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Battle Of Red Bank : American Revolutionary War

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Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Catalog #: NH 92863-KN

Battle Of Red Bank : American Revolutionary War. “We’ll change the name from Fort Red Bank to Fort Donop.”

The British commanding officer Carl Von Donop was humiliated at the Second Battle of Trenton and taking the American’s Fort Mercer located on the hills of Red Bank would be a huge achievement for Von Donop.

Von Donop

Fort Mercer was one of two forts, along with Fort Mifflin on Mud Island in the Delaware River that was constructed on either side of the river. For the Americans had recently lost the city of Philadelphia. As a result they wanted to blockade British reinforcements and supplies to the city.

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The Americans laid siege to Philadelphia by way of the two forts in conjunction with the Continental Navy.

The Continental Navy’s presence was under the command of Commodore John Hazlewood. A decorated American hero and early naval legend. Hazlewood had only a small flotilla of fourteen old vessels mixed with some sloops, schooners and galleys armed with only 100 guns.

Hazlewood

The British felt they could take Fort Mercer at Red Bank fairly easily with a light garrison defending it. However, their military intelligence was lacking as it was defended by 400 motivated soldiers with only 14 cannons. As Clausewitz said, War is absolute, so the slightest difference between passion and motivation can be priceless.

Fort Mercer Monument Fort Mercer, Red Bank Park, National Park, New JerseyUSA

Von Donop had 2,000 Hessian mercenary troops under his command.

A force he felt was more than needed to take back the fort. Von Donop showed determination as well. “Either that will be Fort Donop or I shall be dead.”

The fort’s defense comprised just one Continental regiment. And Revolutionary regiments were 800 at the start of the war. But by this time. With losses and starvation, many regiments were down to only 200 men.

British map of Fort Mercer on the Delaware River.
Map showing details of Fort Mercer in the Revolutionary War. The map was created in 1777. The map shows fortifications of Fort Mercer, New Jersey, currently located in Red Bank Battlefield in the borough of National Park, Gloucester County

Von Donop sent an officer to ask for the American surrender, but was immediately rebuffed. The exchange is legendary in historical and military circles.

“The King of England orders his rebellious subjects to lay down their arms” And that if they “stand the battle, no quarter whatever would be given.”

To which the rebels’ commander Colonel Christopher Greene replied: “We ask no quarters, nor will we give any” Greene was a well spoken legislator. Sadly, also a tragic figure as he would be killed later in the war by British loyalists. The rumors were that his leading of African American troops was the catalyst for his death. Greene had led close to 80 African Americans at Fort Mercer.

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Colonel Greene had written to General Washington only a week prior. “much fatigued with the march, as I forced 35 miles one day. They are now in high spirits, and go to their duty with the greatest cheerfulness… I found it necessary to contract the fort; it [was] too large for our numbers, as we have very little to expect from the militia.”

Greene

When Von Donop realized how well defended the fort really was, he immediately requested more men and artillery from his supreme commanding officer, General Sir William Howe, who was in charge of the British Military. Howe refused and commanded Von Donop to wait for British reinforcements.

Hessian map showing campaign against Fort Mifflin and Fort Mercer (Redbank) in 1777.

The British were sailing a mega force up the Delaware River to help take out the two forts and the American siege of Philadelphia.

Admiral of the Fleet Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe commanded 8 or 9 modern British tall ships with 285 guns between them, a gigantic advantage over the defending Colonials. The British Naval force was the most powerful in the world at this time with nearly 300 ships at the outset of the American Revolutionary War. Of course, this number would increase to 500 by war’s end.

Benedict Arnold’s Plot

The lead ship among this squadron was the HMS Augusta. She was a 64-gun third rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy. Still relatively young having only been launched in 1763.

The British plan was to use ships to shell Fort Mifflin into submission while attacking Fort Mercer by land with help from the the Royal Navy as well.

Von Donop’s troops crossed the Delaware River in flatboats and prepared to march several miles up river to Fort Mercer.

Augusta and Merlin aground and on fire, after the attack on fort Mercer, 23 October 1777

The first problem came when HMS Augusta and HMS Merlin ran aground on the shallow sand bars or underwater obstacles of the Delaware River. The continental army had placed many wooden obstacles along the river. Whether it was an obstacle or sand bar is still unknown to this day.

Moreover, HMS Augusta would blow up on October 23rd. The day after the battle. With her blast apparently shattering windows as far away as in Philadelphia, 30 miles from her explosion. Not long after Augusta’s explosion, the crew of Merlin would set their own ship on fire shortly before abandoning it.

HMS Augusta would be the largest Royal Navy loss in either the American Revolutionary War of the War of 1812. Her wreck would sit in the Delaware River for years.

Reverting back to Von Donop’s land assualt. Von Donop divided his troops into two forces, his force would attack the north part of the fort while his other force attacked the southern section.

At first the southern attackers of Von Donop’s British forces spent some time shooting their cannons on the fort before attacking. But, when they did attack, they taken out like Turkeys in a shoot.

The northern side found an abandoned section of the fort to invade.

Not realizing that they were essentially entering a geographical quagmire of fallen trees and natural defenses that the Continental forces had been establishing for some time. Navigating this mess of trees and obstacles slowed their assault to a crawl and allowed the defending American forces to fire on them at will.

Count Donop, 1777./Ngerman Mercenary. Count Carl Emilius Von Donop Mortally Wounded At The Battle Of Red Bank, New Jersey, October 1777. Poster Print by  (18 x 24)
Count Carl Emilius Von Donop Mortally Wounded At The Battle Of Red Bank, New Jersey, October 1777.

Of course the Royal Navy’s assistance from the river was lacking at best. As a result of the British forces running their biggest ships aground and suffering relentless assualts from the Continental Navy. Instead of supporting Von Donop. The Royal Navy was just trying to defend itself in the river.

The British forces would lose close to 400 men vs only 14 for the Continental Army. Though the British would take Fort Mercer a month later. When Greene abandoned due to poor odds in his favor. The Battle of Red Bank would provide a massive morale boost the Revolutionary forces as well as relieve pressure on General Washington’s troops up north of Philadelphia.

Lastly, Von Donop would die of his wounds from the battle on the 25th of October.

The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776, by John Trumbull, shows General Washington ordering medical assistance for the mortally wounded Hessian colonel, Johann Rall.
John Trumbull – Yale University Art Gallery

Battle Of Red Bank : American Revolutionary War