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Research Article

The Dutch-American Guerrillas of the American Revolution


     
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ABSTRACT

Guerrilla warfare is thought by many to be a circumstance of the latter half of the twentieth century.

This is an erroneous conception. The art and strategy of guerrilla warfare have been with mankind for a large portion of its history. Ancient Egypt and China both have recorded techniques of guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla techniques are recorded in the Bible and are described, sometimes at length, by many ancient historians such as Polybius, Appius, Plutarch, Flavius Jose phus, Herodatus and Tacitus.

Guerrilla warfare played an important role in our own revolutionary war with England. Countless small encounters between American colonists, using their own personal arms, and bands of English soldiers or Tories occurred throughout our War of Independence.

These brought home the point to King Goerge and his soldiers that his rebellious colonists, armed to the teeth, made the job of quelling the rebellion highly costly and very unlikely to succeed.

Prof. William Marina, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida, is a leading advocate of the school of thought that considers the American Revolution as a classic example of a successful guerrilla war. He has written an insightful essay on part of the guerrilla struggle against the British here in colonial America.

This work was first published in Christianity & Civilization, Vol.2, The Theology of Christian Resistance, Geneva Divinity School Press, Tyler, Texas, 1983. Reprinted with permission.


Until recently, few historians had analyzed the American Revolution from the perspective of what in the twentieth century has come to be known as “revolutionary warfare.” The military history of the Revolution was usually separated from the political, social, or economic history of the War, and dealt mostly with battles between traditionally organized armies.

John Shy, whose essay “The American Revolution: The Military Conflict Considered as a Revolutionary War,” is recognized as a path-breaking study in this area, later acknowledged that the piece emerged out of some contract work which he did for the Pentagon in 1965 during the Vietnam War, having to do with “Isolating the Guerrilla” from his civilian support. “Skeptical of the project as a whole,” he confessed, “I justified taking its modest stipend by thinking that the American Revolutionary War had a few lessons for our own time.”

In terms of revolutionary warfare, however, much of his study had to do with what is usually considered “partisan,” or irregular, “warfare, rather than what is often described as guerrilla war.” In contrast to regular armies fighting each other from essentially fixed lines, irregular warfare involves skirmishes, sometimes behind enemy lines, by small army or militia units. Continued operations by such formally organized regular units indicate that the country is far from under the control of, or pacified by, the invader. On the other hand, in a technical sense guerrilla warfare is revolutionary war at its most basic level. The occupying forces are enough in control of the area that local guerrillas fight as, in effect, part-time soldiers, usually attacking by surprise at night, and then resuming their civilian occupations during the day.

In a sense, therefore, theories of revolutionary war, or counter-insurgency, are really the opposite sides of the same coin. Once a country has been occupied and its regular forces defeated, an insurgency begins with the initiation of guerrilla warfare. While this may continue in some areas, as the enemy is weakened in others, a shift to irregular warfare may be undertaken, and, finally the emergence of a regular army to face the occupying forces in the field. Militarily, counter-insurgency means smashing the regular army, mopping up any attempts at irregular warfare by small units, and the restoration of order by eliminating the local guerrillas through isolating them from the rest of the population.

If this rough scenario, outlined in numerous books on revolutionary warfare, has any validity, then despite the many traditional military books to the contrary, the British were never anywhere near “victory” in the American Revolution. The main American Army-there were at times several others also-under George Washington was never smashed. After his defeats in New York during 1776, “the Old Fox” withdrew into the hills in New Jersey from which in any emergency he could have thrown his limited forces along a perimeter stretching from Boston to Philadelphia. Far from being overly cautious, with even the slightest hint of advantage, Washington repeatedly engaged the British forces. When the British tried a strategy of extending a line of garrisons into the interior, much as the United States tried in Vietnam, he beat them so badly with a surprise attack on Trenton that they were dissuaded from any further pursuit of that tactic.

Every time the British ventured into the interior, as Tom Paine predicted, they lost an army. This was true at Saratoga, where militia units, coming from as far away as New England, attacked as irregulars, and then meshed together into an army which resulted in the surrender of General Burgoyne. Certainly the French fleet offshore and the American and French forces surrounding him were significant factors in Lord Cornwallis’s decision to surrender, but we must not forget that his army had been severely weakened from numerous encounters with regular army and partisan forces. Far from liberating the interior of the Carolinas, he found himself losing men, and leaving behind war materials, as he drove to reach the coast for an attempted evacuation. Even in the case of Philadelphia, the British had abandoned it because, despite the use of considerable manpower, it was simply too difficult to keep it supplied in the face of constant harassment by militia.

In short, the British were simply never in control of very much of North America. During the period when their fleet was transferring the army from Boston to New York, in the face of Washington’s artillery on the heights above the former, there were no British in the colonies. Except for relatively short periods, from 1776 until 1781, the British, on any continuing basis, controlled little more than the city of New York.

Given these circumstances, there was really very little opportunity, or need, for the Americans to organize, or attempt to sustain, a classic guerrilla insurgency. On the other hand, after the failure at a negotiated peace during early 1778, the British began to develop the outlines of a pacification plan.

One way to examine the course of the war and the effectiveness of British strategy, especially with respect to pacification, is to study its effect in a small area. That is, after all, what the English and Hessian commanders seemed to be asking for, a single county that could be pacified, and from which, like a row of dominoes, they could work out in various directions, until a whole state, and then others, were secured.

New Jersey: “The Middle Ground”

The British never entertained much hope that New England would be an initial area for pacification. Connecticut, for example, had only six percent Loyalists, and no British army ventured into the New England countryside after the losses at Lexington and Concord. Late in the war, it was in the South that the British sought to establish the pacification program, but there, too, the image of a vast reservoir of Loyalists in the interior, waiting to be liberated, proved illusory. We noted above the partisan attacks on Cornwallis, so incessant that the British soldiers labeled the area around Charlotte, North Carolina, “the hornet’s nest.”

The middle area, however, was always supposedly the most vulnerable. Inhabited by more minority groups, General Burgoyne’s planned march and occupation of this area would have split the New England states off from the South. Even if this notion had not been held by the British, they had to start somewhere, if the pacification program was ever to get underway. Since they held New York City from mid-1776 until the end of the war, what better place to begin, working out from that secure area, not toward Connecticut, but to the west and south?

New Jersey, which has been called “the cockpit of the Revolution,” was the natural place to begin. In this “neutral ground” the two sides contended for the duration of the war. The struggle to control this area was evident in 1776, long before any formal British commitment to a pacification program.

If ever there was a location where the British had “time,” that precious commodity for which the counter-insurgency expert is always asking, it was in New Jersey. In those areas close to New York City, it would be difficult for American partisan units to operate, if at all. Instead, for five years, the major theme would be the classic confrontation of American guerrilla forces opposing whatever British and Loyalist units invaded the area. Finally, any pacification program would apparently be aided by the fact that the area contained numerous Dutch settlers, one of those minorities which, as William Nelson has noted, was constituted of certain segments susceptible to Toryism.

Unfortunately, we lack detailed studies of local areas during the years of the Revolution. Fortunately, however, what Shy has called “the only intensive study made of a single community during this period,” is of Bergen County, New Jersey, the area around Param us, on the Jersey side of where the George Washington Bridge now crosses the Hudson River. Thus, the only area of which we have an “intensive study,” turns out to be one of the few areas with any potential for examining the American Revolution for examples of classical guerrilla warfare, with the British in virtual control of the area for an extended period of time.

Curiously, Shy made no real use of this study in his own essay, remarking that from its data, “it is apparent that the local and bloody battles between rebel and Loyal militia were related to the prewar animosities between ethnic groups, political rivals, churches, and even neighbors.” The work in question is Adrian C. Leiby’s The Revolutionary War in the Hackensack Valley: The Jersey Dutch and the Neutral Ground, 1775–1783, which Shy in both versions of his essay mistakenly cites as The Hackensack Valley in the American Revolutionary War.

In what follows, we hope to demonstrate, contrary to Shy’s implication, that there is an enormous amount of data in Leiby’s work relevant to the study of revolutionary warfare and how that whole process develops over time. This is true in a strictly military sense, but, even if that were not the case, Shy’s comment suggests that internal struggles between the local population involving ethnicity, politics, religion, and neighbors, is somehow not related to revolutionary warfare. But, if anything, the opposite is true! The struggle in Vietnam, for example, involved the Vietnamese divided against each other around such issues as ethnicity, politics, and religion, long before the Americans made the scene.

What this really suggests is how truly difficult a task the American revolutionary forces in this area faced. Divided by various issues, and with a considerable Loyalist population, the revolutionaries were also confronted by large British and Hessian forces. Any effective operations against the British and their Loyalist allies could only be mounted after the revolutionaries had consolidated their own forces. This brings us to an area which most theorists of the sociology of revolution have regarded as crucial: the winning over and commitment, or at the very least acquiescence, of those who would, in many respects, wish to remain neutral. Often they may want the program of the revolutionists, but as classic examples of what economists call “the free rider,” they do not wish to involve themselves needlessly in a risk to achieve that goal.

The purpose of this essay is not a critique of Shy’s work, but it is clear that military historians have tended to ignore, or touch lightly, upon the fact that revolutionary warfare is primarily a question of psychology and politics, often including ideology. But all great theoreticians of revolutionary war have recognized that it is a struggle over legitimacy. One of us has dealt with this question in some detail elsewhere, and, as we shall see, that theme underlies much of the activities of the Americans in Leiby’s description of the war in the Hackensack Valley. With these preliminary comments about revolutionary warfare in mind, let us examine Leiby’s study for any illumination it might offer toward understanding this phenomenon as one aspect of the American Revolution.

The Patriot Militiaman

Leiby’s characterization of “the patriot militiaman” who “farmed during the day and did sentinel duty at night” is almost a classic description of the guerrilla. In the “middle” actually, rather than “neutral,” ground the battle raged back and forth, and if the British came often to forage among the inhabitants of that rich farm area, so too at times did the Americans.

To understand what was to occur there during the Revolution we must go back a few years earlier. The Dutch communities in that whole area had been deeply split by a schism, and greatly affected by the Great Awakening of the 1740s, which had taken place up and down the colonies, also influencing other denominations in a similar fashion. On one side was the smaller “conferentie” which still held to a strong link back to Amsterdam, and had a “violent hatred for all things American.” From this group were to come the Dutch Tories. The other, and much larger group was the “coetus,” which sought much lesser ties with Amsterdam, and much influenced by the Great Awakening, hoped to institute a more personal religion on a more than Sunday basis, along with a more democratic church polity. It has been called “the American party,” and from it came the Dutch Whigs who were to bear the brunt of the militia struggle for the area.

The Dutch who formed the backbone of the patriotic cause were members of the Dutch Reformed Church, sharing the democratic church polity, essentially congregational, of the Presbyterians, who so angered the British, and whose churches as rebel meeting houses bore the brunt of many of their raids. Of the New York Dutch, the Loyalist historian Thomas Jones wrote, “the Presbyterian party was in possession [of the Reformed church] and . . . their leaders were nearly all on the American side, [so the British] took possession of their edifices as rebel property.” One British policy maker sent to America put the matter succinctly: “When the war is over, there must be a great reform established, . . . for, Presbyterianism is really at the bottom of this whole conspiracy, has supplied it with vigor, and will never rest till something is decided upon it.”

These prosperous Dutch farmers were hardly radicals, but a few of them were from the beginning quite militant in defense of American rights. Early in 1775 New Jersey was one of those states that made the transition from Royal to revolutionary government “without the firing of a gun,” as the Provincial Congress replaced the Provincial Assembly, the Bergen County delegates to the meeting of May 23,1775, having been selected by the local Committee of Correspondence. The Bergen County resolutions of May 12 were typical of those throughout the colonies in the aftermath of Lexington and Concord. They called for a union of the inhabitants and freeholders to insure safety and prevent a “State of Anarchy and Confusion” which might accompany the “present Struggle for our Liberty, unless the proper Steps are taken to preserve Regularity and Unanimity among us,” and were circulated in both English and Dutch. The Provincial Congress took over the functions of government, including taxation, and established a number of militia companies.

But the fluid attitudes during this interim period before the first real battles of the war were obvious in the elections in late September, 1775. A more moderate group of men was elected which still included some of the earlier selectees of the patriot committees from some sections of New Jersey, more cautious moderates, and even a few who would later become Loyalists. Leiby attributes this to a decline of peak enthusiasm after Concord, but it more likely represents the differences between a cautious electorate and a more committed Committee of Correspondence. Bergen County was one of those areas where the moderates scored most heavily. But what this demonstrated, more than anything else, was the American commitment to legal and representative procedures, for we find no “rump” trying to manipulate the population.

As American defense measures got underway, Leiby tells us that one “Robert Erskine had evidently enlisted a company of soldiers for the Jersey Line [of the Continental army] from the workers at the ironworks, and outfitted them at his own expense.” On the other hand, “Few Jersey Dutchmen in the Hackensack valley enlisted in the Continental army, and of the few who did, most enlisted late in the war.” A few of these men, who came from among the laborers or artisans, fought with the army in the South. But, speculates Leiby, “Perhaps most Jersey Dutchmen were too well settled and prosperous to be professional soldiers; perhaps they were not sufficiently exercised about the war when it began. As it turned out, they may well have been more useful as militiamen in the neutral ground than they would have been in the regular army.” The most accurate appraisal is that the Jersey Dutch Whig majority was solidly in favor of defending American rights. As an organized militia they had no intention of attacking the British, but hoped that the problems separating the two parties could be worked out short of war.

The battles in and around New York City in the last part of 1776 were indicative of the recognition that war was reality. We might recall, it was the election of the new delegation from New Jersey arriving in Philadelphia late in June, that turned the tide for independence. The American defeat of late 1776 made Bergen County a refuge for many patriots. Washington had hoped to set up a hospital in Orange County, New York, just north of Bergen, but his chief medical officer reported that no homes were available because of all the refugees, and it would be impossible short of evicting some other persons. What is glimpsed here is the patriot concern for the inhabitants, which was not to be demonstrated by the British.

The New Tactic: Foraging

As the British advanced, Washington this time ordered the potential forage supplies destroyed, as had not been done in New York, so that “not a blade should remain” for British use. Nathanael Greene was sent to convince the people to do so, or do so himself, but in the end there was insufficient time to destroy the crops and cattle, which would have denied them to the British. Even in a hurried retreat the Americans themselves did take considerable cattle. Thereupon began the foraging expeditions in New Jersey by British troops described earlier.

Leiby points out that “Between one third and one half of the people of the Hackensack valley appear to have been Tories and Tory minded neutrals” at this point in the war. As the British moved into the area, they began to take vengeance on the population including destruction of some of the parsonages of ministers sympathetic to the American cause. American patriot groups struck back at the Tories, especially when British troops vacated an area, but on the whole lacked the forces to halt the continued foraging by British soldiers. While, as others have pointed out, one might under such circumstances take a Loyalist or neutral position out of self-interest, “No one was a patriot of convenience in the Hackensack valley in December 1776.”

It was during this period that Charles Lee tried to rally American forces to fight a continuing partisan war in New Jersey. Then Howe, at the insistence of the Loyalists, spread his troops at Trenton, which caused the British to abandon the strategy and spelled the end of plans to be in Philadelphia that winter. Henry Muhlen berg, a captured German officer, complained that he could not understand the American people: “When the Hessians entered Trenton and occupied the region, the inhabitants swore their allegiance to the King of Britain. But as soon as the American troops attacked on Christmas, the inhabitants shot at the Hessians from their houses. In fact, even a woman fired out of a window and mortally wounded a Captain.” That the same people who had sold the Hessians food should do this is not difficult to understand. They did not consider binding an oath that had been inflicted upon them by force, and when they had the chance to retaliate on the conqueror they did so.

It was at that point that Bergen County truly began to take on the appearance of a middle ground between the two sides, as the British moved back to New York. But it was now the Loyalists who were the more exposed, as attacks and plundering raged on both sides. Given all of the foraging that took place, it was “amazing” that the people in the area not only found enough food and fuel to carry them through the winter, but that a thriving business in hard currency sprang up with the British in New York.

A Guerrilla Civil War

Faced with the reality of perpetual warfare in their area, the majority in Bergen County in 1777 began to establish a militia that would function on a permanent basis. The nature of the American militia in the area began to change during that year. From a passive force trying to organize defensive measures against an aggressor, it became a highly mobile force that could strike back at the invader. The dynamics of how this came about are important.

During the same period, the “farmer-soldier” of the militia came under the usual criticism of regular army officers such as Colonel Aaron Burr and General Alexander McDougall, though, as Leiby notes, “neither of them had any real reason to regard himself as a professional military man. Burr complained that ‘not a man of the militia are with me. Some joined last night but are gone.’” Even as they began to learn the ways of the guerrilla warfare, the militia, as one would expect, chose to follow their elected leaders, whom they knew and in whom they had confidence, rather than simply any officer sent by the Continental army.

And, as Lei by further observes, “McDougall, for his part, was entirely unembarrassed by the thought that the militia could hardly be expected to do what his nine hundred troops could not do, seeing no irony whatever in complaining that the untrained Jersey Dutch militia, less than one hundred in number, would not venture near the Regulars, at the same time that he reported that he could not even attack Clinton’s pickets because, as he put it, it was ‘too hazardous an experiment, considering our strength and theirs, by the lowest computation.’” Because the Continental army has had so many defenders with respect to their problems, and the militia so few, Leiby’s comments are worth citing: “Since it was the Continental officer and not the militiaman who left his journals and letters for the historian, over the years the militiaman’s faults have been multiplied and his virtues forgotten. There are few Jersey Dutch militiamen’s writings to tell how seldom any Continentals ventured down into the really dangerous part of the neutral ground when the British were near; none to note that, while the Bergen County militia daily risked brushes with Sir Henry’s raiders from New York, all too many Continentals did not hear a gun fired in battle from one year to the next.”

Clinton’s move into New Jersey with four thousand troops in the fall of 1777 was not an attempt to bring the area under British control, but to take all of the forage possible for the winter ahead, and there was little the militia or the American army could do to prevent such a force from doing that, and returning to New York. With the large British force gone, the battle in the middle ground settled down to a guerrilla civil war.

On the whole, the American troops who foraged among the population that supported the Revolution did not do so on a massive scale, and they sought, in many cases, to leave script for what was taken. The most committed Loyalists had revealed themselves, during the period when British soldiers had been in the area. Their farms were now recommended as the preferred places to forage. But the most important distinction was the way in which the two populations, Whig and Loyalist, reacted and interacted with each other and with the British, American, and external Loyalist forces that entered the area. Thus, the American majority did exercise a kind of “coercive persuasion” on the minority of Loyalists, and this could and did involve violence at times. But such violence tended to be directed at specific Loyalists and the actions which they had taken against patriots when they had the protection of British troops behind them.

On the other hand, the actions of the British and Loyalists were of two kinds. Neither the British nor the Hessians were familiar with the area or the people. While their foraging might to some extent be directed at known and conspicuous patriots, it could also fall on those who were neutral in attitude (of which there were few by this time), on those who were neutral in the sense of not having become an active and mobilized patriot, and even upon those who were secret Loyalists, or known Loyalists, but unknown to the soldiers on that foraging patrol. Beyond such actions of the regular soldiers, were those of the Loyalist units, made up of militants, but also comprising men with established reputations as thieves and malcontents. As a conscious minority in their own community, local Loyalist raids against patriots tended to be directed, not toward bringing them into line with the views of the majority, as was a dominant patriot motive for such activities, but in violent retaliation against a majority which they had no hopes of changing, and toward which they consequently harbored a passionate hatred. On the other hand, Loyalist bands of brigands not familiar with the local population were simply indiscriminate in their license to pillage and would attack families from the staunchest patriot to the most dedicated Loyalist. Whether in vindictiveness or in pillaging, it was among the Loyalist raiders that violence tended toward atrocities, not directed at any political goal. Clinton was but touching the top of the iceberg when he wrote, “I could not but view with concern the very afflicting damage [the raids] had already been productive of to private property, it never having been my intention to extend the destruction to homes of individuals, much less to those of public worship.” He was able to stop most of those in Long Island, but not in Bergen County.

The net effect of this indiscriminate British raiding seems to have been to drive the neutrals, whether in thought or in action, toward some participation in the American cause. The only real protection could come from involvement in the Bergen county militia. “Free riding” grew expensive. The militia not only grew with the need to organize for constant patrol and skirmishing with raiders, but with the passage of time, changed from a hastily called and inexperienced defensive group into a hardened band of guerrilla fighters. About this organization Leiby comments, “As the winter of 1777–78 set in, it must have been hard for Jersey Dutchmen to realize that but a single year had passed since the dread days of the British occupation; . . . a year since Bergen County had been a conquered land, helpless in the hands of its enemies. The improvement in patriots’ affairs during the past twelve months was little short of miraculous, . . . A year earlier patriotic Jerseymen had been the hapless victims of a cruel invader; in the fall and winter of 1777, though by no means beyond the reach of British power, they were again actors in the war, not mere sufferers from its cruelty.”

1777: A Revitalized Militia

The leader in this change was Major John Mauritius Goetschius, a graduate of the college of New Jersey, who had studied for the ministry but had been urged to do more work before application. Leiby suggests that his “spelling and grammar” were not that of an intellectual, but, as we shall see, his skill as a guerrilla tactician and leader of men was unsurpassed. In reading of his exploits and that of his militia, it is difficult to disagree with Leiby’s assessment that “as the war progressed it would have been hard to find any more active and spirited officer on the continent.” One may venture the guess, however, that as American historians finally begin to explore the deeds of the local American militia, where records exist to do so, they will find numbers of men who functioned much as did this heroic Dutchman.

In late 1776, the militia had marched out to the sound of fife and drum, but “had flown apart before it could fire a shot.” The militia scrapped the silly foot drills that were featured in drill manuals of the time, and only much later did the musical instruments reappear. Goetschius was not the only guerrilla who was a hunted man. One of his officers was Samuel Demarest, who had seen some action with Washington’s army in New York. Lei by quotes the pension records on Demarest: “He was unable to attend to his business or even to remain at home except by stealth on account of his exposure to capture by the enemy ... they having made repeated attempts to effect his capture from his own house.” Unable to farm during this period, Demarest later had to sell his farm to pay off debts contracted to maintain his family.

The way in which the “farmer-soldiers” organized themselves is best told in their own words. One of them, Cornelius Board, described their preparations: “It was necessary to keep up a constant guard each night in order to protect our families and ourselves from the depredations of the Cow Boys [British-Loyalist raiders].” His group “would assemble according to orders . . . just after sundown upon the heights and keeping themselves and their station concealed as much as possible would remain under arms through the night, those not engaged on sentry or on patrols sleeping on their arms until it came their turn to relieve those on guard and keeping out sentinels and patrols through the night, then returning to our ordinary business in the morning.”

A further account is added by Cornelius Blauvelt: The companies “were divided into classes of four men in a class, and the arrangement was made that one man in a class should guard one week and be relieved by another, and so continue until each had served his week, that a continued guard might be kept and their necessary labor at home might be done in which manner the militia served until the end of the war from early in the spring until winter and often in the winter.” Each class served one month in four.

Such militia service was difficult, but slowly the men became a fighting unit in constant contact with British and Loyalist elements. That kind of defense was extremely hard, for the British could strike at any point in a radius of twenty-five miles, and the Americans never knew where they might hit next. When the British treated the captured American militia badly, the patriots threatened to reciprocate on captured British soldiers. Clinton’s acceptance of the American argument simply angered the Tories, who felt a hard policy should be pursued at all times. The most important result of the British raids and the American organization was to mobilize any persons who were left in the middle, if they wished to protect their property, and to push the American militia into the formation of a fighting organization undreamed of in 1776. For men thus committed, the British idea of pacification in 1778 was irrelevant. Though few, if any, would have recognized it at the time, even in the middle ground, the war had essentially been decided by the end of 1777. Though the continental army in the area did not grow much stronger, the militia continued to do so. As Lei by notes, “To the patriots the Revolution was no mere nationalistic revolt against legitimate government, it was a rebellion against Toryism in politics, economics, and religion, a Toryism that bred poverty, ignorance, and despair in Europe and would, given a free hand, do the same in America. .. To patriots far more than allegiance to Britain was at stake; Tory success would have meant a far different England and a far different world.” The Jersey Dutch were no provincials, but understood the larger context of the war.

The Militia Becomes Dominant

Very slowly the militia began to assert American control of the area. Two of the more important American victories of 1779 were in the area; General Anthony Wayne’s surprise bayonet and sword night attack on Stony Point, and the raid on Paulus Hook, which, while not major engagements, threw off Clinton’s plans for the year. Wayne’s large foraging expedition was also a success, though the farmers probably were not happy about losing their produce and animals to the American army either. Thus, “it was plain for anyone to see that it was” the Americans, not the British “who dominated the neutral ground in 1779; and the land that had filled the storehouses of the British during 1776, 1777, and 1778 now supplied” the American forces.

Late in 1779 a “remarkable indication” of how “the British cause had lost ground in the past three years” occurred, “for which there must be few parallels indeed in the history of war and Revolution.” In 1776 dozens of young men from families in the valley who were of Loyalist sympathies had enlisted for three years in the British forces. As their enlistments expired, these men sought to return to their homes and begin farming again, almost as if there had been no war. The American patriot militia began arresting them to be put on trial for high treason, but the men claimed to be deserters from the British army.

General Wayne ordered them released on the basis that such desertion ought to be encouraged, and that prosecution “would inevitably deter all others under similar circumstances from coming over . . . and shutting the door of mercy against poor deluded wretches who wish to return to the bosom of their country.” Though the Americans did not know of it, and no formal effort was ever made to implement it, the British were at this very time considering planting deserters among the Americans to serve as spies.

The winter of 1779-80 was a very bad one, made worse by a drought. In late March, the British, with six hundred men, launched a raid into New Jersey from two directions. In the ensuing skirmishes, it appears that the American militia was less prone to retreat than the regular forces. The British burned many of the homes of patriots in Hackensack, and carried off all of the adult males they could find, but the American harassment was so fierce they could take little or no plunder with them. As Leiby concludes, “The time was long past when the British could attack Bergen county as a refreshment for their troops.” The prisoners were later exchanged, but the British acts only increased the enmity of the Americans. It was hardly the kind of “pacification” that would win over the inhabitants. In fairness to Clinton, it appears that the idea for such reprisals had come from the Loyalist refugees in New York, who, in the absence of Sir Henry in the South, had convinced the Hessians that such raids were a good policy. On his return Clinton was “furious,” and later wrote that the raid was “ill-timed . . . malapropos” based upon “the ill-founded suggestions of . . . over-sanguine Refugees.” In April the British staged a raid on Paramus, much less interested in retaliation than foraging. While some of the regular army units were surprised by the action, it was the militia which “again turned out like veterans, hanging on the flanks and rear of the withdrawing troops in the best tradition of the embattled farmer, firing from behind every stone fence and tree from Paramus to Fort Lee, inflicting heavy casualties on the British columns and finally forcing them to slow their march and throw out flanking parties to protect their main force from the galling fire, with the result that a great many prisoners escaped and a good deal of booty had to be abandoned.” Pursuing the British right to the edge of the Hudson, the Americans recaptured four wagons and sixteen horses.

The Problem of Paper Money

Leiby’s information about the regular army in the area tends to confirm other data about it. Washington continued to have supply problems, the lack of anything but inflated paper money being a prime factor. As William Pennington, a Jersey soldier stationed at Tappan, reported: “We are encamped near a pleasant little village about two miles from the Hudson. The inhabitants are principally low Dutch, though there are some refugees from New York. I am told that there are some very good Whigs here. Silver and gold is the only established currency in the country as the Dutch have substantial wealth. We are in the heart of a delightful and plentiful country but for the want of specie cannot reap much advantage from it.” Others in the regular army had far less scruples, for they foraged and plundered among the farms of Orange County while the militia in that area was away fighting Loyalist and Indian raiders farther west. A major reason for such actions was the composition of the American army, for one could not “fail to see that the troops of the line were no longer farm boys with muskets. The Continentals at Tappan were campaign-hardened professional soldiers, a good number of them captives and deserters from the redcoats, men who knew very well how to live on the country when the commissaries failed them, and plundering was only a part of the story.” British intelligence files are filled with reports and information from the men who re-deserted after the British issued a proclamation of pardon to all such deserters. (Since many of those in the British army were foreigners, the deserters help, in part, to explain the high proportion of foreigners in the American army.) The militia was active in pursuing these men as they re-deserted and tried to make their way to the British lines in New York.

The “middle ground” was thus the locale for an incredible number of different levels of fighting during the war. It was near here that the most serious mutiny, that of the Pennsylvania Line, took place late in 1780. The plight of these men during the war, many of them foreign-born, was no doubt severe, they having received little or no pay for months. Some were deserting, but a larger number simply were tired of fighting without pay, and went on a rampage of plundering. Major Goetschius reported to Washington that “the wicked and inconsiderate soldiery” were “entirely destroying the Schraalenburgh neighborhood,” having taken all sorts of farm animals and produce, “and in a violent manner abuse the well-affected in this place, running about with clubs and bayonets upon pikes by whole companies as bad as our enemies ever have done.” General Nathanael Greene wrote, “There have been committed some of the most horrid acts of plunder by some of the Pennsylvania Line that has disgraced the American army during the war... Two soldiers-were taken that were out upon the business, both of which fired upon the inhabitants to prevent their giving intelligence. A party plundered a house yesterday in sight of a number of officers, and even threatened the officers if they offered to interfere.” Greene recommended that such offenders be hanged without trial, while Goetschius and the militia sought to halt any deserters from reaching New York.

Washington also found the plundering outrageous. “Without a speedy change in circumstances . . . either the army must disband, or what is if possible worse, subsist upon the plunder of the people.” The army had at this point been without any meat for over a week, and foraging raids had raised only a supply for several days. “Military coercion is no longer to any avail, as nothing further can possibly be collected from the country in which we are obliged to take a position without depriving the inhabitants of the last morsel. This mode of subsisting, supposing the desired end could be answered by it, besides being in the highest degree distressing to individuals, is attended with ruin to the morals and discipline of the army; during the few days which we have been obliged to send out small parties to procure provisions for themselves, the most enormous excesses have been committed.” As an American officer, Major Samuel Shaw, put it:

“The country between us and the enemy, and below him, has been pretty thoroughly gleaned by us of the little the enemy left there. We call this foraging, but it is only a gentle name for plundering.”

Goals of Guerrilla Troops

It was, of course, in this area that the treason of Benedict Arnold was uncovered, and Major John Andre was captured and hanged as a spy. As the foraging began to run short, Washington moved his army to the north and west. His orders to Goetschius as he did so are revealing of the different way in which the commander of the army perceived the war in contrast to a leader of the local militia. Washington ordered Goetschius to detach about twenty men for duty around Dobbs Ferry in New York “to protect and cover the country below as far as possible.” The Dutch leader did so, but he wrote, “It makes a great uneasiness among the inhabitants at the lines of this country. My detachment is particular enlisted for a guard at the frontiers of this country. To complete the number, the inhabitants at the liens paid a large sum of money to the soldiery particular to have rest themselves and to follow their employ ... Garrisoning the blockhouse at Dobbs Ferry which lays in York State is little or no guard to this country . . . [which] lays now open [and] horse thieves and robbers slip through to ruin of the inhabitants.”

Goetschius understood that such warfare involves people, not places, and that protecting the patriot population was more important than anything else. He might also have added that only a few months before Loyalist raiders had burned his own home and barn and carried away all he owned. But perhaps even more important than his theory of warfare is his information that the militia was a paid defense force. It helps to explain the way in which Americans chose to support the war effort, and how reluctant inhabitants were to pay for the regular army, after having contributed toward the local militia.

Away from his home base, Goetschius and his militia were faced with the same provision problem that plagued the regular army. Thus, he wrote to the Governor of New Jersey that the militia had served some weeks “whilst the army laid here, [under] about fifteen different commanders as picket to the whole army,” having to take orders from all these officers while receiving rations from none. He had applied to Washington, to the State, and to the several surrounding counties, but had received nothing. On Washington’s advice, his men had also foraged, but there was little left about, and “it must be taken by force of arms. The inhabitants will not sell any longer for certificates.” With all these problems, nonetheless, the militia continued to patrol the dangerous territory between the two armies, in which occurred most of the fighting. Leiby’s comment is worth noting: The militia “would have been more than human, however, if they had not observed the Continental’s contempt for all militiamen and if they had not observed, even more clearly, how often Continentals marched and countermarched during a whole campaign without seeing a redcoat, how seldom any Continental ventured down as close to the British as the militia headquarters posts.”

“After the war, when Goetschius’ old militia men stood outside the South Church at Schraalenburgh on Sunday mornings waiting for the service to begin and boasting quietly about their exploits in low Dutch, if some of them were a little scornful of Continental officers who never saw a British gun, it was perhaps natural jealousy over their own unsung feats. No Continental need have troubled himself for a moment about their mild grumbling, there were none but Jersey Dutchmen to hear them, there was to be no Bancroft or Longfellow to tell of their deeds.”

1781: The End of the War

By the middle of 1781 things were little changed in the Hackensack valley. Cornwallis was in Virginia, but the British force remained in New York, able to raid into New Jersey. Washington kept his army nearby, but was unable to mount assault on the British base. “The neutral ground continued to be the stage for probing raids, espionage, and partisan warfare.” In March the British made a large raid, but the militia drove them back before any Continental units had time to get organized to meet the threat. In these closing months of the war occurred some of the worst retributions of all. Early in 1781, the government in London agreed with the demands of the Loyalists to charter an organization, the Associated Loyalists, “to wage a private war-within-a-war, to take their own prisoners, and to treat military booty as their own; in a word to wage war without let or hindrance from British headquarters.” Though Clinton opposed it, the Loyalists were, in effect, given a license to pillage and plunder, taking out their frustrations on the population.

In May some Loyalist forces occupied old Fort Lee, and Goetschius and the militia moved to dislodge them. In the meantime Washington heard about the Loyalists and ordered several regular army units “and any Jersey militia that you may find ... but ... trust no officer among them . . .” to attack the fort. Before the army could make such preparations, the word arrived that the militia had taken the fort. Leiby notes that “The British command was fortunate that the Bergen and Orange County militiamen [who had quickly assembled, two hundred strong, for the joint attack] were not thrown against a more important objective.”

If there is any weakness in Leiby’s study, it is his account of the last months of the fighting, and the year and a half from the British surrender at Yorktown late in 1781 until the signing of the peace agreement early in 1783. It would appear that many Loyalists and some neutrals, who had done little in the war effort, did reintegrate themselves back into the society, much to the consternation of many of the more committed Whigs. This upset Washington also, but we can close this account of Leiby’s with a comment by Governor William Livingston: “I have seen Tory members of Congress, Judges upon tribunals, Tory representatives in our Legislative councils, Tory members of our Assemblies . . . J have seen self-interest predominating and patriotism languishing.”

It is not clear from Leiby’s account how willingly the patriots accepted the reintegration of these Loyalists back into their society. That they did so at all seems to disturb him somewhat. There is no research on this question, but the suggestion offered by Leonard Liggio seems the most likely explanation. That the Jersey Dutch did have a number of Loyalists would tend to confirm Nelson’s views about the prime source of that outlook among minority groups. At the end of the conflict, the patriot Dutch would have been caught in a quandary! whether to punish their deviant fellow ethnics, or very quickly to re-assimilate them back, thus affirming the idea that the Dutch were solidly a part of the patriot movement, and thus good Americans. Such an interpretation certainly fits into later patterns of American ethnic behavior. Thus, the ethnic factor may have played a part in the apparently light reaction to the Loyalist reintegration into Dutch society.

Some Observations About Revolutionary Warfare

It is impossible in this brief summary of a few of Leiby’s points about the Revolution in the Hackensack Valley, to do justice to what must be regarded as a magnificent, detailed account of local history and the interaction of military events with socio-economic developments. Anyone at all familiar with the basic concepts of revolutionary warfare, and the process by which a community organizes itself to fight a guerrilla war virtually under the gun of the invader, must acknowledge that Shy was incorrect when he suggested that Leiby’s study was simply an example of “local” history dealing with “bloody battles” growing out of “prewar animosities.”

It is a microcosmic account of what most areas have experienced as they became involved in the process of revolutionary change, but unique in the American Revolution because the area was dominated by British forces for most of the war, and thus forced the Americans into fighting a true guerrilla war. Commitment from those in the middle came less because of ideology, than from the realization that there would be no free riders, and that those who did not participate in the militia would not be offered protection against British incursions. Indiscriminate British, and especially Loyalist, plundering and retaliations further polarized the population toward the American cause.

As the war progressed, the militia became, in many ways, a more effective fighting force than the regular army, which contained a large segment of some of the less desirable elements in American society. In Major John M. Goetschius we glimpse an American military officer whose grasp of the principles of people’s guerrilla warfare was equal to any of the great historical theorists of those concepts. Complaints about the militia by officers such as General George Washington reflected an unwillingness to recognize these concepts of warfare, and how such a force could most effectively be used.

Unlike the inflated script used to pay sporadically the regular army, the Bergen County militia was paid, apparently, in gold. Their commitment was to attacking the British and Loyalists whenever they chose to attack that county, and the militia leaders felt less effective when told to encamp in other, distant areas. This attitude toward the militia of some army officers is indicative of one of the major “fault lines” within the revolutionary coalition. Some leaders had always desired imperial territorial gains from the war, as well as independence. This desire ran so deep that they had launched an attack on Canada early in the war, greatly over-extending American resources. Such leaders were not interested in securing peace in 1778 unless it also included Canada and Florida. Local farmer militia self-defense forces, as those in Bergen County, were simply not excited by such imperial adventures. A good example of this was evident late in the war, in 1781, when Washington sent General Lafayette north to attempt again to mount an assault. The leaders of the Vermont militia replied that they would not enlist unless they were promised “double pay, double rations, and plunder,” a clever way of aborting the whole idea.

For any Americans who have spent these years of the Bicentennial reading back on the origins of the Republic, it must have become apparent how much yet needs to be learned about the history of this period. Even such a perceptive historian as Shy, for example, repeats the myth about John Adams’ statement that it was a minority Revolution. What is apparent from some of the very careful local studies such as Leiby’s, drawn from a variety of obscure, and long-forgotten records, is that perhaps the American Revolution has more than “a few lessons for our own time.”


For further articles and studies, please see OnPower.org.
William Marina was a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and Professor Emeritus in History at Florida Atlantic University.

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