With General Howe's Royalist army last seen heading out to sea from the Capes of the Delaware, Washington continued to shuffle the various elements of his command to monitor the Crown forces that remained in New York and on Staten Island, while attending to known threats from Burgoyne in the North and to the possibility that Howe's real objective was Philadelphia.
One of Washington's divisions under Major General John Sullivan spent the last days of July and the first week of August marching between the Hudson Highlands and Morristown, New Jersey. This division consisted of the first Maryland Brigade, assigned to Brigadier General William Smallwood, and the 2nd Maryland Brigade under Brigadier General Preudhomme DeBorre. As it would soon play a major part in Sullivan's Staten Island Raid later that month, it is worth considering the composition and qualities of this Division and its commanders as we set the stage for that action.
John Sullivan was ambitious and eager for advancement. While serving as one of New Hampshire's delegates to Congress, he secured appointment as Brigadier General. He lead a relief expedition to Canada early in 1776 that ended with the retreat of the American forces to Lake Champlain. Sullivan hoped for field command of the Northern Army, but Congress passed him over in favor of Horatio Gates. Washington provided his own candid assessment of Sullivan in a letter to Congress:
"I think it is my duty to observe...that he is active, spiritied, and Zealously attach'd to the Cause; that he does not want Abilities, many Members of Congress, including myself, can testify. But he has his wants, and he has his foibles. The latter are manifested in a little tincture of vanity, and in an over desire of being popular, which now and then leads him into some embarrassments."
Appointed Major General on August 9th, 1776, Sullivan was new to his command and in the confusion of the Battle of Long Island a few weeks later he was captured after fended off his attackers with a pistol in each hand. Soon paroled, Sullivan was exchanged in time for the attacks on Trenton and Princeton where he performed well.
Congress authorized three year enlistments for Continental regiments in the new establishment, but as the 1777 campaign season advanced, many of these battalions were still greatly understrength. Maryland's quota was 8 battalions and it eventually fielded 7, but it was hard going.
On paper, the 1st Brigade of Sullivan's Division consisted of the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 6th Maryland regiments and the Delaware regiment, but a fair number of its senior officers, including Brig. Gen. Smallwood and Col. Mordecai Gist of the 3rd Maryland, were absent from their commands on recruiting duty. Smallwood had been the Colonel of the original Maryland regiment that fought a gallant rearguard action during the Battle of Long Island, and he was also a veteran of Trenton and Princeton.
When General Smallwood did join his command, he was concerned that while his was the senior Maryland brigade, the other was numerically superior. Washington wrote to him on August 20th, 1777, taking pains to explain;
"In arranging the Army at the commencement of the Campaign, I endeavoured to make the Brigades, as equal as possible in point of numbers, some have out grown others by the increase of the Strength of particular Regiments, and that is the Reason why Genl. De Borre's exceeds yours, Hazens Regiment having increased considerably."
Philippe Hubert, Chevalier Preudhomme DeBorre was one of the numerous French noblemen who arrived in America having received assurances of high rank in the Continental army from United States agent in France, Silas Deane. Congress having appointed DeBorre a Brigadier General in May, 1777, Washington initially informed the Frenchman that his new command would consist of the 2nd, 4th and 6th MD regiments and the German Battalion that had been raised in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Two days later, Washington's official arrangement of brigades assigned the 7th MD to DeBorre and the 6th to Smallwood. Sometime thereafter, the German Battalion was replaced by Hazen's 2nd Canadian Regiment, which Congress had authorized to recruit in the Middle Colonies and was able to field two battalions. Hazen remained on recruiting duty during this period, leaving Lt. Col. Edward Anthill in charge of the oversized regiment.
There were difficulties at the outset with this appointment. DeBorre fell out with fellow Frenchman Thomas Mullens, his first Brigade Major, and requested an American as his replacement. Washington would have preferred providing a position for one of the many unassigned French volunteers who expected to be accommodated with commissions, but on August 17th, 1777 he assigned Captain McConnell from Hazen's Regiment to De Borre as Brigade Major.
DeBorre had his own ideas about military justice as well. Captain William Beatty of the 7th Maryland Regiment recorded in his diary on July 31st:
"One of the Inhabitants was taken up for assisting some of our Deserters...A Court Martial being immediately ordered for the tryal of the Tory taken up in the Morning...The Court pass'd sentance of death on him, which Gen DeBore ordered to be put in Execution by Hanging the Poor fellow from a Limb of a Sycamore Bush, close on the side of the road."
The status of prisoners taken in arms at this stage of the Revolution was tenuous at best, and Washington was quick to assert the need for proper civilian trials in such cases rather than summary drum head executions.
"With respect to the Tory, who was tried and executed by your order, though his crime was heinous enough to deserve the fate he met with, and though I am convinced you acted in the affair with a good intention, yet I cannot but wish it had not happened. In the first place, it was a matter that did not come within the jurisdiction of martial law, and therefore the whole proceeding was irregular and illegal, and will have a tendency to excite discontent, jealousy and murmurs among the people. In the Second, if the trial could properly have been made by a Court Martial, as the Division you command is only a detachment from the Army, and you cannot have been considered as in a Separate Department, there is none of our articles of War that will justify your inflicting a Capital punishment, even on a Soldier, much less a Citizen. I mention these things for your future Government, as what is past cannot be recalled. The temper of the Americans and the principles on which the present contest turns, will not countenance proceedings of this nature."
Captain Beatty noted in his diary on July 25th that "the troops were drawn out for the Execution of two Soldiers for House breaking [but] The Men were repreived (sic)." Plundering was a particular problem for Sullivan's command, and Washington felt compelled to address this matter in a sharply worded admonition to Sullivan:
"It is with no small concern, I am constrained to inform you, that I am constantly receiving Complaints from the People living contiguous to the road, of great abuses committed by the Division under your command in their march thro the Country. From their accounts, they have experienced the most wanton and insufferable injuries. Fences destroyed without the least apparent necessity, and a great number of Horses seized and taken away. In a word, according to them, they have suffered the most flagrant violation of their property. perhaps their representations may be rather exaggerated beyond the bounds of strict truth. But I cannot but observe, that the Officers in the Quarter Master Generals Department have informed me, that more accounts have been presented to them for Injuries done by your Division and of greater amount, than by the whole Army besides, and those carry too a degree of authenticity with them, being certified in many instances under the Officers hands. At the same time, that you are sensible how destressing such a conduct is to the Inhabitants, you well know it is highly disgraceful and unworthy of the cause in which we are engaged. Add to this, that it has a fatal and obvious tendency to prejudice their minds and to disaffect them. I must request, in the most earnest manner, your attention to this matter and to prevent in future, by every exertion in your power, the like proceedings. point out the scandal and impropriety of it to your Officers and urge them, as they regard their honour and reputation, to use their endeavours to restrain such unwarrantable practices."
Here, then, was the situation as Sullivan's Division sat cooling its heels at Hanover, New Jersey, as few miles from Morristown. The regiments had a core of veterans but were under enrolled and key commanders were absent on recruiting duty. There were conflicts within General DeBorre's staff and problems with military discipline and with the military's interaction with civilians. General Sullivan himself was looking for new opportunities to distinguish himself, but had been feeling unwell and was less than attentive to his command. And twenty miles away was the channel between Elizabeth, NJ and loyalist controlled Staten Island. Sometime before August 20th, Sullivan turned his attention to this target of opportunity. Whether he conceived of the idea on his own, or it was presented to him by another ambitious officer from outside his division, is the subject of a subsequent post.