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Fort Lee, New Jersey

Fort Lee, New Jersey

FORT LEE, NEW JERSEY. 20 November 1776. Captured by the British. Fort Lee, originally Fort Constitution, was renamed for Washington's second-in-command, Major General Charles Lee. Along with Fort Washington it was built in August 1776 to cover a line of sunken obstructions in the Hudson River (underneath today's George Washington Bridge) and thus bar the movement of British ships. The British ran their ships up the Hudson on several occasions and proved that these forts were not up to the task. The British captured Fort Washington on 16 November 1776, after which Fort Lee became their next target.

Moving with uncharacteristic speed, General William Howe sent Charles Cornwallis across the Hudson the morning of 20 November to take Fort Lee. (Some accounts give 18 November as the date). Crossing in the rain, with between 4,000 and 6,000 troops, Cornwallis landed at Closter (modern Alpine), New Jersey, six miles (by road) above Fort Lee. Cornwallis marched his troops south to capture the fort and the troops garrisoned there. It was not known until 1963 who had led Cornwallis up the hazardous trail at Closter, in his attempt to trap the Americans. Then Richard P. McCormick, professor of history at Rutgers University found a memorandum in the British Public Records Office stating that Major John Aldington was the man. McCormick's findings were published in the 21 November 1963 edition of the New York Times.

Surprise and the opportunity to capture the garrison of Fort Lee were lost when news of the British landing at Closter was brought to the Americans. Scholars disagree about who provided the warning. Some claim it was the work of a British deserter, others say it was an American civilian. The latter position is supported by hearsay evidence provided in a manuscript currently archived in the Princeton University library citing a British ensign, Thomas Glyn, on the subject. Still other sources claim that the British movement was reported by "an American officer on patrol."

Warned of this movement, the Americans evacuated their troops but left a considerable amount of valuable equipment. The British found 200 or 300 tents still standing and pots still boiling. Twelve drunken Americans were captured in the fort, and about 150 other prisoners were taken in the vicinity. Nathanael Greene had returned to the fort about two hours after the main body's departure and had rounded up several hundred stragglers, many of whom were drunk on the abandoned stocks of a sutler (merchant) who had fled with the garrison troops. Although the Americans managed to evacuate stocks of gunpowder, they left behind 1,000 barrels of flour, all their entrenching tools, about 50 cannon, and their baggage. By sacrificing this matériel, however, Washington succeeded in leading 2,000 troops from the fort to safety before the British could seize the only bridge across the Hackensack River.

SEE ALSO Fort Washington, New York.

                         revised by Barnet Schecter

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