The Revolutionary War Period in Somerset Courthouse, 1774 – 1783
Somerset Courthouse was located at the intersection of two important colonial-era roads, the road between north Jersey and Princeton, and between west Jersey and New Brunswick. This strategic location made it the scene of extensive military activity during the Revolutionary War. Millstone is unique in Somerset County as the only locale in the county that was occupied by all the major belligerent forces in that war at one time or another. Sites associated with American, British, Hessian, Loyalist and French forces, spanning a period from at least 1776 to 1782, are located within Millstone’s present boundaries.
Washington’s Headquarters after the Battle of Princeton
On January 3, 1777, following the dramatic victories at Trenton and Princeton, General George Washington decided not to attack the British in New Brunswick, but to march along the Millstone River toward Somerset Courthouse. By keeping the Millstone River between his army and the British, he could assure the safety of his troops as they marched north to the mountains of north Jersey. In Somerset Courthouse he could expect a welcome for his exhausted army. On the evening of January 3, 1777, the American army of about 3000 straggled into the village after dark, an hour after 150 British survivors of the battle retreated through the town toward New Brunswick, taking the 70 man outpost that had been camped in the village with them. [singlepic id=38 w=200 h=150 float=right]The Americans camped in and around Somerset Courthouse. The Rev. Christian Frederick Foering, pastor of the Dutch Church in the village, and an ardent patriot, procured food for the army and converted the church into a military hospital. Washington himself stayed the night of January 3 at the Van Doren house. This house still stands in Millstone’s Historic District and is listed nationally in the Library of Congress Historic American Buildings survey, Survey #: HABS NJ-293 (shown at right).
After the American victories at Trenton and Princeton, the strategic situation in central New Jersey changed dramatically. In 1777 the Raritan and Millstone valleys became the scene of protracted military activity. There was an American militia post at Somerset Courthouse, with a small earthwork to guard the bridge across the Millstone. On January 20th 1777, 400 militia under the head of the New Jersey Militia, General Philemon Dickinson defeated a Crown force foraging out of New Brunswick, and captured 9 prisoners, 40 wagons, sheep, cattle, and almost 100 draft horses. This battle became known as “The Battle of Millstone”.
The British Encampment in Somerset Courthouse, June 1777
The British grand design for squelching the rebellion called for their three armies to converge on Albany, NY, simultaneously. However, General Howe was intent on capturing Philadelphia first. On June 14, 1777, as twelve-thousand British and Hessian troops under General Howe advanced west from New Brunswick with flatboats and cannon, 500-600 American militia under the command of Daniel Morgan guarded the crossings of the Millstone River at Van Nest’s Mill, Somerset Courthouse, and Schenk’s Mill. The force of 200 Americans in Somerset Courthouse destroyed the bridge over the Millstone and skirmished with some 6,000 Hessian Crown forces, killing 2 officers and killing or wounding 17 other men, before retreating before the superior force. Meanwhile, General Charles Cornwallis crossed the Millstone at Schenk’s Mill, marched north to meet the Hessian troops, occupied Somerset Courthouse and erected fortifications. There is an excellent contemporary map made by Captain John Ewald showing Crown forces positions at Somerset Courthouse.
Howe’s army was unable to lure Washington from his strong defenses at Middlebrook. This strategic defeat forced Howe to move on Philadelphia via southern naval routes. Because of this delay he failed to join General Burgoyne, who was moving south from Canada towards Albany. Burgoyne had to surrender in October at Saratoga. Thus, the delaying tactics employed by the Americans in and around Millstone helped to foil the overall British plan for victory.
American military field hospitals were established during the winter of 1778-9 at six local sites: the two churches (Presbyterian and Reformed), the courthouse, and the barns of three homes, including the Van Doren house. October, 1779, was particularly brutal for the war-torn town. A Tory raiding party under Col. John Simcoe burned down the courthouse, the jail, and several homes. He was irate over his failure to destroy Washington’s flatboats at Raritan, and his discovery of half-starved British prisoners chained to the jail floor. The flames, however, alerted nearby patriots and he was captured near New Brunswick.
In1780, Queens College (now Rutgers University) was temporarily moved to Somerset Courthouse because the New Brunswick site had been damaged during British occupation. Classes were held in the Van Harlingen house, which was torn down in during the first half of the 20th century .