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In the early morning hours of 18 February 1777, Colonel John Neilson, of the Second Regiment, Middlesex County Militia, launched a well-planned surprise attack on the British military outpost of Bennett's Island, New Jersey. The main mission was to disarm this new strategic post and capture Richard Witham Stockton, the infamous local Tory guide to Lieutenant Colonel William Harcourt, who just recently, on 13 December 1776, had played a key role in the capture of General Charles Lee, second-in-command to the American forces under General George Washington. (1) The story of the surprise attack on this strategic site and the significance of the capture of Loyalist, Major Richard Stockton, had long been forgotten until an amazing chain of events led Stockton's fifth great grandson, Chris Hay UE, and well-recognized American Revolutionary War author, Christian McBurney, to unravel this intriguing tale of Revolutionary history. (2)

Soon after establishing their new winter command post at New Brunswick in January 1776, British officers had quickly realized the adjacent Raritan River to be the safest and most efficient supply route to their nearby post at Perth Amboy. This was soon to change as the local American Militia Commander, Colonel John Neilson, of the Second Middlesex Militia, had also realized the military importance of controlling the surrounding road access routes and the strategic Raritan River waterway.

In order to ensure the unobstructed use of this river, the British had quickly established military posts at Raritan Landing and Bennett's [formerly Lawrence] Island, both at key locations on the lower Raritan River. The post at Bennett's Island lay about three miles south east of New Brunswick, New Jersey, on a high point of land with strategic river views as far away as the City of Perth Amboy. (3) The British had occupied a large farm house here with numerous outbuildings in order to build their new post. (4) Stockton and his officers had made the main house both their headquarters and sleeping quarters.

Just below the new British post at Bennett's Island, Neilson's militia forces had established a favourite and most annoying tactic of harassing British ships using the "Roundabout" [see map] as an ambuscade. (5) Located on the Raritan River within view of Bennett's Island, the Roundabout was close to where the mouth of the South River meets the Raritan. Here, at a sharp bend in the river, boats were much more vulnerable as they navigated slowly through this particular stretch. The first use of this ambuscade appears to be on 03 February 1777 when the senior general of the Continental Army in New Jersey, Major General Israel Putnam, stationed at Princeton, ordered "50 good riflemen" from Princeton to the Roundabout "to annoy the enemy's boats that are passing and repassing with provisions and stores" (6) Colonel Neilson also added additional support ordering "Sergt. John Voorhees with 7 others of that Co. go with the Rifle Men as Pilots" (1)

On 05 February, the "very advantageously placed" riflemen spotted a boat coming down the river from Brunswick with about twelve men on its deck. According to their officers' report to General Putnam, twenty-five Pennsylvania sharpshooters "gave them a how do you do..." (8) This action had alerted the British military who responded quickly to this new American threat. Immediately, Brigadier General Cortland Skinner, a former attorney general of New Jersey and commander of the New Jersey Volunteers, sent Major Richard Stockton and one hundred soldiers of the same Loyalist corps to reinforce the new British post at Bennett's Island. (9) Skinner hoped to quell any further military action and to prevent the Americans from controlling the heights along the lower Raritan. Richard W. Stockton had first been appointed Captain of the New Jersey Volunteers in August 1776 when the unit was stationed on Staten Island and still gathering troops. (10) He was later promoted to Major for his services as the main Guide who helped to capture General Charles Lee." American General, Israel Putnam, in a letter to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety, described Stockton as the enemy's "renowned land pilot" (12) Stockton had just recently been identified in the media as having been involved in an attack on American troops at Drake's Farm near Metuchen, New Jersey, on 01 February 1777. (13) This notoriety, as well as his role in the capture of General Charles Lee, had given the Americans an urgent desire for his apprehension.

Their chance came soon, on or around 17 February 1777, when an unnamed deserter from Bennett's Island arrived at Colonel Neilson's post at Cranbury about fifteen miles south of Bennetts Island and provided enough vital details of the new British post for the American's to plan a quick attack (14). It appears, from Neilson's documents, that the deserter had likely advised him of the lax guard, the stockade to mount, the sleeping arrangements for Stockton and his troops, and the presence of an additional sixty British Troops stationed across a strategic bridge over Lawrence Brook, at nearby Longfield's farm. (15) Most important was the news of the name of the new commander of the post, Major Richard W. Stockton, the "renowned Land Pilot" Stockton commanded only Captain Dunham, four subalterns and about one hundred privates from several Battalions of the New Jersey Volunteers. (16)

Neilson, recognizing the opportunity, planned for a quick attack, and stated his objectives of not only disarming this strategic Raritan River post but also of capturing its infamous commander, Richard W. Stockton. (17) Colonel Neilson immediately sent a message to General Putnam at Princeton requesting additional reinforcements if available. Putnam's response was quick and favourable. On 17 February, he returned a note to Neilson stating: "I am pleased at your forming a party against Stockton & I wish you success." (18)

On the evening of 17 February 1777, Colonel Neilson, along with one hundred and fifty men of the Middlesex Militia, and fifty riflemen of the Militia from Bedford, Pennsylvania, sent as reinforcements by General Putnam, marched in a surprise attack on the British post at Bennett's Island. (19) At sunset Neilson ordered his men to begin their march, guided by Andrew McDowell, and, although a brisk night, with the ground covered in snow, no storm threatened. The Patriot troops made good time. (20)

Neilson continues with a detailed first hand description of the surprise attack in his personal officer's order book:

"The first stop was at David Williamson's Tavern, which lasted until 11:00 p.m., and from there they went on to 'old Ogden's,' within one mile of Bennetts house. (21) (Ogden's house, located one and a half miles inland from the Raritan River, on the South River, was likely the family home of Benjamin Ogden, a young private in the raiding party.) (22) There they waited until the moon went down at 4:00 a.m. and then moved on to Bennetts Island" Neilson describes what happened next: "The main Body the moment they got over the causeway at the foot of the Hill fronting the house (where we Expected to have met with a Sentry) rushd up to the house with the utmost Expedition in order to surround the house, which was done--Piloted by McDowell & Fisher. At the same time a detachment being the Rifle Men to hasten up to the guard house & endeavour to surround them & cut off their communication with the house--Piloted by Ogden & a deserter? (23) A third detachment of men, led by Lieutenant Nathaniel Hunt, the moment they saw the house was surrounded, hurried to capture a bridge that led over Lawrence Brook to Longfield's farm, thus completing the conquest of Bennett's Island. Seeing themselves surrounded, and with no avenue of escape, Major Stockton and his men surrendered. (24) A handful of soldiers under Stockton's command, perhaps thirty, escaped and made their way back to New Brunswick. In addition, a Captain with five or six men of the New Jersey Volunteers, retreated to a cellar in one of the two dwelling houses, and tried to hide there. Neilson's men discovered the position but, rather than engage in a firelight against a well defended post, or burn the house to the ground and force the Loyalists out, Neilson left them unharmed. (25)

Colonel Neilson's force captured Major Stockton, Captain Dunham, Lieutenant Francis Fraser, one Ensign, a Volunteer and fifty-five privates.

To be continued...

Part two of this article will be in the Fall 2019 issue, pick up the consequences or ramifications of the loss to the British of Bennett's Island.

Editor's Note: Individuals wishing to obtain the endnotes and other sources of this article should



Chris Hay UE, a long-time member of the Chilliwack, British Columbia Branch of the UELAC, is a graduate of the University of British Columbia with majors in both History and Anthropology. It was while raising his family that Chris was able to return to his passion of history after his introduction to his UEL family history. This was followed by his discovery in 2000 of a lost Vancouver Rock Garden in Stanley Park, a National Historic Site of Canada. Begun in 1911 by his great-grandfather, John Montgomery, it was later determined to be the first public garden in the City of Vancouver. On 15 May 2013, the Stanley Park Rock Garden was recognized as an official heritage landscape of the City of Vancouver and, in 2015, was recognized with a City ofVancouver heritage award. In 2016 Chris was chosen as the winner of the annual British Columbia Genealogical Society's 'Most Improved Genealogy Contest.' He won for his story on Major Richard Witham Stockton, 'Family Mystery Revealed After 240 Years.' After a varied career Chris recently retired from Canada Post and is now greatly enjoying the uncovering of new discoveries in his genealogical pursuits.
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Article Details
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Author:Hay, Chris
Publication:The Loyalist Gazette
Geographic Code:1U2NJ
Date:Mar 22, 2019

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