The 1st New Jersey Regiment of the Continental line lost a number of its officers to wounds and disease during the course of the American Revolution. Major Joseph Morris was mortally wounded in the fight at White Marsh, PA near the end of the Philadelphia campaign in December, 1777 while on detached service with Morgan's Rifle Corps. Captain Andrew McMires (or McMyers) was killed before the Chew House at Germantown. Ensign Martin Hurley, wounded in the same fight, was captured, identified as having deserted from the British Army at Boston, and summarily hanged. Major Daniel Piatt died of disease in April,1780.
While each of these losses were felt by the regiment, the death of Captain Peter van Voorhees received widespread notoriety as an alleged Tory atrocity. As the event in question happened on this date in 1779, it seems appropriate to take time to examine the available evidence surrounding the circumstances of his death.
Captain Peter van Voorhees is sometimes confused in later histories with others of that name or rank. He was born in 1758, the son of Lucas Minnesen van Voorhees (1718-1791) and Cathrina Vandervoort of New Brunswick, New Jersey. His grandfather, Minne Lucase van Voorhees, was born on Long Island but by 1717 was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church in New Brunswick.
Captain van Voorhees, according to a record of his service published by Heitman in his Historical Register of the Officers of the Continental Line During the War of the Revolution, had served in the 1st New Jersey Regiment since its first establishment, rising through the ranks from 2nd Lieutenant until he succeeded to command of John Van Anglen's 7th Company after that officer was wounded at Germantown.
In October, 1779, the 1st New Jersey Regiment was newly returned from participating in Sullivan's Expedition against the Iroquois and was then encamped with the army at Easton, Pennsylvania. Apparently Captain van Voorhees was granted leave around this time to go home to New Brunswick, perhaps even to be married. He was also serving at this time as the regimental paymaster. John Polhemus, previously also a Captain with the 1st New Jersey, was also in the area, having be been declared a supernumary officer, and would be captured during the Loyalist raid on October 26th, 1779 in which Van Voorhees would lose his life.
Lt. Colonel John Graves Simcoe was the commander of the Queens Rangers, and the leader of a combined Loyalist force of cavalry and infantry that together made a daring raid from Staten Island into New Jersey in the early morning hours of October 26th, 1779. The main object of the raid was to destroy a large number of flat boats that were intended for the use of Washington's Army, and possibly also to surprise and capture Governor Livingston who was thought to be at Middlebrook. Simcoe personally lead about 80 mounted men, including the Hussars of the Queens Rangers, Capt. Sanford's Bucks County (PA) troop of loyalist horse, and another dozen local guides and Jerseymen under Captain James Stewart.
Such raids back and forth between New Jersey and loyalist Staten Island were very common during the war. Acts of retribution and accusations of atrocities were commonplace and sometimes proved true. Simcoe's raid was particularly audacious and encompassed a ride of over 65 miles, but along the way he missed his turn and went further than he intended. The landmark he and his guides were looking for was a house at a crossroads belonging to Captain Van Voorhees' cousin Garret that, unbeknownst to them, had been burned by the British back in June of 1777. Before he realized his mistake, Simcoe and his troopers were at the outskirts of New Brunswick.
The alarm had been raised and a group of Middlesex County militia under Captain Moses Guest confronted Simcoe's troop. In postwar memoirs, both Simcoe and Guest recounted the events that followed. As Guest recalled;
"I was informed by an express, that the enemy was within a few hundred yards of me; I had just time to get to an open piece of woods when they made their appearance. We attacked them as they came up; but they came on so rapidly, that we could only give them one discharge. Col. Simcoe's horse received three balls, fell on him, and bruised him very badly; there was one man killed and several wounded. I left a physician with Simcoe and proceeded on."
Simcoe says it was five bullets that struck his horse and that he was stunned by the violence of his fall, coming to his senses to find himself a prisoner.
Meanwhile, Captain van Voorhees, reportedly together with some mounted militia, had joined the attack, and was pursuing the Loyalist riders, now under the command of Captain Sanford. According to Simcoe;
"The militia assembling, Captain Sanford drew up and charged them, when they fled. A Captain Voorhees, of the Jersey Continental troops, was overtaken, and a Hussar, at whom he had fired, killed him."
Captain Guest's account provides more detail;
“…we witnessed a scene that was truly distressing. We found Captain Peter Voorheis lying in the road, mortally wounded, and, to all appearance, nearly breathing his last breath. He had just returned from General Sullivan's army, and, with a few militia horsemen, was pursuing so close on the enemy's rear as to cause a detachment to sally out. They soon came up with him and cut him with their broad swords in a most shocking manner, which caused his death in a few hours."
Feeling was high in New Brunswick at the violent death of this native son, and subsequent threats against Simcoe's life ultimately had to be addressed by Governor Livingston's order on October 2nd, 1779 that he be treated according to the rules of war. Lt, Col. Henry Dearborn of the New Hampshire Troops who were part of General Sullivan's force then encamped at Easton, heard the news of Voorhees's killing on October 28th and wrote in his Journal:
"On this day receivd the particulars of a most horrid piece of cruelty committed by a party of British hors, which is as follows:- A party of British hors under the [com]mand of Colo. Simco made an excurtion into Jersey from Staten Isl[and], took a circuitous rout of about 30 miles in which they burnt a foragg yard & plunderd several defencless houses, on their return a small party of Millitia collected under the command of Capts van Voras & Wool, two Continental Officers who had been with Genrl. Sullivan on the western Expedition - they form'd an ambuscade which they drew the Enimy into, killed several & made several prisoners, among the latter was Colo. Simco. - Capts van Voras & Wool along with several others on hors back pursu'd the Enimy some considerable distance until they rallyd & turnd upon their pursuers, who ware obliged to give way. Capt. Van Voras being further advanced than any other, & his hors being very much fatigued was overtaken by the Enimy and obliged to surrender himself prisoner; the party that took him conveyed him to the main party, 7 after examining him fell to hacking him with thier Swords in sight of Capt. Wool & others of his party; after satisfying their more then Savage Spite they left him expiring on the ground. Capt. Wool & some others immediately rode up to him & found him cut & hack'd in a most barbarous manner, his arms cut off , his head cut to pieces & in fact appeerd to have been massacred by the most cruel Savages, this was done by the humane Britons, let every Briton blush at the idea.-"
Col. Dearborn may have found it all to easy to imagine the massacre in terms of a frontier atrocity, having just returned from a scorched earth campaign against the Iroquois which included the skinning of dead Iroquois by to make boot tops for two officers of the Jersey Line and the torture and decapitation of prisoners taken by the Indians. He may also have given extra credence to the account because Captain Isaiah Wool of the 2nd Artillery may well have been known to him personally, having been captured along with Dearborn in the assault on Quebec. I find no other account that links Wool with the events surrounding Voorhees' death. Intriguingly, Washington's correspondence on November 1st, 1779 from West Point to General Maxwell in command of the Jersey Brigade makes reference to having received a letter from Maxwell dated October 30th and delivered by Captain Wool.
Predictably, the patriot and loyalist press gave conflicting accounts of the death of Captain Van Voorhees. The New Jersey Gazette on November 3, 1779 claimed that "Captain Peter Voorhees, of the First Jersey Regiment, unfortunately fell into their hands near Brunswick, and was massacred in a most shocking manner." Another paper [The New-York Journal and the General Advertiser, Nov. 1, 1779] likewise claimed that Captain Voorhese (a young gentleman much esteemed) had been "wantonly murdered". A loyalist New York paper mentioned only that a Captain Voorhies was killed, and Rivington's Royal Gazette on November 3rd printed a letter, purporting to be from a participant in Simcoe's raid, that describes Voorheis' death as part of a legitimate combat. Other secondary sources repeat the claim of Voorhees's murder but offer no additional evidence in support. Captain Guest, who actually saw Voorhees lying mortally wounded in the road, was moved on November 10th, 1779 to write a poem in elegy that does not lay the charge of murder.
In the end, it was a minor episode in what was often a savage and brutal conflict. Voorhees was lamented as a patriot martyr and Simcoe would eventually become the Lt.-Governor of Canada.