The morning of August 22, 1777 had begun badly for the Royalist forces of the Staten Island garrison. Brigadier General John Campbell, the overall British commander of the Island, was compelled afterward to report to his superiors;
"I am sorry to add that the Rebels effected an almost total Surprise of Two Battalions of Jersey Provincials, which occasioned nearly the whole loss sustained by His Majesty's Troops"
One American account published in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on August 26th declared Col. Barton's 5th New Jersey battalion of Loyalists "The greatest poltroons I ever saw.They made a Shew of fighting but did not stand to receive our fire. We took about thirty of them, and their colonel."
In fact, the five Battalions of New Jersey loyalists assigned to guard the approaches to the Island were overrun, scattered, or driven back to defensive works at the far corners of the Island with the loss of over 120 prisoners, military papers and a flag was taken by elements of Smallwood's Brigade from the position originally held by the 52nd Regiment of foot. There was widespread looting and burning, not only of legitimate military stores such as small armed vessels, officer's quarters and barns full of forage, but also plundering of civilian homes.
Although Sullivan did not achieve all of his initial objectives for the raid, by about 9:00 a.m. with the enemy on the run, the American commander had reason to be pleased with the morning's work. Nonetheless, his attack had crested, and like a rogue wave it then lost cohesion and dissipated. The rest of the day would be one of frustration and reversal for the invaders.
The New Jersey Loyalists of Cortlandt Skinner's Brigade had been badly mauled, but three of its Battalions remained available for a counter stroke. The 3rd and 6th NJV made a fighting withdrawal the some old fortifications at Prince's Bay and Ogden's New Jersey Continentals and militia did not press them further but returned to the Sound. Lt. Col. Abraham van Buskirk's 4th Battalion NJV, while initially scattered, was able to escape from Smallwood's Brigade with few losses.
Brigadier General Smallwood had been concerned about an attack by British reinforcements soon after he arrived at Decker's Ferry early that morning. He gave orders for his Brigade to pull out and move toward Sullivan with DeBorre's Brigade, and at this time may also have been aware of an enemy force moving to cut him off. He later testified;
"I directed Mr. Armstrong to inform Genl Sullivan that the enemy were endeavouring to Flank & get below us, that I should retreat in good order agreeable to the Plan concerted, that I should proceed to join him, but if he chose to join me, we should be able to fight and give a good account of them."
Smallwood believed that had all the troops then at Decker's Ferry obeyed his order, none would have been taken. Since he made these statements as a witness at Sullivan's court martial, he was certainly aware that blame for their capture could easily be ascribed to himself as the commander of that sector. The enemy that were on his flank were at that time elements of the 4th NJV that had been driven from Decker's Ferry, and possibly also the 52nd Regiment of foot though most of this regiment appears to have marched later and did not catch up with the Americans until they reached their point of debarkation.
Lieutenant Andrew Lee of the 2nd Canadian regiment recalled;
"General Smallwood bent his course downwards, and passing De Borre took to the forks of the road, and passed him to the rear, and proceeded down through Richmond to the Old Blazing Star [ferry] in order to repass the river, leaving many of his men behind, who were incapable by fatigue to keep us, many of whom afterwards fell into the hands of the enemy.
Still, not all of the men in Smallwood's sector withdrew toward the Crossroads. The loyalist New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury reported;
"In the mean Time Brigadier General Skinner had collected those of his Corps that had been dislodged from their Stations, and detached Major Tympany (of the 4th NJV] with 25 Men to gain Information of the Route which the Enemy had taken. The Major came up with a number of them at the house of Dr. Parker, which they were plundering. He attacked them immediately, killed several, and took the rest prisoner; Among those killed was Mr. Smallwood's Brigade Major."
This Major Robert Timpany was a Bergan County loyalist who had already made a name for himself during raids on New Jersey. A Scotch-Irish schoolteacher near Hackensack before the war whose name was pronounced and sometimes spelled "Tenpenny", he was a trusted and enterprising officer. If indeed it was he who came upon Captain Heron's Light Company that had been in the vanguard of Smallwood's attack on Decker's Ferry, Timpany and his men must have achieved something close to complete surprise and struck the first serious blow against the invaders.
Captain Enoch Anderson of the 1st DE regiment later wrote a letter that confirms that James Gordon Heron's Light company of the 2nd Canadian Regiment were ambushed, though he hypothesizes that they were then on the march and not still engaged in looting houses as had been the case when he left them. Anderson writes that he and his detached company left the British officer's quarters that first his own, and then Captain Heron's men had been plundering, and looked to rejoin the rest of Smallwood's Brigade.
"I marched on, and had not gone three hundred yards from the house when I was met by Colonel Stone [of the 1st MD] at full gallop. 'Run, run,' says he, 'It's no disgrace.' I passed the Red House by a short cut through a meadow filled with bushes, - my men in single file and leaving the Red House to the right, - doubled my files and marched on with a double quick step. I had not gone more than a quarter of a mile, when a battle took place in my rear. This was Herron marching by the Red House. He was attacked her by the British, - had eighteen killed and wounded and all the rest prisoners, - plunder and all. I continued my march at a double quick time and came to the place of crossing."
Lieutenant Andrew Lee, who served in a different company of the 2nd Canadian regiment than Heron and his men, gave details in his journal of the casualties sustained in the counterattack;
"Maj. Powell, who was in the rear, Capt, Herrin, Lieut. [Robert] Campbell, Lieut. [actually Ensign Elihu or Elijah] Hall, Mr. Hall, a sergeant major [Lawrence Manning, who was wounded], being in a house, were surprised by the enemy and made prisoners, except Powell, who was slain. Lieut. Campbell, wounded, and lost an arm."
Lieutenant Lee was in a position to give these specific details, as he was captured later that day and would have had the opportunity to compare notes with those of Heron's Company who survived the attack. A careful review of the names of the officers who are listed by Heitman as having been captured at Staten Island indicates that Elisha Hall was a member of the 1st MD and not part of Heron's company. If they were captured together, he either had fallen behind or was also engaged in looting.
Major Powell is a mystery. There is no record in Heitman of a Continental officer named Powell who was killed at Staten Island, and Smallwood apparently had another volunteer Brigade Major, Reverend Armstrong, serving with him that morning. British Brigadier John Campbell enclosed some orders with his after action report to Sir Henry Clinton that he claimed were found in the pocket of "General Smallwood's, Major of Brigades, who was killed." Possibly Powell was another "gentleman volunteer", serving in an unpaid capacity as Brigade Major in the hopes of securing a subsequent commission. In this case, he appears to have been with Heron's force at the time he was killed.
It may be that Heron and his men were ambushed as they marched past "the Red House", or more likely that they were looting "Dr. Parkers" or even the brick house that was a colonel's headquarters where Anderson last saw them. I have not yet been able to definitively place these structures on a map, but they would all have to be in the vicinity of Decker's Ferry or just to the west before coming to the crossroads.
Timpany and his 25 men were not the only force that moved to engage and drive back the Americans. In a letter home on August 24th, an officer of the 52nd Regiment of foot (possibly its commander, Lt. Col. Mungo Campbell, who died a couple months later in the attack on Stony Point), gave his account of the British counter attack;
"Our numbers being so small, they did not expect that we should quit our camp and redoubts; however, they were mistaken, and General Campbell ordered the Fifty-Second and the Waldeck Regiments to get under arms and attack the enemy. No time was lost; but having very bad intelligence we made several retreats before we could trace the route the rebels took. The two regiments together did not make up 500 men. The Anspach [Bayreuth] and our old men were left to guard the redoubts."
We will discuss the American withdrawal to Old Blazing Star Ferry and the Royalist counterattack in subsequent posts in this series.