11 December 2010

The Battle of Paulus Hook, 19 August 1779

An American force under General Anthony Wayne surprised the fortified British post at Stony Point, New York on the night of 15-16 July 1779. With minimal losses, Wayne’s force took over 500 British prisoners in less than twenty-five minutes. Inspired by this attack, Major Henry Lee proposed to General Washington his own surprise attack.

"Light Horse Harry Lee" by Charles Willson Peale, 1782.

Lee, alternately known as Light Horse Harry, came from a distinguished Virginia family. His great-great grandfather, Richard Lee, left England for Jamestown in 1639. He later rose to the office of Attorney General of the colony of Virginia. His son, Henry’s great-grandfather, Richard Lee II, was a member of the House of Burgesses in Virginia. His son, and Henry’s grandfather, was Henry Lee, was a wealthy landowner in Virginia. (His wife was related to Thomas Jefferson and English royalty. His brother served as Governor of the Virginia colony.) Henry Lee’s son, Henry Lee II, was Light Horse Harry’s father. He served in a number of political offices both before and after the Revolution. Other relations also had a hand in the Revolution. His third cousin was Richard Henry Lee, the Continental Congressman who offered the resolution for the Declaration of Independence, which he later signed. The distinguished line continued after Henry Lee III. His son was Confederate General Robert E. Lee (who married into George and Martha Washington’s family). Henry Lee III – Light Horse Harry – was born in 1756, and was a cavalry officer in the Revolutionary Army. After the war, Lee served as Governor of Virginia, and served in Congress.

The fort is at the lower section of the picture.
The causeway and the ditch are also sketched.

For most of the war, the British held a fort across the river from New York City at Paulus Hook (alternately spelled as Powles Hook, Paulus Hoeck and Paulis Hook). Paulus Hook is today located within the boundaries of Jersey City. The borders correspond roughly to Harsimus Cove (near Newport Centre Mall) on the north, the Hudson River on the east, Communipaw Cove (present-day Liberty State Park) on the south and a large salt marsh on the west. In the marsh, which was several hundred feet in width, the British cut a ditch about twenty feet wide. Over this ditch they built a drawbridge and a gate, protecting the only landward entrance to the fort. Breastworks and an abatis (see photo below) surrounded the fort. Inside the breastworks were three blockhouses, and inside the fort’s walls was the magazine. (1) It was this secure post that Light Horse Harry received permission to attack.

An example of an abatis. This one is located in Yorktown, VA.

Major Lee was headquartered about two miles from the Paramus Church on the road to New York when he took up his line of march at about half past ten on the morning of 18 August 1779. With him were with two companies of Maryland troops under Captain Levin Handy. These were met by about 300 Virginians under Major Jonathan Clark and a number of dismounted dragoons under Captain Allan McLane of Delaware at the New Bridge. The soldiers, numbering around four hundred, marched out of New Bridge with Captain Handy in the advance around four in the afternoon, intending to reach the fort on Paulus Hook at low tide (to make crossing the swamp and ditch easier), which was just after midnight. (2) Before leaving, Lee procured some empty wagons, to give the look of a foraging expedition, and detached Captain Henry Peyton with a small number of men to go to Newark to obtain boats and bring them to Douw’s ferry, where they would wait to ferry Lee’s troops after the assault. (3) With his plan in place and the march begun, Lee received some assistance from the British in the garrison of the Paulus Hook fort.

The troops in the garrison at Paulus Hook were the 4th Battalion of Skinner’s Provincial Brigade, under the command of Colonel Abraham van Buskirk, and a part of the Invalid Battalion. Major William Sutherland of the Invalid Battalion was the commander. It had been determined earlier that Colonel van Buskirk would take a detachment from the fort on the evening of 18 August to attempt to surprise a party of about 100 Americans near the English Neighborhood. To replace van Buskirk’s men, Sutherland requested reinforcements, which were granted – a Captain and forty men from the Knyphausen Regiment were sent to the fort. (4) The total force at the garrison, after van Buskirk left with his 130 or so men and the reinforcements arrived, was about 200 men, including Skinner’s 2nd Battalion, sixty invalids, and Captain Henrich Sebastian von Schaller with forty men from the Hessian Regiment Erb Prinz. The Americans under Lee were not aware that the Tories had left the fort and were replaced by the seasoned Hessians. (5)

Lee’s columns on the march consisted of a detachment of one hundred men from Woodford’s brigade under command of Major Clark on the right; the Marylanders under Captain Handy formed the center; Major Lee took to the left with a detachment of one hundred men for Muhlenberg’s brigade and Captain McLane’s dragoons. The forlorn* on the right was led by Lieutenant Vanderville of the 1st Virginia Regiment; the center by Lieutenant Reed of the 5th Maryland; and the left by Lieutenant Armstrong of the dragoons. The remaining troops commanded by Captain Reed of the 10th Virginia were to form the reserve. Lee hoped to launch all three attacks on the fort at the same time. (6)

In Lee’s report to General Washington on 22 August, he wrote “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.” It is of some speculation that the separated party of about 200 Virginians may have purposefully left the expedition, possibly out of jealousy of Lee. Whatever the reason, Lee was left with about 150 men for the attack on the fort. (7) He had to re-plan his attack on the spot.

Just after midnight on the 19th, as Colonel van Buskirk was chasing retreating Americans towards New Bridge, Lee’s remaining men were approaching the fort at Paulus Hook. Lieutenant Michael Rudolph and Lieutenant McAllister led the forlorn soldiers two miles through the swamp. They arrived near the ditch at three o’clock, as the tide was approaching. They luckily went undiscovered by the sentries, who initially thought the sound of the approaching troops was that of van Buskirk’s men returning. Lee quickly formed his men in three columns, and they advanced upon the fort in silence. After Lee’s repositioning of his depleted force, the column to the right was under Major Clark, with McAllister leading the forlorn; the center column was headed by Captain Forsyth with Randolph leading the forlorns; and the left column, under Captain Handy was to move to the front, but act as a reserve. (8)

The British garrison was not alerted until the heard the Americans, led by Clark and McAllister, splashing through the ditch. Although the British quickly opened fire once they realized their mistake, the forlorns had already torn through the abatis and charged into the redoubt. McLane and Forsyth quickly broke through on their side and captured a blockhouse with officers and men inside. McAllister tore down the British colors. Lieutenant Armstrong captured the blockhouse on the right with its officers and men. The British artillery pieces were quickly seized, so that the distress signal could not be given to the force across the river in New York. Major Sutherland and Captain Schaller, with the Hessians, barricaded themselves in a blockhouse and kept up a steady fire on the Americans. Lee attempted to set fire to the barracks, but realized that they housed a number of sick soldiers, women and children he left them standing. (9)

Major General James Pattison later wrote that he originally concluded that since the alarm guns had not sounded, he thought“Buskirk was on his Return, and that some small Party had been harassing his Rear, the Firing at that Time having nearly ceas’d.” He learned otherwise after a messenger returned with news from Major Sutherland stating that “the Enemy having got thro’ the Abbatis, had taken the right hand & center Block-houses and the Principal Fort, but that the Round Redoubt, in which was himself with a Captain & 25 Hessians, had been defended, that the left Block house was likewise safe & that the Enemy had retreated, carrying off with them the Guards of the two Block houses.” (10)

By four o’clock, with daylight coming on and aware that the New York garrison had been alerted, Lee began his retreat, although he was unable to destroy the magazine or spike the guns. The attack had been partially successful, especially considering the odds. Lee’s force suffered two killed and three wounded, but had killed or wounded fifty of the defenders and took 158 prisoners. Pattison later reported by the returns he had received, “there were Killed 4 Serjts, 2 Corpls, & 3 Privates, Wounded 2 Serjeants & taken or missing 4 Subalterns, 7 Serjts, 5 Corpls, & 97 Privates.” Leading the way Major Clark, in charge of most of the prisoners, retreated across the causeway, followed by Captain Handy. Lieutenants Armstrong and Reed brought up the rear. When the men approached the location where Captain Peyton should have been waiting with the boats, he found nothing. Since no reports had been received by Peyton, and daylight had approached, he thought the attack had been called off, and retreated with the boats to Newark. (11)

Lee and his men were now in a crucial situation. They were about seventeen miles from New Bridge, where he believed was his nearest support, and most of the cartridges were useless as they had gotten wet in the attack. The British would surely be sending out a party to track down Lee’s force, and van Buskirk’s men were lurking in the neighborhood. Lee began a quick march towards New Bridge with bayonets at the ready in case of attack.

Once Lee reached the Hackensack Road, he divided his force. Major Clark and his prisoners set off on the road by way of Three Pigeons and the English Neighborhood; Lee took the former center column down the same road; Captain Handy took the road near the river, now known as Bull’s Ferry Road. As they prepared to set off, about fifty soldiers, the lost men of Lee’s force, under Captain Calett of the Second Virginia Regiment, appeared from the woods. These men, with dry powder and good ammunition, were split amongst the three columns. As they came upon the Fort Lee road, near present-day Leonia, they met with Colonel Ball in command of two hundred men, set by Lord Stirling to support Lee’s retreat. Ball and his fresh men immediately moved to the rear. Unknown to the Americans, Lieutenant-Colonel Cosmo Gordon had been sent with about 200 men to reinforce the Paulus Hook fort, and Major Sutherland had been sent in pursuit of Lee with two light infantry companies of the guard under Captains Dundass and Maynard, probably numbering near 200 men. Ball came into contact with Sutherland’s men. At nearly the same time, about noon, van Buskirk’s men came into view of Lee’s retreating columns and opened fire. Lee ordered Lieutenant Reed to face them, while Lieutenant Rudolph with a small party entered a stone house and commenced firing. This gave Lee’s weary men time to retreat across the creek at Liberty Pole. Colonel Ball, now hearing firing in his rear at Lee’s location, doubled back so as not to be surrounded by the British forces. At Ball’s appearance, van Buskirk broke off his attack and retreated towards Paulus Hook. (12)

General Pattison reported that van Buskirk lost one man, and returned with four prisoners. Major Sutherland brought seven prisoners, including Captain Neals of Virginia, back to Paulus Hook with him. The Americans had two killed and three wounded, including Ezekiel Clark, who had his nose shot off. Lee arrived at New Bridge near one in the afternoon, with all of his prisoners.* (13)

On 24 September 1779, Congress issued a resolution, which read:

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. McCallister and Rudolph in leading on the forlorn 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.

The gold medal struck in honor of Lee.

Resolved, That the brevet and the pay and subsistence of Captain be given to Lieuts. McCallister and Rudolph respectively.” (14)


(1) Memorial of the Centennial Celebration of the Battle of Paulus Hook August 19th, 1879; With a History of the Early Settlement and Present Condition of Jersey City, N.J. Edited by George H. Farrier. M. Mullone Printer, Jersey City, NJ, 1879, p. 34.

(2) Ibid, p. 64.

(3) Bergen Summer 1779 - The Enterprise Against Paulus Hook. by Craig Mitchell. Bergen County Historical Society, 1979, p. 30.

(4) Collections of the New York Historical Society for the Year 1875. New York: Printed for the Society, 1876. “Official Letter of Major General James Pattison,” p. 101.

(5) Memorial of the Centennial Celebration of the Battle of Paulus Hook, p. 36; and Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Capt. Johann Ewald, Trans. & ed. Joseph P. Trustin, New Haven, Yale Univ. Press, 1979, p. 175.

* A forlorn, or forlorn hope, is a group of soldiers who lead an assault on a military position.

(6) Washington and 'The Enterprise Against Powles Hook’: A New Study of the Surprise and Capture of the Fort Thursday, August 19, 1779 by William H. Richardson. The New Jersey Title Guarentee and Trust Company, Jersey City, NJ 1930, p. 15.

(7) Memorial of the Centennial Celebration of the Battle of Paulus Hook, p. 64-5; 44.

(8) Ibid, p. 45-6.
(9) Bergen Summer, p. 35; and Memorial of the Centennial Celebration of the Battle of Paulus Hook, p. 37, 46.

(10) Collections of the New York Historical Society, p. 101.

(11) Bergen Summer, p. 33, 39; and Collections of the New York Historical Society, p. 101.

(12) Bergen Summer, p. 37; and Memorial of the Centennial Celebration of the Battle of Paulus Hook, p. 51.

(13) Memorial of the Centennial Celebration of the Battle of Paulus Hook, p. 61, 63, 53, 51.
* Lee’s prisoners included the following: Six sergeants and sixty-seven rank and file of the garrison; one captain of the Sixty-fourth Regiment; one sergeant and ten rank and file of the Hessians; one surgeon, one surgeon’s mate, one quartermaster, four subalterns, two sergeants and thirty-nine rank and file of van Buskirk’s Regiment; two artificers; one sergeant, one corporal, two gunners and nine matrosses; and ten inhabitants; 158 total prisoners. On the following day, they were sent to Philadelphia. - Memorial of the Centennial Celebration of the Battle of Paulus Hook, p. 53.
(14) Memorial of the Centennial Celebration of the Battle of Paulus Hook, p. 81.

17 November 2010

Massacre at Old Tappan

Colonel George Baylor, a native of Virginia who had short military service as an aide to General George Washington, was twenty-six years old in the summer of 1778. He commanded a regiment of dragoons* alternately known as the Third Continental Dragoons, the Third Light Dragoons or Lady Washington’s Guards. Baylor’s lightly armed regiment carried out few patrols; their duties consisted mostly of reconnaissance and escort, and they were accordingly lightly armed with sabers and some few pistols. (1) The major distinction in his career thus far was when he was awarded the privilege of delivering the news of Washington’s victory at Trenton and the captured Hessian flag to the Continental Congress in Baltimore. (2)

On 22 September 1778, the British sent a foraging expedition of about five thousand men from New York to the area between the Hackensack River and the Hudson River, where it was felt they would be best defended from an American attack. Five days later, Baylor’s regiment, which consisted of about 120 officers and men, was ordered to take a position between the main American army and the British foraging parties. With Major Alexander Clough, an experienced soldier and horseman, as second in command, the regiment moved to Harrington, New Jersey. Baylor and Clough made their headquarters at the house of Cornelius Haring, a known Tory. His officers boarded at four nearby houses, while his men stayed in six other out-buildings along the road. To the east, Baylor posted a guard at the bridge over the Hackensack River and sent out small patrols. (3)

General Charles Grey, in command of one of the British foraging parties, learned of Baylor’s position and prepared to move on the regiment. General Grey had earned a fierce reputation for taking no prisoners in a massacre of American troops at Paoli in Pennsylvania a year earlier. Among his tactics was the removal of the flint from the weapons of his soldiers to prevent any accidental discharge and preserve the secrecy of his attack. This forced his men to rely on close-quarters fighting and their bayonets. Since an attack from the west was most unlikely, Grey proceeded up the Kinderkamack Road to attack from that direction. Under Grey’s command were the Second Battalion of Light Infantry, the second Battalion of the Grenadiers, the 33rd and 64th Regiments of Foot, and a small detachment of cavalry. Grey ordered his Light Infantry to attack from two directions.

Major John Maitland with six companies advanced along the road to the patrol stationed at the bridge. Major Turner Straubenzee was led by Tory guides from the west to Baylor’s location. Between one and two o’clock in the morning of 28 September, the attack began. The sleeping Americans were completely surprised. Some of Baylor’s dragoons attempted to defend themselves with pistols or sabers, while others tried to hide under the hay in the barns. The British soldiers used their bayonets effectively, and also used their muskets as clubs to beat some of the American soldiers. (4) When Baylor and Clough heard the noise, they attempted to hide from the British by climbing into the chimney of the house where they were quartered. Both men were bayoneted multiple times by the British. (5)

Of the 120 Americans, the British killed eleven on the spot, while taking thirty-nine prisoners, eight of whom were wounded. The British left behind seventeen wounded Americans, four of whom later died. Only thirty-seven Americans escaped unharmed. Some of the Americans, were run through with bayonets a dozen times or more. Pvt. Julian King was reported to have been stabbed sixteen times, while two others received twelve wounds. Major Clough died of his wounds the following day, though Baylor lived on for two more years. (6) The British only lost one man, who was shot by an American dragoon. (7)

The British retreated to Tappan with their prisoners and supplies, and the Bergen County militia was sent out to locate survivors. The militia found six men killed at the bridge and others near the barns, but fearing a return of the British troops, they hastily buried the men in three abandoned leather tanning vats near the site of the massacre by the Hackensack River. (8)

In the spring of 1967, Thomas Demarest of Old Tappan claimed to know the location of the American burials, and feared that new development would destroy the site permanently. By summer of that year, the remains of six men were found buried in tanning vats in the area. (9) Today, the Baylor Massacre Park honors the American soldiers killed in this attack.

*Dragoons were mounted infantrymen, or lightly armed cavalrymen.

(1) The Massacre of Baylor’s Dragoons. By D. Bennett Mazur, Bergen Co. Board of Chosen Freeholders, 1968, p. 7.

(2) The Revolutionary War in Bergen County: The Times That Tried Men’s Souls. Edited by Carol Karels, The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2007, p. 118.

(3) Mazur, p. 7-8. Karels, p. 120.

(4) Mazur, p. 9.

(5) Karels, p. 120.

(6) Mazur, p. 9.

(7) Karels, p. 123.

(8) Karels, p. 123.

(9) Mazur, p. 19.

02 November 2010

Massacre at Osborn Island

After the British attack at Chestnut Neck, New Jersey, on 6 October 1778, the Americans responded by sending General Casimir Pulaski and his Legion to Tuckerton, New Jersey, where they arrived on 8 October. He made his headquarters at the farm of James Willets and set up his men in camp. The First Troop of Light Dragoons and Militia Pulaski placed at his left, a few hundred yards to the east. At his right he posted the infantry, and about half a mile to the southwest, in another farmhouse, a picket post of forty-five men was stationed to guard against surprise attack. (1)

The British were prepared to sail back to New York on 8 October, but were delayed from the lack of wind. While they were waiting, a member of Pulaski’s infantry, Carl Wilhelm Joseph Juliat (a Hessian deserter who joined the American after the Battle of Trenton), and six other soldiers left the American camp under the pretext that they were going fishing. Instead, on 13 October, the men rowed out to the British flagship, H.M.S. Nautilus, to alert them of the American presence. (2) The following night, Juliat was in the lead, guiding a party of 250 British soldiers, under the command of Captain Ferguson, ashore. There they met with men from the Third Battalion of New Jersey Loyalist volunteers and continued to about ten more miles in boats to Osborn Island. Between three and four o’clock in the morning of 15 October, the British force landed. They approached the house of Richard Osborn, Jr., where they found his son, Thomas. Thomas was forced upon pain of death to guide the British to the American outposts. (3)

About one mile from Pulaski’s right flank, the British approached a bridge over a small creek, which they found unguarded. Fifty men were left here, in order to secure the British retreat. The main force continued across salt meadows before reaching Pulaski’s outpost, where they found a lone sentinel. This soldier was either taken or killed (reports vary), and the British surrounded the farmhouse. (4) Once the infantry’s position was surrounded, the British entered the farmhouse with bayonets at the ready. The infantrymen of Pulaski’s Legion were awaken by the British entry, but in the dark and confusion had little time to defend themselves. Thomas Osborn, in the confusion, escaped, but the Americans were not so lucky. Though many of the Americans cried for quarter, their pleas were largely ignored. Lieutenant Colonel Baron Charles August von Bose, in command of the infantry, attempted to lead his men through the British encirclement, with his sword and pistol in hand. Juliat saw him, and pointed out his rank to the attacking British, who ran the colonel with their bayonets. The second in command, Second Lieutenant Joseph de la Borderie fell in a similar manner. (5) It is believed that about 40 Americans were killed, and a small number made their escape. Captain Ferguson reported: “It being a night attack, little quarter could, of course, be given, so that there are only five prisoners.” Although it was reported the British burned some buildings before retreating, Ferguson reported that although he “had an Opportunity of destroying part of the Baggage and Equipage of Pulaski’s Legion, by burning their Quarters, but as the House belonged to some inoffensive Quakers who had suffered enough, nothing was done.” (6)

Upon hearing the sounds of battle, Pulaski readies his cavalry, but by the time he arrived at the farmhouse, the British had retreated. His attempt to follow them was prevented as the British removed the planking on the bridge. Although his cavalry could not cross the creek, some riflemen and infantry were able to cross on the remnants of the bridge and fire some shots at the retreating British. Pulaski reported to Congress: “We had cut off the retreat of about 25 men, who retired into the country and the woods, and we cannot find them; the general opinion is, that they are concealed by the tories in the neighbourhood of their encampment.” (7) Ferguson reported “two men of the Fifth, and one of the Provincials missing, and two of the Fifth slightly wounded. Ensign Camp, of the Third Jersey Volunteers, has received a stab through his thigh.” (8)

After this action, Pulaski moved his men to Barnegat. The British fleet, awaiting the arrival of Ferguson and his men, spotted an American privateer entering Little Egg Harbor. The ship was unaware of the British presence, and the startled American crew abandoned their ship, which was carrying six swivel guns and one two-pounder. (9) After Ferguson and his men returned, the British sailed out of Little Egg Harbor. Unfortunately for them, the flagship, H.M.S. Zebra, was grounded on a sand bar. Captain Collins, fearing the ship would be taken by the Americans, ordered everything of value removed from it and then ordered it burned. (10) The British returned to Staten Island from their successful endeavor on 23 October. (11)

(1) A Nest of Rebel Pirates. by Franklin W. Kemp. The Laureate Press, Egg Harbor City, NJ 1993, p. 44.

(2) Brief Encounter at Osborn Island: The Pulaski Affair. by Pauline S. Miller. Ocean County Cultural & Heritage Commission, Toms River, NJ, 1998, p. 14.

(3) The Affair at Egg Harbor New Jersey October 15, 1778. by William S. Stryker. Atlantic County Historical Society, Somers Point (NJ), n.d., p. 9.

(4) ibid.

(5) A Nest of Rebel Pirates, p. 48.

(6) ibid, p. 127.

(7) ibid, p. 128.

(8) The Affair at Egg Harbor New Jersey, p. 18.

(9) A Nest of Rebel Pirates, p. 50.

(10) King’s Mountain and Its Heroes: History of the Battle of King’s Mountain, October 7, 1780, and the Events Which Led to It. By Lyman C. Draper, copyright Peter G. Thomson, Cincinnati, OH, 1881, p. 60.

(11) “The Massacre of Chestnut Neck,” by Howard M. Guttman. The Crossroads Volume XIII No. 3 December 1975, p. 4.

13 October 2010

“This Nest of Pirates”

Chestnut Neck, New Jersey sits on the Little Egg Harbor River in the southeastern part of the state. Its location surrounded by the many bays and coves made it a prime place for American privateers to use as a base during the Revolutionary War.

A privateer is much like a pirate, except that they are authorized by their government (during wartime) to attack and rob enemy vessels. During the Revolutionary War, many investors put their money into privateer ships hoping that they would make money either in reward money, or sales of the captured ships and cargo. Privateers helped the war effort; the government did not have to expend resources and money on ships or crews, and the enemy saw their commerce disrupted, insurance rates skyrocket and, in some cases, used their warships to protect merchant ships. Furthermore, the new United States were sometimes able to acquire the better of the captured ships and refit them as warships.

According to the United States Merchant Marines, about 55,000 men served at one time or another as privateers during the Revolution on about 1,700 ships. These men captured about 2,300 enemy ships. In comparison, the Continental Navy had 64 total vessels during the war and captured under 200 enemy ships. (1) Keep in mind that there were also a large but unknown number of men acting as privateers without the permission of the United States government, effectively making them pirates, but no less damaging to the British.

This brings us to Chestnut Neck. Located in the Little Egg Harbor area of the state, which runs along the coast from Barnegat Inlet to Brigantine Inlet (about 25 miles) and about 25 miles inland, it is surrounded by bays, inlets, rivers and streams (see map). While the swift and smaller American ships could navigate these mostly shallow waterways, the larger British men-of-war could not.

During the Revolution, the town consisted of only about dozen houses, George Payne’s tavern, Daniel Mathis’ Inn, some store houses for captured goods and John Adams’ landing.” (2) Nearby was the Batsto Iron Works, which produced weaponry for the Americans, as well as a number of saltworks. After the war began, the town became a hotbed of privateering. Captured prizes were brought in and sold at public venues along with their cargos. If a ship was too large to bring in, the crew would salvage what they could at sea and burn the ship. Small shipyards abounded where privateer ships were repaired and outfitted, and captured ships repaired or refitted for military use.

Commander Henry Collins, of the Royal Navy, who was stationed in New York, called the Little Egg Harbor area a “Nest of Freebooters.” Captain Patrick Ferguson, who would command the British expedition against this place called it a “nest of pirates.” (3) Between June and September 1778 more than seventeen captured ships were taken into Chestnut Neck. From Chestnut Neck, goods were transported across New Jersey to the American Army. Items not purchased or appropriated by the army were sold at public auctions, sometimes lasting multiple days.

By late September 1778, the British command in New York had more than enough of the “pirates” of Chestnut Neck. On the evening of 30 September a British fleet of nine vessels under the command of Henry Collins carrying almost 1,200 men began to prepare at Staten Island for an attack. Due to poor weather, the fleet was delayed. Major Benedict Arnold, in Philadelphia, learned of the attack and sent one hundred men to reinforce those at Chestnut Neck. When General Washington was informed, he sent Count Casimir Pulaski and his Legion (about 250 men) to the area. When joined with the estimated 150 militiamen, 300 troops under Colonel Samuel Furman, and artillerymen under Thomas Proctor, already at Chestnut Neck, the American force would be just under 1,000 men. (4)

The British fleet did not reach Little Egg Harbor until just before noon on 5 October. Some American vessels made their escape before the British appearance. Upon arrival, Commander Henry Collins ordered three vessels into Little Egg Harbor bay to prevent any rebel ships from escaping. The other British ships followed, carrying the troops. At daybreak on 6 October the British force moved across Great Bay toward the mouth of the Little Egg Harbor River. They moved slowly, since they did not have experienced pilots to guide them through the shallow water. Still, two British ships, Greenwich and Granby, became grounded. Collins also realized he would have to make an attack before landing his men.

A small fort had been built at Chestnut Neck, erected level with the water and with embrasures for six cannon, though no guns were in the fort at the time of the British arrival. Lieutenant Colonel Elijah Clark and First Major Richard Wescoat directed the building of the fort, and the men manning the post this day were reportedly under the command of Captain Johnson. Among the defenders at the fort was Captain George Payne.

At about 4 in the afternoon on 6 October, the British ships reached Chestnut Neck. Because the banks of the river were swampy, Collins could not land Ferguson and his men there. He sailed in close to the fort, which he believed contained artillery, and began a bombardment. The militiamen were no match for the heavy British fire, and they fled. Ferguson and his men landed unopposed about 100 feet above the fort. Once the British landed, they found ten prize ships along the river. Not wasting any time, Collins ordered the ships dismantled (after any valuable cargo was preserved) and set ablaze. While the destruction of the ships continued into the night, Ferguson set up a defensive perimeter and began destroying the town. (5) Chestnut Neck contained twelve dwelling houses (including one belonging to Captain George Payne), and various barns and outbuildings. All of these were destroyed, along with a storehouse near the wharf and the small fort. (6)

As the British prepared to leave Chestnut Neck on the morning of 7 October, Collins had his men unload the cargo of the two British ships so that they could be refloated. During this time, some men were sent to destroy three saltworks located on the north shore of the Mullica River, along with the home of local militiaman Captain John Mathis. (7) It wasn’t until the morning of 8 October that the Greenwich and the Granby were refloated and the British were able to push off.

In the action, Captain Ferguson noted, “One soldier of the Fifth was wounded through the leg at Chestnut Neck but we have neither lost a man by the enemy nor deserting since we set out.” The commanding officer of the British Fifth Foot later commended the conduct of Capt. William Cox, Lieut. Thomas Littleton, Ensign Cotter (all of the Fifth) and Captain Peter Campbell (Third Jersey Vols.) in this action. (8)

The British were not done with this attack. A week and a half later, they would launch another, more deadly attack against the Americans.

(1) American Merchant Marine at War, “Privateers and Mariners in the Revolutionary War.” 15 March 2001. http://www.usmm.org/revolution.html (4 October 2010).

(2) Guttman, Howard M. “The Massacre of Chestnut Neck,” The Crossroads Volume XIII No. 3 December 1975. New Jersey Historical Society.

Kemp, Franklin W. A Nest of Rebel Pirates. Egg Harbor City, NJ: The Laureate Press, 1993.

(3) A Nest of Rebel Pirates. 33.
The Affair at Egg Harbor New Jersey October 15, 1778. by William S. Stryker. Atlantic County Historical Society, Somers Point (NJ), n.d., 16

(4) A Nest of Rebel Pirates. 24.

(5) A Nest of Rebel Pirates. 31.
Brief Encounter at Osborn Island: The Pulaski Affair. by Pauline S. Miller. Ocean County Cultural & Heritage Commission, Toms River, NJ, 1998, 11.

(6) The Affair at Egg Harbor New Jersey October 15, 1778. by William S. Stryker. Atlantic County Historical Society, Somers Point (NJ), n.d., 5.

(7) Brief Encounter at Osborn Island: The Pulaski Affair, 11.

(8) A Nest of Rebel Pirates. 17, 12.

06 September 2010

The Lighthouse at Sandy Hook

Sandy Hook Lighthouse is the oldest standing lighthouse in the United States of America. It played an important part in the Revolutionary War, as it could guide British ships into the harbor, and to New York City. Some American attempts were made at disabling the light in early 1776, but the British were able to put it back in service and control the area for the duration of the war.

After many wrecks and the loss of much money, the merchants of New York petitioned for a lighthouse to be built to guide ships into the city. A lottery was authorized in 1761, which raised twenty-six hundred pounds to buy four acres of land. This, though, was not enough to get the lighthouse built. Another lottery was held in 1763, and a tonnage tax was placed upon ships for the maintenance of the light. (1)

The lighthouse was completed in 1764 and first lit on the 11th of June that year. The New York Mercury, in their 18 June 1764 edition wrote: “On Monday evening last the New York Light-house erected at Sandy Hook was lighted for the first time. The House is of an Octagon Figure, having eight equal Sides; the Diameter at the Base 29 Feet; and at the top of the Wall, 15 Feet. The Lanthorn is 7 feet high; the Circumference 33 feet. The whole Construction of the Lanthorn is Iron; the Top covered with Copper. There are 48 Oil Blazes. The Building from the Surface is Nine Stories; the whole from Bottom to Top 103 Feet.” (2)

Only twelve years later, in early March, 1776, the New York Congress ordered the light destroyed so it would be of no use to the British ships attempting to work their way towards New York. The Congress chose Major William Malcolm to “take the glass out of the lantern, and save it if possible; but if you find this impractible you will break all the glass. You will also endeavour to pump the oil out of the cisterns into casks and bring it off; but if you should be obstructed by the enemy, or not be able to procure casks, you will pump it out on the ground. In short you will use your best discretion to render the light-house entirely useless.” (3) Major Malcolm, with Colonel George Taylor and some of his men, were successful. Although Malcolm could not save the glass, “for want of tools as by reason of time” he was able to remove other items, including “eight copper lamps, two tackle falls and blocks and three cask, and a part of a cask of oil.” (4)

This map, published in 1776, shows Sandy Hook, Staten Island, Long Island and Manhattan Island and shows the depths of water and the banks for sailing vessels

The British were able to repair the light before June of that year. On 1 June, the Americans again attempted to disable the light. Captain John Conover, with some boats mounted with two six-pound cannons managed to damage the lighthouse slightly, but they were driven off by an armed British ship in the area. (5)

The largest attempt at destroying the Sandy Hook Lighthouse happened on 19 June 1776. About 300 Americans under the command of Colonel Benjamin Tupper launched an attack against the lighthouse which lasted about two hours. At about three or four o’clock in the morning, Tupper’s force was able to advance within 150 yards of the lighthouse undiscovered by the British. Their guns, two six-pound brass cannons, fired upon the lighthouse for about one hour, but Tupper reported to George Washington that he “found the walls so firm I could make no Impression.” Tupper reported that he therefore retreated, and although he and his men were “between two Smart fires vis from two men of war on one Side & the Light house on the other” not a man was killed or wounded. (6) The two British ships firing at Tupper and his men were most likely the Phoenix and the Swan. A man from the Swan reported, contrary to Tupper’s report, “a serjeant and corporal of the 57th regiment, with five of Gov. Tryon’s men, killed 14 of the rebels.” (7) At a time when casualty figures were fudged for various reasons, this contradiction is not unusual.

No large-scale attempt to attack the lighthouse was made by the Americans again during the war. In 1787, four years after the war had officially ended, New York and New Jersey quarreled over the lighthouse. New York first passed a law requiring vessels to stop at the custom house and pay a fee, which was an especially heavy burden to ships trading in New Jersey. New Jersey retaliated by charging New York a tax of thirty pounds per months for the lighthouse, owned by New York, but on New Jersey’s land. The controversy was negated, however, in 1790, when the federal government, in a controversial action, took control of the lighthouse in the United States. (8) In 1996, the U.S. Coast Guard transferred ownership of the lighthouse to the National Park Service. The lighthouse is still in active operation today, and is open to visitors.

(1) Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States. by George R. Putnam. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1917, 11.

(2) Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States. by George R. Putnam. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1917, 12.

(3) Naval Documents of the American Revolution Vol. 4. ed. William Bell Clark. U.S. Navy Department, Washington, DC, 1969, 195.

(4) Naval Documents of the American Revolution Vol. 4. ed. William Bell Clark. U.S. Navy Department, Washington, DC, 1969, 310.

(5) Sandy Hook Light - Fort Hancock, NJ – History. The New Jersey Lighthouse Society. http://www.njlhs.org/njlight/sandy.html, 2006. [22 June 2009].

(6) Naval Documents of the American Revolution Vol. 5. ed. William James Morgan. U.S. Navy Department, Washington, DC, 1970, 663.

(7) Naval Documents of the American Revolution Vol. 5. ed. William James Morgan. U.S. Navy Department, Washington, DC, 1970, 963.

(8) Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States. by George R. Putnam. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1917, 13.

24 August 2010

The Capture of General Charles Lee at Basking Ridge, NJ

General George Washington and his ragged troops retreated from Fort Lee on 20 November 1776, across the state of New Jersey, through Hackensack, Newark, Brunswick, Princeton and Trenton, before finally crossing the Delaware into Pennsylvania ahead of the oncoming British on 8 December. General Charles Lee, despite Washington’s pleas to join him immediately, was taking his time moving across the Hudson River in New York state. In fact, it is unlikely that Lee was planning to join Washington any time soon. Lee had little nice to say of Washington, and hoped to replace him as the lead American general. Instead of uniting forces with Washington on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware, Lee thought it might be better for him to launch a surprise attack against the British in New Jersey.

Lee crossed over to Peekskill, New York on 2 December, and had only made it to Morristown, New Jersey as the remnants of Washington’s force finished crossing the Delaware to Pennsylvania. On the night of 12 December, Lee decided to stay with only a small detachment of his men at the tavern of the widow White in Basking Ridge instead of with his main force in Vealtown (Bernardsville). This would prove a costly mistake.

The British commander, General William Howe, knew Lee was on his flank, and thought he had with him about 3,000 men (Lee had only about 2,000). In this dangerous situation, Howe continuously kept reconnoitering parties in the field to keep tabs on Lee. General Charles Cornwallis dispatched a patrol from Pennington on 12 December. Lieutenant Colonel William Harcourt commanded this patrol of about thirty from the British Sixteenth Regiment of Light Dragoons (dragoons were light cavalry soldiers). A twenty-two year old subaltern, Cornet Banastre Tarleton, was given command of a party of six advance guards. On 13 December, after crossing the Raritan River, the guards chanced upon a sentry guard of the rebels. He was shot down before he could fire at the British. (1) Moving forward, a second American sentry was found, but was seized and questioned. An express rider, most likely Elder Samuel McIlrath, of Mendham, was also captured, and it was he who led the British towards the widow White’s Tavern, under the threat of death.

It was ten in the morning of 13 December before Lee sat down for breakfast. Lee had spent the morning arguing with officers of the Connecticut Light Horse, and conversing with his staff on possible movements. (2) Tarleton, meanwhile, approached the house, and ordered his men to surround it and kill anyone who resisted. At their approach, a young major, James Wilkinson, who had delivered a letter to Lee at four that morning, happened to glance out the window, and alerted Lee of the British presence. Lee’s guard, of eighteen to twenty-five men, were billeted in a nearby barn, and were alerted only when the British troops made themselves known. Four or five of Lee’s men were killed, and the arms of at least two were severed. (3)
Inside of the house, as Wilkinson prepared by picking up two pistols and stationing himself in a back room to await the British assault, Lee first tried to hide himself in or behind a fireplace. Seeing he could not do this, he grabbed a weapon, and along with a Frenchman, Lieutenant Colonel Gaiault de Boisbertrand, began firing out the windows at the British. It is likely that the other two men in the house, Captain William Bradford of Rhode Island and another Frenchman – Jean Louis de Viurnejoux – joined in the defense. The firing lasted for about eight minutes according to Tarleton, when he proclaimed that if Lee would surrender himself, he and his attendants should be safe, but if my summons was not complied with immediately, the house should be burnt and every person without exception should be put to the sword.” (4)

Lee now saw that resistance surely meant death, and decided to surrender himself to the British. As the widow White begged for her tavern to be spared, Lee gave himself up as a prisoner. Still dressed in his sleeping gown, he requested that he be able to dress himself; the request was denied, and Lee and Colonel Boisbertrand were hastily taken to Pennington by the British, while the others in the house made their escape.

After the British left the area, Wilkinson hurried to his horse and rode off towards General John Sullivan, who was en route to Pluckemin with his men. When Wilkinson informed Sullivan of what had happened to Lee, Sullivan took command of Lee’s troops and continued the march to Washington’s camp on the Delaware. By 20 December, with the arrival of Sullivan’s men, Washington had about 6,000 soldiers, with more on their way. Less than a week later with his larger force, in a stroke of brilliant genius and with some luck, Washington’s army would cross the icy Delaware River in a blinding snowstorm and launch a successful surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton.


(1) At General Howe’s Side: 1776-1778. Captain Friedrich von Muenchhausen. Translated by Ernst Kipping. Philip Freneau Press, Monmouth Beach, NJ 1974. page 7
(2) A New Age Now Begins Vol. One by Page Smith. McGraw-Hill Co., New York, 1976. Page 809
(3) Archibald Robertson: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762-1780. ed. Harry Miller Lydenberg. New York Public Library, New York Times and Arno Press, NY, 1971. Page 116. And The Day is Ours! by William M. Dwyer. New York: The Viking Press, 1983. Page 146.

(4) Smith, 809.