Whether he conceived of the plan on his own or it was proposed to him by Col. Matthias Ogden of the 1st NJ Continentals or another local informant, Major General John Sullivan resolved to launch a surprise attack on the Crown Forces occupying Staten Island. His Deputy Adjudant General. Major Sherburne later testified;
"On Wednesday the 19th of August 1777 [Wednesday was actually the 20th, Ed.] I was desired by Major General Sullivan to write a note to Brigadiers Smallwood and Deborre desiring them with their Brigades ( such only as were able to endure a march) to Parade at Head Quarters at 12 O Clock the next day with their knapsacks & 2 days Provisions Cook'd, leaving their tents standing."
Sullivan may have informed his immediate subordinates of his plans prior marching more than 20 miles from their encampment at Hanover to Morristown, and from there to Elizabethtown. but according to Sherburne the details of the attack were only made known to Sullivan's A.D.C's as they neared the shore. Sherburne notes that this information was relayed "in the presense of Col. Ogden & some other officers who he felt proper to call in, in order to consult with them about the Boats, &c &c."
According to subsequent court martial testamony, Sullivan seems to have had two main objectives for his surprise attack on Staten Island during the early hours of August 22, 1777. The first was to inflict as much damage as possible on the isolated battalions of NJ loyalists that guarded most of the approaches to the Island from the Jersey shore. Sullivan's plan called for two predawn landings and a three pronged attack that would surprise and disperse or capture the New Jersey Volunteer battalions in the vicinity of at Decker's Ferry, Old Blazing Star, and New Blazing Star. If successful, a large number of prisoners might be taken and the attacking columns could link up before withdrawing ahead of pursuit by the British and German battalions garrisoned in the extreme NE of the Island.
There was also the chance to capture the leader of the New Jersey Loyalist Brigade, Cortland Skinner, who was believed to have his headquarters near Decker's Ferry. Along with William Franklin, (former royal Governor and illegitimate son of Benjamen Franklin), Brigadier General Skinner was one of the most notorious, high ranking New Jersey loyalists. Raids between Staten Island and New Jersey to abduct civilian and military personnel were on the increase at this stage in the war, and Skinner was a tempting target.
Certainly it was the sort of escapade that would appeal to Col. Matthias Ogden (who in 1782 would successfully pitch a scheme to Washington to kidnap Crown Prince William Henry in occupied New York) but in this instance Ogden received a different assignment.
In the absence of the senior New Jersey Colonel Elias Dayton. Matthias Ogden took charge of his own 1st NJ regiment and Dayton's 3rd, accompanied by militia Colonel Frederick Frelinghuysen with 100 men. Althogether this force numbered little more than 500 men, and with them Ogden had the assignment of making an amphibious landing up the Fresh Kills salt marsh in darkness and then taking on in detail no less than three battalions of New Jersey loyalist volunteers. As Ogden later testified;
"I was to cross at the Old Blazing Star, with the first and third Jersey Regiments & part of the Militia, & attack the regiments of lawrence, Dongan and Allen, which if I found an overmatch, I was to take post on advantageous Ground, & wait until I was supported by a Remiment from Genl DeBorre, which Regiment in case I drove the Enemy was to head them, & pick up the stragglers. One Regiment from Genl Smallwood was to be left for the same purpose at the Cross Roads above, & to take up those that should escape Genl DeBorre, after which the whole of your Division was to join & march to where I had crossed, & where you were to recross."
Ogden would be operating half a dozen miles or more from Sullivan's division, which was to cross from Elizabethtown at Halsted's Point. Unless he drove all three NJV battalions north on the Morningstar road, he was unlikely to receive any help from that quarter or be in a position to link up with the main force. So it would prove, and Ogden was careful in his letter for the subsequent court martial of General Sullivan not to infer otherwise.
Sullivan planned to cross his Division from Elizabethtown at Halsted's Point, sending Smallwood's brigade against the 4th NJV at Decker's Ferry and DeBorre's against the 5th NJV under Lt. Col. Barton at New Blazing Star. He also detached two light companies of the oversized 2nd Canadian Regiment with a guide to move in advance of Smallwood to locate Brigadier General Skinner's headquarters and capture him. The two brigades would then link up and march to Old Blazing Star, rather than recrossing at Halsted's Point. This decision, possibly made with the expectation of coordinating the final stage of the raid with Ogden's force, proved the weakest link in an already ambitious and complicated plan of attack.
Washington himself favored bold, complex battle plans requiring close coordination of many detachments. Sometimes, such as the attack on Trenton, these worked despite the failure of some of the individual commanders to complete their supporting movements. At others, such as Germantown, the fog of war (literally, in that case), lead to disjointed action and confusion. Sullivan's Raid on Staten Island had elements of both, as will be shown in the next posts in this series.