In The "Red Coats'" Power is one of the tales published by George Quarrie in his 1910 collection Within a Jersey Circle. It is the story of the capture of Branchburg farmer Thomas Van Camp by the British during the American Revolution as told to the author by the then 83-year-old grandson of the protagonist, Peter Van Camp. I am reprinting it here along with notes and images of my own inserted for those interested in Hillsborough, New Jersey history.
HOW FIVE JERSEYMEN, DRILLING NEAR THE PRESENTOne day in June, 1777, five men were drilling and practising target shooting in a wood, near the South Branch River. It was at a place a little above the vil- lage then called Branchville and now known as South Branch. They had met there every day for some time and were very earnest in their work, first learning the military steps and turnings for marching and afterward firing with long-barreled muskets and the round, leaden balls of those days, at a barked spot on a tree.
TOWN OF SOUTH BRANCH, WERE CAPTURED BY THE
On the day in question, which, to be accurate, was the 16th of June, having finished their drill evolutions, four of the men grounded their muskets and began loading them. First they measured the charges of powder in the palms of their hands and poured them into the ca- pacious barrels; then they rammed them down with pieces of paper doubled up into wads, and next they hammered the charges home with their ramrods, until the latter bounced back clear out of the barrels. The balls being put in and driven down beneath more paper wads, the guns were loaded. After that the flint-mailed hammers were raised and some extra powder poured into the flash pans. This was called priming. Having fin- ished loading, the four men, under instructions of the fifth, formed in firing line.
One of the four, a tall, lanky youth called Hank, was exceedingly awkward at drill but a “dead shot” and proud of it. He was about to shoot when right in the line of the target and not much beyond it, he saw some- thing. “Tom, do you see that ‘redcoat’?” he asked in an ex- cited whisper. “That’s my target! I’m going to shoot him!” “No, don’t!” ordered Tom, who was the instructor. “That’s one of our men in disguise, most likely. Hold on a bit till I see.” Hank frowned. He wanted to show his marksman- ship on the real thing, and again he leveled his gun, de- claring that he would shoot the man. “Don’t do it, I tell you!” Tom commanded, and again Hank was restrained. But as Tom shifted his ground for a better view, “Lanky Hanky,” as they called him, covered his man with his gun and was on the point of firing when one of his mates interfered. It was lucky he did, for at that moment a crackling of many feet over the twigs behind them was heard and they found them- selves surrounded and taken prisoners by a strong com- pany of British soldiers. If Hank had shot the man the five of them would have been shot or hanged on the spot and this story would never have been told. “Tom,” the instructor of Hank and the others, was Thomas Van Camp, who had served in the Continental army from the first skirmish down to the glorious ac- tions of Trenton and Princeton. His time having then expired he had repaired to his ancestral homestead, which is now the home of his grandson, Peter Van Camp, to whom I am largely indebted for this story.
[The Van Camp homestead was located in Branchburg where the Neshanic Valley Golf Course is today. It was in the Van Camp family from when the land was originally partitioned in the early 1700s until it was sold in December 1933. Peter Van Camp, the grandson of Thoams Van Camp, died in 1923 at the age of 97.]
Thomas Van Camp’s activity in collecting and drilling men for the army he had fought with, showed that he was a true patriot. But for the time his lamp was ex- tinguished ; for he and his recruits were in the hands of the enemy. And, as he used many a time to tell his grandson, who now retells it, the worst of their capture was that, being all big fellows, they were subjected to far more indignities than if they had been of smaller stature. For instance, they were made to run the gaunt- let, one at a time, between two facing lines of their enemies, every one of whom administered the best kick he was capable of to each runner as he passed down the line. The redcoats seemed to hugely enjoy the work, too; for with every kick they would shout some taunt. “Why don’t you fight, you lumbering rebels,” they cried. “You’re big and ugly enough,” etc. But the captives soon had the satisfaction of seeing their enemies themselves cowed. For they had only pro- ceeded a short distance further up stream when suddenly, like a clap of thunder, a cannon belched from the hills to their left and a ball came whistling over their heads and tore up the earth only a few -yards beyond them. Simultaneous musketry fire from a wood ahead of them seemed to fill the invaders with terror, for sheltering themselves in a convenient wood, they beat a double- \ quick retreat along the river, taking good care, how- ever, that their prisoners were well surrounded and made to scamper away along with them. For some time that well-planted cannon kept guessing their whereabouts, by shot after shot. Just opposite the Van Camp home- stead, where the river is now crossed by a fine bridge, a ball went crashing among the trees right over their heads. This brought down a heavy limb which pinned several Britishers under it, hurting one or two badly, and nar- rowly missing Thomas Van Camp.
|Branchburg and Hillsborough circa 1850 - |
The men thus sent back the way they came were a force some seventy strong. They had been sent on a reconnoitering and foraging expedition by General Corn- wallis, who, with Colonel De Heister, was posted with two divisions of their army at Middlebush and Som- erset Courthouse. They had marched there from New Brunswick in the hope of drawing Washington from his stronghold at Middlebrook, which event they awaited with impatience but in vain. At the same time General Sullivan, by order of Washington, having come from Princeton, had left small corps of observation on Haunts Rock, on the Sourland Mountain, and encamped with his main body at Clover Hill. It was from there that the gun was sent by Sullivan, and it, with a few sharp- shooters, successfully defeated the purpose of the for- agers.
|Major General John Sullivan|
Nearly a hundred years after this occurrence, two can- non balls were unearthed on the Van Camp farm. They are still in the possession of Peter Van Camp, the grand- son of that same patriot soldier, Thomas, at whose cap- tors while he was among them, these very balls were fired. As there is no record of any other engagement ever having taken place in the vicinity, there seems to be no doubt as to the origin of these balls. When Cornwallis saw that Washington was not to be enticed from Middlebrook he marched back to New Brunswick, determining to move on Philadelphia by way of the sea. Thomas Van Camp and his fellow-prisoners were shipped under hatches in a vessel and taken to Long Island. There Hank and three of his mates received bad treatment in prison for five months; but Van Camp, who was wonderfully good natured, did whatever was re- quired of him, and knew so well how to humor his jailors that he got off after two months of imprisonment. He was paroled on leave to go and see an aunt, and needless to say the moment his feet touched the Jersey shore he took to his heels through swamps, rivers and woods, till he got back to his home.
|Interior of the British prison ship New Jersey,|
moored at Long Island during the American Revolution
Peter Van Camp tells me that his grandfather lost his gun and other equipment at the time of his capture, but the musket used in the Revolution by his great uncle, John Van Kampen, as well as the latter’s sword, after he was made an officer, is still preserved at the old home- stead. Mr. Van Camp has also a very old French gun, supposed to have been among the first firearms ever used in Jersey. It was brought here by his great-great-grand- father early in the seventeenth century, and is said to be at least 250 years old. It does not appear that Thomas Van Camp re-entered the army. Subsequent to his capture and release from the British lines, tradition and history seem to conflict a good deal as to his movements. In the second series of New Jersey Archives (as pointed out to me by Arthur S. Kim- ball, a relative of the Van Camps, through the Halls) there appears a letter, dated at Newark, February 7, 1778, which says: “A correspondent informs us that one William Pace, of Schoolie’s Mountain, and Thomas Van Camp, of Som- erset County, both bound for Staten Island, the latter with a quantity of flour, and the former with four quar- ters of beef which had been stall-fed two years, and was intended for a British general, were apprehended and brought before the President and Council of Safety the twenty-eighth of January last. It not fully appearing to the board that their respective cargoes were to have been carried into the enemy’s lines, which would have been high treason. Van Camp was adjudged to forfeit his flour and to pay the fine prescribed by law for asking more than the regulated price, and also the fine for asking a higher price in continental currency than in specie and Pace to forfeit his fat beef and to pay the fine for asking for it more than the regulated price, and both being bound over they were dismissed. “Evidence being produced the day after that one Jacob Fitz-Randolph, who lives at the Blazing Star, had met them (Van Camp and Pace) at Spanktown (now Rah- way) and engaged to take their cargoes if they would bring them to his house, and to convey them to Staten I Island so soon as the ice would permit; the said Pace and Fitz-Randolph have since been committed to gaol for pro- curing provisions for the enemy, and as dangerous to the present government; and a warrant is issued to apprehend the said Van Camp.” History failing to note any further penalty as inflicted upon Thomas Van Camp, we may fairly assume that his I actions were satisfactorily explained to the authorities.
|Martha Washington arrives at the Ford mansion in Morristown, 1779|
Tradition here enters and informs us that Thomas Van Camp conveyed Martha Washington in a supply wagon from Princeton to Morristown in the month of Decem- ber, 1779. Although there is no official record of this, it had undoubtedly as good a chance of being authentic as most other family traditions have. And as to Thomas's attempted contraband transaction, perhaps he was not the first loyal citizen up to that time or since then who has been tempted into making large profits at the expense of an enemy of his country — if he really did attempt that. But the natural inference seems to be that he was ulti- mately exonerated from everything, except, perhaps a lit- tle pardonable venality in those hard times. The present Peter Van Camp, Thomas’s grandson, is the oldest surviving descendant of two very old and im- portant families, the Halls and Van Camps, or Van Kampens. He lives at the original Hall homestead, one of the first places of the kind established in Somerset County. The Halls of this line especially have an ancient and decidedly interesting lineage. I have on several occasions noticed how remarkably old people in these regions seem to carry their weight of years. But wonderful as former instances have appeared to me, I am bound to admit that they are surpassed in the person of Peter Van Camp. He is eighty-three years of age, or as he humorously puts it: “Yes, next year I’ll have come of age four times.” And yet he is so alert in mind and body, and so very far from looking his great age, that no man could hon- estly guess him to be over sixty. Though he does not now do the heaviest work on his farm, he takes full care of his own horse, cows and chickens, does his own garden- ing and raises what are admitted to be the finest pigs to be seen for miles around.