By J. M. Hochstetler
|General George Washington
There were good reasons for this strategy: to remove leaders from participation in the war; and to exchange a captive as needed for one of their own of the same rank that the enemy held. Precise intelligence about the object’s location and absolute secrecy were crucial to success. Failure might leave the raiders stranded in enemy territory, and if captured, they could be hanged. Speed was therefore vital to snag their object, then return to safety with the captive in tow.
Washington’s army spent the winter of 1778-79 at Morristown, New Jersey, where they endured more severe and desperate conditions than at Valley Forge the previous year. Temperatures plummeted and 28 blizzards pounded the region, burying the roads under snowdrifts that made traveling any distance difficult at best, impossible at worst, and often brought transportation of essential supplies to a halt. The army camped in a place called Jockey Hollow, while Washington and his staff set up headquarters roughly 3 miles away in Morristown, crowded into the home of widow Theodosia Ford and her 4 young children. For a brief overview of the army’s trials, watch the video below.
It didn’t take long for the distance between their arch rival and his army to draw the attention of British spies, who immediately passed the information to the British high command. This vulnerability inspired plans for a coup that not only could demoralize the rebels, but just might cripple the patriot cause beyond recovery and end the war with a British triumph: the capture of the American commander.
Not that the patriots were oblivious to the dangers. Washington had already been the object of one failed kidnapping attempt in summer 1776, and his second in command, General Charles Lee was currently held by the British after being snatched in a daring raid that December. It did not escape notice that with rivers and creeks throughout the area frozen solid there was a very real possibility the British might attempt a raid into New Jersey. But Washington was surprised when Silas Condict, a member of the New Jersey executive council, sent him a letter warning that a party of horsemen could reach Morristown undiscovered and capture him. The American commander was convinced, however, that with his Life Guard quartered close by and the army not far down the road, a raid would easily be quashed, and he brushed off Condict’s warning.
But with only 87 Life Guards available at that time, and snow often blocking the roads between headquarters and the army, a very real hole in security existed. Partially plugging it, two brigades under Maj. General St. Clair were stationed west of Elizabethtown to guard against British raiders crossing the Hudson from Staten Island. St. Clair also had the foresight to ask New Jersey authorities to raise a militia company of light cavalry to patrol the coastal roads. The patrols would soon prove their worth.
In fact, a British plot was already afoot to send raiders across the Hudson River, frozen solid that unusually cold winter. At around the same time Captain George Beckwith, Lt. Gen. Wilhelm vonKnyphausen’s aide, and Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe, commander of the loyalist Queen’sRangers, independently came up with plans to kidnap the American commander based on detailed intelligence. Knyphausen preferred Beckwith’s plan because it called for a larger main force consisting of several hundred cavalry and infantry, which would cross from Manhattan, targeting Washington’s headquarters, while 3 diversionary units crossed from Staten Island to attack several American outposts in northern Jersey.
The detachment managed to get as far as Hackensack and penetrate five or six more miles into the country. Still a good distance from Morristown, they were forced to turn back by sleet-crusted snow that cut the horses’ fetlocks, and then came under American fire. Unknown to them, Continental soldiers and Jersey militia had also discovered the British diversionary forces and drove them back across the Hudson as well. The only real damage occurred at Elizabethtown, with one American soldier injured and the houses of several prominent citizens plundered “in a most barbarous manner.” All while Washington slept the night away at his headquarters, blissfully unaware of how close he had come to falling into British clutches.
The opportunity to capture Washington and end the war was briefly at the fingertips of the British high command. But fortunately for the fledgling United States and for us today, the moment passed. Ultimately it was not to be.
|American Patriot Series #5
Following a humiliating defeat at Philadelphia and a rival’s stunning victory at Saratoga, Washington’s army faces a bitter winter at Valley Forge. Meanwhile, General Jonathan Carleton races to save Elizabeth Howard from the horrors of the prison ships in the British stronghold at New York, while British General William Howe plots to execute them both. From heart-pounding battles on the high seas, to the rigors of Valley Forge and the Shawnee’s savagely fought wars to preserve their ancestral lands, Valley of the Shadow continues the thrilling saga of America’s founding in an inspiring story of despair, courage, and triumph.
J. M.Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is also an author, editor, and publisher. Her American PatriotSeries is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Northkill, Book 1 of theNorthkill Amish Series coauthored with Bob Hostetler, won Foreword Magazine’s 2014 Indie Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, released April 1, 2017. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year.