The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Part 6


Vale of Edale (Photo by Atomviz, Wikimedia Commons)
Vale of Edale, Cresswell’s Home, the Beginning and End of His Adventures.  (Photo by Atomviz, Wikimedia Commons)

Skirmish in New Jersey

Cresswell found cheap lodging in New York and reunited with Joseph Brewer, who had fled Philadelphia himself, leaving his wife behind.  “The persecution against the friends of Gorvernment was too violent for a man of his warm temper to stay any longer amongst them with safety either of person or property.”[1]  While in New York, he watched the buildup of forces that Howe would later take on the Philadelphia campaign, but his focus remained on securing passage home.  It would take months, but Cresswell found ways to kill time, including watching a skirmish with the Americans he had so frequently cursed.

On June 20, he joined two British colonels bound for Brunswick, New Jersey.  Howe was in the midst of redeploying troops around New York as he prepared for the Philadelphia Campaign and had ordered troops to relocate from Brunswick to Amboy.  Washington and the Continentals got word and on June 22, the Americans sent Nathaniel Greene to press the British rear while Major General William Maxwell took up position across the British line of movement.[2]  Cresswell was conveniently located to watch the ensuing skirmish:

By 5 o’clock this morning all the Tents were struck and the Army ready to march.  About 8 the main body of the Army came up.  At that instant some of the Rebels’ Scouting parties fired upon our Sentinels, which brought on a smart skirmish.  I happened to see them in the bushes before they fired, but mistook them for some of our rangers.  They were about 300 yards from me.  When the engagement began I got upon a little hillock to see the better, but an honest Highlander advised me to retire into a small breastwork just by, without I had a mind to stick up myself as a mark for the Rebels to shoot at.  I thought proper to take his advice and retured to the place he directed me to, where I had a very good view of their proceedings.  I observed a party of our men going through a rye field, I suppose with an intent to get into the rear of the Rebels and by that means surround them, but they were met as soon as they got out of the field by about the same number of Rebels.  When they were about 100 yards from each other both parties fired, but I did not observe any fall.  They still advanced to the distance of 40 yards or less, and fired again, then I saw a good number of them fall on both sides.  Our people then rushed upon them with their bayonets and the others took to their heels…A fresh party immediately fired upon our people, but were dispersed and pursued into the Woods by a company of the 15th. Regmt.  A brisk fire then began from six field pieces the Rebels had secreted in the Woods, which did some mischief to our men, the engagement lasted about thirty-five minutes.[3]

Cresswell stayed with the Army all the way to Amboy, then dined at a public house with one of his officer companions and Colonel Robert Rogers, “the famous Major Rodgers last War.  He is a New Englander by birth, but a mere savage from his education.”[4]   As if meeting the famed Robert Rogers wasn’t enough, on July 2, 1777 he had the “pleasure” of taking tea with General Charles Lee, a prisoner aboard the Centurion.  “Saw General Lee who is prisoner on board this ship, who, understanding that I came from Virginia, invited me to drink tea with him and had a good deal of chat with me about his plantation in Berkley County, Virginia.  He is a tall, thin, ill-looking man and appears to be about 50 years of age.  He has been particularly active in this Rebellion, he is very sensible, but rash and violent in his sentiments as well as actions.”[5]

Cresswell spent the summer bouncing between ships and various lodging ashore while Great Britain assembled a convoy bound for England.  By the end of July, however, he was aboard the brig Edward and well out to sea.  Edward anchored at Spithead on August 22, 1777.  More than three years after setting out to identify opportunities to get rich, Cresswell returned home broke and in debt.  “This morning saw the West end of the Isle of Wight, that gives a universal joy to all on board, myself excepted.  The thought of returning to my native Contry a Beggar is more than I can support with becoming fortitude.  It casts such an unusual damp upon my spirits that I am more dead than alive.”[6]

As he had in the United States, Cresswell borrowed his way through life with no idea how he could repay the debts unless his father bailed him out.  So, his procession from Spithead to his home in Edale by way of London was slow.  Relations with his father, the unspoken cause of his departure, had not improved.  “My Father set out for Chesterfield Fair soon after I arrived, but remembered to order me to shear or bind Con to-morrow.  I think this is rather hard.”[7]  He spent much of the week complaining about work, a reminder that twenty-something ne’er-do-wells are the same the world over, no matter the century in which they live.  Cresswell did remember to go see Robert Kirk, his American host’s father.  The old man was happy to hear word from, and about, his son.   On October 13, 1777 Cresswell recorded “There is such a sameness in my life at present it is not worth while to keep a Journal.”  Aside from a few comments about his miserable family life and final note that he married on April 21, 1781, Cresswell’s fascinating journal ends abruptly there.

In just over three years, Nicholas Cresswell had seen more of the United States than most Americans and met a vast number of the people who would determine its future.  In all that time, he had remained steadfastly loyal to the British government and displayed the patronizing attitude of a proper Englishman toward the rebelling colonies.  Although he was quite observant, he did not seriously contemplate the ideas the motivated many of the people he knew best in the United States, some of whom he acknowledged were kind, thoughtful, and generous.  Instead, he viewed the land and its people the way a visitor or investor might: practically, with an eye toward their potential to contribute to his wealth-building goals.  By no stretch was he a political philosopher.

Cresswell was brilliant at feeling sorry for himself, but was also clearly a charming companion, dinner guest, and raconteur.  Too many people went out on a limb for him politically or were ready to lend him money that he appeared unlikely to repay for Cresswell to be a boor.  He was intelligent enough to immediately see the potential for improving agriculture and animal husbandry everywhere he went and quite adept as an engineer.  Yet, he also complained about physical labor.  Indeed, finding a way to avoid work was part of the rationale for seeking his fortunes in America in the first place.  Melancholy overtook him as soon as he returned home and had to resume the routine and necessary tasks of farming.  One wonders how often he drank!  He finally died at fifty-three in 1804.

The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Part 5

The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Part 4

The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Part 3

The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Part 2

The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Part 1


[1]                Cresswell, Journal, May 22, 1777.


[3]                Cresswell, Journal, June 22, 1777.

[4]                Cresswell, Journal, June 22, 1777.

[5]                Cresswell, Journal, July 2, 1777.

[6]                Cresswell, Journal, August 22, 1777.

[7]                Cresswell, Journal, September 24, 1777.

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