Sunday, September 15, 2019

Episode 114 Escape from Fort Lee

Last week, the Continental Army suffered what would be its worst lost in the first five years of the war.  The British took the last 3000 Continentals on Manhattan Island when they captured Fort Washington.  In terms of American losses, this was by far the greatest American loss up to this point in the war.

General George Washington took responsibility for the loss, but said his failure was that he relied on too heavily on the advice of his more junior officers, not mentioning in his report to Congress that he was on site three days before the attack began.  Others smelled blood in the water.  General Charles Lee, now second in command in the Continental Army after Artemus Ward resigned earlier in the year, attacked Washington and his leadership.

In a letter to Benjamin Rush, Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress, Lee said that he had predicted the fall of Fort Washington and that he had left Washington saying “draw off the garrison, or they will be lost.”  There is, however, no evidence that Lee ever said that to Washington.  In fact, everything I’ve read about Lee in the days and weeks before the fall of Fort Washington said that he strongly supported reinforcing and defending Fort Washington. Lee seemed to think, probably correctly, that as Washington fell out of favor, he might be tapped to become the new commander of the Continental Army.

British ships passing between Forts Washington and Lee
(from Wikimedia)
He continued, in his letter to Rush, that he could probably save the day if Congress would give him dictatorial powers for just one week.  Then he bemoaned that this would probably never happen.  That final thought was correct.  Congress may have lost some faith in Washington, but certainly did not want a would-be dictator in command of the army.  Congress feared losing control of its own army almost as much as it feared losing to the British regulars.

Whatever the fallout was going to be over the loss, there was no time for recriminations in the days that followed.  The Continentals may have hoped that the British would not begin an invasion of New Jersey so late in the fighting season.  But that was not to be.

General Howe was uncharacteristically fast in following up his victory at Fort Washington with an assault on Fort Lee on the other side of the river in New Jersey. On the evening of November 19, only three days after Fort Washington fell, a contingent of about 5000 British and Hessians crossed the Hudson River at night.

Lord Cornwallis

Howe gave field command of British and Hessian forces in New Jersey to General Charles Cornwallis, Lord Cornwallis.  Now, I’ve mentioned Cornwallis a few times now, and he may be the best known British general in the American Revolution even though he never rose to Commander of North America.  His fame in the Revolution comes from his surrender at Yorktown, which effectively ended the war (sorry if that’s a spoiler).

I first mentioned Cornwallis back in Episode 82, when he came over from Ireland with reinforcements.  His first mission was as General Clinton’s second in command.  He participated in the failed attempt to capture Sullivan’s island in the harbor at Charleston South Carolina.  I somehow neglected to give him a background, despite his active leadership in the British invasions of Long Island and Manhattan. Since this is Cornwallis’ first independent command, it’s as good a time as any for a little background.
Lord Cornwallis
(from Wikimedia)

Charles Cornwallis was born in London in 1738 to an aristocratic family.  His father was an earl.  Like many aristocratic families whose heads served in the House of Lords, his family also controlled a seat in the House of Commons.  The Cornwallis family had controlled the seat for over 300 years.  Charles attended Eton College before buying a commission as an ensign in 1757, just after the Seven Years War began.  Despite the war, nineteen year old Cornwallis continued military studies on the Continent under Prussian officers, and at the military academy in Turin, in what is today Italy.  He did finally see action the battle of Minden in 1759. Shortly after that, he purchased a captaincy and received a brevet to Lieutenant Colonel  He led a regiment in several more European battles in the remaining latter part of the Seven Years War.

While away at war, his family saw to it that he got elected to the family seat in the House of Commons in 1761.  When his father died the following year, Charles inherited his title as earl, and moved from the House of Commons to the House of Lords.  Cornwallis’ politics were very pro-colonist.  He allied with the more radical whigs and voted accordingly  He was one of only five lords to vote against the Stamp Act in 1765.  He was a close ally of Lord Rockingham, who was the most pro-colonial Prime Minister of the era.

Despite his opposition to royal policies in Parliament, Cornwallis remained in the Kings good graces. He received a number of political appointments, including the Privy Council in 1770 and as constable of the Tower of London in 1771.  Part of this may be explained by the fact that, although Cornwallis voted with the radicals, he did not give long and contentious speeches against policies that the king favored.

In addition to politics, Cornwallis remained active in the military.  He received a commission as major general in late 1775, just before shipping out to America.  Cornwallis’ inherited wealth and position meant that he could have lived a comfortable life without having to serve in the army.  He did so out of a sense of duty.  He was also known as a commander who did not mind mixing with enlisted men and getting them motivated.  Many general officers at the time kept a strict distance from enlisted men.  Cornwallis was also a commander known for not relying on brutal lashings to maintain discipline.  Of course he used such punishments at times, but found that appealing to a unit’s sense of honor and pride often led to better results.  In this, he was forward-thinking and commanded some of the most highly disciplined and effective regiments in the army.

Cornwallis also took his duty as an officer seriously.  Although in the House of Lords Cornwallis had aligned politically with the colonists, when war broke out, he was determined that he would do his duty and crush the rebellion.  He volunteered to serve under Clinton in South Carolina and continued in that service in the multiple battles to capture New York.  Despite serving under Clinton, Cornwallis had won the trust of General Howe, who gave him the independent command in New Jersey.

Cornwallis would pursue Washington with an aggressiveness that Washington had not yet experienced.  Washington had to fight a rearguard action to keep the British in check long enough to keep his men on the move toward Philadelphia.  As Howe wanted, Cornwallis doggedly pushed the Continentals back, but never attempted to encircle and capture the enemy army.

Fall of Fort Lee

Along the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, the Continentals had posted guards by the river to prevent an uncontested landing.  But they left gaps in their lines.  One of them was at the cliffs just a few miles north of Fort Lee called Lower Closter Landing.  The Americans thought that would be an impossible landing point for the enemy.  With the assistance of three New Jersey Tories, the British learned of a trail led up the cliffs that the army could use.  It was only about four feet wide, over wet, slippery, and sometimes pretty steep rocks.  But the army could ascend there, without alerting the enemy.

British ascending the NJ cliffs at Lower Closter Landing
(from Wikimedia)
One Hessian soldier who participated in landing noted that a few men armed only with rocks could have stopped the entire advance on that trail.  But there were no guards at all.  The landing force climbed up to the top of the cliff, about 440 feet above the river, and assembled their lines of battle before dawn, completely undiscovered.  By the morning of November 20, the engineers had built lifts out of wood and rope that allowed them to pull up several small field artillery pieces to accompany the infantry.  Even without confronting any enemy, the pace was slow.  The soldiers struggled to get men, cannon, and other equipment up the treacherous cliff during a heavy rain that fell through the night and morning.

After the British had established a perimeter, and began sending out scouting parties, the locals discovered their presence in New Jersey.  General Washington received an alert to the presence on the New Jersey side of the river sometime that morning. This time there was no indecision about what to do.  Fort Lee was not built to defend against a large assault by land.  The fort walls were simply dirt embankments surrounding a small area about 250 square feet.  It had never been designed to withstand an assault or siege of any size.  The fort was built to provide support to the cannon along the Hudson River and little else.

Washington immediately sent notice to evacuate the 2000 man garrison in and around Fort Lee. Most of the garrison still there were local militia. Fort Lee was even less defensible and smaller than Fort Washington.  General Washington could not afford to have another huge chunk of his army taken prisoner.

Before receiving word of the crossing, the American forces did not seem to be on very high alert.  General Nathanael Greene was sleeping in that morning when an express messenger rode into the fort to alert him of the imminent attack.  Greene had been spending the past few days trying to remove munitions and provisions just in case the British would attack.  After losing so much at Fort Washington, the Continentals could not afford to risk the loss of more munitions and supplies.  Unfortunately, the lack of horses and wagons made the attempt to remove supplies in a timely fashion impossible.

By the time word reached the fort, the British were almost on top of them.  Cornwallis had assembled a force of 5000 British and Hessian soldiers into two columns by 1 PM.  He ordered his army ahead at the quick time on the six mile march to Fort Lee.

American Defenses on the Hudson (from Wikimedia)
The scene at the fort was one of chaos. Some men chose to ignore the news and continued eating breakfast.  Others dropped everything and fled into the woods.  Still others thought this was a good time to break into the fort’s stores and begin looting, particularly the rum.

General Greene managed to get most of the garrison into two columns and march toward where Washington was waiting a few miles from the fort.  After getting the bulk of the garrison to Washington, Green returned to the fort to gather more stragglers.  In getting the men away, the Continentals abandoned the massive stockpile of guns, ammunition, tents, and food still stored at the fort.  There was no time to pack up any wagons, even if they had wagons.

The British arrived to find the fort almost empty.  They captured about 100 stragglers.  Most were not in the fort itself, but hiding in the forest nearby, some passed out from drunkenness after breaking into the stores of rum left behind. None of the remaining defenders fired a shot.  The attackers found food still cooking on fires as the defenders had fled so rapidly.

The Hessians saw the dust cloud of the retreating army a few miles away toward Hackensack.  They started to pursue and harass the retreating column, but General Cornwallis ordered them back.  They were under orders to take the fort, not to pursue the enemy any further.  The 2000 man garrison from Fort Lee, joined by another 2000 men who had been in the field under Washington, all retreated together, back to Hackensack, where they collapsed for the night.  Washington posted sentries along the Hackensack River, but the British did not pursue them.

The fall of Fort Lee meant another embarrassing loss for Washington.  He had not lost a large number of men.  His failure, however, to secure a timely evacuation of arms and supplies meant another loss of items the army desperately needed, not only for battle but even just to keep an army in the field.  The British reported capturing cannon, munitions, tons of forage, flour, and biscuits.  Not satisfied with the windfall, the British and Hessians raided nearby estates, looting more items and capturing over 1000 head of cattle.

Pursuit Across New Jersey

Washington watched the remnants of his army stagger into camp after dark and under a light rain. Soldiers who remained with the army had to endure the cold November nights without winter uniforms, blankets, tents, or even much food.  Many militia simply gave up and went home.  Most others figured the end was near.  Although 2000 from Fort Lee met up with Washington’s contingent of about 2000 in Hackensack, Washington reported a few days later that his force was at most 3000 men, meaning the rest had deserted.

The next morning, November 21, the first British and Hessian forces approached Hackensack. They were met with return fire from the Continental lines.  The British had expected that the Americans would simply continue to run as they approached.  But the Americans held the line at the Hackensack River.

Movements across NY and NJ
(from Wikimedia)
Rather than press an attack, Cornwallis opted to wait and bring up reinforcements.  He paused for a few days awaiting additional units which would give him a total of over 10,000 soldiers to pursue the Americans.  While he waited, the Americans gave up the town and retreated further south in good order.

The Continentals pulled back to the Passaic River.  There they put up another defensive line.  Washington could not stand against the superior British force against him, but he could force them to fight for every piece of ground that they took.  The Continentals crossed the Passaic River over the Acquackanonk Bridge.  Once across, they destroyed the bridge in hopes of slowing down their pursuers.

In British occupied Hackensack, the locals initially greeted the British and Hessians as liberators.  But the Hessians especially began looting the town. General Cornwallis focused on building up stocks of food for his army.  This quickly put a stop to the political goal of getting the locals back to supporting the King.  Even without this behavior, as the British moved further south and away from New York, they found the locals to be increasingly hostile.

General Howe was fairly content.  He now had full control of Manhattan.  The capture of Forts Washington and Lee gave him a few more victories to report back to London.  Cornwallis was slowly but steadily pushing the enemy out of New Jersey, thus liberating another colony for the King.  As the Howe Brothers began thinking about settling into winter quarters, they felt they had accomplished most of what they wanted.  They had proven the Americans could not stand up to the British Army, which seemed to be able to move about at will.  The winter would give the Americans time to think about their predicament.  They would probably be ready to sue for peace before another campaign would begin in the spring.

Cornwallis, however, in his first independent command, was not ready to shut down for the winter quite yet.  After a few days of collecting stragglers and supplies around Fort Lee, Cornwallis assembled his column and marched out in pursuit of the fleeing Continental Army.  It was late November.  A cold driving rain fell on both the fleeing Continentals and their pursuers.  Muddy roads made the movement of wagons and equipment difficult.  It was more of a problem for the British since the Continentals had already abandoned most of their equipment.

The Continentals destroyed all bridges as they marched down the west bank of the Passaic River.  The regulars shadowed them a few days behind along the east bank. As the British moved south, they encouraged locals to take advantage of Howe’s offer of amnesty.  Many did so, in order to protect their property.  Most patriots had fled ahead of the British arrival.  While there was some clear hostility, or at least coldness to the British arrival at some farms and villages, most locals who remained appeared to side with the British as they marched through towns along the east coast of New Jersey.

This was critical to the British war plans.  The British would never have enough regulars or Hessian auxiliaries to occupy all of America.  They had to rely on local Tories to keep areas under the King’s authority once the army moved on to another area.  Cornwallis tried to limit looting and pillaging of the locals.  Soldiers were always eager to supplement their lives through pilfering food or valuables.  Even the army itself had to commandeer supplies along the way to feed and shelter its men.  Cornwallis, still had to struggle to keep plunder of potentially friendly locals from getting too out of control, or those locals would not remain friendly.

In many of their reports, British officers tended to blame the Hessians for all of the looting.  But given the number of regulars who were subjected to lashings or other punishments, it seems clear that many British soldiers could not resist either.  Beyond the soldiers, many civilians, former slaves, and other camp followers marched behind the army, looting and pillaging whatever they could find.

Of course, Washington’s army was guilty of many of the same crimes.  Starving Continentals and militia, many without food, shoes, or blankets, availed themselves of opportunities to acquire whatever they needed, however they could.  Being on the run, Washington had a hard time attracting any new recruits to what looked like a lost cause.  He was lucky to hold on to the soldiers he already had.

The Continental Army reached Newark where it remained for a few days.  Washington hoped that local militia would rally around the army and give them enough men to make a stand.  His army marched into Newark on November 23 or 24, and remained there until November 28.  He sent a note to Congress in Philadelphia, warning them that the British might pursue the army that far and take the city before the end of the year.  Some in Congress, not realizing the state of affairs, were shocked and panicked at the idea that the British might soon get to Philadelphia.

On November 28, Cornwallis’ force entered Newark as the last of the Continentals retreated south out of the other end of town.  As Cornwallis’ regulars moved south, Washington’s Continentals once again retreated further south to New Brunswick. Washington had failed to rally any militia. The Continentals were in no position to engage in a sustained battle.  Both armies continued to move across New Jersey toward Philadelphia.

Next week: I want to step away from the battlefield.  I’m going to take a look at what the Continental Congress thought about recent events as well as diplomatic efforts.

- - -

Next Episode 115: Congress and Diplomacy

Previous Episode 113 The Fall of Fort Washington

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Further Reading


Gen. Wilhelm Von Knyphausen:

Col. Johann Rahl (sometimes spelled Rall) :

Letter from George Washington to John Hancock, 27 November 1776, Founders Online, National Archives,

Fleming, Thomas "The Enigma Of General Howe" American Heritage, Vol. 15, Issue 2 (Feb. 1964):

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The Detail and Conduct of the American War, under Generals Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, and Vice Admiral Lord Howe, (original reports and letters) The Royal Exchange, 1780.

Carrington, Henry Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781, A.S. Barnes & Co. 1876.

Drake, Samuel A. The Campaign of Trenton 1776-77, Lee and Shepard, 1899.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 3, Washington: St. Claire Clarke, 1837.

Johnston, Henry The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn, Long Island Historical Society, 1878.

Martin, Joseph Plumb The Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier, 1830 (This is a copy of the original print, but in poor quality.  You can borrow a better quality copy or listen to a free audio copy of the book) or see below in "books worth buying" section.

Stryker, William Battles Of Trenton And Princeton, Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1898.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Atkinson, Richard The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, Henry Holt & Co. 2019

Daughan, George C. Revolution on the Hudson: New York City and the Hudson River Valley in the American War of Independence, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2016.

Dwyer, William The Day Is Ours: How a Ragged Rebel Army Stood the Storm and Saved the Revolution,  Viking, 1983.

Fischer, David Hackett Washington’s Crossing, Oxford Univ. Press, 2004.

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Lefkowitz, Arthur S. The Long Retreat, The Calamitous American Defense of New Jersey 1776, Upland Press, 1998.

McCullough, David 1776, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Schecter, Barnet The Battle for New York, New York: Walker Publishing, 2002.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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