The attack on Paulus Hook

Paulus Hook was a set of fortifications held by the British at what is now Jersey City, where the old canal entered the Hudson, a few hundred yards north of Ellis Island. It has since been backfilled and developed. Originally a small peninsula surrounded by marsh, it connected the mainland by a causeway, and was the main landing point before the war for travelers going into Bergen County from New York City. The British Navy protected it and its position did not allow the Americans to try and hold it before the British arrival. The causeway could be crossed only at low tide.
Paulus Hook became a thorn in the side of the Whigs of the Hackensack Valley. Constantly, Loyalist patrolled and raided into Bergen County, pillaging, foraging and capturing people. Finally, in 1779, Major Henry Lee "Light Horse Harry", who lead a corps of light dragoons, decided to capture it, following the success of the capture of Stony Point, in New York below West Point, which had been taken by the British. Lee had a minor part in that assault.
In August, Lee gathered intelligence from the local militia about Paulus Hook, and sent Captain Allen McLane to reconnoiter the area. It was necessary to make a night assault during low tide. Timing was critical.

The attack was finally made on August 19th, in the predawn hour of 4 am. Loyalist Col. Buskirk lead out a patrol of over 100 men that night, but the two forces luckily did not meet. Lee sent dragoons and infantry to guard the roads near the Hook. Nearing the area of the Hook, they went into the woods and became disoriented, losing two hours. The attack was made in three columns, one to each side of the main attack. Rushing in with the bayonet, the garrison was surprised and quickly over run except for 40 or more men in a blockhouse. Due to the lateness of the attack, the Americans had to quickly leave before more British troops could be brought there by boat, and their retreat cut off. Lee decided against burning any buildings because they held sick British soldiers and women and children.

The following is from "The Spirit of Seventy-Six", edited by Henry Steele Commanger and Richard B. Morris, page 890-891

Monday, August 16. Moved toward Powles Hook to reconeter. Took two prisoners on Hobuck.Returned with the party to Hackinsack. This night lay at Storms house.
Tuesday, 17 Aug. Drew four days provisions. Detached two sergeants [?] with 12 men eatch to lay in Bergain Woods. This night lay near the liberty pole.
Wensday, 18 August. This morning received orders from Maj. Lee to take post in the wood near Bargan in order to intercept the communications between Powles Hook and the [?] and to join him at a sertain place in the woods near the Three Pigeons in order to conduct him to attack Powles Hook. Met him and after some difficalty arrived at the works half past three in the morning. Stormed them without more loss than tow men killed and five wounded who killed about fifty, took 150 prisoners, 9 officers.
Thursday 19, 1779 August. and then retired to the new bridge the distance of 22 miles.
-McLane Papers, Lib II, NY Historical Soc.

Captain Levin Handy to George Handy
Paramus, 22 August, 1779
Before this reaches you I doubt not but you have heard of our success at Powles Hook, where the enemy had a very strong fort, within one and a quarter miles from New York. We started from this place on Wednesday last half after ten o'clock, taking our route by a place called New Bridge on Hackensac River, where my two companies were joined by three hundred Virginians and a company of dismounted Dragoons, commanded by Captain McLane. We took up our line of march about 5 o'clock in the evening from the bridge, the nearest route with safety, to Powles, distant then about twenty miles, with my detachment in front, the whole under command of the gallant Major Lee. The works were to be carried by storm- the whole to advance in three columns, one of which I had the honour to command.
The attack was to commence at one half after 12 o'clock, but having been greatly embarrassed on our march, and having a number of difficulties to surmount, did not arrive at the point of attack till after four o'clock in the morning, when, after a small fire from them, we gained their works and put about fifty of them to the bayonet, took one hundred and fifty-seven prisoners, exclusive of seven commanding officers; this was completed in less than thirty minutes, and a retreat ordered, as we had every reason to suppose unless timely it would be cut off. Our situation was so difficult that we could not bring off any stores. We had a morass to pass of upwards of two miles, the greatest part of which we were obliged to pass by files, and several canals to ford up to our breast in water. We advanced with bayonets, pans open, cocks fallen, to prevent any fire from our side; believe me when I assure you we did not fire a musket.
You will see a more particular account of it in the papers than it is in my power to give you at present. It is thought to be the greatest enterprise ever undertaken in America. Our loss is so inconsiderable that I do not mention it.
- Reed, Life and Correspondence of Reed, II, 125-126

Part of the garrison of Paulus Hook was with Colonel Buskirk in the country. Another part, with Major Sutherland, a subaltern and 25 Hessians, holed up in one of the blockhouses within the works. They refused to surrender, and their presence, with reinforcements only minutes away by boat, caused the attackers to retreat without taking the time to spike the guns or destroy the stores or works. After 8 am the British sortied with their reinforcements, but could not catch the main American party.
Some of the troops involved were some local militia from Capt. Outwater's company and others. They probably acted as guides. In attacking in three divisions, two of the forces had to wade across marshes to attack the flanks.


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I recommend also Captain John Outwater's Co. of Bergen county Militia web page.


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