Paddy Colvin’s Unforgettable New Year

There were few Irishmen in Trenton, NJ prior to the Revolutionary War.  Among them were Paddy Colvin and Sam McConkey, who ran two Delaware River ferries; Paddy Lamb, who resided near Quaker Bridge on Assunpink Creek; and Bernie Hanlon, a mill-owner who later became a deputy aldermen.  They were all there during a very special Christmas adventure, but Paddy Colvin’s name had been forgotten for 100 years.  In 1885, Rev A. Lambing, compiling a volume for Catholic Historical Research, found an interesting document.  He wrote, Not long ago, when reading one of the Trenton papers, I saw the simple statement that the American forces under General Washington crossed the Delaware at Patrick Colvin’s ferry into Pennsylvania.  The army was on its way to Virginia, to join Lafayette who, with Irish General Wayne’s presence, was keeping Cornwallis at bay.  Struck by his name, which at once denoted his nationality, I resolved to know more about him, and made him a subject of investigation.1

Fortunately he did, for were it not for Rev Lambing’s research into one of the very few recorded references to Patrick Colvin, Colvin may have suffered undeserved anonymity in history.  From Lambing’s text we learn that Patrick Colvin of Co. Cavan, bought a ferry and land on the Delaware River in 1772.  For twenty years, Morrisville, PA was known as Colvin’s ferry and they were eventful years in American history.  Considering the number of times that Washington’s forces were transported across the Delaware, it was most fortunate that the ferry was in the hands of a patriot like Paddy Colvin.  In a speech before the New Jersey Historical Society in January, 1885, US Army General Carrington noted that Trenton was a key to the success of Washington’s operations as it was  strategically located between New York and Philadelphia.  The Delaware river was a line of defense behind which Washington retired when hard pressed, and re-crossed to strike the enemy on every opportunity.  No bridges spanned the river then and yet it had to be crossed quickly or the patriot army could be trapped on its banks.

Patrick Colvin, who owned the closest ferry to Trenton, knew all the fords and obstacles of the river and how to avoid them.  He also knew who owned boats and where they could be found.  He placed all this valuable information, as well as his ferry, at the service of Washington’s patriot army.  Much has been written about the ‘ferries’ around Trenton during the Revolution, leading one to conclude that there were ferries every few hundred yards.  In fact, Colvin’s Ferry, the oldest ferry on the Delaware, was less than 2 miles from Trenton.  The other nearest ferries were McConkey’s Ferry 9 miles above Trenton, Howell’s ferry 4 miles above and Dunk’s ferry 10 miles below.

Toward the end of 1776 Washington, retreating from New York through New Jersey, headed for the Delaware River with the British army in hot pursuit.  On December 1 he sent a message to Congress in Philadelphia, to quickly line up a fleet of boats at Trenton to get him across the Delaware into Pennsylvania.  Captain John Barry contacted his friend Paddy Colvin who set to the task.  On December 3, Washington’s advance guard reached Trenton, and his army began ferrying across the Delaware.  On the morning of December 8, Washington crossed with the rear guard.  Colvin was at his post continually, and got the last of the army safely across, just as the British entered Trenton.  A disappointed Cornwallis found all the boats safely moored on the Pennsylvania side of the river, which was now an impassable barrier between him and the disorganized patriot army he had hoped to capture on the Jersey shore.  Cornwallis left a force to hold Trenton and re-located to Princeton.

Meanwhile, on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware, Washington set up headquarters about half a mile north of Colvin’s ferry.  Concerned that the Brits would build their own boats or bring them over land to cross the Delaware and attack him, Washington decided to cross the Delaware on December 25 and surprise them first at Trenton.  He arranged with Colvin to cross at a few ferries since Colvin knew the river better than anyone, and the trusted Irishman was a  friend of Capt. John Barry.  So it was that on Christmas night and the morning of St. Stephen’s Day, 1776, Washington quietly crossed the Delaware into New Jersey and successfully surprised the Brits and captured Trenton in what became one of the best known stories of the American Revolution.  The Records of the American Catholic Historical Society, published in 1889, states: It was on that night (Dec 25, 1776) that Washington crossed at McKonkey’s (sic) or Patrick Colvin’s ferry.  Colvin is a new hero whose services on that eventful night have been made known by recent historical investigation and recorded by John McCormack, the Catholic Historian of Trenton.2

Washington knew the importance of holding Trenton and that Cornwallis would soon be on his way to recapture the town.  He decided to stand and fight, but the rest of his army was still on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware.  Furthermore, he had about 1,000 prisoners to lock up.  Davis in his History of Morrisville says: A long fatiguing march to McConkey’s Ferry would have been a great hardship to men so severely tried.  There seems to be no escaping the conclusion that they crossed at Colvin’s Ferry.3  Thus, Washington re-crossed the river and mustered the rest of his forces to cross and fortify Trenton before Cornwallis could arrive.  On Dec 30, Washington crossed back into New Jersey at McKonkey’s Ferry, with his troops crossing simultaneously at several Ferries. 4 All the necessary boats were waiting, but the river was still choked with large masses of floating ice being carried rapidly by the swift current and extending out from both shores.  Navigation was near impossible but Colvin supervised the crossing with great skill.

Meanwhile Cornwallis, hearing of the fall of Trenton, left two regiments to fortify Princeton and marched back to Trenton.  Washington sent out small units, under Co. Offaly-born Col. Edward Hand, to harass the oncoming British.  These small bands succeeded in slowing Cornwallis down, inflicting heavy casualties, but the British force still arrived in force by late afternoon on January 2.  Washington was ready and the Second Battle of Trenton began with the armies facing each other, only 200 yards apart, at a small bridge on either side of Assunpink Creek.  Cornwallis ordered the assault and cannon and rifle fire erupted from Washington’s side leaving heavy British casualties after fierce fighting.  Two more attempts were made by the Brits to take the bridge, but each time they failed.  The bridge held, darkness fell, and Cornwallis withdrew for the night.  Hundreds of British dead and wounded were recovered from the bridge and Cornwallis told his army, Rest now, we’ll bag the fox in the morning.

That night, Washington’s army built up their campfires to burn all night and silently slipped away.  A small group was left behind to noisily build fortifications as if they were planning to defend at dawn, but also to cover the sound of the army’s withdrawal.  Washington and his force led by General John Sullivan, son of Munster Irish immigrants, snuck away in the night.  Another local Irishman, Paddy Lamb, guided them along back roads around the British forces to launch a surprise attack on the British force in Princeton.  Cornwallis awoke in the morning to distant cannon fire as the attack on Princeton had begun.  In the attack, 194 British troops found themselves holed up in  Princeton University’s Nassau Hall.  Today an indentation from a cannonball is still visible in the exterior wall and local lore recalls that one cannon round came through a window and hit a portrait of King George II right in the head, convincing the Brits to surrender.  Cornwallis quickly divided his army and sent a force to relieve Princeton but they were too late to prevent another American victory.  Meanwhile, darkness put an end to the second battle of Trenton as the patriots defeated the reduced force left by Cornwallis.  The British were driven back everywhere.  Assunpink creek ran red with British blood and the entire campaign was decided in the patriot’s favor.  As Washington went into winter quarters, he was master of New Jersey.  The war had finally turned in his favor and new recruits poured in thanks to a courageous Christmas and New Year gift from Paddy Colvin.

As earlier mentioned, Paddy Colvin served his adopted country again in the Summer of 1781 when Washington was racing south to join Lafayette in Virginia, but the last time that Colvin appears in history was on April 6, 1789, when the American Congress, in session at New York, declared George Washington to be first President of the United States.  Heading for New York and his inauguration, Washington’s trip from Virginia was cheered all the way.  The Presidential Party left Philadelphia on April 21st riding in close carriages.  Again Washington would cross the Delaware, and this time he chose Colvin’s Ferry.  At ten o’clock they arrived and Bernie Hanlon fired a canon salute as many dignitaries cheered.  Patrick Colvin was given charge of the Presidential party, and personally ferried them across the river, exchanging a familiar handshake and smile with General Washington.  According to William Stryker, Adjutant-General of New Jersey, Colvin was a committee of one to welcome the ‘Father of his Country’ on the banks of the historic Delaware at the borders of Trenton.  It gives him a prominence in history that he richly deserves, and which many may well envy. They had met there before under far different circumstances, when he had performed similar duties for the great Virginian. The banks of the river on the Jersey side were lined with Revolutionary officers and soldiers, and distinguished civilians of city and State;  yet, in recognition of Patrick Colvin’s services and devotion to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, they paid him the compliment of permitting him to ” take charge of the Presidential party.”  In time of war he was the genius that made the icy Delaware subservient to his will.  Now that peace had dawned, all felt he should be specially honored in his chosen sphere of operations, where he had no successful rival.5

McConkey, the owner of other ferry where Washington crossed some of his troops was also an Irishman by birth.  Historian John D McCormack, editor of the Potter’s Journal whose painstaking research into the early history of New Jersey brought many obscure records of the Colonial period to light, was a native of Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary and no stranger to conflict.  As a boy, he had been held by a British Police Squad that commandeered his family home during the Young Irelander uprising in 1848.  McCormack later wrote, Colvin was a Catholic and McConkey was a Presbyterian in religion.  Yet I find that these two Irishmen, holding religious beliefs so divergent, laid their theological differences upon the altar of their country, and made common cause to secure our independence.  It is a rule that has but few exceptions 6 and a story that has few more laudable heroes.

1.  Catholic Historical Researches, edited by Rev. A.A. Lambing, July 1885,   Page 19

2. Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, 1889, Francis T Furey, Committee Chair

3. Catholics and the American Revolution by Martin Griffin, 1911

4. Extract of Lawrence H. Hale letter written to Theodore W. Bozarth:

5. The Battles of Trenton and Princeton by William S. Stryker, released: 1898.   This is the definitive work dealing with Revolutionary events in Trenton and vicinity. General Stryker was a painstaking and scholarly author who devoted 27 years to preparation for his great task.  Professor William Myers, of Princeton University noted that he found Stryker as an historian accurate, sound, judicial and scholarly.  Sir George  Trevelyan, Baronet, in his authoritative work, The American Revolution, says of Stryker’s commentary on Trenton and Princeton: A better book on the subject could not be compiled.   Living on the scene of the memorable engagements here, General Stryker from childhood was steeped in local Revolutionary lore. He gathered much of his knowledge almost first-hand from the families of survivors. Quite inevitably, therefore, (I) found it necessary to lean heavily upon Stryker’s immortal account of the Battles of Trenton as both a factual and an interpretative guide

6. History of Bucks Co. PA, Chapter XLII & XLIII

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