The Battle of Saratoga proved to be a major accomplishment for the Continental Army as it persuaded French officials to formalize an alliance of military strength with the American cause against a common foe. Between this mutual relationship and British General John Burgoyne’s disastrous Northern Campaign in New England, it was only a matter of time before the French Fleet would liberate Philadelphia from English occupation.
By May of 1778, with the political embarrassment created by these events and the “Battle of the Kegs” incident, Parliament decided to relieve British General Sir William Howe of his command. In his absence, Naval Captain John Henry and 600 well-trained infantry men under his authority were directed to evacuate the city and sail towards the towns of Burlington and Bordentown. Undetected by a heavy rainstorm at night, two armed ships and 20 flat-bottomed boats silently navigated up the waterway of the Delaware River.
By morning, the American ships had no means of escape. Fearing capture with artillery turned against them, the townspeople set their own ships ablaze. As a result, forty four vessels of all types were burned to the water line before sinking. Furthermore, the enemy sought retribution for the humiliating “Battle of the Kegs” incident by unleashing unholy hellfire of raging hot mortar upon the waterfront and wooded bluffs. Amidst the chaos, one of Bordentown’s citizens, Mrs. Isdell, was killed by an artillery shell while trying to defend her home. Her son along with three other men were surrounded by marauding British soldiers, marched into the middle of the horse trodden street, and executed. Armed insurrections broke out on many street corners as residential homes were torched with firebrands.
The home of Colonel Joseph Borden, his outbuildings, and horse barns associated with his stage line were purposely targeted and destroyed. His wife was ushered to the street, sat in a salvaged rocking chair, and watched helplessly as the flames consumed their property. She did not express anger as she knew that the prospect of a foreign entity conquering America was insurmountable. In the aftermath of this struggle, Joseph Borden slowly rebuilt the stage line that was passed from his father. As his property burned, the home of his son-in-law, Francis Hopkinson, was also ignited. However, upon entering the interior, the Hessian officer in charge, Captain James Ewald, was so enamored by its intricate moldings and immense library of this “learned man” that he ordered his men to smother the flames.
When the smoke cleared and the carnage ceased, 17 people lost their lives while others fled for safety. Roughly 100 townspeople and soldiers valiantly tried to defend the streets with courage and muskets but were soundly defeated.
After the foreign forces left, they set their sights on the Pennsylvania shoreline and delivered a final blow. With firebrands in hand, they torched the tavern, outbuildings, and stables belonging to Colonel Joseph Kirkbride of the Bucks County militia. His beloved home, “Bellevue” was left smoldering in ruins as his wife and many of his 15 children watched in sorrow. Upon hearing the news, his close friend Thomas Paine was also stunned. Thankfully Kirkbride’s niece, Elizabeth Rogers, and her husband, Colonel Borden, had the financial resources to construct a new home for the family in Bordentown. Overlooking the wind-swept bluffs of the Crosswicks Creek, Kirkbride humbly referred to his home as “New Bellevue.” It was here where Thomas Paine often enjoyed the company of his friend while his own home was being built in town.
The following month, British troops and Loyalists marched through Bordentown again with supply wagons and artillery in tow. Under the command of General Sir Henry Clinton, the last traces of the militia left Philadelphia, covering six miles of ground a day instead of ten miles a day that high-ranking officials projected. This miscalculation was due in part to trails blocked by fallen trees, armed conflicts with colonists, desertion, and severe illness from the blazing hot weather. Undeterred by these occurrences, the soldiers raided farms by stealing livestock and crops as well as seizing bags of grain from mills before setting them on fire.
In light of the attacks on Bordentown and elsewhere, the pendulum of war was swinging in favor of the Americans. The enemy marched towards Crosswicks, Allentown, Imlaystown and finally onto Monmouth Courthouse where they were met in battle by General George Washington and the Continental Army. Thus, this grueling military engagement ended the Philadelphia Campaign. As the longest battle of the war, the oppressive heat and fatigue lead to the deaths of many soldiers on both sides. Neither side emerged victorious but it demonstrated that the Americans could muster against England’s finest forces. One of the battle’s heroes, a young French general named the Marquis de Lafayette, stood tall with a spirit of purpose. Although the enemy lost their foothold in New Jersey, Lafayette would visit again decades later under more peaceful means. He chose Bordentown as part of his tour.