The Forage War and the Battle for New Jersey

In many ways, Joseph Nourse’s experiences in winter camp at Morristown were nothing like most of the army’s. On February 15, 1777 he wrote that he “read Homers Odyssy, which I borrowed from Lord Sterling,” a moment of culture which probably seemed as foreign to the bulk of the army’s rank and file  as it does to modern readers. Indeed, enlistment records like these make it clear that many soldiers could not read or write at all.

However, Nourse also participated in the two activities that characterized most of the winter of 1776-1777 for the Continental Army: waiting for winter to end, and occasionally skirmishing with the British. Nearly every day, he recounted that it was very cold, and that army drilled in the morning: “a rather lazy life,” he thought.

While armies traditionally did not fight during the winter, the Americans and British spent 1776-1777 engaged in a state of low-level hostility. The “Forage War,” an insurgency campaign largely conducted by local New Jersey militia companies, harassed the British whenever they ventured out into the countryside to gather food for their army (a practice known as foraging). It hamstrung the British, and their indiscriminate reprisals against New Jersey civilians turned a mostly Loyalist state into a staunchly pro-Independence one.

In addition, the Continental Army periodically carried out small attacks against the British. “It is reported …that [we] will attempt to storm Brunswick,” Nourse reported. He was often in the presence of the army’s senor leadership, so his information likely came from a reliable source. In fact, just a week later, it was proven to be quite true.

On Friday morning, February 28, 1777, Nourse and several companies of Virginia troops from Berkeley County (now in West Virginia) marched about twenty miles to the outskirts of Quibbletown (modern-day Piscataway). The next day,

“the whole of us, about 400, marched into the Enemies lines and attacked…but we were so disadvantageously posted that we could not stand our ground. We fought for ½ an Hour and then retreated.”

According to Nourse, two men were killed, and several wounded. In that way, it was typical of the Continental Army’s strategy during that winter: an attack on the British that was quickly called off when it was clear the British had the upper hand. Similar skirmishes took place across New Jersey at dozens of small towns. For the Americans, the priority was avoiding causalities, and living to fight another day. It was how the Continental Army fought for much of the war, and was what allowed them to continue the war despite being vastly outnumbered by the British.

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