A War Brewing

Control of the Delaware River and Philadelphia was crucial by September 1777.

by Vince Farinaccio

The Benjamin Cooper House, a former family residence that became a tavern serving travelers on the nearby ferry in Camden, will be the home of the American Revolution Museum of Southern New Jersey. It played a significant role in what is known as the Grand Forage of the American Revolution.

Four years before America declared its independence from England, Benjamin Cooper had bequeathed the home to his son Joseph. With the onset of the war, control of the Delaware River and Philadelphia was crucial. By September 1777, the British had gained control of both as well as Camden’s Cooper’s Ferry location. The following month, the Hessians deployed for the Battle of Red Bank accessed New Jersey through the ferry site.

According to the preservationnj.org website, during the nine months the British occupied Philadelphia, the Benjamin Cooper House, “still in Cooper family hands, was commandeered for use as the headquarters of British Lieutenant Colonel Abercrombie.”

By February 1778, supplies of food for the Philadelphia-stationed British troops under the command of General William Howell were quickly dwindling. General George Washington’s army, ensconced in Valley Forge at the time, were experiencing the same predicament. Since Pennsylvania’s supplies had already been picked clean by Howell’s soldiers prior to winter, both generals set their sights on South Jersey. And thus began the Grand Forage.

The American Revolution Museum of Southern New Jersey website reports that American General Anthony Wayne was ordered to take 300 men and “cross the Delaware River into New Jersey from Wilmington, Delaware, to destroy hay and collect all available livestock north and send it to Valley Forge… Wayne’s force crossed the Delaware and entered Salem County on February 19 and began scouring South Jersey for supplies, particularly cattle and horses. He collected one hundred fifty cattle and thirty horses” which, according to the Revolutionary War New Jersey website, “he had sent on, and had burned quantities of hay to keep it from the British.”

The quantities of hay, the American Revolution Museum of Southern New Jersey website notes, amounted to 400 tons, arranged along the Delaware River as a distraction for the British while the livestock was shipped to Trenton.

On February 24 and 25, Howe sent two contingents of soldiers into New Jersey to confront Wayne, who left Haddonfield to await reinforcements from Trenton. In the meantime, British troops “captured 150 barrels of tar and shipped it off to the British navy in Philadelphia, seized a large cache of rum and tobacco, and gathered cattle before returning to Haddonfield,” the American Revolution Museum of Southern New Jersey website explains.

The site also informs us that the Cooper family became directly embroiled in the events unfolding: “The British arrested Benjamin Cooper’s sons, Joseph and Samuel, and kept them prisoner in Haddonfield for two days. At the time of their arrest, Joseph was living in the Benjamin Cooper House…On March 5, Samuel wrote to a friend complaining that the brothers’ “…wives never knew where we was gone till just before we came home.” The brothers were released, but Samuel was arrested again later on suspicion of providing intelligence to the Americans. The British released him again but confiscated his spy glass.”

By the time Wayne’s reinforcements arrived, the British were sequestered near the Camden ferry on what has been described as one of the coldest of nights for many of the soldiers. When Wayne’s troops arrived in Camden on March 2, the British refused to engage in battle, setting up defensively in front of the ferry to transport the Philadelphia contingents back across the Delaware. The Americans, aware that the river was filled with British ships that afforded the ground troops protection, were forced to withdraw. It would be another three months before the occupation of Philadelphia ended.

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