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Soldier In A Longboat
Three times John Glover’s Marblehead fishermen saved Washington’s army; in a final battle, the “amphibious regiment” rowed him to victory across the Delaware
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
With his troops deployed, Glover rode back to his small advance patrol and ordered them to push forward. His forty-man force moved to within fifty yards of the hostile skirmishers and exchanged five hot rounds with the enemy. About that time the Americans suffered a few casualties, and the invaders, having received reinforcements, had closed to within thirty yards. Glover gave the order to fall back.
Scenting an easy victory, the enemy gave a shout and rushed in to follow up their advantage. When they were only thirty yards away, the most advanced regiment—Colonel Joseph Read’s Thirteenth Continental—sprang up from behind its stone fences and delivered a withering fire. Faced with a sheet of flame, the attackers broke ranks and ran.
For the next hour and a half there was a lull in the fighting, while British and Germans massed for an attack. Then on they came, hurling themselves at the American position as the deep roar of their six cannon shook the early morning air. Once again, from its forward position, Read’s regiment let loose a fierce fire, and the attackers shuddered to a halt. They promptly returned the fire with such “showers of musketry and cannon balls” that Glover had to order a retreat. The Thirteenth filed off, still protected by stone walls, until they were well past the point where the next unit—William Shepard’s Third—lay hidden on the opposite side of the road.
Once again the invaders made the fatal mistake of thinking they had smashed American resistance, and as they charged forward to finish off Read’s retreating regiment, up popped Shepard’s men with a deadly hail of bullets that stopped them in their tracks. The fiercest fighting of the day now took place. Posted behind a double stone wall, Shepard’s men, firing by “grand divisions,” kept up a steady stream of hot lead. Pumping a total of seventeen rounds per man into the enemy columns, they fought off repeated assaults, several times forcing the attackers to retreat.
By this time, however, the enemy had amassed too great a force to be denied any longer, so Glover ordered Shepard and Read to retreat to the rear of Loammi Baldwin’s fresh Twenty-sixth Regiment, which lay hidden behind a stone fence. Once more the game of tactical leapfrog was repeated, and the retreating regiments were covered as they fell back.
This process might have been repeated endlessly except that the Americans found themselves assailed by a flank attack around noon. Rather than risk the danger of being cut off, Glover decided to bring the engagement to a close. The three regiments were ordered back to rejoin his own Marblehead unit at the morning encampment. The retreat was covered by the three American cannon, and Glover reported, “The enemy halted, and played away their artillery at us, and we at them, till night, without any damage on our side, and but very little on theirs.” With the fall of darkness the exhausted Americans slipped off three miles to bivouac. Howe did not pursue them.
Glover’s spirited and stubborn all-day stand checked the British advance only temporarily. Howe’s dilatory strategy did the rest. For two days after the battle, the British general failed to follow up his advantage by pursuing the Americans into the interior. This delay gave Washington time to throw up a line of temporary redoubts behind the Bronx River to shield his retreating army from attack until he reached White Plains safely.
After fighting in White Plains during November, the men of Marblehead—now part of the brigade Glover continued to command—retreated across New Jersey in December to join Washington’s army. Although the men were not aware of it, they were headed for the last battle in which they would participate as a regiment, and appropriately, it was to be an amphibious operation.
Fighting in freezing weather was not to the British liking, and when his army had pushed the Americans beyond the banks of the Delaware, Howe set up a chain of posts in New Jersey and went into winter quarters. Two of these widely dispersed posts lay on the east side of the river at Trenton and Bordentown; the rest stretched out to the north and were more or less isolated.
Washington quickly grasped the flaw in the British defensive line-up. Each enemy post lay wide open for a surprise raid, and he worked out a daring plan to throw three separate forces across the Delaware on Christmas night to attack Trenton. Glover’s regiment was assigned to the main body because Washington was counting upon the Marbleheaders for a repeat performance of what they had done on Long Island. When the Trenton operation was being planned, the commander in chief is said to have asked Glover if his men could negotiate the river, and only after Glover replied that they could manage it did Washington proceed with his plan. Now it remained to be seen if the Marbleheader was as good as his word.
The first phase of the Battle of Trenton was a struggle not against the enemy, but against the elements. Christmas night brought with it a howling storm. A biting wind made the freezing waters of the Delaware choppy, and whipped the current to a swifter pace. As the weather turned ever colder, ice coated all the gear, so that the handling of oars and poles would be a slippery, treacherous task. A few days before there had been a thaw, and the river was littered with floating ice; but what probably bothered the Marbleheaders most was the unfamiliar craft they were given to man.