28 September 1778
During the American Revolutionary War, many British officers did not consider those ‘damn’d American rebels’, as they called recruits of George Washington’s Continental Army, to be entitled to the rights normally accorded to combatants in conflict. Major General Charles Grey was among those more committed to unforgiving cutthroat tactics, leading operations in September 1778 to occupy and burn much of the Massachusetts port towns of New Bedford and Fairhaven, not even sparing the churches. The resulting conflagrations in the two communities were so extensive that they were visible up to 20 miles away.1 Grey was then ordered south to New Jersey, where in the early hours of 28 September, he led his Redcoats on a surprise night attack against a small American cavalry unit of 104 men, under the command of Colonel George Baylor, encamped by the Hackensack River just outside the town of Old Tappan.
Grey’s ordered his men to remove the firing charges and flints from their rifles, so that they would be forced to use their bayonets. Not only did this help give the troops the advantage of silence and surprise, but Grey knew that the rebels were terrified of bayonet attacks, especially when by soldiers drilled in the art of killing at close quarters. Where it was used as the prime means of assault, Americans then considered it a terror weapon with good reason.2 In the early hours of the night, as Baylor’s Dragoons woke to the sound of their comrades’ screams, it is chilling to imagine their panicked horror.
Survivors later testified how on at least three occasions British officers instructed their men not to take prisoners. Some rebels who staggered out of their sleeping quarters, appealing for quarter, were instead insulted and then promptly stabbed. In another instance, when British soldiers queried what they should do with those who had surrendered, they were instructed to ‘kill every one of them,’ and they duly proceeded to butcher their helpless captives, including one rebel who had already been stripped of his breeches. Elsewhere in the confusion of that bloody night, an American overheard a British officer order his men to finish off, with their musket butts, the wounded. The troops ‘muttered about it, and asked why they had not been made to kill them all at once.’ Fortunately for those not wounded, the darkness enabled many to escape the slaughter, but in the morning some fifteen corpses, all bearing multiple injuries, littered the ground.3
- Paul David Nelson, Sir Charles Grey, First Earl Grey; Royal Soldier, Family Patriarch, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Madison, 1996, p. 64.
- Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth, Crown, New York, 2017, p. 252.
- Ibid., pp. 256-258.
- Ibid., p. 263 and Paul David Nelson, op. cit., p. 68.
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