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Old Bergen

Chapter XXVIII.

Daniel Van Winkle

Published 1902

Web version, edited by GET NJ
Copyright 2002

ANOTHER incident deserving of mention, was the capture of the fort at Paulus Hook in 1779. The intense sufferings and privations of the American army at Valley Forge almost disheartened the most sincere patriots, and filled all hearts with gloomy forebodings. The great-hearted, faith-inspiring example and energy of Washington alone prevented the dissolution of the American army, and made possible the after events that checked the tide of despondency, inspired the struggling colonies with new hope, and foreshadowed the final triumph of a righteous cause. The battle of Monmouth as the result of his genius, the capture of Stony Point through the dashing bravery of the impetuous Wayne, and the overpowering and capture of the British garrison at Paulus Hook, through the shrewd foresight and daring intrepidity of Light Horse Harry Lee, were three events that deserve to be classed together, as among the most brilliant and important that occurred during the whole war.

It is hard to understand why an enterprise, considered at the time of so great importance, should be scarcely alluded to in our school histories. Washington wrote:

The increase of confidence which the army will derive from this affair and that of Stony Point, though great, will be among the least of the advantages resulting from these events.
He also sent a special communication to Congress, commending Lee's remarkable degree of prudence, address, enterprise and bravery. Congress in full assembly, echoed the eulogy of the commander in chief, and ordered a gold medal, suitably inscribed in commemoration of the event, to be presented to Major Lee, a distinction which no other officer below the rank of general received during the war. Brevet rank and pay of captain were given to Lieutenants McAllister and Rudolph, and $15,000 in money distributed among the men, non-commissioned officers, and privates.

Lafayette in a letter to Major Lee says:

The more I have considered the situation of Paulus Hook, the more I have admired your enterprising spirit, and all your conduct in that business."
James Duane, in a letter to Alexander Hamilton, characterizes it as
One of the most insolent and daring assaults that is to be found in the Records of chivalry, an achievement so brilliant in itself, so romantic in the scale of British admiration, that none but a hero, inspired by the fortitude, instructed by the wisdom, and guided by the planet of Washington, could by the exploit at Paulus Hook, have furnished materials in the page of History, to give it a parallel.
In Irving's Life of Washington we find the following graphic account of this exploit:
In the course of his reconnoiterings, and by means of spies, Major Lee discovered that the British Post at Paulus Hook, immediately opposite New York, was very negligently guarded. Paulus Hook is a long low point of the Jersey Shore, stretching into the Hudson, and connected to the main by a sandy isthmus. A fort had been erected . on it, and garrisoned with four or five hundred troops, under the command of Major Sutherland. It was a strong position. A creels, fordable only in two places, rendered the Hook difficult of access. Within this, a deep trench had been cut across the isthmus, traversed by a drawbridge with a barred gate ; and still within this, was a double row of abatis extending into the water. The whole position, with the country immediately adjacent, was separated from the rest of Jersey by the Hackensack, running parallel with the Hudson, at the distance of a very few miles, and only traversable in boats, excepting at the New Bridge, about fourteen miles from Paulus Hook.

Confident in the strength of his position, and its distance from any American force, Major Sutherland had become remiss in his military precautions ; the lack of vigilance in a commander soon produces carelessness in subalterns; and a general negligence prevailed in the garrison.

All this had been ascertained by Major Lee, and he now proposed the daring project of surprising the fort at night, and thus striking an insulting blow 'within cannon shot of New York.' Washington was pleased with the project; he had a relish for signal enterprises of this kind. He was aware of their striking and salutary effect, upon both friend and foe, and he was disposed to favor the adventurous schemes of this young officer. The chief danger in the present case, would be the evacuation and retreat, after the blow had been effected, owing to the proximity of the enemy's force at New York.

In consenting to the enterprise, therefore, he stipulated that Lee should not undertake it unless sure from previous observation, that the post could be carried by instant surprise. When carried, no time was to be lost, in attempting to bring off cannon, or any other articles, or in collecting stragglers of the garrison who might skulls and hide themselves.

He was `to surprise the post, bring off the garrison immediately, and effect a retreat.'

On the 18th of August, 1779, Lee set out on the expedition at the head of three hundred men of Lord Stirling's division, and a troop of dismounted dragoons under Capt. McLane. The attack was to be made that night. Lest the enemy should hear of their movement, it was given out that they were on a mere foraging excursion. The road they tools lay along that belt of rocky and wooded heights, which borders the Hudson, and forms a rugged neck between it and the Hackensack.

Lord Stirling followed with five hundred men, and encamped at the New Bridge on that river, to be on hand to render aid if required. As it would be perilous to return along the rugged neck just mentioned, from the number of the enemy encamped along the Hudson, Lee, after striking the blow, was to push for Dow's Ferry on the Hackensack (foot of present St. Paul's Avenue, author's note) not far from Paulus Hook, where boats would be waiting to receive him.

It was between two and three in the morning, when Lee arrived at the creek, which rendered Paulus Hook difficult of access. It happened fortunately that Major Sutherland, the British Commander, had the day before, detached a foraging party under Major Buskirk, to a part of the country called English Neighborhood (now Englewood). As Lee and his party approached, they were mistaken by the sentinel, for this party on its return.

The darkness of the night favored the mistake. They passed the creek and ditch, and had made themselves masters of the fort before the negligent garrison were well roused from sleep. Major Sutherland, and about sixty Hessians, threw themselves into a small Block House, on the left of the fort, and opened an irregular fire. To attempt to dislodge them would have cost too much time. Alarm given from the ships in the River, and the forts at New York, threatened speedy reinforcements from the enemy.

Having made one hundred and fifty prisoners, among whom were three officers, Lee commenced his retreat without tarrying to destroy either barracks or artillery. He had achieved his object, a `Coup de main' of signal audacity. Few of the enemy were slain, for there was but little fighting, and no massacre. His own loss was two men killed and three wounded.

Lee's retreat was attended by perils and perplexities. Through blunder or misapprehension, the boats which he was to have found at Dow's Ferry, on the Hackensack, disappointed him, and he had to make his way back with his weary troops, up the neck of land behind that river, and the Hudson, in imminent danger of being cut off by Buskirk and his scouting detachment. Fortunately, Lord Stirling heard of his peril, and sent a force to cover his retreat. Washington felt the great advantage of this hardy and brilliant exploit.


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