The Revolutionary War Battle of Springfield, in June 1780, took place little more than a stone's throw from Maplewood's borders. Although it has been little noticed by historians, it was a crucial turning point of the War for Independence.
George Washington spent more than half the Revolutionary War in New Jersey. The British were headquartered in Staten Island, across Arthur Kill, and crossed to Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth) and northwestward through what are now Union, Springfield and Millburn on their mission to attack Washington's Continental Army Headquarters in Morristown.
On the Roads We Now Drive
Many of these battles took place on and around on the very roads we drive to pick up items at Staples or shop at the Short Hills Mall.
Hobart Gap, known to us as the place where Route 24 cuts between Short Hills and Summit, was a strategically important break in the Watchung Mountain range that would allow the British heavy artillery to get through to Morristown. It would have been impossible for them to lug their cannons over our own South Mountain (then called Newark Mountain) - an important reason why the Maplewood area was spared.
The high points around Hobart Gap - such as Washington Rock in the South Mountain Reservation and Beacon Hill in Summit - were sites from which the Continental Army could watch the movements of the British troops and signal each other, much as Bostonians watched for "one if by land and two if by sea."
The Battle Begins
In the early hours of June 23, 1780, the British advanced in two flanks toward Morristown. One group was led by Hessian (German) General von Knyphausen up Galloping Hill Road through Connecticut Farms (now part of Union) toward what is now Morris Avenue in Springfield. The beautiful old Connecticut Farms Church, rebuilt in 1788 on the site of the original, which was burned by the British in the action preceding the Battle of Springfield on June 7, 1780, is surrounded by a graveyard with many 18th century headstones.
As the British approached the Galloping Hill Bridge over the Rahway River, they were met by New Jersey Militiamen and soldiers from Washington's Continental Army under the command of Major General Nathaniel Greene. The Militia - the Minutemen - were ordinary citizens who augmented the long-suffering and thinning ranks of the Army, which had been operating since 1776 with shrinking provisions and money. Most Maplewood-area males over 15 or so were part of the militia. (Maplewood was unofficially part of Springfield at the time.)
At Springfield a terrible battle ensued, involving the Continental regulars and militia against the British soldiers and New Jersey citizens who were loyal to the Crown. Some observers at the time said it was more like a Civil War than a Revolution against an outside power. This internecine battle cut deep, even in the family of Benjamin Franklin, whose own son William, Royal Governor of New Jersey, was a prominent force in organizing the Loyalists.
The British and New Jersey Loyalists burned all but four houses in Springfield village, as well as the Presbyterian Church on Morris Avenue (rebuilt in 1791) in front of which a statue of a Minuteman now stands. The Cannonball House on Morris Avenue, now home to the Springfield Historical Society, was used as a hospital by the British during the battle.
The Vauxhall Road Engagement
The second flank of British soldiers advanced from Elizabethtown along Vauxhall Road. At the East Branch of the Rahway River (the same small waterway that runs through Maplewood's Memorial Park) the British were slowed by the Continental Army's destruction of the Vauxhall Bridge (at the intersection with Millburn Avenue).
The East Branch of the river is now usually only a stream, but at that time, before the sewer system was built in 1907, altering the water table, it was about five feet deep - enough to slow the British, but not enough to stop them. Across from the bridge, on Millburn Avenue, lore has it that two Hessians hid in a house that still stands just west of the Millburn Veterinary Hospital.
The Americans at Vauxhall bridge were under the command of Major Henry (Light Horse Harry) Lee of Virginia, with some six hundred regulars and a sizable number of militiamen - but not a single cannon.
It was a losing battle, causing Lee and his men to retreat back towards the slopes of the Short Hills. But at a critical point, Major General Greene sent over two New England regiments with a cannon. The sight of another 400 soldiers advancing on the high ground while the militiamen covered the slopes of nearby Newark (South) Mountain caused the British to stop abruptly. They risked heavy casualties from the cannon on one side and musket fire on the other.
The British began to retreat back to Staten Island. It was the last time they would set foot in New Jersey.
George Washington knew the importance of this victory - and the possibly fatal damage a defeat would have done to the cause of revolution. To the soldiers and militiamen, however, looking at the burned wreck that had been Springfield and the fields littered with corpses of British soldiers, Americans and horses, the battle seemed to be a defeat.
From our modern perspective, however, guided by excellent resources such as The Forgotten Victory: The Battle of Springfield by Thomas Fleming and an informative booklet and maps published by the Springfield Historical Society, it is clear that not only was it a victory, but that it turned the tide, giving Washington and the Continental Army the momentum they needed to carry on to ultimate victory at Yorktown the following year.