On January 20, 1777, colonial militiamen waded across the icy Millstone River in water above their knees. The maneuver enabled them to get around the cannons their enemy had set up at a bridge, defeat a large foraging party, and capture tons of supplies the British had been trying to take to their winter encampments. The Battle of Millstone, sometimes called the Battle of Somerset Court House, was one fight in a series of engagements known as the Forage War.
For much of late 1776, George Washington’s forces had been enduring defeats and were forced increasingly farther out of New York. They retreated across New Jersey and crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania . As the British began settling into winter quarters, Washington feared for the survival of the Revolutionary cause. He decided to act boldly.
On Christmas night the Continental Army crossed the Delaware River in small boats. Early the next morning they surprised the 1200 strong Hessian garrison at Trenton and routed them. Washington won another important victory at Princeton on January 3, 1777. The Continental Army took to winter quarters in Morristown and the British to their own winter garrisons.
A major winter task for each side was to preserve the fighting shape of their army until campaigning began again in the spring. For this purpose the British sent numerous foraging parties into the countryside, where they were often met by militia. Dozens of engagements are recorded for the months when the main forces of the armies were camped in winter quarters.
On January 20, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercromby commanded a force of about 500, including British regulars, Hessian soldiers, and a pair of Three-Pounder cannon. The formidable company was on a successful pillage mission when they began loading their supply wagons around Van Nest’s Mill in Millstone, New Jersey.
Under orders from Washington, Brigadier General Philemon Dickinson brought out 400 New Jersey militiamen, together with a company of about 50 men from the Susquehanna Valley area armed with rifles and muskets. The latter were commanded by Captain Robert Durke.
After battling around the bridge, the American forces broke through the ice at the Millstone’s edge, forded the river, and surprised the enemy with a renewed attack. The British were driven from the field, leaving most of the pilfered supplies behind. The Americans captured 107 horses, 49 wagons, 115 cattle, 70 sheep, 40 barrels of flour, and numerous other supplies including cheese, butter, ham, and other foodstuffs. The Americans suffered 3 to 5 men killed and several wounded, while the British took away more casualties in wagons as they retreated.
Van Nest’s Mill is long gone, and the bridge over the Millstone has been replaced with a sturdy causeway. Just downstream (north) of the bridge, a small dam lays across the river. The water that spills over it still gets cold, but gives no indication that a bloody battle over critical food supplies was fought very close to here.
Battles and Skirmishes of the American Revolution in New Jersey.
Everts and Peck, History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties, New Jersey, 1881.
Rees, John U. “’The road appeared to be full of red Coats…’: An Episode in the Forage War: The Battle of Millstone, 20 January 1777.”
This Day in History, Jan 20, 1777: Battle of Millstone, New Jersey.