By C.G. Wolfe/© The Black River Journal
On the graying afternoon of December 14, 1776, two men, just three months apart in age, one the son of a modest farmer, the other the son of a distinguished British admiral, led seven of their men to a wooded patch along a country lane near Flemington, New Jersey – one of them emerged a local hero, the other was abandoned there for eternity.
Small puffs of steam, barely visible in the half-light of the early morning, flared from the nostrils of the horses and men as British Cornet Francis Geary and seven of his troopers from the 16th (Queen’s) Light Dragoons cantered off toward the sleeping town of Flemington, in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Geary and his scouting party were the vanguard of a 500-man raiding force of British infantry that were descending on Flemington. Their mission was to secure a large supply of salted beef and pork intended for Washington’s starving army in Pennsylvania, which was reportedly being warehoused in the store of Colonel Thomas Lowery. Geary’s job was to ride ahead of the column with his horsemen, locate the provisions, arrest Lowery if he was there, and report back to the main body, which would then march in and raid the town.
Francis Geary was a stout fellow just three months short of his 24th birthday. The eldest son of a British admiral, he had been educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and purchased his cornetcy (roughly the equivalent of a 2nd lieutenant in today’s US Army) in the 16th Light Dragoons when he was 21 years old, for 1,100 pounds. (Commissions were commonly purchased in the British military and could be resold.) The 16th Light Dragoons were a rough and ready elite unit. Their primary functions during the Revolution were patrolling, reconnaissance, and outpost duties but they could also carry out lightning raids and, unlike regular cavalry, they were armed with carbines and if the need arose, they could dismount and fight as infantry.
The 16th had only been in America since October, but already had a fearsome reputation in New Jersey. The same month they decided to raid Lowery’s storehouse in Flemington, British horsemen swooped down on the village of Pluckemin in Somerset County, capturing a local patriot, vandalizing the town’s church, and skirmishing with local militia. Only one day before Geary set off for Flemington, Friday December 13, a troop of dragoons from the 16th captured American Major General Charles Lee, Washington’s second in command, at a tavern in Basking Ridge.
Their incursions weren’t going unchallenged. Alone and in small groups Jersey militiamen were waging a guerilla war on the weary British regulars and their casualties were slowly mounting. On the same day that Cornet Geary rode off to Flemington, an aide to British General Howe commented that,”It is now very unsafe for us to travel in Jersey. The rascal peasants meet our men alone or in small unarmed groups. They have their rifles hidden in the bushes, or ditches, and the like. When they believe they are sure of success and they see one or several men belonging to our army, they shoot them in the head, then quickly hide their rifles and pretend to know nothing.”
Those “rascal peasants” may have weighed heavily on Cornet Geary’s mind as he and his men rode deeper into the Hunterdon countryside. With the sun up, it would be hard to miss the small but resplendent British scouting party. Decked out in their traditional scarlet red jackets with blue facing and a high leather helmet adorned with a bearskin crest and a painted leopard turban, the dragoons made a tempting target for rebel marksmen.
Geary reached Flemington without incident and found the provisions he was looking for at Lowery’s store. Colonel Lowery had fled before they arrived and, according to one story, watched the British scouts from a nearby hill. His mission halfway completed, Geary affixed the “King’s Seal” on the storehouse and rode off to find the column of British infantry and lead them to Flemington. On his entire journey from Pennington to Flemington, Geary and his men hadn’t encountered a single armed rebel and seemed to have taken Hunterdon by surprise. But a handful of militia from Amwell had heard that Geary was coming and had closed in behind him.
The night before, John Schanck (sometimes spelled Schenk), the 25 year-old son of a well-known Amwell farmer and a captain in the Hunterdon County militia, returned home to his farm near what is now Larison’s Corner in East Amwell Township, and found alarming news waiting for him. His cousin (also John Schanck) had been to New Market earlier that afternoon and gotten information that British Dragoons and infantry were going to raid Flemington the next day. Shanck had no hopes of stopping 500 British infantrymen but he could to try to discourage Geary and his squad of dragoons. The next day, he managed to muster just seven men, including three close relatives. The motley group of citizen soldiers prepared to meet their equal number of elite British light horsemen. Armed with whatever muskets or hunting rifles they owned, the small band of “Old Amwell” militiamen let Geary and his men ride on to Lowery’s store and then gathered in a wooded patch along the road about five miles below Flemington and waited for them to return.
Geary and his men were unaware that more than a half dozen rebel guns were pointing squarely at them as they filed down the narrow dirt lane from Copper Hill to Ringoes. Shanck and his militiamen, whose hearts must have been pounding with adrenaline, waited for the dragoons to get within range and, just as they reached their position, opened fire. Most of the shots whizzed harmlessly past the startled dragoons but there was at least one unnamed marksman in the group of Amwell men who put a carefully-aimed musket ball right through the center of Geary’s forehead and dropped him from the saddle. Shocked by the sudden death of their commander, and believing they were outnumbered, the British returned a ragged volley, wheeled off the road, and fled across an open field towards Somerset. Even Geary’s horse galloped off with the rest of the retreating dragoons leaving his lifeless body behind.
According to a firsthand account, Shanck’s men stripped the dead cornet of anything valuable; Captain Shanck got Geary’s sword, his cousin John grabbed the young officer’s hat and boots, William Van Syckle got his gold watch, and the rest of his possessions, including his scarlet red jacket, were divvied up among some of the other men. Geary’s corpse was then hastily covered in a pile of dead leaves and the men scattered to their homes.
After sunset, the British infantry column arrived near the spot Geary had been killed and stopped at Mathias Housel’s farm to ask if he had seen any British light horsemen. Housel told them of the skirmish earlier that day and of the cornet’s death. The British soldiers made him get a lantern and take them to the spot where Geary had been shot. They found a bloody stain on the ground but Housel didn’t lead them to the body. They interrogated Housel further and he managed to convince them that Washington had crossed the Delaware and large numbers of militia were gathering for miles around. Visibly alarmed at this news, the British column gave up their search for Geary’s body and their planned raid on Flemington and instead, marched off after their routed horsemen – Captain Shanck, his seven men, and the cunning Housel had turned back an entire British regiment. The next day the militiamen returned to the skirmish site and buried Francis Geary under two rough unmarked stones.
For many years after his death, fresh cut flowers were often found on Geary’s crude grave. No one ever discovered who was placing them there but once the form of a woman was seen moving among the trees near the burial site. Witnesses tried to intercept her but she vanished into the woods. Throughout the ensuing decades, more mysteries emerged from this tragic, lonely spot in the woods. According to a series of articles from the 1860s-70s called “Traditions of Our Ancestors,” Geary’s grave became “a place of terror after night.”
“Strange noises have often been heard, and on more than one occasion men have fled screaming to the nearest dwelling, declaring that they heard the British Regular’s groans. Others have seen him stalking through the forest, in full uniform, mounted upon a white horse, and the blood streaming from his forehead…Hugh Capner, Esq.,… says that when he was a young man and rode past Geary’s grave after night, the first question he would be asked on arriving in Flemington, was ‘Whether he’d seen anything of Geary?’ And this became the uniform question put to all those who traveled that way after night.”
One night a farmer living near the spot was startled by a man who burst into his house to take refuge from the restless spirit. He claimed that he heard an unearthly noise down where “the reg’lar was killed” and that the ground was shaking beneath his feet. The farmer agreed to go back there with the trembling traveler, and sure enough, when they got close to the infamous place they heard a low grumble, “boo-woo-wooh.” The farmer immediately recognized the familiar sound and told the man that it was just the neighbor’s bull. “That’s no bull!” the man stammered, before sprinting away as fast as his trembling legs could carry him.
Another legend that sprang from Geary’s grave asserted that his closest comrades sneaked back into the area the night after the skirmish and dug up his corpse, placed it in a coffin and carried it back to Trenton, where it was sealed in a barrel of whiskey and shipped back to his family in England. The argument raged for over a century until the Hunterdon County Historical Society decided to end the speculation once and for all. On May 18, 1891 a committee opened the grave of Francis Geary. Two and a half feet down they found his remains, lying on its right side, evidently dumped hastily into the shallow grave. Among the items found with the assorted bones, teeth and scraps of cloth were several silver buttons from his vest embossed “16 QLD” – the 16th Queen’s Light Dragoons.
In 1907, Francis Geary’s great-nephew, Sir William Neville M. Geary, replaced the two field stone markers with a monument more befitting the son of a British baronet. He was also memorialized back home with a bas-relief erected at his family church in Surrey. The plaque, which depicts the “Battle of Flemington” shows the figure of Britannia weeping over a bust of Francis Geary, below them a slain rider falls from his rearing steed as American militiamen prowl through the woods in the background.
In the last two hundred years, Geary’s gravesite has been surrounded by a changing landscape, from 19th century farm fields that mowed down the woods where he fell to the most recent addition of a residential development named “Geary’s Ridge.” His eternal resting place, partially shrouded once again by woods, now sits on a plot between busy Route 31, a cornfield, and the back of several new homes. Though difficult to find, it is respectfully maintained and has been buffered by a little park-like meadow. A set of unassuming but handsomely landscaped steps, oddly placed between two new houses in “Geary’s Ridge” ascend to a narrow stone path that winds its way around to the Cornet’s grave, where a small silk flower wreath and British Union Jack adorn his memorial stone.
John Shanck continued to serve with the militia and, according to family history, participated in most of the major engagements in New Jersey, including the Battles of Princeton and Monmouth. He died in 1823, at the age of 73, and is buried next to his wife in the Pleasant Ridge Cemetery near Larison’s Corner on the Old York Road, just a few miles from the grave of Francis Geary. A bronze plaque commemorates his “courage and foresight on December 14, 1776, that saved that part of the county from being overrun by British troops.”
Compared to larger engagements, the skirmish outside Flemington and the strategic value of Thomas Lowery’s store seem trivial, but grand, sweeping battles are few and far between. Often it’s the cumulative effect of small personal firefights, fought close-up and waged over a small patch of ground or, in this case, for a few barrels of salted pork that decide the outcome of a war. For John Shanck and Francis Geary the size of the battle made little difference, yet the stakes couldn’t have been higher or the consequences more serious. When the smoke cleared, a single shot fired during a fight that lasted only seconds, had decided their fate and one man, defending his home and neighbors, went home a local hero while the other, a professional soldier carrying out his sworn duty, was condemned to haunt a lonely patch of woods in Hunterdon County, far from glory and farther from home.