Part 10: Bloody day at Fort Mercer

Hundreds of Hessians killed,

von Donop fatally wounded

October 22, 1777


GLOUCESTER COUNTY — The storming of Fort Mercer by Hessians eager to regain their honor after the defeat at Trenton 10 months ago ended in their slaughter tonight.

Poor tactics by the attacking German mercenaries and cunning by the American defenders have resulted in the bloodiest battle of the war in New Jersey. Forty minutes after the Battle of Red Bank began about 9 p.m., 377 of the force of 1,200 Hessians — who attacked vowing no quarter for the Americans — lay dead or wounded. Twenty others were captured on the walls.

A musket ball ripped through the leg of Col. Carl von Donop, the Hessian commander, as he attempted to rally his troops. He was left behind as the Hessians fell back toward Haddonfield, and is slowly bleeding to death.

Captured Hessian officers say von Donop begged his British superiors for the privilege of allowing his grenadiers to make the attack to wipe away the embarassment of the surprise defeat at Trenton.

The fort's garrison of 400 Rhode Islanders suffered 14 killed and 23 wounded. New Jersey militiamen who were supposed to reinforce the fort did not answer the call.

Fort Mercer is a large earthen fortification with 14 cannons located at Red Bank in Gloucester County, which overlooks the Delaware about seven miles below Philadelphia. It is one of three forts that in the past two months have prevented British ships from directly reaching the occupying army in Philadelphia with food and supplies.

The British marched into Philadelphia on Sept. 26 after Gen. William Howe outmaneuvered his American counterpart, Gen. George Washington, in the countryside surrounding the nation's capital. In the past six weeks, the British have defeated the Americans at Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown.

Six hundred yards across the Delaware from Fort Mercer is Fort Mifflin, a stronger stone fortification. Between the forts is a triple row of chevaux-de-frise, box-like cribs that have been filled with stones and sunk in the river. Projecting from the structures to a point about four feet below the water are large iron-tipped beams. Any sea-going ship that attempts to pass these obstructions can expect to have the hull gashed.

The third and smallest fortification, Fort Billings, located five miles below Fort Mercer where Mantau Creek meets the Delaware, was abandoned without a fight Oct. 3 when the British sent 500 troops to attack it. The 150 American occupants burned most of the fort as they fled.

Fort Billings had a unique claim. It was the first installation of the united American states. The Continental Congress purchased land for the fort on July 5 of last year, the day after it approved the Declaration of Independence.

A double line of chevaux-de-frise obstructed the Delaware at Fort Billings, but once the obstructions were dismantled by the British, the river was open for them to move on Forts Mercer and Mifflin.

Von Donop and his Hessians appeared before Fort Mercer at noon today. At 4:30 p.m. von Donop demanded American Col. Christopher Greene and his troops surrender or face annihilation. Greene immediately rejected the demand and in turn warned von Donop that his troops should expect no quarter from the Americans.

The Hessians opened the battle with a furious cannonade that lasted about 15 minutes. Then they attacked. Troops that struck from the north side stormed a breastwork as they shouted "Vittoria," only to find themselves facing a second and new breastwork they did not know existed. On the west side, von Donop led his troops through obstacles of sharpened stakes and into a ditch, where they found themselves at the base of a breastwork without scaling ladders.

As the Hessians approached, the Americans held their fire. Then, as the enemy crowded the ditches on two sides, Greene shouted the order and musket fire and grape-shot were poured without mercy into the bunched ranks at nearly point-blank range. The ditches became slaughter pens.

The survivors withdrew and attacked again, this time at the south wall with their backs to the Delaware. The move enabled American rowing galleys on the river to fire on the Hessians from behind, forcing them to break off the attack.

"The enemy has about 100 killed on the field, among them. . . were one lieutenant colonel and four captains," said Col. William Bradford. "They left about 80 wounded, among which were Count von Donop, their commander, who lays at Red Bank with his thigh broke and bleeding, and his brigade major wounded in three places. Nearly 30 of their wounded are since dead."

The Americans are hopeful the victory, coupled with the surrender of British Gen. John Burgoyne's army at Saratoga, N.Y., five days ago, will move the French to enter the war on the patriots' side.

On the British side, Howe, the army's commander in America since 1775, confirmed he submitted his resignation to London today. The 48-year-old Howe is sensing his inability to bring the rebels to their knees.

Washington's army is still in the field, Burgoyne is defeated, and the value of the British occupation of Philadelphia has been negligible.

Published by The Star-Ledger on July 29, 2001.