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Old Bergen

Chapter XXIV.

Daniel Van Winkle

Published 1902

Web version, edited by GET NJ
Copyright 2002

FROM its conformation, "Old Bergen" was untenable by the Americans after their defeat at Fort Washington, and the attack of the enemy on Fort Lee and its surrender. The British possessing full control of the waters that surrounded it on three sides, the danger was evident that by throwing any considerable force across the isthmus, their commander would effectually hem in and cut off all forces that might be quartered there. Consequently, Washington wisely withdrew his army, and continued his retreat across the Hackensack, camping at Hackensack from November 19th to list, at Newark 23rd to 27th, at New Brunswick November 30th to December 1st, and at Trenton December 3rd to 12th.

By this retreat East New Jersey was left in complete possession of the British, with the exception of a few scouting posts held temporarily by the Americans. The heights of "Old Bergen," from their proximity to New York and their natural advantages, became the vantage ground of either side, as a place of observation, as well as a basis of operation, and Gen. Mercer was left in command of the flying camp at Paulus Hook for the purpose of reconnoitring. He kept there a small force, and was ordered to remain near the Hook and obtain what information he could, but to retire when threatened by the enemy. From its location and surroundings, the fort at Paulus Hook was well calculated to prove a secure outpost, through which the British were able to communicate directly with their headquarters in New York; and it was likewise well designed, as a base of operations, for any movement against the surrounding hostile country.

Built on a high peninsula, extending out into the bay, connected with the mainland by a narrow strip of sand, and otherwise surrounded by deep ditches, which could be artificially widened and deepened, and by almost impassable morasses, it is little wonder that it was in the continued possession of the British, throughout the whole of the Revolutionary War. From it, the enemy were able at all times to send out bodies of marauders to scour the country in search of booty or supplies, retiring in safety behind its defences, if surprised or threatened by superior forces.

The great importance of learning promptly of any contemplated movement of the British, caused General Mercer to station outposts along the heights of Bergen to watch for any indications of activity by the troops stationed in New York City. These scouts, concealed by the shadows of the woods and thickets with which the heights were covered, were enabled to approach unseen the brow of the hill, and from their elevated position gain important information that enabled the general to thwart the purpose of the enemy "Old Bergen" was from this time forth the scene of active operations. Raids were frequent, and its inhabitants were at all times subjected to extreme privations. They saw their possessions in danger, and oftentimes their families were dispersed, and the fruits of their industry scattered. Patriots and Tories, with intermingled interests above and beyond a loyalty to a general government, that could in neither case guarantee safety and protection, were held between conflicting forces, and yet there were those in whose breasts the fires of patriotism burned brightly, and who, even in the darkest days, were ever true to the cause they had espoused.

The traditions of many of our families point to a self-sacrifice, endurance, and loyalty to the cause of liberty, unsurpassed in the annals of the country. Their houses were plundered, their grain and cattle seized, and themselves subjected to every indignity. This was the work not only of the Hessian hirelings, but frequently the British soldiers vied with them in their exacting demands. Likewise there were some who thought the rebellion foolhardy, and prompted by the desire of gaining favor with the British authorities, so as to retain their possessions, lost no opportunity of harassing their old neighbors. And yet sustained with the hope of eventually securing the independence to which they had pledged "their lives and fortunes," many of the inhabitants of "Old Bergen" suffered and endured, and even while overawed by the presence of hostile troops, eagerly seized every opportunity of affording assistance to the cause they had so much at heart.

The redoubt at Bergen Neck (Bayonne), called Fort Delancy, taken possession of by a party of refugees under Maj. Ward, was made the basis of many marauding operations against the Americans. Ward was a notoriously vicious character, and gathered about himself desperadoes and runaway slaves, who through their excesses and depredations, became greatly feared. Becoming involved in a financial difficulty with one of the neighboring farmers, he hired three of the negroes to kill him. They were seen and recognized, and were afterward hung in the woods northwest of Brown's Ferry (present Glendale) on Communipaw Avenue, about one quarter mile west of West Side Avenue.

On one occasion, when a detachment of the British were foraging from Paulus Hook, to protect themselves against the cold and storm, they took possession of a large barn of one of the old farmers of Bergen, located just west of Bergen Square and north of Academy Street, and built a large fire upon its clay floor. The owner, remonstrating with them, was seized, and would have become part of the fuel, had it not been for the intervention of an officer more humane than his comrades. However, they piled high the wood, which so increased the blaze that the structure was wholly consumed.


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