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.
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.
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.
(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.
(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.
(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.