Early in the morning of Oct. 22, 1777, Jonas Cattell raced the 10 miles from Haddonfield to the small American fort at Red Bank along the Delaware River.
Cattell, a young patriot, had spent the night before in the custody of Hessians preparing to attack the Red Bank garrison, Fort Mercer. When the German soldiers employed by the British army left Haddonfield about 4 a.m., Cattell bolted from the town to warn the Americans.
He arrived to find Col. Christopher Greene preparing the defenses at the small earthworks fort. Mercer was built on land owned by the Whitall family.
"The Americans knew an attack was coming, but they probably would not have been as prepared if he had not gotten there early," said Megan Giordano, curator for the Red Bank Battlefield museum.
Mercer was paired with Fort Mifflin on the other side of the Delaware River to prevent the British navy from moving up the river. The two forts overlooked a series of chevaux de friese, frameworks rigged with sharp iron stakes that were submerged. The spikes gashed the hulls of any large ships that attempted to pass.
Mercer itself was a pentagon-shaped structure of 9-foot high walls surrounded by a ditch and downed apple trees with branches sharpened. About 400 Americans from Rhode Island manned an area about a third the fort's original size. Much of the fort had been abandoned because there were too few men to defend it.
The British wanted to take forts Mifflin and Mercer to supply the British army occupying Philadelphia.
They sent 1,200 to 2,500 Hessians, led by Count Carl Emil Kurt von Donop, to do the job. It turned out to be a disastrous engagement for the mercenaries. They took heavy fire from the Americans as they tried to clear the apple tree obstacles, or abatis. A group of Hessians charged the abandoned portion of the fort and once inside cheered, "Victoria!" thinking the Americans had fled. Instead, they found themselves staring up at an inner wall, behind which American troops fired down, slaughtering them.
The engagement lasted about 45 minutes before the Hessians retreated to Haddonfield.
Donop died three days later, a prisoner of the Americans.
Greene went on to command one of the first all-black regiments in America before dying in battle in 1781.
Cattell became the Steve Irwin of his day, gaining fame for wrestling animals and performing feats of strength.
The fort itself fell into British hands a month later. After withstanding a month-long siege, Pennsylvania's Fort Mifflin fell and the Americans abandoned Mercer shortly after.
James Whitall, the Quaker farmer whose land was used for the fort, was never pleased with the soldiers sequestered on his land. After the war, he submitted to the state legislature a bill for 5,760 pounds and 1 shilling, the cost of damage to his land. There is no record of reimbursement.
Reach Jason Laughlin at (856) 486-2476 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Published: June 29. 2007 12:00AM -->