Simcoe and The Queen’s Rangers on Staten Island, Part 2

We have compiled from the works of Colonel Simcoe his own accounts of his service on Staten Island, keeping strictly to his own language, believing that, as a historical record, it would be unjust to the original writer as well as the reader of today to cause a change in either form or phrase. We quote from Simcoe’s Military Journal:

“On the 9th of October, 1778, [the Queen’s Rangers being at Oyster Bay, Long Island], it was hinted to Lieut. Col. Simcoe to hold his corps in readiness for embarkation. On the 19th it marched for that purpose; the cavalry to Jericho, where they were to remain under the command of Lieut.-Col. Fulton, and the infantry to Jamaica, which proceeded to Yellow-hook, and embarked on the 24th. Earl Cornwallis commanded this expedition, consisting of the 7th, 23d, 22d, 33d, 57th regiments, Rangers, and Volunteers of Ireland, commanded by Lord Rawdon; it was supposed to be intended for Jamaica, at that time presumed to be threatened with an invasion from M. d’Estaing. On intelligence being received that his designs were pointed elsewhere, the troops were re-landed, and were ordered to continue in readiness to embark at the shortest notice. The Queen’s Rangers marched to Richmond, on Staten Island. They relieved a regiment which had been very sickly while there. Lieut.-Col. Simcoe immediately ordered their huts to be destroyed, and encamped his corps. Signals, in case of alarm, were established on the Island by General Patterson, who commanded there.

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“Two days were lost by a misunderstanding of the General’s order, the Hussars of the Queen’s Rangers only being sent to Jericho, without Captain Sanford’s troop, which was not merely necessary in regard to numbers, but particularly wished for, as it was known that Captain Sanford, when quartermaster of the guards, had frequently been on foraging parties in the country he was to pass through. On the 25th of October, by eight o’clock at night, the detachment, which had been detailed, marched to Billopp’s Point, where they were to embark. That the enterprise might be effectually concealed, Lieut.-Col. Simcoe described a man, as a rebel spy, to be on the Island, and endeavoring to escape to New Jersey. A great reward was offered for taking him, and the militia of the Island were watching all the places where it was possible for any man to go from, in order to apprehend him. The batteaux and boats, which were appointed to be at Billopp’s Point, so as to pass the whole over by twelve o’clock at night, did not arrive until three o’clock in the morning. No time was lost; the infantry of the Queen’s Rangers landed; they ambuscaded every avenue of the town [Perth Amboy]; the cavalry followed as soon as possible. As soon as it was formed, Lieut.-Col. Simcoe called together the officers; he told them of his plan, “that he meant to burn the boats at Van Vacter’s bridge, and crossing the Raritan, at Hillsborough, to return by the road to Brunswick and making a circuit to avoid that place as soon as he came near it, to discover himself when beyond it, on the heights where the General Redoubts stood while the British troops were cantoned there, and where the Queen’s Rangers afterwards had been encamped; and to entice the militia, if possible, to follow him into an ambuscade in which the infantry would lay for them at South River bridge.

Major Armstrong was instructed to re-embark, as soon as the cavalry marched, and to land on the opposite side of the Raritan, at South Amboy; he was then, with the utmost despatch and silence, to proceed to South River bridge, six miles from South Amboy, where he was to ambuscade himself, without passing the bridge or taking it up. A smaller creek falls into this river on South Amboy side. Into the peninsula formed by these streams Lieut.-Col. Simcoe hoped to allure some Jersey militia.”

Here follows a detailed account of the raid into New Jersey, in the vicinity of Morristown, then the headquarters of the Continental army. Lieutenant-Colonel Simcoe was badly wounded and captured. He was taken to the military prison at Burlington, N. J., where he was afterward joined by Colonel Christopher Billopp, the commander of the Staten Island militia. Major Armstrong assumed command of the Queen’s Rangers. The account continues:

“At South River the cavalry joined Major Armstrong; he had perfectly succeeded in arriving at his post undiscovered, and, ambuscading himself, had taken several prisoners. He marched back to South Amboy, and re-embarked without opposition, exchanging some of the bad horses of the corps for better ones which he had taken with the prisoners. The alarm through the country was general.  Wayne was detached from Washington’s camp m the highlands, with the light troops, and marched fourteen miles that night and thirty the next day. Colonel Lee was in Monmouth County, as it was said fell back toward the Delaware. The Queen’s Rangers returned to Richmond that evening, the cavalry had marched upwards of eighty miles, without halting or refreshment, and the infantry thirty.

“In the distribution of quarters for the remaining winter, Richmond was allotted to the Queen’s Rangers. The post was in the centre of Staten Island, and consisted of three bad redoubts, so constructed, at various times and in such a manner as to be of little mutual assistance. The spaces between these redoubts had been occupied by the huts of the troops, wretchedly made of mud. These Lieut.-Colonel Simcoe had thrown down, and his purpose was to build ranges of log houses, which might join the redoubts, and being loop-holed, might become a very defensible curtain. Major Armstrong followed the plan, and set the regiment about its execution, in parties adapted to the different purposes of felling the timber, sawing it, and making shingles for the roofings. In the beginning of December the regiment was ordered to embark; which order was, soon after, countermanded.

“On the last day of December Lieut.-Colonel Simcoe returned to Staten Island from his imprisonment. He was mortified to find the expedition, under the Commander-in-Chief, had failed; especially, as, upon his landing at the Island, he received a letter from Major Andre, Adjutant-General, saying, ‘If this meets you a free man, prepare your regiment for embarkation, and hasten to New York yourself.’

”He joined the corps at Richmond. Major Armstrong had been indefatigable in getting the regiment hutted in a manner which rendered their post comfortable and defensible, and they soon found the advantage of their very extraordinary labor. The day which Lieut.-Col. Simcoe passed the Sound was the last on which it became navigable for a considerable time, the frost setting in with most unusual inclemency, and, by the 10th of January, the communication with New York was totally shut up by floating ice; and General Sterling was reduced to the necessity of restraining the troops to half allowance of provisions, but with every precaution to impress the inhabitants and soldiers with the belief that this restriction was precautionary against the possibility of the communication being closed for several weeks; and care was taken to investigate what resources of fresh provisions might be obtained from the Island.

“The Sound, which divided Staten Island from the Jersies, being totally frozen over and capable of bearing cannon, information was received that several of the rebel Generals had been openly measuring the thickness of the ice, and it was universally rumored that an attack was soon to take place upon Staten Island. General Sterling commanded there, and he was with the main body at the watering place, the heights of which [Pavilion Hill] were occupied by several redoubts. Colonel Lord Rawdon, with the Volunteers of Ireland, was quartered near a redoubt at the foot of the Narrows; and Lieut.-Col. Simcoe, with the Queen’s Rangers, at Richmond —the whole force on the Island being one thousand eight hundred effective men.

“On the 15th of January, early in the morning, the rebel detachment of near three thousand men, under the command of the person styled Lord Stirling, crossed the ice and entered Staten Island. Lord Stirling marched immediately towards the landing place, and by his position cut off General Sterling’s communication with the Volunteers of Ireland and the Queen’s Rangers. Lieut.-Col. Simcoe occupied the high grounds near Richmond with small parties of cavalry, and the infantry were sedulously employed in what might strengthen that post. There were three pieces of cannon (a nine and two six-pounders), mounted on platforms, without embrasures, in the redoubts. These were pointed at the eminences, where it was expected the enemy would first appear, and where the stones were collected in heaps, so that a round shot, if it struck among them, might have the effect of grape. If batteries, or any cannon, should be opened against Richmond, it was obvious these guns must be dismounted; they were, therefore, not intended to be exposed to such accidents; but the redoubt on the right [now a burying ground on a hill] was meant, on the first appearance of assault, to be abandoned, and its area filled with abatis which were provided, and its gate left open and exposed to the fire of the cannon of the other redoubts placed at their respective gates, of the two regimental field pieces, and of the musketry from the doors, windows and loop-holes of the barracks. The officers’ barracks, which were within the triangular area formed by those of the soldiers and the redoubts, were intended to be taken down, and the logs of which they were composed were to be heaped within a hut, and to form a traverse on a part exposed to the enemy. The rear of the works were secured by their position on the edge of the hill from any possibility of attack, and some of the huts, which ran below the surface of it, were in perfect safety from any shot whatsoever, and nearly so from shells, against the splinters of which their logs were very respectable traverses.

400-pound canon used by the British to repel an attack by the Americans (Cutting Family gift to Conference House). Stolen in 1972.

“There was a gun boat, which was frozen up in the creek, at the foot of Richmond Hill. This gun was elevated so as to fire a single round of grape shot; some swivels also were brought into the redoubts. Spike nails, of which there were a quantity for the barrack purposes, were driven through boards, ready to be concealed under the snow in places which were most accessible; all the cattle in the neighborhood were brought in the precincts of the garrison, as were the sledges, harness and horses, and the most cheerful and determined appearance of resolution ran through the whole corps. About midday many deserters came in from the rebel army; by them a perfect knowledge of the enemy’s force was gained, and one of them affirmed that he overheard some of their principal officers say, ‘That it was not worth while to attack Richmond where they were sure of obstinate resistance, and which must fall of itself whenever the main body was taken.’

“Lieut. Col. Simcoe was anxious to communicate with Lord Rawdon, and to obtain any intelligence or orders his lordship might have for him. He sent his adjutant, Lieut. Ormond, with directions to get some of the militia to convey a letter for that purpose by the sea shore [South Beach]. Some scattering parties of the enemy had been that way, on which account Lieut. Ormond could get no one to venture; he therefore went himself, and putting on colored clothes that he might not be distinguished, in case of any small parties lying in ambuscade, he got safely to the flag staff, [now Fort Wadsworth] and returned without discovery. The rebels making no attempt in the daytime upon the redoubts, where General Sterling was, led Lieut.-Col. Simcoe to conclude that they waited for cannon or more forces, and meant to storm them at night or the next morning; for, though no person could hold more cheaply than he thought himself authorized to do, those men on whom the enemy had conferred the office and title of Generals, it appeared totally unreasonable that having so well chosen the moment of invading the Island, they had no determined point to carry, or had neglected the proper means to ensure its success. On these ideas, he desired Colonel Billopp, (who commanded the militia of Staten Island), to get them to assemble to garrison Richmond; but neither entreaties, the full explanation of the advantage such a conduct would be of, nor the personal example of Col. Billopp, had any effect; not a man could be prevailed upon to enter the garrison. They assembled to drink at various public houses, and to hear the news, or were busy in providing for the temporary security of their cattle and effects; and these were not disaffected persons, but men who were obnoxious to the rebel governors, many of them refugees from the Jersies, some who had every reason to expect death, if the enemy succeeded, and all the total destruction of their property,

‘Lieut. -Col. Simcoe was therefore obliged to lay aside his intentions, which were to march with his cavalry, carrying muskets, with as many infantry as he could justify the taking from Richmond, with his field pieces in sledges, together with the swivels fixed upon blocks, and to get near the enemy undiscovered, and to make as great an alarm and as much impression as possible upon their rear, whensoever they attempted to storm the British redoubts. All the roads between Richmond and the headquarters, [New Dorp], led through narrow passes and below the chain of hills; these, where they had been beaten only, were passable, the ground being covered with several feet of snow, so that no patroles were made during the night, which would have been useless and dangerous; and the cavalry were assembled within the redoubts; the night was remarkably cold. A person from the Jersies brought the report of the country, that Washington was expected the next day at Elizabethtown, and that straw, &c., was sent to Staten Island. He went back again, commissioned by Lieut. Col. Simcoe, to observe what stores were in Elizabethtown, and particularly to remake what air-holes were in the ice on the Sound between the mouth of Richmond Creek and Elizabethtown, as it was intended, if nothing material intervened before the next night, to send Captain Stevenson with a detachment to burn Elizabethtown, and to give an alarm in the Jerseys.

“The intelligence which this zealous and trustworthy loyalist brought was very probable. The making a winter campaigning in America had always appeared to Lieut. Col. Simcoe a matter of great facility, and by frequently ruminating upon it, he was alive to the advantages which would attend Mr. Washington in its prosecution. He would without hesitation have abandoned the post at Richmond, and joined Lord Rawdon, or GJeneral Sterling, taking on himself all consequences, had it not appeared to him that the possession of Richmond would insure to Mr. Washington a safe retreat, even should the ice become impassable, and would probably inculcate on him the propriety of his seriously attempting to keep Staten Island at this very critical period, when the Commander-in-Chief was absent with the greatest part of the army, and the troops in New York, under General Knyphausen, were probably not in a capacity to quit it and take the field; particularly as in that case the nominal militia, whose members were so well displayed, as sufficient to garrison it, must form-the greater part have melted away in their attendance on the army, to whose various departments they in general belonged.

“Mr. Washington might without difficulty have assembled from the smaller creeks, and even from the Delaware and Hudson’s river, a multitude of boats, which, while the snow was upon the ground. might be conveyed overland to the Staten Island Sound; and with these, added to those which attended the army, he might transport his troops or form bridges, securing all approaches to them from the water by batteries constructed on the Jersey shore, while by other attacks and preparations he certainly could have thrown great difficulties in the way of General Knyphausen and the British army in the three Islands.

“Lieut.-Col. Simcoe, reasoning on the possibility of these events, waited to be guided by circumstances. If General Sterling could hold out, and was neither overwhelmed by number, or reduced by famine, which was most to be dreaded, it was obvious Richmond would be safe. If matters happened other- wise, he was perfectly certain, from Lord Rawdon’s character, that he should receive some directions from him, who would never remain in an untenable pose, with the certainty (if being made prisoner; and at all events Lieut.-Col. Simcoe determined, in case General Sterling should be defeated, and that he should receive no orders, he would attempt to escape; for since the rebels liad shown a total defect in every private and Benedict Arnold. public principle of honor, when they violated the convention with General Burgoyne’s army, he and the officers of the Queen’s Rangers had determined in no situation to surrender, where by escaping, if it should be but a mile into the country, the corps could disband itself individually, and separately attempt to rejoin the British armies; proper inducements being held out to the soldiers, and great aid being reasonably to be expected from the loyal inhabitants, scattered throughout every colony, and in very great numbers.

“This, which had been his common conversation and steady resolution, in case of any fortunate events, was now determined on by Lieut.-Col. Simcoe; his ideas were to forerun all intelligence and to attempt to surprise Col. Lee, at Burlington, and then to escape to the back countries. For this purpose he had sledges which could carry a hundred men, and he had no doubt of soon increasing them in the Jersies to a number sufficient to convey the whole corps. The attempt was less dangerous in itself and less injurious, if it failed, to the community than the certainty of being destroyed by heavy artillery, of ultimately surrendering, of moldering in prison and becoming lost to all future service to their king and country.

“There was no corps between General Washington’s army and that of Lincoln’s hastening into Charlestown but Lee’s. When once in possession of his horses there was but little doubt in the minds of Lieut. -Col. Simcoe and the officers to which he communicated his ideas, but that he should effect his retreat into the back parts of Pennsylvania, join his friends there, probably release the Convention army, and not impossibly join the Commander-in-Chief in Carolina, all of these ideas, it was with great surprise and pleasure that Lieutenant-Colonel Simcoe understood the enemy were retreating from the Island. He immediately pursued them with the flank companies of Hussars, and was overtaken by an order from General Sterling to effect the same purpose; but the enemy had passed to the Jersey shore before he could come up with them. While the troops in the enemy’s front, on their arrival at the heights opposite to the British redoubts, halted for the rear to close up, they were permitted to make fires, which increased the power of the frost, and rendered them totally unable to proceed, and the severity of the night affecting the whole of them, many lost their limbs and several their lives. There were vast mounds of snow drifted before the redoubts, which Lord Stirling gave as his reason for not attempting them; and General Knyphausen, on the first signal of Staten Island being attacked, embarked troops to support it. The enemy in the dark of the evening saw there vessels, (which, whether the passage could be effected or not, were wisely directed to be kept plying off and on); but they did not wait to see if they could reach the Island, which in fact the drifting ice prevented, but immediately determining to retreat, they effected it the next morning, losing many men by desertion, and many British soldiers, who had enlisted with them to free themselves from imprisonment, embraced the opportunity of being in a country they were acquainted with to return to their old companions.”

Quoted From: Morris, Ira K. 1898. Morris’s memorial history of Staten Island, New York. New York: Memorial Pub. Co.

*Morris had included some errors in his text.  If you need more up to date info on Loyalist units, visit the  Royal Provincial website.

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