Before the battle, in the early days of June, General William Howe's British force of almost 17,000 withdrew from Somerset Court House at New Brunswick, to Perth Amboy, after they failed to draw Washington's central army from their post at Middlebrook Heights, the plan having been foiled by the tactics of Lord Stirling. The failure of the British ploy proved a major setback: success would have forced the small poorly-equipped American force to fight the larger British army on the flat plain of New Jersey.
Instead of falling for this trap, Washington followed the retreating British, having left his post in Middlebrook in the Watchung Mountains, as well as considering the possibility of assaulting their poorly armed rear guard. Washington harassed the British as they withdrew into Somerset and Middlesex counties, while troops under Stirling further irritated the retreating British. After withdrawing to Perth Amboy, Howe counterattacked, meaning to devastate Lord Stirling's forces, cut off Washington's retreat back to Middlebrook, and engage the Americans in a pitched battle.
On June 26, the British commander now determined to attack with his army of about 16,000 troops, intending to move out after midnight in 2 divisions. His plan was to use a pincer movement similar to one used successfully at Long Island (and later at Brandywine). Fortunately for the Americans, a series of mishaps occurred when transporting the Hessian forces from Staten Island to Perth Amboy and, due to delays, initial actions in Woodbridge did not occur until 6:00 A.M. in the morning. When the lead column of Cornwallis reached the vicinity of Oak Tree and the Short Hills heights, Gen. Lord Stirling's American division was there.
Although badly outnumbered by the British, Stirling's men put up a determined front for nearly 2 hours.
By the time the action drew to a close around noon, valuable time was provided for the safe retreat of the American main army back into the formidable Watchung heights. Once again, Howe was foiled in his attempt to destroy the American Army. He also lost valuable campaign time, as he now set his sights on Philadelphia by sea which he did not reach until fall.
Alexander's men & Jersey milita show great courage - June 26, 1777 - STAR-LEDGER STAFF
SCOTCH PLAINS — A two-week British ploy to goad Gen. George Washington’s undermanned American army into a decisive battle in the flat lands of central New Jersey has failed, but not before the redcoats and patriots tangled today in a running fight that began in Metuchen ended in a swamp near Scotch Plains.
The British strategy to engage the Americans in a major conflict might have worked had it not been for the tactics of New Jersey’s Gen. William “Lord Stirling” Alexander and his force of 1,980 patriots. Alexander’s small force delayed a large portion of the 11,000 pursuing British and Hessians until Washington and his full army of 7,000 troops retreated to the shelter of the Watchung Mountains.
It was Alexander, the eccentric and wealthy gentleman farmer and soldier from Basking Ridge, who tweaked the tail of the British lion and felt its bite when the beast turned on him.
Over the past week, Gen. William Howe, the British commander, was apparently feigning a withdrawal of his army of 16,498 from the New Brunswick area. As Washington marched from the safety of the Middlebrook encampment in the Watchung Mountains into the fields of Somerset and Middlesex counties, Alexander’s troops harassed the retreating British.
Suddenly, just after midnight this morning, Howe marched his army from Perth Amboy with the intention of wiping out Alexander’s troops, blocking the American retreat passes to Middlebrook, and defeating Washington in a pitched battle.
Alexander’s troops took the brunt of the attack at Metuchen Meeting House and fell back slowly, luring the British into the mire of Ash Swamp at Scotch Plains. The general was determined to make a stand there, but British Gen. Charles Cornwallis’ regulars banged away at the heavily outnumbered Americans with 15 cannons, forcing them to fall back toward Westfield.
Alexander’s casualties were not heavy, but his rear guard lost three cannons. His stand allowed Washington’s troops at Piscataway and the Plainfields to retreat to the safety of Middlebrook.
Late today, the British and Hessians were again pulling back to Perth Amboy, leaving Washington and his aides to ponder Howe’s next move.
After the victories at Trenton and Princeton, the American army spent the winter around Morristown. Washington moved his troops to Middlebrook on May 31, to be on the flank of any British march across New Jersey toward Philadelphia. Howe withdrew most of his troops to New York for the winter, leaving garrisons at only New Brunswick and Perth Amboy.
On April 13, Cornwallis and 2,000 troops attacked and attempted to surround Major Benjamin Lincoln’s 500 American troops at their outpost on the Raritan River near Bound Brook. Lincoln was able to save most of his men, but he had six killed, 20 to 30 captured, and lost three cannons. Afterward, the British ransacked and plundered the town.
Howe launched his first major offensive of the campaigning season on June 12. In a procession that stretched 12 miles, he began marching his army and more than 1,000 wagons from Perth Amboy to form a 9 mile front along the Amwell road from New Brunswick to Middlebush to Somerset Court House on the Millstone River. Continually attacked by New Jersey militia on horseback, it took three days for the British to reach Somerset Court House from New Brunswick.
American Brig. Gen. Henry Knox had nothing but praise for the response of the militia to the British offensive.
“Nothing could exceed the spirit shown on this occasion by the much injured people of the Jerseys,” he said. “Not an atom of the lethargic spirit that possessed them last winter — all fire, all revenge.”
On June 14, a small American detachment holding Somerset Court House was attacked by British regulars and forced to retreat. Howe and Cornwallis made the house of Annie Van Liew in the village on the east side of the Millstone their headquarters.
The British and Hessians spent from June 14 to 19 building a string of nine redoubts from New Brunswick to Middlebush, but when Washington refused to be lured out into the open, Howe began a night march to Perth Amboy. He could not move on Philadelphia with the Americans at his back.
The march was lit by the flames of burning houses. “On this march,” said a Hessian officer, “all the plantations of the disloyal inhabitants, numbering perhaps 50 persons, were sacrificed to fire and devastation.”