In the early morning hours of August 19th, 1779, Major “Light Horse” Harry Lee led a daring attack on the heavily fortified island of Paulus Hook. New York City was firmly under the control of the British, and had been since the Washington’s devastating and embarrassing defeats at the Battles of Long Island and White Plains in the Fall of 1776. And just across the Hudson River, Paulus Hook, situated in present-day Jersey City, was also under British control; It was the only permanent British stronghold in New Jersey during the war. The site was originally purchased in 1658 by Peter Stuyvesant from the local Native Americans with the intent of constructing a Dutch fort, and it remained a fort under British colonial rule. A small spit of land, Paulus Hook was an ideal spot for a fort, as it was surrounded by water on two sides and by salt marshes on the other two sides, which would flood during high tide, thus isolating the fort.
In the summer of 1776, with the revolution underway, the Americans stationed at Paulus Hook under William Alexander, the self-proclaimed “Lord Stirling,” traded fire with British warships sailing through New York Harbor. After the fall of New York City on September 15, 1776, General Washington ordered Major General Hugh Mercer, then in command of the fort, to evacuate across the Jerseys. Within hours, British troops had landed on the beach at Paulus Hook. For nearly three years, the Union Jack flew over the fort, effectively guarding New York Harbor.
Inspired by General Anthony Wayne’s successful nighttime raid on the fort at Stony Point, New York in July of 1779, Major Lee intended to do the same at Paulus Hook, just thirty miles south of Stony Point on the Hudson River. Despite his misgivings due to the geography and proximity of the well fortified island to New York, then teaming with British troops, Washington reluctantly agreed to the attack. On the afternoon of August 18th, Lee assembled four hundred troops at New Bridge (present-day River Edge, New Jersey), comprised mostly of the 16th Virginia Infantry and two Maryland Companies, and including one troop of dismounted dragoons. They marched fourteen miles through dense forests toward Jersey City, then known as Bergen Town. At 3:30am, the Americans reached the ditch at the present intersection of Newark Avenue and Warren Street. Facing muggy, humid summer air, swarms of mosquitos, and a quickly rising tide, Lee and his men rapidly forded the canal. Without any light, and wet powder from the canal and marsh crossings, Lee ordered the men to fix bayonets and approach the fort. The British, realizing that the approaching troops were American, and not a Hessian patrol that had left the fort earlier that evening, opened fire. Two Americans were killed and three were wounded, but within twenty minutes, they had taken the fort without firing a single shot. Major Sutherland, the British commander in charge, had remained deep within the fort, surrounded by a handful of officers and forty Hessians. In the barracks of the fort, Lee found sick soldiers, women, and children, and as a result, decided not to burn them as he had originally intended. He instead took 159 prisoners and retreated from Paulus Hook with daylight, knowing that British reinforcements would soon be arriving from across the Hudson. He ordered Captain Forsyth to the wooded heights of Prior’s Mill (present-day Journal Square) to cover the retreat, but the Americans faced little resistance as they marched out of Bergen Town, prisoners in tow. They completed the fourteen mile march back to New Bridge at around 1:00pm that afternoon, weary yet jubilant. Though they had not taken the fort at Paulus Hook, their nighttime attack was considered a marvelous success, especially given the great risk involved. Paulus Hook remained in British hands for the remainder of the war.
For his bravery, the Second Continental Congress gave Major Lee $15,000 to be distributed among the men engaged in the raid. On September 22, 1779, they presented him with a gold medal for his brave actions at the Battle of Paulus Hook, an award given to no other officer below the rank of general. After the Revolution, Lee went on to serve as Governor of his home state of Virginia then served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is also the father of General Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Army of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Today, “Lighthorse Harry” Lee’s actions at the Battle of Paulus Hook are commemorated with a granite oblisk at the corner of Washington and Grand Street in Jersey City, erected in 1903 by the Daughters of the American Revolution. It stands today, amid the bustle of one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas, as a reminder of the bravery and selfless patriotism that Lee and his men displayed in the swamps and salt marshes of Bergen Town on a muggy August night in 1779.