New Jersey Brigade at Connecticut Farms and Springfield,
John U. Rees, © 1999, 2002
Originally published in The Brigade Dispatch,
vol. XXIX, no. 4 (Winter 1999), 20-22.
William S. Smith, lieutenant colonel, Spencer's Additional Regiment, wrote an intriguing and detailed account of the battles of Connecticut Farms (7 June) and Springfield (23 June 1780). Colonel Smith confines himself to the actions as experienced by the New Jersey regiments, but his narrative conveys the excitement and confusion of combat as well as an officer's problems with command and control. The letter was written in response to General Washington's query concerning Colonel Israel Shreve's conduct on those occasions; unfortunately we don't know the impetus behind that query, as Washington's letter has not been found. Be that as it may, something must be said in defense of Colonel Shreve.
Though hardly a brilliant officer he had served conscientiously since 1775, taking part in all the New Jersey brigade's major actions except Germantown. Shreve conducted himself bravely at the Short Hills in June 1777 (for Shreve’s own account of that action, see “’We … wheeled to the Right to form the Line of Battle’: Colonel Israel Shreve’s Journal of 1777,” Brigade Dispatch, vol. XXII, no. 1) and Brandywine in October of the same year, where he was wounded. At Monmouth in June 1778 he remained on horseback throughout the afternoon's severe cannonading. Always a heavy man, as evidenced by Colonel Smith, Shreve considered himself unfit for field command, and resigned his commission shortly after the new year. (In May 1776, after the march to and retreat from Canada, the colonel described himself as "almost a slim man, having Lost at Least 4 or 5 Inches in thickness, and am Obliged to have my Jackets taken in ..." By 1780 or 1781, according to his son John, he weighed about 320 pounds.)1
Colonel Shreve continually showed great concern for the welfare of his men, some of whom he had known before the war. During the retreat from Canada in 1776 his detachment had little food, the colonel using his own funds to obtain supplies. He wrote later, "This Little sum of hard money has kept me my son and 25 other persons from almost perishing." Later, when the New Jersey troops mutinied in January 1781, Colonel Shreve remained on hand, exerting "himself to the utmost of his Abilities to quell them." When the men persisted he seems to have tried control the situation through his connection with Sergeant Major George Grant, one of the ringleaders. Grant was one of three men condemned to death for his role in the mutiny and the only one pardoned, probably through Shreve's intercession. When troops under General Robert Howe forcefully put down the mutiny, Colonel Shreve was rebuked by Washington for "not appearing on the ground untill the business was finished ..." Perhaps he didn't want to be witness to his men's fate.2
Israel Shreve was the commanding officer of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment, and as such was a key officer in the Jersey brigade. Reduced in early 1779 from four numbered regiments to three, the Jersey brigade was commanded by Brigadier General William Maxwell from 1777 until his 25 July 1780 resignation. First New Jersey colonel Mathias Ogden then commanded the brigade until his capture in October 1780, when Israel Shreve took over as senior officer. Though Shreve himself retired in January 1781, he retained nominal control of the brigade throughout the mutiny that same month.
Maxwell commanded the Jersey brigade at the time of the Crown forces June 1780 incursion into New Jersey. A private in Spencer’s Regiment, Henry Johnson, claimed Colonel Ogden was wounded in the 7 June battle. If true, that would have meant that brigade command would have then devolved upon Shreve in Maxwell’s absence. It appears Israel Shreve’s conduct from 7 June to the subsequent action on the 23rd was called into question, for reasons apparent in the letter below. While faithful service and fine attributes do not excuse Colonel Shreve's behavior on this occasion, they do mitigate somewhat the stain on his reputation and show him to have been a solid, dependable officer through six years of war.
Colonel Smith to General Washington, written in November 17803, reads:
I do not know how I can answer your Excellency's [General Washington] letter of the 9th. better than by a detail of the facts to which Colo. [Matthias] Ogden alludes.
There is one part I feel a delicacy to enter on, because the object of it might suppose, in giving me the command, he confer'd an obligation. I would not wish to offend against ties of this nature even in a case like the present. But I hope I shall stand acquitted of any charge of this kind.
On the 7th. of June after the Enemy had disposs[ess]ed Colo. [Elias] Dayton & my self of the pass at Connecticut farms and oblig'd us to retire in the vicinity of Springfield, I met General [William] Maxwell a little in front of the town advancing with the brigade. I then rejoined my command which was with the brigade and consisted of the first [New Jersey] and fourth [i.e., Spencer's Additional] regiments. After descending the hill he desired me to detach three platoons to the right of the road at the distance of about one hundred yards, and a few minutes after this order was executed, he desired me to send an equal number to the left at the same distance, this with detachments previously made threw me insensibly upon the front of the second regiment commanded by Colo. Shreve, in the rear of which he was. My command being equally divided to the right and left, had I gone with either, one must have been neglected. I therefore remain'd in the centre that I might be the better able to judge which stood in most need of support. At the commencement of the fire upon the right and left, General Maxwell ask'd me if I did not think it best to detach a platoon to Meker's house, which he said was sufficient to support the road and prevent the enemy from pressing through and seperating the detachments mentioned. I told him my opinion was that it would be sacrificing the platoon and that the regt. itself was not equal to the task. At this period the enemy hove in a tollerable fire directly down the road, upon which General Maxwell turn'd his horse and told me to do what I thought proper and left me.
I then order'd the Regiment forward and lead them as fast as the men could run to the house, which I found the enemy pressing for with equal speed. I however gain'd it when they were about 30 or 40 yards on the other side and a smart skirmish commenced, which proveing too heavy for us and the enemy pressing the platoons on the extremity of our left, they by my order retreated as rapidly as they advanc'd, when to the best of my knowledge I found Colo. Shreve upon the hill in front of the town not takeing upon him after I return'd with his regiment the command of it or any other troops, but mixing with a group of spectators who stood a tip-toe ready to move to the next commanding ground upon the approach of danger. The enemy as I had previously mentioned continuing a rapid advance upon our left thro' the wood forced us from the hill and pressed us hard over the bridge
I do not recollect any thing further happening in the course of the day which tends to ellucidate the subject which your Excellency wish[es] to be made acquainted with. The Brigade took post that night upon mill ridge west of the town about 3/4 of a mile, on the morning of the 8th. the enemy having retired to Elizabeth we moved to Connecticut farms and lay there 3 or 4 days considering ourselves as an advanc'd picket and consequently improper for any officer to leave his command. But notwithstanding the importance of the post and laying in the neighbourhood of the enemy, I do not recollect a single night that Colo. Shreve remained with his regiment, on the contrary, as soon as the evening approach'd he used [to] mount his horse and seek Quarters in the rear sometimes at Chatham and at [others] upon the Vaux-hall road. I mean also to include here his behaviour after we removed from Connecticut farms and took post at Thompsons tavern on the rawaway road where he continued pretty steadily the same line of conduct. We occupied this post until the evening of the 22d. when by order of General [Nathanael] Greene the Brigade moved on the west side of spring field run 2 miles & 1/2 on the right of the town. On the morning of the 23d. the enemy advancd rapidly from Elizabeth town towards Springfield, measures were immediately taken to put the several regiments in order to give them a proper reception. As I was passing from the left to the right of the brigade I was called by Colo. Shreve. I went to him and ask'd if he wanted me, he laid his hand upon my shoulder and said he wish'd me to take charge of his regiment that day, that it would probably prove a warm one and as I had youth and activity upon my side I could continue with the regiment let their situation be what it would as for himself he was a heavy man and should the regiment be press'd he should be obliged [to] leave it. I thank'd him for his politeness and told him I would with pleasure take charge of the regiment provided it was agreable to his officers. he said they had been with me once and said he was sure it would be agreable and was confident if we came to action they would do me honour and desired me to take good care of them. He immediately went to his regiment and in a few minutes I follow'd. he told me he had mentioned it to his officers that they were to take orders from me and that it was agreable to them. I turn'd to the regiment and bowed respectfully as an acknowledgement of the favour confer'd, in a small space of time it was order'd to march. I order'd the platoons to wheel to the left and lead the regiment Colo. Shreve moved with me a small distance and left me after which I do not recollect seeing him untill I had taken post at Springfield Bridge with the artillery commanded by Lt. Colo. [Thomas] Forest [Procter’s Artillery]. After remaining there sometime General Greene told me that he had received intelligence that the enemy had possession of the bridge upon the right which rendered it necessary for the regiment to move, which he wish'd me to do after the Artillery had assended the hill by the church, when they had retired the distance mentioned I march'd the regiment and form'd upon the left of the Brigade which then lay on the right of the mill in rear of the town. I remain'd in that position untill Brigade Major [John] Ross [2nd New Jersey] came with orders to me to march to the town where I would receive orders from General Greene. After I had gained the road on my way down I met Lt Colo. [Lewis] Morris [Nathanael Greene’s aide-de-camp], he asked me if I commanded the regiment upon my answering in the affirmative he said it was General Green's desire that I should take post in rear of the second bridge and cover the retreat of [Israel] Angell's [2nd Rhode Island] Regt. and the Artillery thro' the town, for he expected they would be hard pressed.
I tooke the position order'd and made what I thought the necessary dispositions for the security of my flank's, he then told me after their retreat was secured the Genl. wish'd me to take care of myself. I remained in this position the best part of an hour before I saw Colo. Shreve, after he made his appearance, a party of Colo. Angell's Regt. passed with several wounded and a few minutes after Colo. Angell crossed the morass on my right, he came and ask'd if he could be of any service to me. I told him I occupied all the ground that could be possess'd with advantage and only wish'd him to take possession of a small nole on my right in rear for the better security of that flank, which he did. The enemy then made their appearance upon my right in front and I order'd the two platoons upon my right to begin the fray after two or three discharges I thought the enemy appeared rather cautious in advanceing and I order'd the platoons to desist fireing and wait untill they should approach a little nearer. I then look'd round and saw Colo. Shreve's horse's head by the corner of the Barn in rear of the orchard. They advanceing a little and their shot continueing to fly briskly over us, I thought necessary to make some returns. I order'd the Battallion to fire by platoons from right to left / in this position they fired eight or ten rounds per man when Colo. Shreve called me / I found him behind a large apple tree on horse back, he told me my right was in danger. Colo. Angell haveing made good his retreat & the Artillery passed better than a half hour I order'd the regt. to cease fireing and fall back, wheeled them to the left by platoons and retired sloely up the road / the enemy brought their artillery to bear upon the regiment and one of their shot tooke out two men from the Centre platoon. I march'd to the short hills where I found Colo. Shreve and am inform'd he was with the Brigade near an hour before the regiment a considerable part of which time they were exposed to the fire of the Enemy.
I have the honour to be with the greatest respect
Your Excellency's most Oblig'd & very humble servt.
Wm. S. Smith Lt Colo
(My thanks to James Kochan for bringing the Smith letter to my attention.)
1.John U. Rees, "'One of the best in the army.': An Overview of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment and General William Maxwell's Jersey Brigade," The Continental Soldier, vol. XI, no. 2 (Spring 1998), 45-53. Israel Shreve to Mary Shreve, 25 May 1776, Israel Shreve Papers, Buxton Collection, Prescott Memorial Library, Louisiana Tech University, (hereafter cited as ISP Buxton). John Shreve, "Personal Narrative of the Services of Lieut. John Shreve of the New Jersey Line of the Continental Army", Magazine of American History, vol. 3, part 2 (1879), 564‑578.
2.Israel Shreve to Mary Shreve, 25 May 1776, ISP Buxton. Frelinghuysen to Washington, 20 January 1781, George Washington Papers, Presidential Papers Microfilm, (Washington, DC, 1961), series 4, reel 74 (hereafter cited as GW Papers). Washington to Israel Shreve, 28 January 1781, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745‑1799, vol. 21 (Washington, DC, 1937), 150.
3.William S. Smith to Washington, 10 November 1780 (misdated 1781), GW Papers, series 4, reel 82.