14 February 2021

In The "Red Coats'" Power - The Capture of Thomas Van Camp - 1777

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.


One 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.
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. 
Just two days earlier, on June 14, 1777,
the Continental Congress passed a resolution
adopting the United States Flag.

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- 

“Tom, do you see that ‘redcoat’?” he asked in an ex- 
cited whisper. “That’s my target! I’m going to shoot 

“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- 

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. 

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