Paulus Hook, New Jersey
Paulus Hook, New Jersey
PAULUS HOOK, NEW JERSEY. 19 August 1779. Henry Lee's Raid. Soon after Brigadier General Anthony Wayne's brilliant coup at Stony Point on 16 July, reconnaissance elements pushed south into Bergen County, New Jersey, to look for new opportunities. One of these was Captain Allan McLane's company. Raised in Delaware, it had just been assigned to Major Henry Lee's Corps of Partisan Light Dragoons as its fourth troop, serving on foot in a light infantry configuration. Under Washington's instructions McLane started from a position at Schraalenburgh and, without ever spending two nights in the same location, he systematically swept Bergen County over a span of ten days. He also used men from the immediate area, posing as farmers selling their produce, to enter the British strongpoint at Paulus Hook. Although Washington's primary focus at this point was strengthening the fortress complex at West Point, the critical strategic pivot for the second half of the war, he still wanted to maintain morale and whittle down the British by conducting set-piece attacks on isolated outposts. McLane's information provided such an opportunity.
BRITISH DEFENSE WORKS
Paulus (or Powles) Hook (in modern Jersey City, near Washington and Grand Streets) was a low point of sand protruding into the Hudson that formed the western end of a ferry. Americans had started fortifying it in the 1776 campaign, and the works had been greatly expanded by the British, who used it as a bridgehead for foraging operations in Bergen County. The most commonly cited British map, in the Clinton Papers in at Ann Arbor, Michigan, does not show the actual defenses at the time of the American attack in 1778. The Hesse-Cassel topographical engineers made a detailed inspection of the site right after the attack, and this better depiction is in the Portuguese army archives in Lisbon. It confirms that the British had dug a ditch to separate the higher ground at the tip of the peninsula from a wide salt marsh and then flooded it to serve as a moat.
A causeway led from the ferry landing across about five hundred yards of marsh before reaching dry ground; a creek fordable in only two places ran through the marsh. In addition to a double row of abatis, a palisade wall made from logs inside the ditch provided security for the enclosure, which contained a number of buildings. A large blockhouse protected the gate and the drawbridge over the moat, while two smaller ones supported the palisade. Several breastworks at various points on the perimeter furnished further security.
Inside the enclosure on low elevations were two redoubts, each surrounded by its own ditch and abatis. One, which mounted six cannon, was a circle about 150 feet across. The other was slightly larger, shaped like an oval and 150 feet wide and 250 feet long; it mounted four guns. Major William Sutherland of the Royal Garrison Battalion commanded the post. His troops consisted of a detachment of his own unit, which was formed from invalids who had been transferred from line units, the Loyalists of Lieutenant Colonel Abraham Van Buskirk's Fourth Battalion of the New Jersey Volunteers (Cortlandt Skinner's), some men from the Royal Artillery, a handful of men from the Sixty-fourth Foot, Captain Francis Dundas's light infantry company from the Guards Brigade, and forty Hessians from the Erb Prinz Regiment under Captain Henrich Sebastian von Schallern. At the time of the attack this force probably amounted to between 200 and 220 men, as a large number of Van Buskirk's men were absent on a foraging expedition and Dundas and von Schallern's men had only arrived the night before the attack to take their place.
THE AMERICAN ATTACK FORCE
While historians have engaged in controversy over who planned the attack, the reality of military operations is that no plan has a single author. In this case, Washington provided the overall guidance; the attack on Stony Point provided a tactical model; McLane provided the detailed intelligence; and Lee had the command. The specifics probably evolved in discussions between McLane and Lee. A general supervision came from Major General William Alexander (Lord Stirling), whose division had geographical responsibility for Bergen County, and Washington insisted that he give a final blessing to the plan to ensure that it was feasible and to furnish the majority of the troops and the party that would cover the task force as it withdrew. To carry out the operation, Lee had his own unit and three hundred of Stirling's men. Lee formed them into three columns plus a reserve. The left (east) column formed the main effort under Lee himself, with McLane's and part of John Rudolph's troop serving dismounted and one hundred men from the First Virginia Brigade; Lieutenant James Armstrong led its "forlorn hope" (vanguard) from Rudolph's troop. The right (west) column had one hundred men from the Second Virginia Brigade with Lieutenant Mark Vanduval leading its "forlorn hope." The center column had one hundred men from the First Maryland Brigade under Captain Levin Handy plus Forsyth's and the rest of Rudolph's troop, who were dismounted; Lieutenant Philip Reid had this "forlorn hope." Lee left his mounted element under Captain Henry Peyton as part of the covering party along with some Virginia infantry under Captain Nathan Reid.
On Wednesday, 18 August, Lee set out from Paramus at 10:30 in the morning, using wagons to convey the impression that he was only on a foraging expedition. His unit and the Marylanders linked up with the Virginia detachment at New Bridge, and at about 4:30 in the afternoon they started a twenty-mile march towards their assault positions, planning to make the attack about 3 a.m. in order to take advantage of darkness. Guides got them lost, and a variety of delays caused by the "friction of war" caused them to reach the edge of the marsh an hour late; they were worried about first light, which could come at any time. Rudolph went forward on a reconnaissance and returned with the news that the operation was still feasible, an important point as Washington had given orders that prohibited the attack if it did not achieve surprise. From here the center column had the mission of proceeding down the causeway, breaking through the gate, and securing the blockhouse at that location. The other two columns went along the river edge and struck the fort from the corners, secured their respective blockhouses, and then pushed into the center to attack the oval redoubt. As at Stony Point, the muskets were not loaded and the men were told not to make any noise, even cheering, to buy time for the prisoners and supplies to be collected and the task force to withdraw with minimal risk of detection.
The columns reached the edge of the moat undetected, and the "forlorn hopes" waded across. Just as they were emerging, the first sentry detected the Americans and fired a warning shot, but to no avail. The columns quickly broke in before the sleepy defenders could react. All of the blockhouses fell as planned, and the oval redoubt followed swiftly. Only small pockets put up any resistance; the rest of the British and Loyalists surrendered almost immediately. But von Schallern's Hessians had been more alert at the circular redoubt and could not be talked into laying down their arms. Knowing that nothing was to be gained by trying to assault it, Lee quickly gathered up the prisoners and headed back to the mainland. He had neither the time nor the equipment to spike the cannon that fell into American hands, nor did he catch Major Sutherland, who had made it into the German strong point.
Lee's fears that firing would alert the British in New York City, a mile and a half away on the east side of the Hudson, were well-founded. They heard the shooting, but since Sutherland never fired the signal to indicate that he was under attack, Major General James Pattison assumed that it was only Van Buskirk's party skirmishing with militia. Not until a messenger came over from Sutherland did he learn the truth. At that point he quickly sent Lieutenant Colonel Cosmo Gordon of the Guards Brigade across with the rest of the flank companies of the brigade, some artillerymen, and one hundred more Germans.
Lee's withdrawal followed the plan, although he was now running well behind schedule. He headed for Douwe's Ferry, where Peyton's men were supposed to be waiting with boats to cross the Hackensack River. After putting that obstacle between his force and any pursuit, he intended to take the Polifly Road back to New Bridge. But when the attack party had not appeared an hour after schedule, Peyton assumed that the attack had been called off and headed back to Newark with the boats. Fortunately, McLane had excellent knowledge of the various roads as the result of his original reconnaissance, and Lee quickly changed the withdrawal route to the more dangerous Bergen Road. The rear guard trying to cover the main body got lucky when Captain Thomas Catlett arrived with fifty fresh men (Virginians who had missed the original attack) who had dry ammunition. There was a chance encounter with some of Van Buskirk's foragers near Liberty Pole Tavern (at modern Englewood), but it never developed into anything significant, and Gordon's light infantry never caught up. Lee arrived safely at New Bridge at around 1 p.m.
The next day, 20 August, a furious General Clinton convened a court-martial to try Sutherland on charges of general misconduct. He was acquitted but shortly thereafter was transferred to Bermuda.
NUMBERS AND LOSSES
Lee lost only two men killed and three wounded, which was very light, given that he had more than four hundred men in the action. The low numbers came from the tactics of the surprise attack and the cover of the darkness that prevented any type of a coherent defense. British official reports claimed that they had lost only 9 killed, 2 wounded, and 113 missing, but as usual these figures carefully omitted the Germans and the Loyalists. A more reasonable estimate is 173 killed, wounded or captured; only about 50 of the men in Paulus Hook escaped.
The action amounted to nothing more than a mosquito bite from a military point of view, but it had an important impact on the morale of the Americans and British, with the latter considering the poor showing of the garrison as a mark of dishonor. The Germans all took enormous pride in von Schallern's performance. The Continental Congress voted Lee a gold medal like those given for Stony Point, which prompted a lingering war of memoirs with some of the officers from the attached infantry involving perceived slights and squabbles about who deserved credit for what.
Dornfest, Walter T. "British, Hessian, and Provincial Troops at Paulus Hook, 18th-19th August, 1779." Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 45 (1967): 177-183.
Koke, Richard J. "The Britons Who Fought at Stony Point: Uniforms of the American Revolution." New-York Historical Society Quarterly 44 (1960): 443-471.
Richardson, William H., and Walter P. Gardner. Washington and "The Enterprise against Powles Hook": A New Study of the Surprise and Capture of the Fort Thursday, August 19, 1779. Jersey City: New Jersey Title Guarantee and Trust, 1938.
revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.