A Real-Life Skirmish

Submitted by Ralph Briggs, 55th Foot.

I just finished reading "The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell" (ed. Lincoln MacVeigh, The Dial Press, NY, 1924). It is a delightful story of a young Englishman and loyalist who came to America to make his fortune and got caught up by the outbreak of the American Revolution, much to his disgust and dismay. Cresswell totally fails at almost every scheme to make money, but his adventures give a lot of down-to-earth insight into what was happening in the colonies at the time. The following is his account of a skirmish he witnessed on Staten Island:

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"Staten Island--Sunday, June 22nd, 1777. Last night I had most uncomfortable lodgings along with Colonel Reid upon a Tent only spread upon the ground in which we wrapped ourselves. Almost bit to death with Mosquitoes and poisoned with the stink of some Rebels who have been buried about three weeks in such a slight manner that wagons have cut up parts of the half corrupted carcasses and made them stink most horribly. By 5 o'clock this morning all the Tents were struck and the Army ready to march.

"About 8 [o'clock] the main body of the [British] Army came up. At that instant some of the Rebels' Scouting parties fired upon our Sentinels, which brought on a smart skirmish. I happened to see them in the bushes before they fired, but mistook them for some of our rangers. They were about 300 yards from me. When the engagement began I got upon a little hillock to see the better, but an honest Highlander advised me to retire into a small breastwork just [near]by, without I had a mind to stick up myself as a mark for the Rebels to shoot at. I thought it proper to take his advice and retired to the place he directed me to where I had a very good view of their proceedings. I observed a party of our men going through a rye field, I suppose with an intent to get into the rear of the Rebels and by that means surround them, but they were met as soon as they got out of the field by about the same number of the Rebels. When they were about 100 yards from each other both parties fired, but I did not observe any fall. They still advanced to the distance of 40 yards or less, and fired again, I then saw a good number fall on both sides. Our people then rushed upon them with their bayonets and the others took to their heels, I heard one of them call out murder lustily. This is laughable if the consequence was not serious. A fresh party immediately fired upon our people, but were dispersed and pursued into the Woods by a company of the 15th. Regmt. A brisk fire then began from six field pieces the Rebels had secreted in the Woods which did some mischief to our men, the engagement lasted about thirty-five minutes. Our people took the Field pieces about 40 prisoners and killed about 150 of the Scoundrels with the loss of 39 killed and 27 wounded.

"I went to the place where I saw the two parties fire upon each other first before the wounded were removed but I never before saw such a shocking scene, some dead others dying, death in different shapes some of the wounded making the most pitiful lamentations, others that were of different parties cursing each other as the author of their misfortunes.

"One old Veteran I observed (that was shot through both legs and not able to walk) very coolly and deliberately loading his piece and cleaning it from blood. I was surprised at the sight and asked him his reasons for it. He, with a look of contempt, said, "To be ready in case any of the Yankees come that way, again." "About 10 o'clock the whole Army was in motion. It is said our Army burnt Brunswick when they left, others contradict the report and say it was left without damage, but all the County houses were in flames as far as we could see. The Soldiers are so much enraged they will set them on fire, in spite of all the Officers can do to prevent it. They seem to leave the Jerseys with reluctance, the train of Artillery and Wagons extends about nine miles and is upwards of 1,000 in number. Some people say there are 20,000 men, but I am afraid there is not so many, the real numbers are for very good reasons kept secret.

"About 2 o'clock the Van arrived at the City of Perth Amboy 14 miles from Brunswick, the road is through plantations but pretty good. The Rebels kept skirmishing with our rear all the way, but little loss on either side."