American Revolution: Battle of Paulus Hook

Henry
Major General Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Paulus Hook - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Paulus Hook took place on August 19, 1779, during the American Revolution (1775-1783). 

Armies & Commanders

United States

Great Britain

  • Major William Sutherland
  • 250 men

Battle of Paulus Hook - Background:

In the spring of 1776, Brigadier General William Alexander, Lord Stirling directed that a series of fortifications be built along the west bank of the Hudson River opposite New York City.

  Among those that were constructed was a fort on Paulus Hook (present-day Jersey City).  That summer, the garrison at Paulus Hook engaged British warships as they arrived to commence General Sir William Howe's campaign against New York City.  After General George Washington's Continental Army suffered a reverse at the Battle of Long Island in August and Howe captured the city in September, American forces withdrew from Paulus Hook.  A short time later, British troops landed to occupy the post.  

Situated to control access to northern New Jersey, Paulus Hook sat on a spit of land with water on two sides.  On the landward side, it was protected by a series of salt marshes that flooded at high tide and could only be crossed via a single causeway.  Upon the hook itself, the British built a series of redoubts and earthworks which were centered on an oval casemate containing six guns and a powder magazine.

  By 1779, the garrison at Paulus Hook consisted of around 400 men led by Colonel Abraham Van Buskirk.  Additional support for the post's defense could be summoned from New York through the use of a variety of signals.         

Battle of Paulus Hook - Lee's Plan:

In July 1779, Washington directed Brigadier General Anthony Wayne to mount a raid against the British garrison at Stony Point.

  Attacking on night of July 16, Wayne's men achieved a stunning success and captured the post.  Taking inspiration from this operation, Major Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee approached Washington about making a similar effort against Paulus Hook.  Though initially reluctant due to the post's proximity to New York City, the American commander elected to authorize the attack.  Lee's plan called for his force to overwhelm Paulus Hook's garrison at night and then destroy the fortifications before withdrawing at dawn.  To accomplish the mission, he assembled a force of 400 men consisting of 300 from the 16th Virginia under Major John Clark, two companies from Maryland overseen by Captain Levin Handy, and a troop of dismounted dragoons drawn from Captain Allen McLean's rangers.          

Battle of Paulus Hook - Moving Out:

Departing from New Bridge (River Edge) on the evening of August 18, Lee moved south with the goal of attacking around midnight.  As the strike force covered the fourteen miles to Paulus Hook, problems ensued as a local guide attached to Handy's command became lost in the woods delaying the column for three hours.  Additionally, a portion of the Virginians found themselves separated from Lee.

  In a stroke of luck, the Americans avoided a column of 130 men led by Van Buskirk that had sortied from the fortifications.  Reaching Paulus Hook after 3:00 AM, Lee ordered Lieutenant Guy Rudolph to reconnoiter for a path across the salt marshes.  Once one was located, he divided his command into two columns for the assault.

Battle of Paulus Hook - Bayonet Attack:

Moving through the marshes and a canal undetected, the Americans found that their powder and ammunition had become wet.  Ordering his troops to fix bayonets, Lee directed one column to break through the abatis and storm Paulus Hook's outer entrenchments.  Surging forward, his men gained a brief advantage as the sentries initially believed the approaching men were Van Buskirk's troops returning.  Swarming into the fortress, the Americans overwhelmed the garrison and forced Major William Sutherland, commanding in the colonel's absence, to retreat with a small force of Hessians to a small redoubt.

  Having secured the remainder of Paulus Hook, Lee began to assess the situation as dawn was rapidly approaching.

Lacking forces to storm the redoubt, Lee planned to burn the fortress' barracks.  He quickly abandoned this plan when it was found that they were filled with sick men, women, and children.  Having captured 159 enemy soldiers and achieved a victory, Lee elected to begin withdrawing before British reinforcements arrived from New York.  The plan for this phase of the operation called for his troops to move to Douw's Ferry where they would cross the Hackensack River to safety.  Arriving at the ferry, Lee was alarmed to find that required boats were absent.  Lacking other options, he men began marching north over a route similar that used earlier in the night.

Battle of Paulus Hook - Withdrawal & Aftermath:

Reaching Three Pigeons Tavern, Lee reconnected with 50 of the Virginians who had become separated during the movement south.  Possessing dry powder, they were quickly deployed as flankers to protect the column.  Pressing on, Lee soon connected with 200 reinforcements sent south by Stirling.  These men aided in repelling an assault by Van Buskirk a short time later.  Though pursued by Sutherland and reinforcements from New York, Lee and his force safely arrived back at New Bridge around 1:00 PM. 

In the attack at Paulus Hook, Lee's command suffered 2 killed, 3 wounded, and 7 captured while the British incurred over 30 killed and wounded as well as 159 captured.  Though not large-scale victories, the American successes at Stony Point and Paulus Hook helped convince the British commander in New York, General Sir Henry Clinton, that a decisive triumph could not be obtained in the region.  As a result, he began planning a campaign in the southern colonies for the following year.  In recognition of his achievement, Lee received a gold medal from Congress.  He would later serve with distinction in the South and was the father of noted Confederate commander Robert E. Lee.

Selected Sources