On August 3rd, 1777, George Washington wrote to Col. Elias Dayton, the senior regimental commander in the Jersey Brigade:
"Sir: The conduct of the Enemy is distressing and difficult to be understood. Since my last, directing you to proceed to Peeks Kill, their Fleet, or a pretty considerable part of it, has appeared off the Capes of Delaware, as we were advised yesterday by Express. In this state of uncertainty about their real object and design, I think it advisable, that you should halt your own and Colo. Ogden's Regiments where this Letter reaches you and there remain till further orders from me, unless you should receive authentic intelligence of the Fleets coming within Sandy Hook or going farther to the Eastward; in which case, you will proceed immediately to Peeks Kill, with all the expedition you can. You will hold yourself and every thing in readiness to march on the most Sudden emergency."
Lord Howe's intentions were indeed mystifying, and not only to the American Commander in Chief. After maneuvering in East Jersey and a sharp fight on June 26th with General Stirling's Division at Short Hills, Howe withdrew to Staten Island.
There he delayed for several weeks, and much of his army sat miserably on troop ships in Prince's Bay. Howe's Adjutant- General, Major Stephen Kemble, observed in his journal during this period that he found "from the general tenor of Officers Conversation that they are not well pleased with Affairs, but they speak without thought...and the General is the best judge of his own Actions."
Howe finally put to sea on July 23rd, 1777 with 15,000 men in 260 vessels. Whether the commander of the Crown forces in North America intended to support Burgoyne's offensive from Canada, or may have had designs on New England, Philadelphia, Charleston or some other objective, was unknown. Consequently, Washington ordered various Continental troops to march and counter march between the Hudson Highlands and Philadelphia to cover all contingencies, with units like Colonel Dayton and Colonel Ogden's New Jersey regiments given the additional task of monitoring the forces of the Crown that remained in occupied New York and Staten Island.
Washington actually considered the possibility of a raid on Staten Island almost as soon as Howe's fleet set sail. Writing to Colonel Dayton on July 26th, three days after Howe put to sea, Washington ordered;
"I wish you to take every possible pains in your power, by sending trusty persons to Staten Island, to obtain intelligence of the Enemy's situation and numbers, What kind of Troops they are [and how many,] and what Guards they have, their strength and where posted. My view in this, is, that his Lordship, when he arrives may make an attempt upon the Enemy there with his Division, If it should appear from a full consideration of all circumstances and the information you obtain, that it can be done with a strong prospect of Success."
"amounting to about 1000 Men, as a deserter says, a descent may be made to great advantage. Colo. Dayton will procure all the Boats there abouts previous to your coming, and if upon your arrival you think the attempt practicable you may make the tryal. That you may not go needlessly out of your Way, Colo. Dayton is to send an Officer to you, to acquaint you with his intelligence from which you may judge whether it will be prudent to make an attack. Your Lordship is not by any means to understand the above as a positive order, but a matter left intirely to your own discretion, I would not have it undertaken, if there is the smallest Risque, for I do not think we are at this time intitled to put any thing to the hazard."
It was not to be. Stirling wanted to bring his full division together at Basking Ridge, though Washington wrote him on July 27th that Dayton and Ogden's regiments would remain detached for the present
"for the protection of the Inhabitants and to prevent plundering parties from Staten Island, till I have more certain advice of the Enemy's destination against Philadelphia."
On July 30th Washington learned that Stirling had halted at Bound Brook, and expecting Howe to approach Delaware Bay he ordered Stirling to march to Trenton "provided the expedition to Staten Island did not take place."
As for Dayton and Ogden's Jerseymen, on July 31st they were ordered to cross the Delaware and make for Philadelphia. This was countermanded the next day, for Howe had been sighted heading out to sea from the mouth of the Delaware, so the 3rd and 1st NJ were sent marching toward Peekskill on the East side of the Hudson. They were subsequently ordered to halt, and await further intelligence of the enemy before proceeding to the New York Highlands if Howe had turned toward New England or the Hudson. On August 14th Washington wrote to Dayton, who was then at Acquakanock on the Passaic River in New Jersey, once again seeking intelligence of the enemy's strength at King's Bridge above Manhattan and on Staten Island.
On the 22nd of August, Dayton and Ogden were ordered to rejoin the New Jersey Brigade in Stirling's Division, for it was now clear that that Howe had sailed into the Chesapeake and was threatening Philadelphia. Washington intended that they be relieved by New Jersey militia, but by then the situation in the field had changed rather significantly. Unbeknownst to Washington, the two New Jersey regiments had taken part that very day in a raid on Staten Island lead by General John Sullivan that was not part of Washington's current plans and ultimately became the subject of a court martial. How that situation came about will be the subject of a subsequent post in this series.