THIS MONTH IN HISTORY: The Better Angels In All Of Us

(Photo by Micromedia Publications)

Every school boy and every school girl in Toms River knows the story of the battle of the Toms River Blockhouse at the end of the Revolutionary War. Twenty-five local men, all volunteers, defending the village and salt warehouse, were defeated in a Sunday morning British led attack in March 1782 leaving nine Americans dead and their captain, Joshua Huddy, captured.

But that’s not the end of the story. It’s just the beginning.

An International Incident

Joshua “Jack” Huddy of Freehold had fought the British throughout the war. He was sent to Toms River by New Jersey’s first state governor, William Livingston, and arrived in Toms River on February 1, 1782. He had been sent here because the people of Toms River had requested it in December 1781. After the historic battle of Yorktown in October where the British surrendered, skirmishes and acts of retaliation continued, and the villagers here sought protection. Toms River had been a Patriot stronghold throughout the years of the war for independence – with its easy to reach port for privateers through the then-existing Cranberry Inlet. We had been attacked twice, unsuccessfully, in the 1770s. Would there be a third attempt?

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Indeed, there was. After the Toms River “battle” – by all accounts about a twenty minute one-sided episode – in which over 100 British regulars and local “pinerobbers” overran the crudely made wooden fort and burned the village to the ground – Huddy fled with several others. They were soon captured by a barn near the destroyed village and taken to a British prison ship in New York Harbor.

On April 12, 1782, without trial, Huddy was unceremoniously hanged near present day Sandy Hook in supposed retribution for an earlier hanging of a British prisoner of war by the Americans. Huddy’s death – premeditated murder – set off an international incident.

Two days after Huddy’s execution, hundreds of residents met in Freehold demanding retaliation. They petitioned General George Washington to bring a British officer of the same rank to a “similar end.” The revenge request was supported by an affidavit from Daniel Randolph, the Justice of the Peace of Toms River. Randolph was one of the citizens who had requested that Huddy be sent to Toms River in the first place. Randolph was there with Huddy in the defense of Toms River and was captured along with him. Randolph was the lucky one – he was traded in a prisoner of war exchange and was able to describe the British attack. In his words, Huddy died with “the firmness of a Lyon.”

With this report and the residents’ demands, Washington reluctantly had to act. He wrote to the commanding British general, Sir Henry Clinton, on April 21 that the British officer who hanged Huddy, Captain Richard Lippincott, should be turned over to the Americans. On April 25, Clinton wrote back that he could not “conceal my surprise and displeasure” at the tone of Washington’s demand and simply denied it.

“Unfortunate”

With pressure on Washington continuing, he then ordered that a lottery be held of British prisoners of war – of equal rank as Huddy’s – be held. Thirteen slips of paper were prepared – 12 blank and one marked “unfortunate.” A Captain Charles Asgill drew the unlucky slip. Washington was no fan of the enterprise, writing that this “disagreeable necessity of retaliating was the only means left to put a stop to such inhuman proceedings.” (i.e.: Huddy’s murder)

Aside from the clear injustice of randomly selecting an innocent man to die, there was a further complication. Asgill was none other than the son of the former mayor of London – Sir Charles Asgill.

Meanwhile, trying to put the whole incident behind them, the British decided to court martial Lippincott and tried him for Huddy’s murder. The military trial took two months – May and June of 1782 – and Lippincott was found not guilty based on the defense that he was simply following orders. Whose orders? None other than the last Royal Governor of New Jersey – William Franklin – the then-President of the Associated Board of Loyalists headquartered in New York. Franklin was Benjamin’s illegitimate son and ironically it was Governor Franklin who signed the charter creating our township some 15 years earlier.

Time went by and Washington delayed. He wrote to an old friend, Secretary of War Benjamin Lincoln, asking for advice as what to do with Asgill. With Clinton gone – he resigned from his command during Lippincott’s trial – Washington hoped for better cooperation with the British who were still a force to be reckoned with as a formal peace treaty had not yet been agreed to.

Humanity Exalts Itself

And forces far beyond Washington’s control were at work. Asgill’s mother sought the assistance of the French foreign minister (the French and Americans were allies against the British) requesting that the King and Queen of France intervene. “Shall an innocent suffer for the guilty?” wrote Lady Asgill. “Represent to yourself, Sir, the situation of a family under these circumstances.”

The government minister, the Comte de Vergennes, sent the letter to Washington, writing: “Your Excellency will not read the letter without being extremely affected; it had that effect upon the King and Queen to whom I communicated it….There are cases where humanity itself exalts the most extreme rigour.”

Washington sent the letters to the Continental Congress which had already decided that it would decide Asgill’s fate one way or the other. On November 7, 1782, the Congress resolved that Washington was to free Asgill. With “great relief,” Washington wrote to Asgill freeing him. The sad episode was over.

And What Of Toms River?

And like the Phoenix, Toms River would rise from the ashes. Left in destruction at the end of the war in the eighteenth century, it would become a thriving community in the nineteenth century and become the county seat of the new Ocean County in 1850. With forgiveness, not vengeance, the “better angels” in all of us had prevailed.

Whatever Happened To Them?

Charles Asgill returned to England where he obtained the rank of General.

Henry Clinton also returned to England and served in Parliament. He is buried at Windsor Castle.

William Franklin remained loyal to the King to the bitter end and fled to England where he lived out his life on a royal pension having been disinherited by his father, Benjamin.

Joshua Huddy was buried in an unmarked grave in Old Tennet Church cemetery in Manalapan, New Jersey

Richard Lippincott, Huddy’s executioner, like many British after the war, moved to Canada.

The King and Queen of France, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, were executed during the French Revolution ten years after the Huddy affair.

George Washington – the “Father of Our Country” – would go on to become the first President of the United States.

And Toms River would become the eighth largest municipality in the State of New Jersey (2010 population of 91,239) and today is proudly the home of “Huddy Park” – a living testament to freedom and liberty.

SOURCES: “Threat to a Negotiated Peace” by Pauline S. Miller; “Toms River Was in Flames” by Nicholas F. Rakoncza; “The Joshua Huddy Era,” Monmouth County Archives, Gary D. Saretzky, Archivist; Wikipedia

Mark Mutter is the former Municipal Clerk of Toms River and chaired the Township’s 250 year anniversary committee in 2017.