Sgt. John Smith of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment expected no mercy from the Hessian troops that would soon attack his garrison on the banks of the Delaware River.
It was Oct. 21, 1777, and Smith was holding Fort Mercer on Red Bank Plantation in New Jersey. The British had captured Philadelphia less than a month earlier. George Washington intended to starve the enemy out of the city. He ordered two forts built on either side of the river to block supply ships from reaching Philadelphia.
John Smith had enlisted for three years in the spring of 1777. His regiment consisted of Rhode Islanders from Kent and King counties and would later be noted for recruiting African-American soldiers. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment was part of Gen. Nathanael Greene’s brigade.
The Continental Army, though outnumbered, would defeat the Hessian troops during the Battle of Red Bank on Oct. 22, 1777. The victory boosted the Americans’ morale when their outlook for the war was bleak.
John Smith recorded the battle preparations in his diary:
we were Inform’d that a Party of Regulars had Landed at [blank] ferey to attacke our fort -- we Remov’d all our tents & baggage into the Citidale & Every man was Employd at worke on the fort to fortify the same -- between 3 & 4 o Clock 300 more troops Came here to Reinforce us -- we Cut Down an orchard by the fort & hald trees Round the fort to Keep off the Enemy -- we had no Disturbance from the Enemy this Day -- this is tusday 21st of October -- Mr. Henery holden [departed] for home by whome I sent a Letter to my wife
The next day the Hessians advanced to the woods next to the fort. Smith wrote the Hessian commander sent a flag and demanded surrender – or else they’d show no mercy and ‘put all to death.‘
An American captain answered. “We’d asked no mercy nor did we expect any.”
“We was determined to fight or die in defence of the Garrison,” wrote Smith.
The flag returned and the enemy attacked, beginning with a brisk fire. The Hessians advanced with knives spades, pickaxes and saws to cut through the trees surrounding the fort. The American troops responded with a smart fire from artillery and small arms for 47 minutes – ‘as smart as Ever was Known,’ wrote Smith.
The firing continued until dark, when the Hessians retreated.
The Hessians reported more than 300 killed and wounded with 60 missing or captured, while the Americans reported 14 killed and about 25 wounded. The Hessian commander, Col. Karl von Donop, was mortally wounded.
John Smith, along with everyone in the garrison, stayed up all night dressing the wounded.
Smith went on to survive the winter at Valley Forge.
The Red Bank battlefield is now a part of the Gloucester County parks system.