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Old Bergen

Chapter XXIX.

Daniel Van Winkle

Published 1902

Web version, edited by GET NJ
Copyright 2002

THE following letter, written by one of the officers actually engaged in this undertaking, is of interest. There seems to be a discrepancy between this account and that of Irving in relation to the number killed, as will be seen by comparison. In determining this, it should be considered whether Capt. Handy's position during the excitement of the engagement would allow him to make a positive or accurate report.

Paramus, July 22, 1779.


Before this reaches you, I doubt not but you have heard of our success at Paulus Hook, where the enemy had a very strong fort, within one and one-quarter miles from New York. We started from this place, on Wednesday last, at half-past ten o'clock, taking our route by a place called New Bridge, on the Hackensack River, where my two companies were joined by three hundred Virginians, and a company of dismounted dragoons, commanded by Capt. McLane.

We took up our line of march, about five o'clock in the evening from the Bridge, the nearest route with safety to Powles, distant there, about twenty miles, with my detachment in front, the whole under command of the gallant Major Lee, the works to be carried by storm, the whole to advance in three solid columns, one of which I had the honor to command.

The attack was to commence at half-past twelve o'clock, but havmg been greatly embarrassed on our march, and having a number of difficulties to surmount, did not arrive at the point of attack till after four o'clock in the morning, when after a small fire from them we gained their works, and put about fifty of them to the bayonet, took one hundred and fifty-seven prisoners, exclusive of seven commanding officers.

This was completed in less than thirty minutes, and a retreat ordered, as we had every reason to suppose, unless timely, it would be cutoff. Our situation was so difficult, that we could not bring off any stores. We had a morass to pass, of upwards of two miles, the greatest part of which we were obliged to pass by files, and several canals to ford up to our breasts in water.

We advanced with bayonets fixed, pans open, and cocks fallen, to prevent any fire from our side, and believe me, when I assure you, we did not fire a musket. You will see a more particular ac count of it in the papers than I can give you at present. It is thought to be the greatest enterprise ever undertaken in America. Our loss is so inconsiderable, that I do not mention it.


On the withdrawal of the American troops after this successful assault on the fort at Paulus Hook, great speed and caution were necessary to effect a safe retreat. The line of retreat intended was by the way of Prior's Mill and along Bergen Avenue, down to Dow's Ferry (about foot of present St. Paul's Avenue), it being Lee's intention to cross the Hackensack River, and join the main body near English Neighborhood. Capt. Forsyth was ordered to cover the retreat, and was stationed with a guard in the woods near what is now the junction of Bergen and Sip Avenues, with orders to remain there until Lee could reach the boats with his command. Through some blunder the boats had been removed, and Lee was forced to lead his weary troops over the rocky heights toward the main camp; on ascertaining this fact Capt. Forsyth immediately followed, and by forced march caught up with Lee near the Fort Lee Road, where they met the escort sent to their assistance and reached the camp in safety.

During the winter of 1779 and 178o, the American troops were in quarters in the hills of Morristown, and were suffering great privations, being half fed and clothed, and subjected to the rigors of an unusually severe winter. New York Bay was solidly covered with ice of sufficient firmness to bear the heaviest artillery. Washington saw the opportunity, and determined to inaugurate some movement that would rouse the spirits of the people and inspire them with new hopes. He accordingly projected a descent on Staten Island with a force of two thousand five hundred men, under the command of Lord Stirling. His intention was to surprise and capture the British force stationed there. On January 14, 1779, the American force crossed to the Island from De Hart's Point, but their approach being discovered, and the British being strongly entrenched, they were obliged to recross to the Jersey shore, bringing with them, however, a number of prisoners who had been captured.

The boldness of this attempt roused the enemy, and on January 25th, Gen. Knyphausen ordered out a detachment, consisting of drafts from the different regiments stationed at New York, who passed over the North River in sleighs to Paulus Hook, and were there joined by part of its garrison. They crossed over Bergen Heights, collected what plunder they could, and pushing on to Newark, captured a company stationed there, and burned the academy.

In the beginning of October, 1780, Washington yielded to the urgent entreaties of Lafayette, and gave him permission to attempt a descent on Staten Island, to surprise two Hessian encampments. The attempt failed for want of boats. At the end of November, 1780, the New Jersey troops went into winter quarters in the neighhorhood of Pompton.

These were indeed trying times, and the fidelity and endurance of the patriots were tested to the utmost. Being exposed to the inclemency of the season without sufficient food and scantily clad, what wonder was it that stern necessity impelled to deeds of lawlessness that would not have been countenanced under other conditions, or that the rights of friend and foe were alike disregarded when ever personal advantage or comfort could be secured. As an evidence of the actual condition of the patriot troops at this time, the following report taken from the Royal Gazette, dated August 26, 1780, will be of interest:

No man will now part with anything for paper money, old or new, and Washington's army, between Pompton and Tappan, are at three-quarters allowance of flour and fresh meat.

At the late irruption of their light horse (about sixty) to Bergen, on Sunday 13th inst., they found the inhabitants going to church. Some they insulted, others they robbed, and condescended such pitiful exploits as changing hats and clothes, taking the buckles from their shoes, and in one instance stripping off a man's breeches, and leaving only an old pair of pants to cover his nakedness.

Although this is taken from a paper in full sympathy with the royalists, it would seem that Washington's prediction as to the change of policy from "protectors to plunderers " had been verified.

To show the value of Continental money at this time, the following bill is a fair sample:

6 yds. chintz $150 $900
1 pair boots 600 600
8 3/4 yds. calico 85 744
4 1/2 yds. moreen 100 450
4 handkerchiefs 100 400
8 yds. binding 4 32
1 skein silk 10 10
"If paid in specie, 18 pounds, 10 shillings."
Map showing route of Lee's retreat in direction of Dow's Ferry and northward, and incidentally location of Old Indian burying ground, alluded to elsewhere.


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