August 19, 1779: Battle of Paulus Hook

Captain Catlett, of the Second Virginia regiment, fortunately joined me at this moment, at the head of fifty men, with good ammunition. I immediately halted this officer, and having detached two parties, the one on the Bergen road in the rear of Major Clarke, the other on the banks of the North River, I moved with the party under the command of the captain on the centre route. By these precautions a sudden approach of the enemy was fully prevented. I am very much indebted to this officer, and the gentlemen under him, for their alacrity and vigilance on this occasion.

Major Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee

Major Henry Lee to General Washington.

Paramus, August 22, 1779.

To His Excellency
General WASHINGTON.

Sir: Lord Stirling was pleased to communicate to Your Excellency my verbal report to his Lordship of the 19th instant. I now do myself the honour to present a particular relation of the enterprize Your Excellency was pleased to commit to my direction.

I took command of the troops employed on this occasion on the 18th. They amounted to four hundred infantry, composed of detachments from the Virginia and Maryland divisions, and one troop of dismounted dragoons.

The troops moved from the vicinity of the New Bridge about four o’clock P.M. Patrols of horse being detached to watch the communication with the North River, and parties of infantry stationed at the different avenues leading to Powles Hook. My anxiety to render the march as easy as possible, induced me to pursue the Bergen road lower than intended. After filing into the mountains, the timidity or treachery of the principal guide prolonged a short march into a march of three hours; by this means the troops were exceedingly harassed, and being obliged, through deep mountainous woods, to regain our route, some parties of the rear were unfortunately separated. This affected me most sensibly, as it not only diminished the number of men destined for the assault, but deprived me of the aid of several officers of distinguished merit.

On reaching the point of separation, I found my first disposition impracticable, both from the near approach of day and the rising of the tide. Not a moment being to spare, I paid no attention to the punctilios of honour or rank, but ordered the troops to advance in their then disposition. Lieutenant Rudolph, whom I had previously detached to reconnoitre the passages of the canal, returned to me at this point of time and reported that all was silence within the works, that he had fathomed the canal and found the passage on the centre route still admissible. This intervening intelligence was immediately communicated from front to rear, and the troops pushed on with that resolution, order, and coolness which insures success.

The forlorn hopes, led by Lieutenant McAllister, of the Maryland, and Lieutenant Rudolph, of the dragoons, marched on with trailed arms, in most profound silence. Such was the singular address of these two gentlemen, that the first notice to the garrison was the forlorns plunging into the canal. A firing immediately commenced from the block-houses and along the line of the abatis, but did not in the least check the advance of the troops. The forlorns, supported by Major Clarke, at the head of the right column, broke through all opposition, and found an entrance into the main work. So rapid was the movement of the troops, that we gained the fort before the discharge of a single piece of artillery. The centre column, conducted by Captain Forsyth, on passing the abatis, took a direction to their left. Lieutenant Armstrong led on the advance of this column. They soon possessed themselves of the officers and troops posted at the house No. 6, and fully completed every object of their destination. The rear column, under Captain Handy, moved forward in support of the whole. Thus were we completely victorious in the space of a few moments.

The appearance of daylight, my apprehension lest some accident might have befallen the boats, the numerous difficulties of the retreat, the harassed state of the troops, and the destruction of all our ammunition by passing the canal, conspired in influencing me to retire in the moment of victory. Major Clarke, with the right column, was immediately put in motion with the greater part of the prisoners. Captain Handy followed on with the remainder. Lieutenants Armstrong and Reed formed the rear guard.

Immediately on the commencement of the retreat, I sent forward Captain Forsyth to Prior’s Mill to collect such men from the different columns as were most fit for action, and to take post on the heights of Bergen to cover the retreat.

On my reaching this place I was informed by Cornet Neill (who had been posted there during the night for the purpose of laying the bridge and communicating with the boats), that my messenger, directed to him previous to the attack, had not arrived, nor had he heard from Captain Peyton, who had charge of the boats.

Struck with apprehension that I should be disappointed in the route of retreat, I rode forward to the front, under Major Clarke, whom I found very near the point of embarkation, and no boats to receive them. In this very critical situation I lost no time in my decision, but ordered the troops to regain Bergen road and shove on to the New Bridge; at the same time I communicated my disappointment to Lord Stirling by express, then returned to Prior’s Bridge to the rear-guard.

Oppressed by every possible misfortune, at the head of troops worn down by a rapid march of thirty miles, through mountains, swamps, and deep morasses, without the least refreshment during the whole march, ammunition destroyed, incumbered with prisoners, and a retreat of fourteen miles to make good, on a route admissible of interception at several points, by a moving in our rear, and another (from the intelligence I had received from the captured officers) in all probability well advanced on our right; a retreat naturally impossible to our left; under all these distressing circumstances, my sole dependence was in the persevering gallantry of the officers and obstinate courage of the troops. In this I was fully satisfied by the shouts of the soldiery, who gave every proof of unimpaired vigour the moment that the enemy’s approach was announced.

Soldier of the 2d Virginia Regimentc. 1779

Having gained the point of intersection opposite Weehawken, Captain Handy was directed to move with his division on the mountain road, in order to facilitate the retreat. Captain Catlett, of the Second Virginia regiment, fortunately joined me at this moment, at the head of fifty men, with good ammunition. I immediately halted this officer, and having detached two parties, the one on the Bergen road in the rear of Major Clarke, the other on the banks of the North River, I moved with the party under the command of the captain on the centre route. By these precautions a sudden approach of the enemy was fully prevented. I am very much indebted to this officer, and the gentlemen under him, for their alacrity and vigilance on this occasion.

On the rear’s approach to the Fort Lee road, we met a detachment under the command of Colonel Ball, which Lord Stirling had pushed forward, on the first notice of our situation, to support the retreat. The colonel moved on, and occupied a position which effectually covered us.

Some little time after this, a body of the enemy (alluded to in the intelligence I mentioned to have received from the officers while in the fort) made their appearance, issuing out of the woods on our right, and moving through the fields directly to the road. They immediately commenced a fire upon my rear. Lieutenant Reed threw himself, with a party, into a stone house which commanded the road. These two officers were directed mutually to support each other, and give time for the troops to pass the English Neighbourhood Creek, at the liberty pole. On the enemy’s observing this disposition, they immediately retired by the same route they had approached, and gained the woods. The precipitation with which they retired, preventing the possibility of Colonel Ball’s falling in with them, saved the whole.

The body which moved in our rear, having excessively fatigued themselves by the rapidity of their march, thought prudent to halt before they came in contact with us.

Thus, Sir, was every attempt to cut off our rear completely baffled. The troops arrived safe at the New Bridge, with all the prisoners, about one o’clock P.M. on the nineteenth.

I should commit the highest injustice was I not to assure Your Excellency that my endeavours were fully seconded by every officer in his station; nor can any discrimination justly be made but what arose from opportunity. The troops vied with each other in patience under their many sufferings, and conducted themselves in every vicissitude of fortune with a resolution which reflects the highest honour on them.

During the whole action not a single musket was fired on our side — the bayonet was our sole dependence.

Having gained the fort, such was the order of the troops, and attention of the officers, that the soldiers were prevented from plundering, although in the midst of every sort.

American humanity has been again signally manifested. Self-preservation strongly dictated, on the retreat, the putting the prisoners to death, and British cruelty fully justified it, notwithstanding which, not a man was wantonly hurt.

During the progress of the troops in the works, from the different reports of my officers, I conclude not more than fifty of the enemy were killed, and a few wounded. Among the killed is one officer, supposed (from his description) to be a captain in Colonel Buskirk’s regiment. Our loss, on this occasion, is very trifling. I have not yet had a report from the detachment of the Virginians; but as I conclude their loss to be proportionate to the loss of the other troops, I can venture to pronounce that the loss of the whole, in killed, wounded, and missing, will not exceed twenty. As soon as the report comes to hand, I will transmit to headquarters an accurate return. I herewith enclose a return of the prisoners taken from the enemy.

At every point of the enterprize I stood highly indebted to Major Clarke for his zeal, activity, and example. Captains Handy and Forsyth have claim to my particular thanks for the support I experienced from them on every occasion. The Captains Reed, McLane, Smith, Crump, and Wilmot, behaved with the greatest zeal and intrepidity. I must acknowledge myself very much indebted to Major Burnet and Captain Peyton, of the dragoons, for their counsel and indefatigability in the previous preparations to the attack. The premature withdrawal of the boats was owing to the non-arrival of my despatches; and, though a most mortifying circumstance, can be called nothing more than unfortunate. Lieutenant Vanderville, who was to have commanded one of the forlorns, but was thrown out by alteration of the disposition of battle, conducted himself perfectly soldier-like. The whole of the officers behaved with the greatest propriety; and, as I said before, no discrimination can justly be made, but what arose from opportunity.

The Lieutenants McAllister, Armstrong, Reed, and Rudolph distinguished themselves remarkably. Too much praise cannot be given to those gentlemen for their prowess and example. Captain Bradford, of the train, who volunteered it with me, for the purpose of taking direction of the artillery, deserves my warmest thanks for his zeal and activity. I am personally indebted to Captain Rudolph and Dr. Irvine, of the dragoons, who attended me during the expedition, for their many services.

I beg leave to present Your Excellency with the flag of the fort by the hands of Mr. McAllister, the gentleman into whose possession it fell.

It is needless for me to explain my reasons for the instantaneous evacuation of the fort. Your Excellency’s knowledge of the post will suggest fully the propriety of it. The event confirms it.

Among the many unfortunate circumstances which crossed our wishes, none was more so than the accidental absence of Colonel Buskirk and the greatest part of his regiment. They had set out on an expedition up the North River the very night of the attack. A company of vigilant Hessians had taken their place in the fort, which rendered the secrecy of approach more precarious, and, at the same time, diminished the object of the enterprize by a reduction of the number of the garrison. Major Sutherland fortunately saved himself by a soldier counterfeiting his person. This imposition was not discovered until too late.

I intended to have burned the barracks, but on finding a number of sick soldiers and women with young children in them, humanity forbade the execution of my intention. The key of the magazine could not be found, nor could it be broken open in the little time we had to spare, many attempts having been made to that purpose by the Lieutenants McAllister and Reed. It was completely impracticable to bring off any pieces of artillery. I consulted Captain Bradford on the point, who confirmed me in my opinion. The circumstance of spiking them being trivial it was omitted altogether.

After most of the troops had retired from the works, and were passed and passing the canal, a fire of musketry commenced from a few stragglers, who had collected in an old work, on the right of the main fort. Their fire being ineffectual, and the object trifling, I determined not to break in upon the order of retreat, but continued passing the defile in front. I cannot conclude this relation without expressing my wannest thanks to Lord Stirling, for the full patronage I received from him in every stage of the enterprize. I must also return my thanks to the cavalry, for their vigilant execution of the duties assigned them.

Captain Rudolph waits on Your Excellency with these despatches. I beg leave to refer to this officer for any further explanation that may be required.

I have the honour to be, Sir, with the most perfect respect, Your Excellency’s most obedient and humble servant,

Henry LEE, Jr.

Captain Allen McLane

Monday, August 16. Moved toward Powles Hook to reconeter. Took two prisoners on Hobuck.Returned with the party to Hackinsack. This night lay at Storms house.

Tuesday, 17 Aug. Drew four days provisions. Detached two sergeants [?] with 12 men eatch to lay in Bergain Woods. This night lay near the liberty pole.

Wensday, 18 August. This morning received orders from Maj. Lee to take post in the wood near Bargan in order to intercept the communications between Powles Hook and the [?] and to join him at a sertain place in the woods near the Three Pigeons in order to conduct him to attack Powles Hook. Met him and after some difficalty arrived at the works half past three in the morning. Stormed them without more loss than tow men killed and five wounded who killed about fifty, took 150 prisoners, 9 officers.

Thursday 19, 1779 August. and then retired to the new bridge the distance of 22 miles.

Captain Levin Handy to George Handy

Paramus, 22 August, 1779

Before this reaches you I doubt not but you have heard of our success at Powles Hook, where the enemy had a very strong fort, within one and a quarter miles from New York. We started from this place on Wednesday last half after ten o’clock, taking our route by a place called New Bridge on Hackensac River, where my two companies were joined by three hundred Virginians and a company of dismounted Dragoons, commanded by Captain McLane. We took up our line of march about 5 o’clock in the evening from the bridge, the nearest route with safety, to Powles, distant then about twenty miles, with my detachment in front, the whole under command of the gallant Major Lee. The works were to be carried by storm- the whole to advance in three columns, one of which I had the honour to command.

The attack was to commence at one half after 12 o’clock, but having 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 cut off. 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 breast in water. We advanced with bayonets, pans open, cocks fallen, to prevent any fire from our side; believe me when I assure you we did not fire a musket.

You will see a more particular account of it in the papers than it is in my power to 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.

Congressional Resolution

Resolved, That the thanks of Congress be given to His Excellency General Washington for ordering with so much wisdom, the late’ attack on the enemy’s fort and work at Powles Hook.

Resolved, That the thanks of Congress be given to Major General Lord Stirling for the judicious. measures taken by him to forward the enterprise and to secure the retreat of the party.

Resolved, That the thanks of Congress be given to Major Lee for the remarkable prudence, address and bravery displayed by him on the occasion; and that they approve the humanity shown in circumstances prompting to severity as honorable to the arms of the United States, and correspondent to the noble principles on which they were assumed.

Resolved, That Congress entertain a high sense of the discipline, fortitude, and spirit manifested by the officers and soldiers under the command of Major Lee in the march, action and retreat, and while with singular satisfaction they acknowledge the merit of these gallant Men, they feel an additional pleasure of considering them a part of an army in which very many brave officers and soldiers have proved, by their cheerful performance of every duty under every difficulty, that they ardently wish to give the truly glorious examples they now receive.

Resolved, That Congress justly appreciates the military caution so happily combined with daring activity by Lieuts. McCollister and Rudolph in leading on theforlorn hope.

Resolved, That a medal of gold emblematical of this affair be struck, under the direction of the Board of Treasury, and presented to Major Lee.

Resolved, That the brevet and the pay and subsistence of Captain be given to Lieuts. McCallister and Rudolph respectively.

Medal awarded to Major Henry Lee for his assault of Paulus Hook in 1779. The original was engraved by Joseph Wright and struck in gold.

On one side of the medal awarded to Major Lee is a bust of the hero, with the words Henrico Lee, Legionis Equit Praefecto Comitia Americana. “The American Congress to Henry Lee, Colonel of Cavalry.” On the reverse, Non Obstantib fluminibus vallis astutia et virtute bellica parva manu hostes vicit victosq armis humanitate devinxit. In mem. pugn. ad Paulus Hook, die XIX August, 1779. “Notwithstanding rivers and entrenchments, he with a small band conquered the foe by warlike skill and prowess and firmly bound by his humanity those who had been conquered by his arms. In memory of the conflict at Paulus Hook, nineteenth of August, 1779.”

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