American Revolution: Battle of Red Bank

Christopher Greene
Colonel Christopher Greene. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Red Bank - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Red Bank was fought October 22, 1777, during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Armies & Commanders

Americans

British

  • Colonel Carl von Donop
  • 1,200 men

Battle of Red Bank - Background:

In the late summer of 1777, General Sir William Howe embarked his army at New York City and sailed south with the goal of capturing the colonial capital of Philadelphia.

Ascending the Chesapeake Bay, he landed at Head of Elk, MD and began marching north towards Pennsylvania. Moving to shield the city, General George Washington attempted to make a defensive stand along the Brandywine River in early September. Engaging Howe at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, Washington was flanked by the British and forced to retreat. Over the next two weeks, the two armies engaged in a campaign of maneuver which saw Howe capture Philadelphia on September 26. Seeking to regain the initiative, Washington struck at the British on October 4 when he attacked part of Howe's army at the Battle of Germantown. Despite early success, the Americans were again defeated after British reinforcements turned the tide of the battle.

Alerted that the British had taken Philadelphia, noted American leader Benjamin Franklin wryly commented "It would be more proper to say that Philadelphia has taken Sir William Howe." In making this statement, Franklin recognized that Howe would be forced to defend and supply the city.

The latter issue was quickly becoming a pressing concern as Washington sought to block to the roads leading to Philadelphia. In addition, American forces held Forts Mifflin and Mercer to the south which denied the Royal Navy the use of the Delaware River. These forts were supported by a small flotilla of Continental and Pennsylvania State Navy vessels overseen by Commodore John Hazelwood as well as several lines of submerged chevaux-de-frise in the river.

These consisted of large, stone-filled boxes which anchored large, steel-tipped timbers that were capable of impaling approaching ships.

Battle of Red Bank - Howe Moves Against the Forts:

Recognizing the need to eliminate the river forts, Howe directed his men to fortify Webb's Ferry to the south of Philadelphia and construct a bridge over the Schuylkill to nearby Province Island. Though harassed by Hazelwood's warships, British troops built a small battery and commenced a light bombardment of Fort Mifflin on October 11. Incomplete, the landward side of the fort only consisted of a log palisade and lacked guns to return the enemy's fire. Needing to free men to assault the forts, Howe withdrew his men from Germantown on October 19 and established a shorter defensive line between the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. As work progressed to expand the batteries striking Fort Mifflin, Howe directed Colonel Carl von Donop to take a force of 1,200 Hessians across the Delaware to capture Fort Mercer.

Battle of Red Bank - Von Donop Approaches:

Situated at Red Bank, Fort Mercer was named for Brigadier General Hugh Mercer who had died following the Battle of Princeton earlier that year. Garrisoned by around 400 men, the fort was commanded by Colonel Christopher Greene, a cousin of Major General Nathanael Greene.

Crossing to New Jersey at Cooper's Ferry on October 21, von Donop's column moved south along the river. Passing through Gloucester, the Hessian commander desired to take the fort to avenge the failure of his men at Assunpink Creek in January 1777. As his men neared Fort Mercer, von Donop stated "Either the fort will soon be called Fort Donop or I shall have fallen." After being delayed by the destruction of the bridge at Big Timber Creek, the Hessians arrived on October 22. Forming for battle in dense woods near the fort, von Donop twice called on Greene to surrender.

Battle of Red Bank - A Bloody Failure:

Refusing von Donop's surrender demands, Greene and his men braced for the Hessian attack. Assessing the situation, von Donop resolved to mount a two-pronged assault on the fort with himself leading the southern column.

This would be aided by an attack from the north consisting of Colonel Friedrich Ludwig von Minnigerode's grenadiers and Lieutenant Colonel Werner von Mirbach's infantry. To support these efforts, Royal Navy vessels in the river would bombard Fort Mercer. After opening fire with his artillery, von Donop signaled the advance. In the north, von Minnigerode and von Mirbach's men succeeded in penetrating an abandoned section of the works but were soon halted by a series of abatis. As they struggled through these obstacles, the defenders unleashed a devastating fire from the fort's inner wall. As losses began to mount, von Minnigerode and von Mirbach directed their men to fall back. To the south, von Donop's assault met a similar fate. Surging forward, his men encountered a wall of musket and artillery fire from the fort. With the Hessian ranks rapidly thinning and von Donop mortally wounded, they began falling back and ultimately retreated inland to Woodbury.

Battle of Red Bank - Aftermath:

In the fighting at the Battle of Red Bank, Greene lost 14 killed and 23 wounded, while the Hessians sustained 82 killed, 228 wounded, and 60 captured. Compounding the defeat, the ship of the line HMS Augusta (64 guns) and sloop of war HMS Merlin (18) both ran aground in river as they engaged the forts. Unable to be freed, they were destroyed the next day. The victory at Red Bank boosted American morale and continued to deny Vice Admiral Lord Richard Howe's fleet the use of the river. This proved short-lived as the British mounted a major bombardment of Fort Mifflin on November 10.

Holding out for six days, the garrison was compelled to abandon the post on November 16.

With Fort Mifflin's fall, Howe dispatched Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis across the river with 3,000 men for a second attempt on Fort Mercer. Reinforced by an additional 2,000 men from New York, he moved towards Red Bank. Alerted to Cornwallis' approach, Greene wisely elected to abandon the fort and escape with his garrison. With the Delaware River open to British traffic, Washington's plan to isolate Howe had been foiled. Though he succeeded in luring the British out of the city in early December, Howe refused to commit to a major battle near White Marsh. In the wake of this campaign, Washington elected to withdraw into winter quarters at Valley Forge.

Selected Sources