Salem County and the American Revolution

Excerpts from the book Fenwick’s Colony published in observance of New Jersey’s Tercentenary Year 1664 – 1964 by the Salem County Tercentenary Committee.

“That They Might Enjoy the Blessings of Freedom.”

The peaceful Salem colonists were first aroused from their labors by the advent of the Revolutionary War in the year 1776. Just two months after the battles of Lexington and Concord touched off open hostility, the local citizens began to form militia companies called Associators on the style of the Massachusetts Minutemen.

The first taste of war came to the county on May 5, 1776 when two British warships, Roebuck and Liverpool, appeared in the Delaware chasing the American brig, Lexington. Alarmed over the vulnerable coastline, Pennsylvania sent row galleys down the river to assist the Lexington and two smaller ships.

In the unequal battle which followed, the cannonade rumbled through the area and served to arouse the war fever of the local gentry. John Holme was chosen as the first colonel of militia. He was later replaced by his brother, Benjamin Holme, who commanded during the British raid of 1778.

[The house in Helm’s Cove: You can still find the house and tavern built of distinctive brick by Andrew Helm in 1732. Helm ran the tavern and operated a ferry boat from the nearby shore across the Delaware River. It has the distinction of having a mark high on its west wall where a cannonball struck it during the 1776 battle. Supposedly the British frigate Roebuck fired the shot to drive the jeerers from the shore.]

The war did not really touch the country again until the severe winter of 1778 when the Continental Army was suffering so terribly at Valley Forge. General Anthony Wayne was sent to the southern Jersey County in desperate search for beef to relieve the food situation at Valley Forge. On February 19, 1778, he landed at Salem and began his cattle collection. A Salem Tory, Hugh Copperwaite, notified the British of Wayne’s arrival, touching off an immediate pursuit. The wily Wayne was gone before the British under Abercrombie arrived.

The British, unable to catch Wayne, then passed the next four days raiding the countryside, returning to Philadelphia on the first of March. Still, the true touch of war was delayed until the second British raid of 1778. During that period the two most famous engagements in Salem County took place.

The British “Salem Raid” of 1778 was commanded by two of His Majesty’s most formidable commanders, Charles Mawhood and John G. Simcoe. The ensuing battles resulted when the
British attempted to snap the line.

The Battle of Quinton’s Bridge

The American defenses at Quinton consisted of a drawbridge and some earthen fortifications on a bluff behind Alloways Creek. The direct command of the position had fallen to Captain William Smith. Under his direction were the local militiamen who probably outnumbered the British forces.

On the morning of March 18, 1778, the British commander had sent out foraging parties to bring back supplies. The party near Quinton’s Bridge was apparently threatened by the patriot forces and sent back a report on rebel strength in that area. Mawhood immediately took forces to the relief of the foragers. In order to gain a surprise, his circuitous course led at first away from Quinton toward another fortification.

Mawhood then took a concealed route back to the land opposite Quinton’s Bridge. Surveying the American position, Mawhood and Simcoe decided upon a further deception. Hiding their forces, still undetected by the patriots, in a nearby house and woods, they planned to decoy the inexperienced rebels into an ambush. A small force was sent forward into view to mask the ambush. They were then to withdraw.

Across the creek, the Americans watched this activity with growing excitement. Seeing the supposed retreat, Lieutenant Duclos, a Frenchman fighting with the Americans, rushed to Captain Smith and urged an immediate attack across the bridge. Picture the untried Smith imagining the glories of a resounding victory over the enemy. Calling for his horse, Smith gave the unfortunate order to attack. Intent on pursuit, the American forces streamed across the bridge directly into the British trap. With a laugh the British sprang from their ambush and too late the amazed Captain Smith realized his blunder.   The British fire cut down the Americans on all sides, and the rebels, turning backs, fled with vigor back over the bridge. It was a stroke of luck that kept the English from further advance. No sooner had the routed Americans crossed back over the bridge than reinforcements appeared on the other side of the creek. The Americans dismantled the bridge to stop the British progress. The Battle of Quinton’s Bridge was lost, but the Alloway Creek line remained whole.

The Massacre at Hancock’s Bridge

Hancock House was built in 1734 by Judge William Hancock and his wife Sarah. The land upon which the house was built was purchased by a cordwainer [shoemaker] William Hancock, in the year 1677. A record shows that it was part of a 1,000 acre lot for which he paid a yearly rental of one ear of Indian corn.

The land was bequeathed upon his death to his widow who in turn left it to her nephew and servant, John Hancock. At his death in 1725, his son William inherited one of the largest landed estates in the colony. At the top of the South wall of the house he built are his initial and that of his wife Sarah. The house is a large brick house. The unique ornamentation is of blue-glazed brick.

It was at the southernmost American outpost, Hancock’s Bridge that the greatest blow of the war came to Salem County. If the Alloway Creek line was to be dented, one of the flanks had to be turned. It was to achieve this end that Simcoe conceived his plan. For two days British troops had paraded before the rebels at Hancock’s bridge daring them to cross the creek and fight. The commander had learned well from the lesson taught at Quinton’s Bridge and wisely decided to remain on the south side of the creek. Unfortunately, Simcoe had a surprise in store for the defenders.

The British commander waited for night to fall, then boarded his Tory troops on boats and sailed to the mouth of Alloway Creek. There he found, much to his disgust, that someone in the Royal Navy had blundered, and the tide was running full against him. Putting trust in his Tory guides, Simcoe decided upon a daring march across the marshes. Meanwhile English regulars took up positions on the opposite side of the creek to close off any route of escape. Within an hour of sunrise on Saturday March 21, 1778, Simcoe’s men arrived at the small village of Hancock’s Bridge. They rapidly deployed to surround the William Hancock house where the patriot forces were barracked. With utmost precision, the British broke in both the front and back doors of the house, and the surprise was complete. A scene of terrible butchery began.

Giving no quarter, the Tory troops killed every male in the house including the aged owner, William Hancock. As most of the American troops had been withdrawn the night before, there could have been no resistance, yet only two men escaped death.

The American line was now turned and the British campaign a success. The remaining patriot emplacements were abandoned, and no further encounters took place. American arms had suffered two defeats at the hands of excellent troops masterfully commanded. The contest was unequal from the beginning. Under the circumstances, the patriots had behaved with great bravery and laid down their lives without question in defense of independence.

With the departure of Mawhood and Simcoe, the area saw the last of Revolutionary War violence. Sons of Salem County did continued to serve in Washington’s Army.

The Hancock House is an historic site owned by the state and operated by the New Jersey Park Service. The site also contains a reproduction of an early settler’s cabin. Reenactments take place each March along with other events throughout the spring and summer. Check the Park Service for a complete schedule.