American Revolution: Battle of Short Hills

Major General William Alexander, Lord Stirling
Major General Lord Stirling. Public Domain

Battle of Short Hills - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Short Hills was fought June 26, 1777, during the American Revolution (1775-1783).   

Armies & Commanders:

Americans

British

Battle of Short Hills - Background:

Having been expelled from Boston in March 1776, General Sir William Howe descended on New York City that summer.

  Defeating General George Washington's forces at Long Island in late August, he then landed on Manhattan where he suffered a setback at Harlem Heights in September.  Recovering, Howe succeeded in driving American forces from the area after winning victories at White Plains and Fort Washington.  Retreating across New Jersey, Washington's beaten army crossed the Delaware into Pennsylvania before halting to regroup.  Recovering late in the year, the Americans struck back on December 26 with a triumph at Trenton before achieving a second victory a short time later at Princeton.

With winter setting in, Washington moved his army to Morristown, NJ and entered winter quarters.  Howe did the same and the British established themselves around New Brunswick.  As the winter months progressed, Howe commenced planning for a campaign against the American capital at Philadelphia while American and British troops routinely skirmished in the territory between the encampments.

  In late March, Washington ordered Major General Benjamin Lincoln to take 500 men south to Bound Brook with the goal of collecting intelligence and protecting farmers in the area.  On April 13, Lincoln was attacked by Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis and forced to retreat.  In an effort to better assess British intentions, Washington moved his army to a new encampment at Middlebrook.

Battle of Short Hills - Howe's Plan:

A strong position, the encampment was situated on the south slopes of the first ridge of the Watchung Mountains.  From the heights, the Washington could observe British movements on the plains below which stretched back to Staten Island.  Unwilling to assault the Americans while they held the high ground, Howe sought to lure them down to the plains below.  On June 14, he marched his army Somerset Courthouse (Millstone) on the Millstone River.  Only eight miles from Middlebrook he hoped to entice Washington to attack.  As the Americans showed no inclination to strike, Howe withdrew after five days and moved back to New Brunswick.  Once there, he elected to evacuate the town and shifted his command to Perth Amboy.

Believing the British to be abandoning New Jersey in preparation for moving against Philadelphia by sea, Washington ordered Major General William Alexander, Lord Stirling to march towards Perth Amboy with 2,500 men while the rest of the army descended the heights to a new position near Samptown (South Plainfield) and Quibbletown (Piscataway).  Washington hoped that Stirling could harass the British rear while also covering the army's left flank.

  Advancing, Stirling's command assumed a line in the vicinity of Short Hills and Ash Swamp (Plainfield and Scotch Plains).  Alerted to these movements by an American deserter, Howe reversed his march late on June 25.  Moving quickly with around 11,000 men, he sought to crush Stirling and prevent Washington from regaining a position in the mountains.

Battle of Short Hills - Howe Strikes:

For the attack, Howe directed two columns, one led by Cornwallis and the other by Major General John Vaughan, to move through Woodbridge and Bonhampton respectively.  Cornwallis' right wing was detected around 6:00 AM on June 26 and clashed with a detachment of 150 riflemen from Colonel Daniel Morgan's Provisional Rifle Corps.  Fighting ensued near Strawberry Hill where Captain Patrick Ferguson's men, armed with new breech-loading rifles, were able to force the Americans to withdraw up Oak Tree Road.

  Alerted to the threat, Stirling ordered reinforcements led by Brigadier General Thomas Conway forward.  Hearing the firing from these first encounters, Washington ordered the bulk of the army to move back to Middlebrook while relying on Stirling's men to slow the British advance.

Battle of Short Hills - Fighting for Time:

Around 8:30 AM, Conway's men engaged the enemy near the intersection of Oak Tree and Plainfield Roads.  Though offering tenacious resistance that included hand-to-hand fighting, Conway's troops were driven back.  As the Americans retreated approximately a mile toward the Short Hills, Cornwallis pushed on and united with Vaughan and Howe at Oak Tree Junction.  To the north, Stirling formed a defensive line near Ash Swamp.  Backed by artillery, his 1,798 men resisted the British advance for around two hours allowing Washington time to regain the heights.  Fighting swirled around the American guns and three were lost to the enemy.  As the battle raged, Stirling's horse was killed and his men were driven back to a line in Ash Swamp.

Badly outnumbered, the Americans were ultimately forced to retreat towards Westfield.  Moving quickly to avoid the British pursuit, Stirling led his troops back to the mountains to rejoin Washington.  Halting in Westfield due to the heat of the day, the British looted the town and desecrated the Westfield Meeting House.  Later in the day Howe reconnoitered Washington's lines and concluded that they were too strong to attack.  After spending the night in Westfield, he moved his army back to Perth Amboy and by June 30 had fully departed New Jersey.

Battle of Short Hills - Aftermath:

In the fighting at the Battle of Short Hills the British admitted to 5 killed and 30 wounded.  American losses are not known with accuracy but British claims numbered 100 killed and wounded as well as around 70 captured.  Though a tactical defeat for the Continental Army, the Battle of Short Hills proved a successful delaying action in that Stirling's resistance allowed Washington to shift his forces back to the protection of Middlebrook.  As such, it prevented Howe from executing his plan to cut the Americans off from the mountains and defeat them in open ground.  Departing New Jersey, Howe opened his campaign against Philadelphia late that summer.  The two armies would clash at Brandywine on September 11 with Howe winning the day and capturing Philadelphia a short time later.  A subsequent American attack at Germantown failed and Washington moved his army into winter quarters at Valley Forge on December 19.

Selected Sources