Jersey City, where today people rush to the New York-bound subway, is a city that in colonial times bristled with fortifications such as moats, abatis and other military installations. Few of its modern residents realize that on a warm, mosquito-filled summer night in 1779, a small American force led by Major Henry Lee successfully attacked this British bastion, guided only by the glint of the English soldiers’ bayonets.
Bergen Town, as Jersey City was then called, was a highly contested place during the American Revolution. Originally purchased from the Indians by Peter Stuyvesant in 1658 as a site for a Dutch fort, it overlooked New York Harbor and was an important port for local ferries. In the early spring of 1776, William Alexander, the self-styled ‘Lord Stirling, then in command of American forces in New Jersey, decided to fortify the left bank of the Hudson River and open communication lines to the interior of the state. As a result, forts were built at Bergen Neck (now Bayonne), and at Paulus Hook, just outside of Bergen Town. (Paulus Hook — or Hoeck — was named after one of the early Dutch settlers who colonized the area in the 1640s.)
On July 12, 1776, the new fort at Paulus Hook traded cannon fire with the 40-gun HMS Phoenix and the 20-gun Rose as those British warships sailed to New York. That same evening, General Lord William Howe and a huge British invasion fleet also sailed by the little American stronghold.
After the Americans were defeated at the Battle of Long Island on August 1 and the fall of New York City on September 15, General George Washington directed Maj. Gen. Hugh Mercer to evacuate Paulus Hook on the 23rd. Hours after the rear guard left, British troops landed on the beach, and for a long time thereafter Paulus Hook was their only permanent stronghold in New Jersey.
The fortification at Paulus Hook was well situated to dominate the gateway to northern New Jersey. The bastion sat on a bit of land that was almost square in shape and about one-third of a mile wide, with open water on two sides. Extensive saltwater marshes on the other two sides — which became more flooded at high tide — effectively made the area an island. A single causeway traversed the marshes and connected Paulus Hook to dry land. On the island’s three small knolls British engineers built cannon emplacements. Near the center of the fort an oval casemate contained six cannons and the powder magazine. Next to it stood a smaller redoubt, with portholes for muskets. There was an additional half-moon redoubt near the southern shore. Scattered about the works were a series of smaller infantry earthworks and barracks. A natural spring supplied fresh water to the garrison.
From 1776 to the spring of 1779, New Jersey was the scene of constant skirmishes and major battles. During 1779, Washington maneuvered and constantly repositioned troops throughout the New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania region. Worried, the Loyalists in New York City pressed General Sir Henry Clinton, then commander of British forces there, into action. In May, more than 70 ships and 150 flatboats loaded with Redcoats sailed past Paulus Hook to seize the small rebel-held fort at Stony Point, N.Y. Clinton then returned to New York City, leaving about 1,000 troops behind to rebuild the works. Washington wanted Stony Point retaken. He directed cavalry Major Henry Lee (known as Light-Horse Harry Lee) to reconnoiter the fort with his dragoons. Acting on information supplied by Lee, on July 16, 1779, Maj. Gen. Anthony Wayne led a newly formed light infantry unit in a brilliant bayonet attack that retook Stony Point.
Inspired by Wayne’s attack, Lee approached Washington with a similar plan to take Paulus Hook. At first, Washington believed the affair was too risky. The original plan called for a night assault on the fort, after which Lee’s troops would destroy the works and then retreat by land. After changing the plan to include an escape by water across the Hackensack River, Washington agreed. It was arranged for a Captain Payton to bring pontoon boats mounted on wheels to Douw’s Ferry. There, Payton would ferry Lee’s troops and prisoners across the Hackensack River to Schuyler’s Road and safety.
The 23-year-old Major Lee began the operation by sending Captain Allen McLean’s mounted Rangers to patrol the road from Englewood to Bergen Town. On July 14, McLean captured a deserter from the fort who reported that it was held by Colonel Abraham Van Buskirk and 200 Tory volunteers as well as 200 British regulars under Major John Sutherland. Van Buskirk and his Tory supporters were hated by Patriots all across the region.
On August 18, a Patriot spy from Bergen Town named Daniel Van Reypen was sent to the fort posing as a Loyalist seeking news. Returning that afternoon, he reported all was quiet, not having heard that Van Buskirk and 130 troops planned to march out that evening to intercept rebels reported in the area. Also unknown to Major Lee, Clinton had sent more than 40 Hessians to bolster the force. The garrison at Paulus Hook could summon more help from New York by prearranged signal, firing two cannons or hanging three lanterns on a signal pole.
Early in the evening of August 18, 1779, Lee organized his strike force, consisting of 300 men of the 16th Virginia under Major John Clark, two Maryland companies under Captain Levin Handy and dismounted dragoons from Captain McLean’s Rangers, totaling approximately 400 men. Wagons accompanied the force so that spies would believe it was a foraging party.
Although the Maryland troops heading the column were guided by a local man, they became lost for nearly three hours in the dense woods that are now North Bergen, West New York and Union City. Some 200 Virginia troops also became separated from the main column in the woods. Lee now had to take the fort with half his command.
Lee’s approach route would take him from the town of New Bridge through 14 miles of dense forest and marsh. Captain Handy later wrote of that trek, We had a morass to pass upwards of two miles, the greatest part which we were obliged to pass single file, and several canals to ford up to our breasts in water. Arriving near the fort, Lee planned his attack across the marshes to Paulus Hook. He had originally wanted to attack around midnight in three columns, but now it was well past 3 a.m., and the tide was rising in the marsh. Lee sent Lieutenant Guy Rudolph ahead to locate a ditch crossing. Returning, he reported only one fordable place near the center of the canal. Lee then broke his troops into two columns, with a vanguard to break through the abatis and a reserve force in the rear. Because their powder was now wet from marsh and canal crossings, Lee ordered fixed bayonets.
The lead troops crossed the first ditch without difficulty and were not challenged until they reached the gates of the fort (surviving guards later testified that they thought the approaching troops were Van Buskirk’s command returning). A shot rang out from the gate blockhouse, then another. The alarm was sounded, and British troops ran to the main gate to counterattack. But Lee’s troops, struggling through the mud, climbed up the embankments.
Guards who did not surrender were given cold steel. As an American soldier grabbed the British flag, the fort’s Major Sutherland and about 26 Hessians escaped to the second smaller redoubt and opened fire. Lee’s casualties so far totaled only two men killed and three wounded — one of whom, Ezekiel Clark, had the end of his nose shot off. In a mere 20 minutes, Lee’s men overpowered the fort, killed or wounded more than 30 British soldiers and took 159 prisoners — all without firing a shot!
It was then nearing daybreak. The British in New York had been alerted by the firing and were likely arranging transport for relief troops. The Americans could not dislodge Sutherland or open the powder magazine lock to destroy it. I intended to have burnt the barracks, Lee later wrote, but on finding a number of sick soldiers, and women with young children in them, humanity forbade the execution of my intention. Lee also failed to spike the fort’s cannons before abandoning it.
Lee ordered Major Clark to lead most of the captives out, to be soon followed by Captain Handy and the rest of the men. As the head of the column moved past Prior’s Mill, through Bergen Town and onto Douw’s Ferry road, Lee rode ahead of the column to the ferry landing — only to find no boats. Captain Payton and his men had re-crossed the river at dawn, thinking that the attack had been postponed. Realizing he could be trapped, Lee wheeled his force around. With tired troops, wet ammunition and encumbered by prisoners, Lee had only one escape route left to him — 14 miles back the way he had come. The thought of rotting in British prison ships likely crossed the mind of every man in his command at that point.
Lee diverted Major Clark back to the Bergen woods road, then rode to the rear of the column and diverted it north toward present-day Sip and Summit avenues. At the Three Pigeons Tavern, Lee picked up 50 of his lost Virginians from the night before. Since their powder was dry, he quickly assigned them as flankers.
At the Fort Lee ferry road, Colonel Henry Ball — sent by Lord Stirling, who had gotten word of the situation — reinforced Lee with 200 fresh troops. Lee made them his rear guard. Just after Ball joined Lee, Colonel Van Buskirk and his Tories burst out of the woods and attacked Lee’s column, but they were driven back after several sharp volleys. Major Sutherland had also given chase from the fort with his Hessians and two companies of relief troops who had crossed from New York, but they only skirmished with the now reinforced American column. At 1 p.m. on August 19, Lee led his strike force, with its 159 prisoners, back to New Bridge and safety.
The attacks on both Stony Point and Paulus Hook were not overwhelming victories, but along with more minor actions, they convinced Clinton to abandon all hope of destroying the rebels around New York. Then, on Christmas Day 1779, the British garrison at Paulus Hook watched as Clinton sailed out of New York Harbor with his fleet of 90 ships and 8,000 troops, bound for Charleston, S.C. The war was moving south. Lee and his dragoon legion went on to fight with distinction in the southern campaign, under Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene.
Paulus Hook was the last British military post in New Jersey when, following the Treaty of Paris of January 1783, General Sir Guy Carleton, commander of the British forces in New York, planned to evacuate his troops. He began with northern Manhattan and Long Island on November 21, and lowered the flag at Paulus Hook the next day. He finally sailed away with all his men on November 24, 1783.
After the war, Lee was elected a representative to Congress and served as governor of Virginia from 1792 until 1795. In 1818, while returning to Virginia from the Caribbean, he died of fever and was buried on Cumberland Island, Ga. Though Light-Horse Harry Lee remains best known as the father of the great Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, he was a daring cavalry commander and an able tactician in his own right. But of all the exploits of his life, he was proudest of his raid on Paulus Hook.
This article was written by Charles A. Petrocci and originally appeared in the August 2000 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!