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Old Bergen

Chapter XXIII.

Daniel Van Winkle

Published 1902

Web version, edited by GET NJ
Copyright 2002

IN September, 1776, Washington wrote to Gen. Mercer, of the flying camp, to keep a close watch on the movements of the enemy from the Jersey shore, and likewise to station videttes on the Neversink Heights, to make known at once if the British fleet should put to sea. He personally crossed over to Fort Constitution, afterwards named Fort Lee, a few miles above Hoboken, and extended his reconnoiterings down to Paulus Hook, to observe for himself what was going on in the city of New York and among the enemy's ships.

Gen. Greene now had command of all troops in the jerseys, and was at liberty to make his headquarters at Basking Ridge or Bergen, as circumstances demanded, but was specially urged to at all times keep up communication with the main army on the east bank, so as to secure a safe line of retreat if necessary. He determined "to keep a good, intelligent officer at Bergen to watch the motions of the ships."

In an official letter dated September 16, 1776, Washington writes:

Yesterday at about 11 a.m., the British troops, under cover of a tremendous fire from eight or ten ships of war, effected a landing near Mr. Stuyvesant's house in the Bowery, and in a few hours took possession of the City of New York. About that time the Asia man of war, and two other ships, proceeded up the North River, but were roughly handled by the American battery at Powles Hook. This morning at daylight, the Asia came down much faster than she went up, she and her consorts having narrowly escaped destruction, by four of our fire ships that run in among them.
On the 23rd of September, part of the British fleet came up, and subjected the fort to a cannonading of over half an hour's duration. During this Mercer abandoned Paulus Hook, and withdrawing across the Hackensack, left a small scouting party at Bergen, with an advanced guard at Prior's Mill. A party of British was landed From the ships, and a force sent from New York in twenty boats, which took possession of the abandoned fort in the name of the king, immediately strengthened its defences, and held it continuously until the close of the war.

Bergen remained the headquarters of the American army until October 5, 1776. A letter dated October 4th says:

To-morrow we evacuate Bergen, as it is a narrow neck of land, accessible on three sides by water, and exposed to a variety of attacks in different places at one and the same time. A large body of the enemy might infallibly take possession of the place whenever they pleased, unless we kept a stronger force than our number would allow.
In October, 1776, while Washington and his army were at White Plains, two British frigates moved up the Hudson, with the intention of cutting off communication between Forts Lee and Washington. A battery on the cliffs at Fort Lee fired down upon them with but little effect. Two eighteen pounders were likewise brought down from Fort Lee, and planted opposite the ships. By the fire from both shores, they were hulled repeatedly, and General Green wrote "Had the tide been flood one half hour longer, we should have sunk them."

The British army suddenly disappearing from White Plains caused Washington much uneasiness. On November 7, he wrote Gov. Livingston of New Jersey: "They have gone toward the North River and Kingsbridge . . . . I think Gen. Howe will make an incursion into Jersey." He recommended that the militia of the state be put on the best possible footing, and that those living near the water should be prepared to remove their stock, grain, etc., at the shortest notice. Information being received that Fort Lee was to be attacked, Washington directed Gen. Greene to have all stores not absolutely necessary for defence, immediately removed, and to destroy all supplies in the neighborhood which the owners refused to move, so as to prevent them falling into the hands of the enemy.

November 16, 1776, Fort Washington was attacked. Washington, with several of his officers, witnessed the battle from the heights above Fort Lee, and he saw with emotion the lowering of the American flag, that indicated its surrender. Realizing that Fort Lee would now be tenable no longer, he ordered all the stores and ammunition to be moved to a place of safety. This had been nearly accomplished, when it was learned that on the morning of the 2oth about two hundred boat loads of British troops, under command of Lord Cornwallis, had crossed a few miles above.

They landed at Closter, six miles above Fort Lee, under the Palisades. Sir Wm. Howe states they "were obliged to drag the cannon up a very narrow road, for nearly half a mile, to the top of a precipice which bounds the shore for some miles on the west side." On receipt of such information, Washington, determining that the enemy's object was to extend their line across to the Hackensack, and thus entrap all the American forces below, gave orders for the abandonment of Fort Lee and the immediate withdrawal of all the troops. So great was the haste required, that much stores and most of the artillery were abandoned. The retreat to the Hackensack commenced, and the American army succeeded in crossing the river safely, although they encountered the van guard of the enemy at the bridge crossing.


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