By Susan Ditmire, 5/1999
The Red Bank Battlefield is located along the Delaware River just below Camden. It was the site of Fort Mercer which was built during the revolutionary war as a defense for the city of Philadelphia. The fort was named for Brigadier General Hugh Mercer, who was killed at the Battle of Princeton on Jan. 3, 1777. Fort Mercer area was first occupied by the Pennsylvania militia on April 16, 1777. By the fall of 1777 the fort was built, supplied with cannon and turned over to the New Jersey militia (McMahon 148)
After the British occupied Philadelphia in September of 1777, Fort Mercer and Fort Mifflin on the Pennsylvania side of the river, became a nuisance to the British. Not only were the occupants of the forts disrupting shipping, but between the forts, several sets of strong wooded frames (cheveaux de frise) had been sunk to damage the wooden bottoms of any ships venturing that far up the river. General William Howe decided to eliminate both forts (McMahon 149).
General Howe sent Count Carl Emil Kurt von Dunop, three battalions of Grenadier guards (Hessians) and a foot regiment to eliminate Fort Mercer. They landed at Cooper’s Ferry (now, Camden) and started for Red Bank by way of Haddonfield (McMahon 149).
On Oct. 7, 1777, 400 men (mostly "colored" troops) of the 1st and 2nd Rhode Island Regiments arrived at Fort Mercer to strengthen the fort against the certain British assault. Col. Greene had recognized the indefensibility of Fort Mercer and re-engineered the fortifications and entrenchments, and prepared for the attack (Cunningham 105).
Colonel von Dunop and the British (Hessian) Troops took a longer then expected route, because the colonists had destroyed the bridge at Big Timber Creek. When they arrived they were able to attack from the dense woods, but tricky inner defenses impeded the attackers and exposed them to merciless crossfire (Cunningham 105). By the end of the battle there were fewer then 50 continentals and over 600 Hessian soldiers dead. Among the piles of Hessian dead was found the mortally wounded Colonel von Donop. He was removed and taken to a Quaker house nearby, where he and Colonel Greene had several friendly conversations, before his death (McMahon 151).
During the battle the sixty-four gun British ship Augusta opened fire on Fort Mercer. One of the Augusta’s tray cannonballs ribbed through a nearby house into a room where serene Quakeress Mrs. Anne Cooper Whitall sat spinning. Mrs. Whitall picked up her spinning wheel and angrily stalked off to the cellar. After the battle, as she bound up Hessian wounds, she scolded them for coming to America to butcher helpless colonists. Next day, the Augusta ran aground and the American ships set her afire. More than 100 British seamen died in a ripping explosion caused when flames reached powder stored below decks (Cunningham 105).
While Fort Mercer was being successfully defended, its sister fort, Fort Mifflin was reduced to rubble and abandoned with its remaining troops crossing the river to join the defenders of Fort Mercer. With the destruction of Fort Mifflin the British Fleet was able to make it up the Delaware past the cheveaux de frise to the Philadelphia harbor. Colonel Greene was ordered to evacuate Fort Mercer. He destroyed the fort and left the area just as a British light infantry troop sent by General Cornwallis came into sight (McMahon 153).
General Cornwallis and his troops returned to Philadelphia to enjoy the pleasures of city life. The colonial foes went on to endure a harrowing winter at Valley Forge. But it would be the last of the good times for the British, because on Feb. 6, 1778 the French pledged military support to the United States, and General Baron von Steuben began drilling the ragtag civilian soldiers at Valley Forge into a hard-bitten army (Cunningham 106).
Cunningham, John T., New Jersey America’s Main Road, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966.
McMahon, William, South Jersey Towns, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1973.