, under construction at Baltimore, and Captain George Cook, commanding the Maryland ship Defence, hastened north with their seamen and marines. The marines of the Andrea Doria, under Captain Isaac Craig, were also among the reinforcements. Then there was the splendid battalion of marines commanded by Major Samuel Nicholas, in whose memory a destroyer of the United States Navy has been named. This battalion reported to Washington in the Jerseys in November of 1776.
The Pennsylvania Navy furnished a number of officers and men to Washington's army. Among them were the fifty marines of the flagship Montgomery under Captain William Brown and First Lieutenant James Morrison, serving as artillery; and Captain William Shippin and his thirty marines of the Hancock, serving as infantry. The marines and other enlisted men of the Arnold Battery under Captain Thomas Forrest also joined, while from correspondence it would appear that all or part of the crew of the Putnam Battery were present. So much for the naval forces that reinforced the Army ashore.
From December 8 to the date of the Battle of Trenton, the Navy was the military eyes of Washington through which he kept watch of the enemy on the opposite shore. The efficient aid afforded by the Hancock and other vessels off Burlington, in the latter half of December, illustrates how well the Navy occupied the "front line trenches" during this eventful period. The Hessians entered Burlington on December 11. The Hancock and other vessels present immediately opened fire on the town. The next day Captain Moore of the Hancock sent Captain William Shippin and his thirty marines ashore with orders to burn the town if he found Hessians there. Finding that the Hessians had withdrawn the day before, Captain Shippin spent a few days securing information and then returned to his ship on the 17th.
Not only did the Navy maintain a close observation of the enemy's movements, but it was prepared to contest his passing the river. On December 12, the frigate Randolph and the sloop Hornet of the Continental Navy were "put under the direction of the Continental General commanding in Philadelphia, to act as he shall direct, for the defense of the city," and "preventing the enemy from passing the Delaware." The above described incident at Burlington and the Navy's readiness to defend the Delaware against any effort of the enemy to cross are illustrative of the importance of the part played by the Navy. It had not only saved Washington's army, but, through the control of the Delaware, finally forced the enemy to abandon his attempts to capture Philadelphia from the north.
As soon as Washington had received sufficient men and matériel he began a retaliatory offensive. His first plan was for the capture of Rall's Hessians at Trenton. He divided his forces into three divisions. Washington, with about 2,400, decided to cross the Delaware at McKonkey's Ferry (now Taylorsville) a few miles above Trenton; General Cadwalader was to cross at Bristol; and General Ewing at Trenton Ferry. Only Washington's division succeeded in getting to the Jersey shore. The Pennsylvania archives state that "in December when the British army threatened Philadelphia, the armed boats lent efficient service in transporting General Washington's army across the Delaware." The value of the services rendered by the Navy at this time cannot be overestimated.
It was 3:00 A. M., December 26, before all of Washington's division got over the river. General Ewing failed to cross at Trenton Ferry and General Cadwalader did not succeed in getting over at Bristol, though he "got part of his foot over."
The Navy was well represented ashore at the first Battle of Trenton on December 26. We know that the detachment of the Washington's bluejackets under Captain Thomas Read received special commendation for their part in this battle. Scharf, in his History of Delaware, writes that after giving "valuable assistance in the celebrated crossing of the Delaware," Captain Read "commanded a battery composed of guns taken from his own frigate," the Washington, "which raked the stone bridge across the Assanpink," and that for "this important service he received the thanks of all the general officers." Barry's biographers say that Barry was there. Cooper says Captain Nicholson and his bluejackets and marines of the Virginia were there. The Society of the Sons of the American Revolution of Pennsylvania says Captain Shippin and his marines of the Pennsylvania ship Hancock were there. The Magazine of History says Captain William Brown and his marines of the Montgomery were there. All authorities show Captain Thomas Forrest was there, while General Wilkinson, in his Memoirs, states that Forrest commanded artillery "under the immediate eye of General Washington." How many more were present we do not yet know.
Washington returned to the Pennsylvania side the evening of the 26th, taking with him his prisoners and captured artillery.
General Cadwalader's division crossed over to Jersey on the 27th at Minnick's Ferry, about a mile above Bristol. The Navy again rendered valuable assistance in ferrying it across, the Marylanders in particular, under Captains James Nicholson and George Cook, performing excellent service. General Cadwalader proceeded to Burlington where he was joined by "a detachment of sailors used to firing guns," under command of Captain Thomas Read of the Continental Navy and other naval forces under Major Nicholas, Captains Isaac Craig, William Shippin, Wiliam Brown and others. General Cadwalader then pushed on to Bordentown, where he arrived on the 29th.
General Washington recrossed the river on the same date—the Navy once more assisting—and occupied Trenton. Here General Cadwalader and General Mifflin with their divisions joined him, on New Year's Day, 1777. The enemy advanced toward Trenton from Princeton on the 2d and, after a small but important engagement with them, Washington retired across the Assanpink, a creek which runs through Trenton.
How well Washington extricated himself from this perilous position and won the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777, is well known. At any rate all the naval forces mentioned above as being ashore did a gallant share of the fighting, suffered losses and were highly commended. Captain William Shippin of the Pennsylvania marines was killed. If our authorities are not all wrong, there were present at this battle some officers and some or all of the crews of each of the Continental ships of war, Effingham, Virginia, Washington, Delaware, and Andrea Doria; a battalion of Continental marines under Major Samuel Nicholas; some of the officers and part of the crews of the flagship Montgomery and the Hancock; and the marines and others of the floating batteries Arnold and Putnam of the Pennsylvania Navy. Of these, the detachments under Captains Read, Brown and Forrest, served as artillery. No doubt many more officers and men of the Pennsylvania Navy, of whose services no record has yet been found, were also present. The potential assistance of the Pennsylvania Navy, including marines, about this time, was seventy-three commissioned officers, 123 noncommissioned officers and 513 enlisted men, a total of 709.
At the conclusion of these operations, the naval personnel, with the exception of the detachments under Major Nicholas and Captains Forrest and Brown, resumed their former stations and duties. Captain Forrest joined the artillery of Washington’s army. Captain Brown's company left the Army on January 23d, while the battalion of Major Nicholas accompanied Washington to Morristown and served with the Army for several months before returning to duty with the Navy.
The total number of bluejackets and marines serving with the Army at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton is nowhere stated. That there were at least 500 officers, bluejackets and marines ashore with Washington, and as many more on the co-operating vessels, is certain. Out of a total force of only a few thousand, this was no inconsiderable proportion.
Tedious and painstaking research will some day reveal far more than is told in these pages; but sufficient will be read here to indicate that without the assistance afforded by the Continental Navy and Navies of Pennsylvania and Maryland, the victories of Trenton and Princeton would never have been won.
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