[Editor's Note: Richard J. Koke authored a series of five articles that appeared in Volumes 19 -23 of the OCHS Journal between 1990 and 1994. These articles will be presented in multiple sections over the next few years.]
Finally, A Dreary Blockhouse
Chapter 2: A Fruitless Excursion
Returning to New York from South Carolina on June 17 after an absence of six months, Sir Henry Clinton, heady with success after the capture of Charleston, was appalled to find thousands of soldiers of his New York garrison pinned down on the Elizabethtown front after the failed Morristown attack – a move Clinton called “ill timed”; others, a fiasco. Facing within weeks the expected arrival of a hostile French fleet at Rhode Island and pressed with a need to arrange his own strategy to meet the new threat, Clinton's only consideration at the moment was the extrication of the Elizabethtown force as expeditiously as possible; but in so doing he felt constrained that he had to secure some “partial advantage” over the rebels to permit an orderly withdrawal.
One of his top engineers, commenting on Knyphausen's attack, made mention on June 19 that the commander-in-chief was “illpleased at this Damnd move. However I hope we shall bring them well off which is all that can be done.” In the short remaining space of time before the French arrival, Clinton half-heartedly considered a renewal of the aborted Jersey operation, but to this he added a new dimension. No less a confidential secret informant within the American lines than Benedict Arnold – then, within three months of the discovery of his treachery – had sent word to the British on June 12 that “it would be a good Stroke to get between Washington and West Point.” Arnold's traitorous suggestion may well have goaded Clinton into a reconsideration of the faltered Jersey offensive, but in place of a thrust against West Point which Washington feared, Clinton proposed a sudden stroke against Washington himself by way of the Hudson and across lower Orange with a hope, perhaps, of forcing him into a general battle below the Highlands which he had long sought.
Accordingly, Knyphausen was given orders to renew the offensive towards Morristown with the Elizabethtown force as a holding action to press Washington's rear to slow or stop his progress towards the Clove, while Clinton and the troops that had returned with him from Charleston proceeded up the Hudson by ship in a wide flanking move for a landing on the Nyack shore, from where a rapid inland thrust could be made through lower Orange and into Bergen to envelop Washington from the north and cut him off from the security of the Clove towards which he was moving and thereby force him into battle on two fronts. It was a move that had succeeded admirably at Long Island and at Brandywine.
Clinton realized it was a gamble that could easily fail unless favored by extraordinary good luck; timing and coordination were essential. With the French appearance imminent, he could ill afford a lengthy involvement in New Jersey - let alone any move against West Point. But Clinton was cautious and even before he went upstream was determined that if the undertaking offered little chance of success, he would land in Westchester instead and allow his soldiers a well deserved rest after the wearisome sea voyage from South Carolina. By June 22 – the very day his troops were climbing on board transports off Staten Island - Clinton knew that Washington was heading towards the Highlands with intent, one of his officers said, “to pass [into] the Clove at Sovereigns [Suffern’s] to West Point.”
On the twenty-third, while Knyphausen was again fighting his way towards Springfield, Sir Henry was hurrying up the Hudson on a fast vessel to Haverstraw Bay in advance of the transports in search of “some good information” to facilitate a landing on the Orange shore that could put him in a position, he said, “to take advantage of any unguarded March the Enemy might make.”
But he learned nothing; Washington was too far inland for a successful stroke, and Clinton's plan unraveled as rapidly as it had been conceived. The Elizabethtown force was ordered back to Staten Island and the contemplated offensive against Washington's main army was abandoned and the Carolina troops were debarked at Yonkers. Years later, Sir Henry recalled the Jersey operation as nothing more than a “fruitless excursion."