THE battle of Germantown was fought on October 4th, 1777, shortly after which General Washington and his heroic troops retired to the hills of Valley Forge. The triumphant British Army settled down in Philadelphia to enjoy a winter of ease and revelry. During the British occupation of Philadelphia, foraging and marauding parties frequently raided the farms in the neighborhood of Moorestown. Bells were rung at their approach and horses and cattle hurriedly driven to the woods and hidden until the raiding party disappeared. These were indeed “times that tried men’s souls,” the souls of the farmer and his wife as well as of the soldier in the field.
Many interesting stories have come down to us showing the quick wit and resourcefulness of our forefathers in those perilous times. In Woodward and Hageman’s History of Burlington County, a story is told of a Jersey farmer residing near Moorestown who barely had time to bury his valuables when the raiding party was seen coming down the road. Fearing that the freshly upturned earth would suggest his hiding place he quickly spread corn over the spot and called the pigs and chickens. All evidence of his hiding place had disappeared when the soldiers dashed in the yard. Another account of this interesting incident states that it occurred on the Nathan Middleton farm which was located north of the railroad. The Middleton homestead stood on Central Avenue west of Chester Avenue near the residence of the late John S. Collins.
A tradition in the Matlack and Coles families tells of an interesting and thrilling incident that happened on Kendall Coles’ farm located on the King's Highway at Colestown. Mr. Coles was ill when the British troops approached on June 19th, 1778 and his sons, who hastily drove the horses and cattle to a nearby woods, overlooked Bonnie, a high
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spirited colt to whom the family were greatly attached. Mr. Coles’ daughter Elizabeth, an active and fearless young girl, seized a bridle and rushing to the field in which Bonnie was grazing, sprang to her back and dashed down the road with the British dragoons in close pursuit. I am glad to record that the plucky Jersey maid won the race. After the war she married Reuben Matlack, the blacksmith, whose stone shop is standing on the old Matlack farm near Colestown, now owned by their great grandchildren, Chalkley and Mary Matlack.
June 19th, 20th and 21st were memorable days in the quiet village of Chester when part of the British army passed through on its way to Freehold where the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse was fought a few days later. The British Army under General Clinton, who had superseded General Howe as commander of the English forces in Philadelphia, crossed the Delaware early on the morning of the 18th and started on its historic march across New Jersey. The army camped at Haddonfield on the night of the 18th and early next morning the Third, Fourth and Fifth Brigades with General Clinton in command took the Great Road to Mount Holly and camped at Evesham (now Mount Laurel) on the night of the 19th. The following order
dated Evesham June 19th, 1778, was issued by General Clinton :—“The troops to be under arms tomorrow morning at four o'clock and take up the same order of march as this day. They will receive orders to move off their ground from His Excellency, Lieutenant General Cornwallis.”
In a skirmish with the New Jersey Militia who destroyed the bridges in advance of the British Army and hampered their march as much as possible, two houses in Mount Laurel were burned and one soldier, Captain Jonathan Beesley of the Cumberland Militia, was mortally wounded. He was taken to Clinton’s headquarters and unsuccessful efforts were made to force him to give information concerning the strength and plans of the American troops. Captain Beesley died during the evening in the house on a farm
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located in the neighborhood which at that time was the residence of Hinchman Haines. General Clinton was so impressed by his courage and steadfastness that he gave orders that Captain Beesley should be buried with the honors of war. The house in which General Clinton made his headquarters is still standing on the road leading from Mount Laurel to Evesboro on the northern side of the road about a mile and a half west of the former village.
The wing of the army that passed through Moorestown also left Haddonfield on the morning of the 19th. I cannot state which Brigades or Regiments made up this Division as the record merely states that “another portion of the army on the same day marched up King’s Highway, through Ellisburg and camped that night in and near the Friends’ Meeting House in Chester." The record also states that “they plundered the inhabitants of their household goods, their grain, horses and cattle in that section of the State at every opportunity.” General Clinton had issued an order from his headquarters in Haddonfield in which he stated that all soldiers who were caught marauding should be instantly shot. This and other orders given by General Clinton at the time were either mere gestures or else his orders were not given serious attention by the soldiers as all accounts agree that the farmers were ruthlessly plundered during the march across the State.
Doubtless there were Paul Reveres who rode in advance of the army to give warning of its approach. It is interesting to picture in our minds the army of “Red Coats” as it emerged from the forest west of Moorestown and entered the quiet little Quaker village making their encampment for the night on Ephraim Haines’s farm east of the Meeting Houses. History records that it was storming hard on that historic day and doubtless the British soldiers did not present a very imposing appearance.
Perhaps John Hunt, the Quaker preacher, who lived near Moorestown at the time can give us a better picture of the trying days of the war than it would be possible for me
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to write. Let us quote from his diary which was faithfully kept from 1770 almost to the day of his death in 1824. “About the 18th, 19th and 20th, the British Army marched up from Philadelphia through the Jerseys. Some part went up through Evesham and part through Moorestown and a most dismal time of trial and stripping it was—they plundering the houses and taking away horses and creatures of every sort. Some families were exceedingly stripped and some fared better than they could expect. In this dreadful time we were favored for they came not to our home; though they were all around amongst our neighbors—except very few of our neighbors escaped their company. The 20th they were in Moorestown and we expected they would come every hour and at last there came three but they were deserters and behaved well.” History records that a good many of the Hessian soldiers deserted during this march and according to local tradition a number of their descendants are now living on the farms in the neighborhood of Mount Laurel and Evesboro.
Many of the soldiers were quartered in the stone Meeting House that stood near the old Buttonwood. The officer in command of the Army occupied the home of Richard Smith now standing at No. 12 High Street, According to tradition chickens were killed and dressed in the parlor and the soldiers feasted and reveled far into the night. The commander ordered the ladies of the house to stay in a certain room on the second floor, otherwise he would not be responsible for their safety. As related in “Moorestown Old and New” Elizabeth Murrell¹ a niece of Richard Smith was visiting her uncle at that time and like young people of all ages being impatient under restraint attempted to dash across the hail to her own room. She was suddenly seized by a soldier who attempted to kiss her. Elizabeth was a plucky lass and her struggles and screams quickly
¹Amelia Mott Gummere the Quaker Historian a direct descendant of Richard Smith, informed me he did not have a niece by that name. Elizabeth Murrell may have been a niece of Mrs. Smith.
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brought the officer in command to her rescue. She was sent back to the room with her aunt and the other women of the household and a soldier placed on guard at the door for their protection.
General Knyphausen was in command of the division that camped in Moorestown on June 19th. The following article written by the curator of the Burlington County Historical Society appeared in a local paper many years ago. “The British Army in their retreat from Philadelphia in June, 1778, encamped one night in Moorestown in the old house fast falling into decay in the rear of John Hopkins’ residence (now the residence of his son, J. Clement Hopkins located at the southwest corner of Main and High Streets). The Hessian General Knyphausen made it his headquarters and no doubt displayed his usual table manners for he was accustomed to use his thumb to spread the butter on his bread.” This, of course, referred to Richard Smith’s residence. Dr. A.M. Stackhouse published an article in the Moorestown Chronicle in 1909 in which he quoted from an account by an old chronicler as follows:—“General Knyphausen put up at J. Humphries’¹ house unto whom William and Joseph Roberts went for an order to take their horses from the army. The General readily gave them a writing and the horses were recovered next day.”
These interesting traditions are undoubtedly true as William H. Roberts of Moorestown, great-grandson of Joseph Roberts from whom the horses were stolen has the original order issued by the Hessian General. It reads as follows:
Moors Town June 20, 1778
“The bearer, Joseph Roberts has my permission to go through the camp and look for some horses he lost. Wherever he finds them it is ordered hereby to deliver them up immediately.”
¹The “Smith Mansion,” now the Cadbury residence on High Street was formerly owned by .1. Humphries and doubtless was still known as the “Humphries House.”
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Joseph Roberts lived at that time in the old Roberts homestead still standing on Lenola Road near Fellowship.
The house now standing at the northwest corner of Main and Schooley Streets, then the home of Joshua Bispham, also housed some of the British officers and soldiers on that night. The two wings of the British Army united in Mount Holly and on the 22nd of June after destroying the iron works and burning the homes of Peter Taliman and Colonel Isaac Shreeve proceeded on their way to Monmouth Courthouse passing through Jacksonville, Columbus and Crosswicks.
In “Moorestown Old and New” a story is told of an eccentric individual who rushed into the Friends’ Meeting and shouted “here you are all sittin with your hats on and the British just down at Neddy French's!” Neddy French’s home was on Camden Pike now Forest Brook Farm, the residence of Mr. and Mrs. S. Thornton Hollinshead. The British, however, were not entering the town at that time but according to the account the Meeting was broken up and “the horses of the worshippers were driven out of the Meeting House yard at a pace that astonished them and startled the neighbors.” I do not know whether there is any basis of truth to this interesting and rather ridiculous story although the following record from John Hunt’s diary may possibly refer to the same incident. “On Tenth month 23d, 1777” says the diarist, “when we came to Moorestown (evidently on the way to Meeting) there was a great uproar and the people expected the Hessians every hour. When the Meeting had been gathered a little while there was a great uproar and noise in the street and an outcry that the soldiers were coming. A man came to the Meeting House door and called a Friend out and said they would be here in five minutes time. Whereupon some Friends went out and went home but the most part were favored to sit still. There was a constant roaring of cannon all the while which jarred the house but at last came one that shook the wall. Women turned pale and began to cry but sat stilL
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These cannon were so hard I thought it was likely they were in the lower end of the town. When we came out of Meeting all seemed still and quiet and we found it was a false alarm: there were no Hessians nearer than Haddonfield. It was said that the great shock—was a ship blown up.” The battle of Red Bank near Westville was fought on the day previous and doubtless the cannonading to which he refers was on the Delaware as the English and American ships engaged in repeated duels for a day or two after the battle.
The Battle of Brandywine fought on September 11, 1777 and the Battle of Germantown on October 4th of the same year, were distinctly heard in Moorestown. Both events are recorded in John Hunt's diary. John Hunt was a consistent Friend and abhorred war but it is evident from the following quotation from his diary that he was a patriot at heart. “But there was an admirable strange turn for as was reported about the 26th of the month (December,, 1776) a very stormy day, some hundreds of Hessians or of the English party were taken prisoners at Trenton and brought to Philadelphia and the rest drove back towards Brunswick.” This evidently referred to the Battle of Trenton which was fought on Christmas night of that year.