Washington and Lee University

Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley

CHAPTER III.

Separation of Lee's corps from Bland's regiment—Lee's attack on, and dispersion of a detachment of Donop's Hessian yagers—Confidence reposed in Major Lee by Washington—Attack on and surprise of Paulus Hook by a detachment under Lee's command—Washington's praise of Lee—Thanks of Congress and a gold medal voted to Lee—Promotion of his officers, and pecuniary rewards to his men—Lee sent on a confidential mission to Count D'Estaing by Washington.

AFTER the formation of Major Lee's command into a separate partisan corps, it was, of course, detached from the regiment of Colonel Theodorick Bland, who was subsequently employed in guarding the Convention prisoners taken at Saratoga and sent to Virginia, while Lee's Legion was engaged in most active service throughout the whole war.

In September, 1777, when the main army under Washington was encamped at White Plains, a detachment from the British lines at Kingsbridge, made a foray in the intervening district, plundering the inhabitants, without distinction, of provisions and forage, and even of the very clothes on their backs. Of these ruffians, a party composed of one hundred of Captain Donop's Hessian yagers, pursuing their depredations between Tarrytown and Dobbs's Ferry, fell in with a detachment of infantry under Colonel Richard Butler, and of cavalry under Major Henry Lee, by whom they were completely surprised. Ten of them were killed on the spot, a lieutenant and eighteen privates were made prisoners, and the whole would have been captured or killed if the roughness of the country had not impeded the operations of Lee and his troopers, and enabled the yagers to escape by scrambling up hill-sides or plunging into ravines.[note 1]

Of the confidential nature of the services committed by Washington to Major Lee, we may form some estimate by the following letter, from the commander-in-chief to the partisan officer, at the time when the celebrated storming of West Point was meditated:

I have received your letter, dated yesterday, and thank you for the information it contained. I have now to request, that you will endeavor to employ some person in whom you can confide, and who at the same time is intelligent, to go into the works at Stony Point, or, if admittance is not to be gained, to obtain the best knowledge of them he can, so as to describe the particular kind of works, the precise spots on which they stand, and the strength of the garrison. If you should succeed in this point, I must beg you will transmit to me, without delay, a sketch of the works, that I may be able to form an accurate idea of them. You will yourself take the best view you can, that you may the better know whether the report you get from the person sent in is to be relied on. Describe the number of armed vessels and their situation, and keep the contents of this letter to yourself.

Writing to General Wayne, July 14th, 1779, the day before the storming of Stony Point, Washington says, “As it is important to have every information we can procure, if you could manage in the meantime to see Major Lee, it may be useful.”

The brilliant success of General Wayne at Stony Point fired the ambition of Lee to undertake some grand exploit of the same description; and as his ordinary duty was to observe the position and movements of the enemy, and detect the most assailable points of attack, he was not long in discovering one entirely suited to his purpose. This was the post at Paulus Hook, opposite New York.

The inception and execution of this brilliant affair is thus described by Judge Marshall.[note 2]

While Sir Henry Clinton continued encamped just above Haerlem, with his upper posts at Kingsbridge, and the American army preserved its station in the Highlands, a bold plan was formed for surprising a British post at Paulus Hook, which was executed with great address by Major Lee.

This officer was employed on the west side of the river with directions to observe the situation of the British in Stony Point, but, principally, to watch the motions of their main army. While his parties scoured the country, he obtained intelligence which suggested the idea of surprising and carrying off the garrison at Paulus Hook, a point of land on the west side of the Hudson, immediately opposite the town of New York, penetrating deep into the river. On the point nearest New York, some works had been constructed, which were garrisoned by four or five hundred men.

A deep ditch, into which the water of the river flowed, having over it a drawbridge connected with a barred gate, had been cut across the isthmus, so as to make the Hook, in reality, an island. This ditch could be passed only at low water. Thirty paces within it was a row of abattis running into the river; and some distance in front of it, was a creek fordable only in two places.

This difficulty of access, added to the remoteness of the nearest corps of the American army, impressed the garrison with the opinion that they were perfectly secure; and this opinion produced an unmilitary remissness in the commanding officer, which did not escape the vigilance of Lee.

On receiving his communications, General Washington was inclined to favor the enterprise they suggested; but withheld his full assent, until he was satisfied that the assailants would be able to make good their retreat.

The Hackensack, which communicates with the waters of the Hudson below New York, runs almost parallel with that river quite to its source, and is separated from it only a few miles. This neck is still farther narrowed by a deep creek which divides it, and empties into the Hackensack below Fort Lee. West of that river runs the Passaick, which unites with it near Newark, and forms another long and narrow neck of land. From Paulus Hook to the new bridge, the first place where the Hackensack could be crossed without boats, the distance is fourteen miles; and from the North river to the road leading from the one place to the other, there are three points of interception, the nearest of which is less than two miles, and the farthest not more than three. The British were encamped in full force along the North river, opposite to these points of interception. To diminish the danger of the retreat, it was intended to occupy the roads leading through the mountains of the Hudson to the Hackensack with a select body of troops.

Every preparatory arrangement being made, the night of the eighteenth of August was fixed on for the enterprise. A detachment from the division of Lord Stirling, including three hundred men designed for the expedition, was ordered down as a foraging party. As there was nothing unusual in this movement, it excited no suspicion. Lord Stirling followed with five hundred men, and encamped at the new bridge.

Major Lee, at the head of three hundred men, took the road through the mountains which ran parallel to the North river; and, having secured all the passes into York Island, reached the creek which surrounds the Hook between two and three in the morning. He passed first the creek, and then the ditch undiscovered; and, about three in the morning, entered the main work, and with the loss of only two killed and three wounded, made one hundred and fifty-nine prisoners, including three officers. Very few of the British were killed. Major Sutherland, who commanded the garrison, threw himself with forty or fifty Hessians into a strong redoubt, which it was thought inadvisable to attack, because the time occupied in carrying it might endanger the retreat. Wasting no time in destroying what could easily be replaced, Major Lee hastened to bring off his prisoners and his detachment.

To avoid the danger of retreating up the narrow neck of land which has already been described, some boats had been brought in the course of the night to Dow's Ferry on the Hackensack, not far from Paulus Hook. The officer who guarded them was directed to remain until the arrival of the troops engaged in the expedition, which, it was understood, would happen before day. The light having made its appearance without any intelligence from Major Lee, the officer having charge of the boats conjectured that the attack had been postponed; and, to avoid discovery, retired with them to Newark. The head of the retreating column soon afterwards reached the ferry; and, fatigued as they were by the toilsome march of the preceding night, were compelled to pass as rapidly as possible up the narrow neck of land between the two rivers to the new bridge. A horseman was dispatched with this information to Lord Stirling, and the line of march was resumed.

About nine in the preceding evening, Major Buskirk had been detached up the North river with a considerable part of the garrison of Paulus Hook, and some other troops, for the purpose of falling in with the American party supposed to be foraging about the English neighborhood.

On receiving intelligence of the disappointment respecting the boats, Lord Stirling took the precaution to detach Colonel Ball with two hundred fresh men to meet Lee, and cover his retreat. Just after Ball had passed, Buskirk entered the main road, and fired on his rear. Taking it for granted that this was only the advanced corps of a large detachment sent to intercept the party retreating from Paulus Hook, Ball made a circuit to avoid the enemy; and Buskirk, finding a detachment he had not expected, took the same measure to secure his own retreat. The two parties, narrowly missing each other, returned to their respective points of departure; and Lee reached the new bridge without interruption.[note 3]

This critical enterprise reflected much honor on Major Lee with whom it originated, and by whom it was conducted. General Washington announced it to the army in his orders with much approbation; and Congress bestowed upon it a degree of applause more adapted, says Marshall, to the talent displayed in performing the service than to its magnitude.

In his letter to the President of Congress, (May 23d, 1779,) inclosing Lee's report of the capture, Washington says, “The Major displayed a remarkable degree of prudence, address, enterprise, and bravery on this occasion, which does the highest honor to himself and to all the officers and men under his command.”

Congress passed resolves highly complimentary to Major Lee, thanking him for “the remarkable prudence, address, and bravery, displayed by him in the attack on the enemy's fort and works at Paulus Hook.” Much praise was also bestowed on the officers and soldiers composing his party. A medal of gold, emblematical of the affair, was ordered to be struck and presented to Major Lee. The brevet rank and pay of captain were given to Lieutenants McAlister and Rudulph, respectively; and fifteen thousand dollars in money were to be distributed among the non-commissioned officers and privates, in such a manner as the commander-in-chief should direct.[note 4]

Washington writing to Lee, Oct. 7, 1779, says, “I have given a warrant to Captain Rudulph for the sum granted by Congress to the non-commissioned officers and privates concerned in the attack on Paulus Hook. You will be pleased to distribute this money in proportion to the pay of the non-commissioned officers and privates, which was the manner observed in the case of Stony Point. You may in future, or while on your present command, mark your letters private.

The confidential service on which Lee was employed at the time this letter was written, we learn from Washington's letter to the President of Congress, of Oct. 4th, 1779, in which, speaking of the expected arrival of the Count D'Estaing on the coast, with the French fleet, he says, “But as there is a possibility that he may, on being made acquainted with the numbers and situation of the enemy, prefer an attack on Rhode Island, I have desired General Gates to be looking towards, and preparing for such an event. I had upon the first report of the Count's standing towards this coast, stationed Major Lee at Monmouth, with a letter for the Count, to be carried on board on his first appearance, in which I informed him of the enemy's force by sea and land, and their position at that time, and pointed out to him the measures which I thought would be advantageous for him to pursue on his arrival.”

It is evident that Lee was chosen for this confidential mission, not only on account of his superior prudence and address, so necessary to insure the safe delivery of the letter, but on account of the intelligence and promptness required to answer all inquiries which the Count might wish to make of Washington's chosen messenger, (an officer of rank,) with respect to the state of the country and the war. It was a highly honorable, as well as a confidential mission.