From the Patriot point of view, the way General Knyphausen conducted his invasion and subsequent withdrawal from New Jersey in June of 1780 made no sense. The Royalists had a force of nearly 6,000 that far outnumbered the local militia and the handful of depleted Continental regiments that opposed them. Knyphausen twice marched inland from his beachhead to fight two sharp engagements, only to withdraw his entire force each time - as the commander of the New Jersey Continentals, General William Maxwell, would later put it - "with their backsides to the Sound near Elizabethtown." Washington's letters throughout the crisis show that he struggled to find meaning in the retrograde movements of the enemy, writing to General Anthony Wayne after the enemy's second withdrawal that "It is certainly difficult if not impossible, to ascertain their views."
Participants on the Royalist side has questions of their own. Lt. Colonel Ludwig Johann Adolph von Wurmb, who commanded the Hessian and Anspach Jaeger Corps, later wrote;
"I regret from the depths of my heart that the great loss of the Jaegers took place to no greater purpose."
Indeed, if the objective of the campaign were merely a raid in force, its costs do not justify the result. A campaign of more than two weeks to burn two insignificant villages, followed by a retreat back to Staten Island, should not have taken the deployment of 16 British, German and Loyalist infantry battalions, not to mention a considerable cavalry force and artillery. It was only much later, when historians were able to study British and German accounts of these events, that Knyphausen's behavior, if not his leadership, becomes understandable. Far from being the result of a coherent strategy, Knyphausen's objective changed in the midst of battle, and the reason for it was more than just a remarkable intelligence failure that underestimated Patriot resolve and the capacity of the militia to put up an effective resistance. Factional intrigue within the Royalist High Command doomed the venture from the start.
When Sir Henry Clinton, the British Commander in Chief in North America, sailed south with nearly half the New York garrison in the end of 1779, the focus of the war effort shifted to the southern colonies. As mention in the first post in this series, those Royalist leaders who remained in New York bridled at the thought that Clinton was keeping them inactive and in the dark while he was off winning laurels in the south. For his part, Clinton was notoriously silent about his intentions and overall strategy, confiding in a few close staff officers but not his commanders, let alone the Loyalist elite in New York who indeed wished to have him replaced, potentially by one of their own.
Lt. General Knyphausen was the senior officer left in New York and so by default was commander in Clinton's absence. Speaking no English, he was unwilling to launch a major campaign without orders from Clinton, much to the dismay of the New York Royalists, who even as late as May 28th were asking themselves if it were certain that Knyphausen "has a mind."
In fact, Clinton did have a plan for Knyphausen that resembled the course of action the reluctant Hessian general ultimately took in New Jersey, but it was to bring his Carolina Army north after reducing Charleston and to break the back of the Continental army in a two pronged advance on the patriot encampment in Morristown.
It was an excellent strategy. The continental battalions had suffered through the worst winter of the war and new recruits were lacking to fill their depleted ranks. The stores and artillery at Morristown were as vulnerable as Washington's army, which could not fight both Knyphausen and Clinton simultaneously. New Jersey might well be returned to royalist control.
But Clinton failed to let anyone in New York know his intentions. Knyphausen, too, was tired of garrison duty. When two regiments of the Connecticut line mutinied that May, it seemed to the Royalists in New York that Washington's army was on the verge of collapse. A plan finally took shape that would send a major force into New Jersey at Elizabethtown and march toward Hobart's Gap, the gateway through the Watchung Range to the Continental encampment and the supplies at Morristown. This, of course, was what Clinton had in mind for Knyphausen, but it was premature for Clinton's force was still in Charleston.
Astoundingly, there was still an eleventh hour opportunity to for Knyphausen to pull his punch, for by remarkable coincidence Clinton's A.D.C. Major William Crosbie, who was privy to his commander's plans, arrived from the South just as the invasion fleet was being readied. Thomas Fleming, whose research into the Springfield raid stands as the most authoritative to date, describes how Major Crosbie failed to stop the unauthorized invasion:
"Major Crosbie was nonplussed. He was on the stickiest wicket that any aide-de-camp ever encountered in the history of warfare. Sir henry had told him his real plans, but he had enjoined him to strictest secrecy. All Crosbie could do was give "hints" to those "to whom he should judge proper. This left Major Crosbie in an impossible position. He could not hope to screen out "proper" from "improper" hearers without making a host of powerful enemies. Since Sir Henry had a tendency to be jealous of almost everyone in the army above the rank of Colonel, its was easy for Crosbie to construe all of these assembled generals as improper. He has obviously intended to say nothing about Sir Henry's plan. Now he floundered and flapped and blurted out something vague. They had no reason to expect Sir Henry very soon, he said - or at least that is what everyone concluded from what he said. After more circumlocutions, everyone had the impression that Sir Henry was going to raid in the Chesapeake.
In that case, Knyphausen growled to [his aid] Beckwith, who was frantically translating all this, their invasion of New Jersey was strategically sound. It would pin down Washington's main army, leaving Sir Henry free to chew up what parts of Maryland and Virginia he chose. With elaborate courtesy, General von Knyphausen suggested that Major Crosbie join the invasion as a member of his staff. The agitated aide-de-camp mumbled his acceptance and before the night was over, found himself slogging through the marshes of Staten Island shore to board a New Jersey-bound flatboat."
- Thomas Fleming (1975) The Battle of Springfield, pgs 11,12
Crosbie, whose old battalion the 38th Regiment of foot was in the lead division of the Royalist force, would not find the courage to inform Knyphausen of the real state of affairs until well after battle had been joined the following day at Connecticut Farms. This changed everything, for with confirmation that Clinton was even now bringing his force back from the south, Knyphausen knew better than to proceed any further. Instead, he brought his force back to their beach head and hunkered down to wait for Clinton. No wonder the Patriots, let alone many of the Royalists, could make neither heads nor tails of it all!