During the winter of 1778-1779, when the warring armies in America were settling in to their winter quarters, George Washington wrote the following orders to General William Maxwell for his Jersey Brigade:
Middle Brook, December 21, 1778.
You are appointed to the command at Elizabeth Town at which place you are to remain with the New Jersey Brigade: But should you be of opinion that the troops can be more conveniently quartered by removing part to New Ark, you may order a Regiment or as many to that place as circumstances shall require.
The principal object of your position is to prevent the Enemy stationed upon Staten Island from making incursions upon the main and also to prevent any traffic between them and the inhabitants. In this respect I must request you to be very vigilant and to use your utmost exertions as great complaints have been made of a trade's being carried on so openly and to such a height, as to alarm and give great umbrage to the well affected. I am informed that considerable quantities of provision are carried over to and goods brought from Staten Island thro' Woodbridge and Raway (sic) Necks, you will therefore either keep patrols or post small parties upon that quarter, as you shall judge most expedient and likely to prevent such intercourse.
Maxwell's task was also to gather intelligence about the intentions of the enemy both on his front and, if possible, from their command center in New York, and Washington cautioned later that winter; "The season advances when the enemy will begin to stir, and we should if possible be acquainted with their motions."
Washington gave explicit instructions regarding granting too many furloughs to officers to leave their regiments, but for Col. Matthias Ogden this was home turf and it is likely that he found quarters at his own residence in Elizabethtown. The Jersey Brigade was used to operating in this region, as its proximity to occupied Staten Island made it vulnerable to frequent royalist raids, often guided by loyalist refugees from Elizabethtown. For the Elizabethians in the 1st New Jersey, this meant that they were on their guard even as they spent the war's customary "off season" in their own hometown. It also may have impacted discipline in the regiment, especially with a fun loving Colonel like Ogden on his own home ground and others who were not close enough to their homes in nearby counties to see to their personal affairs without a furlough.
It also meant that they were vulnerable to surprise. Washington wrote in anger that February about what he believed was the inattention Lieutenant Pierson of the 1st New Jersey who was surprised at Bonhamtown. The most serious attack took place on February 25th, when raiders destroyed the Elizabethtown Barracks, the parsonage of the 1st Presbyterian Church, and damaged Governor Livingston's residence taking thirty prisoners. Aaron Ogden was wounded in the side by a bayonet during the raid, but made a full recovery. It is not clear from Washington's correspondence whether Matthias Ogden, facing pending court martial proceedings, was under arrest or in command of his regiment during these raids, though a history of Elizabeth claimed he was fully involved in the pursuit of the raiders. In any case, the military situation on the front lines was compromised by the lack of firm hands in command and Ogden's trial could not have helped matters.
Washington had much more on his mind aside from annoyance raids from Staten Island. He was deep in the planning stages for the upcoming campaign season, and he had specific plans in mind for the Jersey Brigade. Writing in the end of January to one of his frontier commanders, Washington said;
"I hope by pursuing a steady and properly concerted plan next Campaign we may, if we cannot engage the friendship of the savages, reduce them to the necessity of remaining quiet. To effect this, it is determined, at present, to carry the War into the Indian Country next Spring as early as the season and the state of our Magazines will admit. No particular plan is yet fixed, nor are the places which will be the most proper objects of attack yet marked out."
These preparations were in response to the Wyoming Massacre in Pennsylvania, and Washington was formulating a response that would send a punitive expedition deep into Iroquois Country. He made inquires of knowledgeable subordinates "of the different Routs (sic) leading to the Country of the Six Nations by land and Water, having particular regard to the distances, face of the Country, and kind of navigation." He made the same request of General Maxwell. As Ogden's trial got underway in early March, Washington had already settled for his second choice of commander for this expedition, in the weeks after its conclusion Washington's correspondence with Maxwell indicates that he intended the New Jersey Brigade to participate.
It is not likely that the commander in chief was waiting for the outcome of Ogden's trial before deciding on whether the Jersey Brigade would go against the Iroquois, but in the weeks that followed he had more problems with many officers throughout the entire Jersey Line than those that had lately beset the commander of the 1st New Jersey. We will examine that state of affairs in a subsequent post, but the stage is now set for the trial of Matthias Ogden, and we shall pick up the story with what is known about the actual proceedings in the next post in this series.