Last week I discussed the Sullivan Expedition against the Iroquois, which turned out to be the major Continental initiative for 1779. The bulk of the Continental Army, however, remained near New York City, in North Jersey and southern New York.
Washington at West Point
The main source of contention in the area that spring had been the British capture of Stony Point in May, then the Continental recapture in July, which I discussed a few weeks ago. In June, while the British had still occupied Stony Point, George Washington left the main Continental encampment in Middlebook, New Jersey, and traveled to West Point in New York. He left command of the main army at Middlebrook with his most senior Major General Israel Putnam.
Overall, Washington seemed to have a good position. If he did not have the resources to attack the British garrisons at New York or even Newport, Rhode Island, he also felt comfortable that the British would not be engaging in any major offensive operations either. Through Colonel Benjamin Talmadge he was receiving good intelligence from the Culper spy ring about British activities in New York.
In late June Washington participated in the festival of St. Johns at a local Masonic Lodge. On July 4, he ordered celebratory fire for the third anniversary of independence, and also pardoned all Continental soldiers who were then sitting under a sentence of death.
After the Continentals took back Stony Point in mid-July, Washington ordered the destruction of all fortifications on the Point and abandoned it. Washington believed that the Point was too isolated and could be subject to a British counter-attack.
Instead, Washington moved from his headquarters north of West Point, and established himself at another home only a mile from West Point. There, the general personally oversaw the improvement of the defenses. He wanted to be sure that if the British attempted to move up the Hudson River again, that West Point would be an impregnable fortress that would block any further movement into the Hudson Valley.
Queries: Political and Military
By the summer of 1779, Washington had put the Conway Cabal more than a year behind him. He had the solid support of the army, as well as in Congress and the public generally. This is not to say that everyone was happy with him though.
On July 6, the Baltimore Journal & Public Advertiser published a front page anonymous article entitled “Some Queries: political and military, humbly offered to the consideration of the Public”. The article consisted of a series of “questions” which were designed to lead the reader to a conclusion.
The article began by noting that the ascension of King George I had brought to power a Tory influence, which had led to rebellion and the limitations of rights in Britain. These included a greater influence of the crown in government, establishment of large standing armies, and restrictions on the liberties of Englishmen.
The article went on to suggest that states were taking away the liberties and even the voting rights of dissenters, leading the new patriot governments down the same road to tyranny that Britain was already travelling. It also noted a similar concentration of power was taking place in America, with power concentrating on one man: George Washington.
It noted that military victories were primarily due to the leadership of men like General Gates and General Arnold, while General Washington seemed to get all the credit. It noted that General Lee had warned Washington of his errors during the New York campaign of 1776 and that Washington’s incompetence led to those losses as well as the loss of an army at Fort Washington.
The article queried that perhaps Washington, rather than General Sullivan, should be blamed for the loss at Brandywine. Washington also bore blame for the loss at Germantown, and it was only luck that the British did not bother to finish off the army at Valley Forge.
It implied that General Lee was forced out of the army using a stacked court martial, that Washington had put his thumb on the scales of justice, and that the removal was all based on lies.
In short, the article reiterated all the attacks that had been made on Washington over the prior three years. The response to this attack, however, made clear how much the political situation had changed in the prior year. To the extent the public read the article at all, people generally condemned it. Washington, of course, did not speak about it publicly. In private letters, he essentially said people were already well aware of these complaints and that his public support spoke for itself. President of Pennsylvania, Joseph Reed had a letter published in the same newspaper attacking the premises of the queries. The editor of the paper ended up publishing an apology for publishing the article in the first place.
Eventually, the anonymous author was outed as General Charles Lee, at this time still on his one year suspension following his court martial. In the end, the article only lowered public opinion toward Lee, while confidence in Washington remained high.
Not letting himself get distracted by these political attacks, General Washington remained focused on the British in New York City. Following the British withdrawal from Philadelphia, the British had also evacuated all of its outposts in New Jersey, except for a very few toeholds right along the coast which could be protected by the British Navy. One of those toeholds was at Paulus Hook.
The Continentals had built the fortifications there in 1776. After the British took New York and the Americans retreated, the British army occupied the abandoned Paulus Hook and continued to occupy it through 1779.
Following the successful attack on the British outpost at Stony Point, the Continentals looked around for other similar outposts to attack. Paulus Hook looked like a viable target. To lead the raid, Washington turned to Major Henry Lee.
Light Horse Harry Lee
It is not clear if Lee had yet received the nickname of “Light Horse Harry”. Lee came from one of the most prominent families in Virginia. He was of no relation to disgraced General Charles Lee. His father was the first cousin to Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, both delegates to the Continental Congress.
|Light Horse Harry Lee
Henry was still a teenager when the war began. Even so, because of his family’s status, he received a commission as a captain in the Virginia cavalry regiment that was formed in 1775. Captain Lee arrived at Boston by the beginning of 1776 when his regiment was absorbed into the Continental Army.
Lee’s cavalry company quickly began operating as an independent unit, apart from the larger regiment, with Lee in command. He provided scouting and reconnaissance support to General Benjamin Lincoln and General Lord Stirling in New Jersey during the Forage Wars of 1777. His company carried out raids against British patrols and outposts.
General Washington took notice of this young officer’s abilities and began issuing orders directly to the captain as an independent cavalry commander. Washington also offered to bring Lee onto his personal staff. Lee declined, wishing to remain in the field.
The following year, while the army was at Valley Forge, Lee continued his services as a scout and a forager. His men lived off the land during a time when the army could not provide for them, and even captured food supplies headed to the British in Philadelphia, which they sent to Valley Forge. During this same winter, Lee had multiple encounters with British cavalry units, including one commanded by Captain Banastre Tarleton.
By the spring of 1778, after the British evacuated Philadelphia, Washington requested that Lee receive a promotion to major and that he be given command of three cavalry troops. Lee continued his work with the Continental Army in northern New Jersey and southern New York, providing reconnaissance and foraging for the main army.
When Washington ordered General Anthony Wayne to attack Stony Point, Lee’s soldiers provided the intelligence on the fort’s defenses. Following the success of Stony Point, Major Lee proposed to General Washington that he be permitted to launch a similar attack on Paulus Hook.
Lee first wrote to Washington about his plan. Washington invited Lee to West Point where the two men spoke in person. Washington thought the plan needed more work and sent Lee back to draw up a more detailed plan.
Lee sent his best scout, Captain Allen McLane to surveil the defenses at Paulus Hook. McLane had done the surveillance for Stony Point, even entering the fort dressed as a civilian and speaking to one of the officers about the fort’s defenses.
McLane and Lee did not seem to get along well personally. McLane was a decade older than Lee. He had raised his own cavalry troop in Delaware when the war began. His precise involvement in the early years of the war is a matter of dispute, but his cavalry troop was one of those who were put under Major Lee’s command in 1778 when Lee’s command grew to those three cavalry units.
Lee and McLane immediately ran into confrontations when Lee ordered McLane’s troop to give up its horses and travel on foot. McLane had not agreed to that when he had joined under Lee’s command, but had no choice but to obey orders.
After conducting surveillance on Paulus Hook, McLane recommended against an attack. He had seen the fort’s defenses for himself and had also spoken with a deserter from the fort’s garrison, who gave him detailed information on the number of men and internal defenses.
As I said, the reason the British had maintained this outpost in New Jersey was that it had a great many natural defenses. The only land approach was over a narrow path through a salt marsh. The British had placed several cannons behind a defensive enclosure to cover the path leading to the fort. British combat engineers had added abatis and other defensive entrenchments to make any approach even more difficult. To access the fort, the garrison had installed a drawbridge over a water-filled ditch. Inside the fort there was another redoubt with more abatis, along with even more cannons that could be brought to bear on any attack. To back up the fort, British frigates patrolling New York Harbor could come to the fort’s aid if the fort raised an alarm.
Major William Sutherland of the 64th regiment commanded the fort. His garrison consisted of more than 250 men, a mix of regulars, Hessians, and NJ loyalists. There were also a sizable group of noncombatants, wives and children of the soldiers, inside the fort.
Despite the risks, Lee proceeded with the attack. On the morning of August 18, 1779, Major Lee set out from his base in Paramus. He took empty wagons with him so that it would seem to anyone watching that he was leaving on a standard foraging mission. With him were two companies of Marylanders under the command of Captain Levin Handy. He met up, as planned, with about 200 Virginia infantry as well as McLane’s dismounted cavalry. The total force of about 400 men left New Bridge by 4:00 PM for the sixteen mile march to Paulus Hook.
The night march did not go well. Major Clark, who was senior to Major Lee, was annoyed that Lee had command of the brigade. The two men had words about it during the march. Although Clark remained with the attack, about 100 of the Virginia soldiers abandoned the mission and disappeared. It took nearly twelve hours for the men to arrive near the fort. By that time, it was nearly dawn, which would ruin the element of surprise. The tide was also rising, making it more difficult to get across the swampy terrain and ditches that impeded passage to the fort.
Without firing a shot, the attackers ran forward, threw themselves over the walls of the parapet and entered the central redoubt. They killed or wounded about fifty of the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. The fighting was over in a matter of minutes, with 158 of the enemy taken prisoner. The Americans suffered only two killed and three wounded.
The British commander, Major Sutherland, was not among the prisoners. Sutherland still held a small blockhouse in the fort, supported by forty or fifty Hessians. The Americans were unable to take the blockhouse without taking great casualties. The sounds of alarm shots across the river in New York City made clear that the British were alerted to the attack and that soon British ships would be at the fort, ready to attack.
Knowing this, Major Lee opted to leave with what he had already achieved. He left Major Sutherland and the Hessians in their blockhouse. He did not bother to spike the fort’s guns. He had planned to burn the fort’s wooden barracks, but learning that there were invalids, as well as women and children in the barracks, he demurred, not having time to evacuate the building before he could destroy it.
Instead, Lee formed his columns and began retreating with his prisoners. The plan was to march west to the Hackensack River, where General Lord Stirling had left 300 men in support, along with boats to take the raiders upriver. Lee’s men arrived to find -- nothing. As it turned out, the officer had been at the rendezvous point, but had expected Lee to arrive hours earlier, while it was still dark. The officer in charge of the boats, seeing no sign of Lee or his men, and not wanting to hang out in daylight in sight of the enemy, had sailed back up to Newark.
The Continentals’ situation was becoming desperate. The men had been on the march for over thirty hours, with no meal breaks, and had fought a major battle. They were soaking wet from their assault on Paulus Hook. Their ammunition was damaged by the water. They could only move slowly because the prisoners were dragging their feet, hoping for rescue. There was an enemy foraging party in the region that could attack them at any time, and there was no telling if the British were sending out a large rescue party that could descend on the retreating army at any time.
They had no choice but to continue on foot and hope for the best. Lee divided his three columns to begin the march to the north, dividing the prisoners to march with each column as well. As they began their desperate escape from British territory, they finally had some good news. About half of the Virginians that had abandoned the attack the previous day, showed up for duty. Since these men had working guns and dry powder, Lee divided up the 50 reinforcements to serve as a rearguard for each of the three columns.
A short time later, the columns encountered a larger group of 200 Continentals, sent by Lord Stirling to search for them. The reinforcements arrived just in time because shortly afterward, a group of loyalists attacked the column.
The attackers were loyalists under Lieutenant Colonel Abraham Van Buskirk. These loyalists had left Paulus Hook on a foraging mission before Lee’s attack. They came across the retreating columns on their return and engaged.
Fortunately for the Americans, the reinforcements from Lord Stirling exchanged a few volleys before the attackers withdrew from the superior force. The column continued its march to New Bridge, with their prisoners. Once back to safety, within American lines, the men collapsed and got some much-needed rest.
The Continental celebrated the raid as a great victory. The Continental Congress sent a commendation to Major Lee, and struck a gold medal in his honor. Lee was the only officer below the rank of general to receive such a medal during the Revolutionary War. Congress also granted a reward of $15,000 to be distributed among the men who participated in the mission. Of course, $15,000 in depreciated continental paper money in 1779 was not as much as it once was, but still a nice gesture.
Since Lee did little damage to the fort itself, other than capturing most of the garrison, the British sent reinforcements to reoccupy the fort at Paulus Hook. They would continue to garrison the fort until the end of the war.
Next week, John Paul Jones raids the British coast.
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Queries: Political and Military https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N18813.0001.001/1:15.13?rgn=div2;view=fulltext;q1=Memoirs
Queries in Newspaper: https://www.loc.gov/resource/mgw4.059_1078_1080/?sp=1
Hickman, Kennedy American Revolution: Major General Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, 2019: https://www.thoughtco.com/major-general-henry-light-horse-harry-lee-2360601
Schenawolf, Harry “Captain Allen McLane: Death Defying Spymaster of the American Revolution” Revolutionary War Journal, March 3, 2019: https://www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/capt-allen-mclane-legendary-hero-spymaster-of-the-american-revolution-or-a-regular-soldier-who-just-did-his-duty
The Battle of Paulus Hook: https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1779/battle-paulus-hook
Battle of Paulus Hook: https://www.historynet.com/battle-of-paulus-hook.htm
Cecere, Michael “The Court Martial of Major Henry Lee” Journal of the American Revolution, September 10, 2019. https://allthingsliberty.com/2019/09/the-court-martial-of-major-henry-lee
(from archive.org unless noted)
Alden, John R. General Charles Lee, traitor or patriot? Baton Rouge, Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1951 (borrow only).
Baker, William Spohn Itinerary of General Washington from June 15, 1775, to December 23, 1783, Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott Co. 1892.
Boyd, Thomas Light-horse Harry Lee, New York: C. Scribner's sons, 1931 (borrow only).
Farrier, George H. Memorial of the centennial celebration of the battle of Paulus Hook, August 19th, Jersey City: M. Mullone, 1879.
Gerson, Noel B. Light-Horse Harry: A Biography of Washington's Great Cavalryman, General Henry Lee, Doubleday & Co. 1966 (borrow only).
Sherman, William T. (ed) A Sketch of Allan McLane (1828) by Alexander Garden, of Lee’s Legion.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Cole, Ryan Light-Horse Harry Lee, Regnery, 2018.
Gerson, Noel B. Light-Horse Harry: A Biography of Washington's Great Cavalryman, General Henry Lee, Doubleday & Co. 1966 (or borrow as free book, see above).
Michell, Craig Bergen Summer 1779: The Enterprise Against Paulus Hook, Bergen County Historical Society, 1979.
Piecuch, Jim and John Beakes 'Light Horse Harry' Lee In the War for Independence, Nautical & Aviation Pub Co of Amer, 2013.
Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan Company, 1952.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.