The Story of the Battle of Paulus Hook
This story is read out loud every year on August 19th in front of the obelisk at Paulus Hook Park on Grand and Washington Streets.
When people first hear about the Battle of Paulus Hook, it doesn’t sound like much of a battle. Twenty-three year old Light-Horse Harry Lee was supposed to make a daring raid on the British-held fort. However, the British soldiers had already left to do their own raiding so there weren’t many people to fight.
The whole battle - 300 men against 40 Hessians and some British officers – doesn’t sound too hard, but it was a big deal in 1783. It’s hard to imagine now, but this area used to be all marshy swampland. You couldn’t say, “Turn left at the post office.” Nor did the battle go entirely according to plan.
Light-Horse Harry Lee initially proposed taking a large body of men by foot twenty miles from New Bridge, attacking at midnight, and returning using the same route. It was two long marches on a hot summer’s night, with a battle to be fought in between.
George Washington liked the idea of an attack but suggested that the troops approach the Bergen Peninsula by water from Newark and return the same way.
Lee revised his battle plans and had his troops start at New Bridge, march to the fort at Paulus Hook and retreat to Douw’s Ferry. The boats would take them across the Hackensack and they could leisurely return to New Bridge. For reference, New Bridge is about plus or minus 20 miles from where Paramus is located today, and Douw’s Ferry was located less than three miles from the foot of today’s St. Paul’s Avenue.
Washington like the revised plan and added a second group of troops – about 300 men from Virginia – to Lee’s force.
On the morning of August 18th Lee and his troops met the Virginians at New Bridge. There was considerable disagreement between the Virginian commanders and Lee’s commanders as to who was actually in charge of the operation. By four in the afternoon, all of the troops set off from New Bridge to get into position for the attack.
Most of the roads Lee followed still exist today. He traveled through New Milford, past Bergenfield, used the Teaneck Road and marched through the woods along the present day path of Liberty Road in Englewood to today’s Grand Avenue. Grand Avenue ran almost the full length of the Palisades at the base of the western slope (the lower section of this road is known as Routes 1&9.) They followed Grand Avenue through Englewood, Leonia, Palisades Park, and Ridgefield to Tonnelle Avenue.
At dusk, as Lee’s forces were headed towards Bergen, the British Commander Van Buskirk mustered his men and marched them north on the Bergen Road to conduct an early morning raid in Englewood.
Lee decided to move his forces off the road around what is today the main entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. Relying on the advice of a guide, he sent his forces up the rocky slopes around Hoboken and through the woods. They quickly got lost. After about three hours they found their way again and emmerged around the Harsimus marshes and started moving south. Neither Light Horse nor Van Buskirk knew they had passed forces in the middle of the night.
Meanwhile at the Hackensack River, the boats were waiting. Midnight came and went and, just before sunrise, the commander of the small armada concluded that the attack had been called off and he put his squad in the boats and returned to Newark.
As Lee mustered his troops at Harsimus, he found that approximately 200 of the Virginians had “become separated” from the remaining troops. Lee realized that his initial plan would no longer work and he reorganized the entire attack on the fort. As Lee’s forces waded through the mucky marshes and half swam through creeks and canals, they soaked all of their gunpowder. They were heard by the British at the fort but the British assumed that it was Van Buskirk’s forces returning.
Lee’s attack was so rapid, that the sentries were not able to send a coded signal to Manhattan that the fort was under siege. Although the Hessians kept up a steady fire, Lee’s forces quickly captured one of the block houses with all of the officers and men inside. The entire attack was done with bayonets only.
Not finding Van Buskirk and his troops, and knowing that the sun would soon be rising, Lee retreated without setting fire to anything, without capturing any supplies, and without even spiking the British guns. They moved up what is today Newark Avenue as quickly as possible to the boats.
Except the boats weren’t there.
Lee’s men had marched 25 or 30 miles since the previous morning, fought through woods, climbed the rocky slopes around Hoboken, waded through the Harsimus marshes, fought a battle with no rest and without a chance to eat. It was broad daylight, they were in the middle of enemy territory, and they had no dry gunpowder.
Lee sent a dispatch rider off to General Stirling at New Bridge requesting a force come down and meet them. He then turned his troops around and directed them to march on the Bergen Road to New Bridge.
Around Weehawken Road he reorganized the long straggling group into three parties that walked parallel to each other. At the same time about 50 of the “lost” Virginian troops appeared out of the woods. They all had dry gunpowder and were spread between the three groups.
Just as they arrived in Englewood, the rescue party from New Bridge appeared at the front of the columns and Van Buskirk’s forces attacked the rear of the columns. Seeing the 300 man rescue party, Van Buskirk pulled back and retreated from the scene.
By 1 PM on the 19th of August all troops and prisoners were back in New Bridge.
For all of its miscalculations and quirks this battle was largely a victory. Lee’s attacking party suffered only two casualties and three wounded. The British had 50 casualties or wounded, and Lee took 158 prisoners. It again demonstrated that American soldiers could press home a cold steel attack against trained British and Hessian troops – and within three-quarters of a mile of British Headquarters. It also proved that no isolated British outpost was safe from capture. It raised Patriot fever and lowered British and Tory morale.
The Americans court-martialed Light Horse Harry Lee for numerous charges mostly related to disputes of command with the Virginians. Washington did his best to back up his young commander. Lee was vindicated of all charges. He received a gold medal for leading the battle, one of only nine presented in the Revolutionary War. The British court-martialed their local commander, Major Sutherland, for allowing such a disgrace to British arms.
The thirty minutes it took to actually capture the fort also solidified Light-Horse Harry’s reputation. The recognition of his military prowess probably helped him win the Governorship of Virginia and later a US Congressional seat.
At President Washington’s funeral in 1799, Lee eulogized Washington with the famous words, “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Light-Horse Harry Lee is probably remembered today more for being the father of the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee. But Light-Horse Harry was a pretty good military strategist himself. And of all his exploits throughout his life, he remained proudest of his raid on the fort at Paulus Hook.
This is adapted from an account published by the Bergen County Historical Society written by Craig Mitchell in 1979 and some of Zoe’s take on the Battle.
Something to think about. Imagine how these young soldiers felt fighting for freedom against the British Monarchy that ruled over them. Join us as we march down Washington Street on August 19th to honor the soldiers that fought in this Battle of the Revolutionary War.