NEW BRIDGE IN
THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
“We stand on Revolutionary ground, hallowed by martial mementos of the past … New Jersey was battle ground in the war of the Revolution; and our good county of Bergen, though not distinguished by those brilliant though brief successes that gave lustre to the names of Trenton, Princeton and Monmouth, was the constant arena of war. Tradition has well preserved the story of many a fray, and the sufferings and stout resistance of the Bergen yeomanry, who with a few inglorious exceptions, in the years when the stronghold of the enemy was in our great city, stood shoulder to shoulder in that protracted strife and slept not but on their arms.”
Abraham O. Zabriskie, Esq., speaking at Bull’s Ferry on July 22, 1847
Famous Faces at New Bridge in the American Revolution.
While a constant arena for conflict, the following significant Revolutionary War events are associated with New Bridge:
British troops under Major General Vaughan attacked the American rear guard on November 21, 1776, and seized the New Bridge, which American engineers were dismantling.
British and Loyalist troops under command of Captain Patrick Fergusen attacked about 40 Bergen militiamen at New Bridge on May 18, 1779.
Major Henry Lee led American troops from New Bridge, August 18, 1779, to attack the British earthworks at Paulus Hook (Jersey City).
A force of Bergen Militia and Continental troops attacked 600 British troops and German auxiliaries at New Bridge on their retreat from Hackensack & Paramus on March 23, 1780, during the 2 hours it took for the British to repair and cross the New Bridge.
A body of 312 British, Loyalist and German infantry attacked and overwhelmed an American outpost at New Bridge commanded by Lieutenant Bryson on April 15, 1780.
Eight British soldiers were killed and several wounded by friendly fire when British troops attempted to attack a body of Bergen Militia in the Zabriskie-Steuben House at New Bridge on May 30, 1780.
Brigadier General Anthony Wayne led American troops from New Bridge on a raid against the Bull’s Ferry Blockhouse on July 20, 1780.
General Washington made his headquarters in the Zabriskie-Steuben House during the Steenrapie Encampment (along Kinderkamack Rd) of the Continental Army, encompassing 14,000 men, on September 4-20, 1780.
The Day the American Revolution Almost Died
by Kevin Wright ©2015
You can stand at the Alpine Lookout on the Palisades Interstate Parkway and contemplate the remarkable site where British troops landed and scaled the Palisades on November 20, 1776, with the intent to capture the Continental garrison at Fort Lee. This daring maneuver precipitated the American Crisis and darkest hour in the War for American Independence. To help fill in the void in our understanding of the places where history was made that fateful day, I have compiled the following account:
Fort Washington commanded the highest point on Manhattan island and, in companionship with Fort Lee on the opposite heights, was positioned to obstruct British naval operations on the Hudson River. When British men-of-war passed the guns of these forts and avoided sunken obstacles in the river, General George Washington concluded that Fort Washington should be abandoned and ordered General Nathanael Greene to evacuate “Mount Washington as you judge best, and so far revoking the order given to Col. Magaw to defend it to the last.” When Washington arrived at Fort Lee, however, he did not press the matter against the objections of Generals Greene, Putnam, Mercer and Colonel Magaw. He did however forbid General Nathanael Greene from sending further reinforcements across the river. As he later admitted to his inner circle of friends, Washington hesitated against his better instinct.
Fort Washington fell to a British assault on November 16, 1776, when Colonel Robert Magaw surrendered 2,700 Continental defenders, who crowded its inner works. Its loss not only greatly embarrassed the American cause, but also its namesake commander, General George Washington, who now added this latest fiasco to a stinging string of defeats and harrowing escapes. Without an American navy to contest British command of the seas and waterways, New York City was lost. Fort Lee was rendered useless and a greatly humbled General Greene immediately began evacuating military stores as fast as wagons became available, starting with gunpowder and ammunition, but received no boats from Newark despite several urgent requests.
Most fortuitously for the fledgling nation, Generals Washington, Putnam, Mercer and Greene narrowly escaped capture, having ill-advisedly crossed the river in a small boat as the enemy advance upon Fort Washington commenced. Returning to the safety of the Jersey shore, Washington supposedly watched from a vantage atop the crest of the Palisades as the hapless American garrison, betrayed and besieged, surrendered an hour later. Unable by itself to close the Hudson River to the British navy, Fort Lee and its outlying artillery batteries atop the Palisades, situated uncomfortably on a narrow neck of land between the Hackensack and Hudson Rivers, were ordered abandoned.
Fort Lee was a square earthworks with four bastions, occupying the neighborhood now defined by Parker Avenue, Cedar and English Streets in Fort Lee. The often separately named Fort Constitution comprised “several batteries facing the North River in which several 32 pounders in addition to 2 middle sized and one extraordinarily heavy iron mortar are located.” These heavy guns were positioned on Bluff Point, east of Hudson Terrace Street, overlooking the river. The narrow road rising from Bourdet’s ferry in Edgewater passed through a ravine between these works.
On October 8, 1776, General Greene ordered soldiers’ barracks to be built no closer than 50 rods (825 feet) to the fort, or south and west of Dead Bridge Brook (now LeMoine Avenue). As Hessian Colonel Colonel Earl Emilius von Donop later reported, “At the summit of the forts themselves [which is to say, on the high ground southwest of these fortifications] there were huts and tents for more than 6000 men and quantities of all sorts of provisions and a large amount of ammunition.” Thomas Sullivan of the 49th Regiment of Foot, described “very artificial and convenient huts, at Fort Lee, [made] of timber lined with a kind of mortar, each held four men commodiously, and had large ovens and other necessaries made there for their winter quarters.” He was probably describing what Lt. Joseph Hodgkins (Massachusetts) referred to as a “Log House with a stone Chimney” on September 30, 1776. After the fall of Fort Washington, the garrison at Fort Lee grew to about 2,700 men, many being five-months’ enlistees in Generals Heard’s Brigade from New Jersey, General Beal’s Brigade from Maryland, and part of General Ewing’s Brigade of Pennsylvanians, whose term of service was nearing expiration. They were sent to remove military supplies from Fort Lee to Ackquackanonck (Passaic), Springfield, Bound Brook, and Princeton.
Even though winter was fast approaching, the weather was still mild enough for the British to build on their momentum and conclude their campaign around New York City, perhaps to even end the rebellion. The moon shone half full and faded to blue as November 19, 1776, dawned sunny but cold, melting away a dewy frost. At eventide, a heavy rain drenched Manhattan and fog curtained the daybreak. Under command of Lieutenant-General Lord Cornwallis and his deputy, Major-General John Vaughan, two divisions of British troops were to set out across the Hudson River on a daring expedition into New Jersey.
The first division, composed of about 2,500 British and German troops, clamored aboard about 50 flatboats and bateaux at Kingsbridge (West 230th Street in the Bronx) on what was then the northernmost tip of Manhattan, awaiting orders to row out of the Spuyten Duyvil and to land “about 5 miles further up the River” at a carefully chosen spot at the base of the Palisades. These troops passed “a very disagreeable night in the Flat boats, under a thick heavy Rain.” Starting out at 9 p.m., a second division of approximately 2,500 troops marched up Broadway from Kingsbridge to “Colonel Cortlands House…”, where they waited until 3 a.m., when they began marching to a landing point (near what is now Ludlow Metro-North Railroad Station) on the river for embarkation.
Undoubtedly accompanied by at least one of several Loyalist guides (who knew the highways and byways of Bergen County well enough), Lord Cornwallis sailed under the rainy half-moon to inspect the narrow pass up the steep Palisades that his army was to scale at daybreak. Given low visibility, especially in a constant downpour, it seems probable (to me) that Loyalist guides with lanterns would have had to pinpoint the proposed landing site from the shore. In any event, arriving at midnight, the British commander stared in utter disbelief at the half-mile ascent up the steep escarpment that was pointed out to him, where his troops would have to climb a stony path scarcely four feet wide to overcome a nearly vertical rise of 420 feet in elevation.
Unconvinced an ascent of the cliff at the Closter New Dock (also know as Lower Closter Landing and later Huyler’s Landing) was feasible, he explored about two and a half miles further north along the river, probably viewing Closter Dock (Alpine Boat Basin), which he found even more unpromising: the ascent was equally daunting, but its choice would have added several more miles and hours to the march on Fort Lee, thus costing the invaders the element of surprise. Moreover, the proximity of 5,000 American troops in the Highlands under Major General William Heath would pose a threat to the British rear as they advanced southward. Another 7,000 American troops under Major-General Charles Lee were stationed at North Castle in Westchester County, NY, posing an additional threat to the defense of Manhattan, now depleted by the troops who would make the crossing.
With daylight approaching, Cornwallis returned to the Lower Closter Landing and ordered an advance guard of two companies of light infantry to scramble to the top of the Palisades and form a defensive perimeter, which would be enlarged as soon as the first division, composed mainly of light infantry and chasseurs, began landing at daybreak (6:48 a.m.) on November 20, 1776, passing out of the Spuyten Duyvil and into the Hudson River. According to Colonel Earl Emilius von Donop, the landing point and upward climb seemed “dreadful and impractical.” He noted, “All the troops had to pass one at a time up a steep path that was hardly 4 feet wide.”
All this did not pass unnoticed. And, thanks to the pioneering research of military historian Todd Braisted we may finally dispense with legend and appreciate the facts of history. Todd has found evidence that American guards were placed at Bergen (Jersey City), Hoboken, Bull’s Ferry, Hackensack and, most critically, on or near Clinton Point, about three miles above Fort Lee and directly opposite Spuyten Duyvil. It was this latter outpost of American sentinels who spied British transports on the river and fired warning shots to alert the garrison. Its officer commandeered a horse and headed south to warn Fort Lee and its breakfasting garrison. Given the distance, it would have taken at least an hour for this officer to reach the fort and appraise its commander of the developing situation.
Most importantly, Braisted has identified Lieutenant John Clifford, of Heard’s Brigade of New Jersey State Troops, as the “officer” whom eyewitness Tom Paine described in The American Crisis as arriving “with information that the enemy with 200 boats had landed about seven miles above.” Thus informed, General Greene immediately ordered the garrison to assemble under arms and sent word to General Washington in Hackensack by way of Little Ferry (moving at four m.p.h., a horse and rider would have taken about an hour and a half to complete the six-mile journey). But, according to Washington’s secretary, Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Harrison, an express rider from Orangetown, New York, arrived at Washington’s headquarters in Hackensack at 10 a.m., bringing the first news of the British landing above Fort Lee. According to Thomas Paine, “General Washington arrived in about three-quarters of an hour, and marched at the head of the troops towards the bridge…” But arrived where? Did Washington meet the advance troops of the retreating garrison of Fort Lee at Liberty Pole (Englewood) as is commonly told?
Probably not. According to aide-de-camp Major William Grayson’s report to General Mercer, dated November 20, 1776, “an advanced party of them [i.e., the British] proceeded as far as a Hill, two miles above the Liberty Pole, at the crossroads, where I left his Excellency. The Road leading from thence to Hackensack [New] Bridge as well as the Bridge is open for our people to retreat & from present Appearances it is expected they may be got off without Loss of many of them….” Sending a similar report to General Charles Lee, Grayson again noted the British troops were halted on “a Hill two miles above the Liberty Pole, about a mile and a half above General Greene’s Quarters, where I left his Excellency.”
Thus, it seems Washington and his staff road out to General Greene’s headquarters somewhere in the English Neighborhood, although it is not clear from Grayson’s statement whether Greene’s headquarters was a half mile above the Liberty Pole or a mile and a half below it (in Leonia?). In any event, this was the decisive “crossroads” at the intersection of Tenafly Road and West Palisade Avenue, where two roads led from Liberty Pole towards New Bridge, the only span across the Hackensack River that might carry the Fort Lee garrison to safety: Liberty Road, described as a “bye-road to New Bridge”, veered northwest and thus closer to the assembling enemy force; whereas Lafayette Place departs southwest to Genesee Avenue, continuing southwest on Loraine Avenue to Forest Avenue, and thence to Teaneck Road, which turns north to its junction with New Bridge Road.
Washington and Greene, portraits by Thomas Stothard, 1783. The large watercolors are a recent donation to BCHS from the Hallowell Black Americana Collection.
Reinforced by lead elements of the first division, the British atop the mountain advanced westward ("to the right”), reaching the nearest houses, firing a few shots, and taking a few prisoners. They advanced “about 2 miles into the country,” reaching the intersection of East Madison Avenue and Engle Street in Cresskill, where they halted as the second division began crossing the river from the vicinity of Mount St. Vincent—the highest point on Tetard’s Hill—at about 8 a.m., completing their passage by about 10 a.m. Once the second division was atop the cliff, there was further delay as seamen from the transports helped drag eight light artillery pieces up the steep path, a task they completed at about 1 p.m. Captain Johann Ewald, having landed with the second division, noted, “We climbed ashore along a steep bluff and scaled the rocky and bushy height as quickly as possible. At the top, we found several plantations in a district called Dunne fly [Tenafly] where the jaguars and light infantry deployed in a semicircle behind the stone walls and posted sentries by platoon at distances of three hundred paces. Fort Lee lay two hours away from us on the left.”
In my humble estimation, it was there and then—standing in Greene’s headquarters and facing a crisis potentially fatal to his cause— that Washington truly assumed decisive command of the Continental army, willing to act upon his best appraisal of the military situation, even if it meant overriding his generals’ opinions. It was a two-way street for his generals had also learned from the humbling loss of Fort Washington and now offered advice, but ultimately deferred to their commander-in-chief’s judgement.
“Upon reaching the vicinity of Liberty Pole, Washington perceived the enemy’s “intent evidently was to form a line across from the place of their landing to Hackensack [New] Bridge and thereby hem in the whole Garrison between the North [Hudson] and Hackensack Rivers.”
He knew he had “not above 3000 Men, & they much broken & dispirited not only with our ill Success, but the loss of their Tents & Baggage….” He quickly realized that defense of the fort was untenable and that his immediate task was to preserve the army under his command. Hence he immediately ordered the hurriedly assembled garrison to cross to the west side of the Hackensack River at New Bridge and personally led his troops towards that vital crossing. With a loud explosion, mistaken by some for cannon fire, the fort’s powder magazine was blown up. As Washington stated later in his correspondence, “we were lucky enough to gain the Bridge before them, by which Means we passed all our Men, but were obliged to leave some hundred Barrels of Flour, most of our Cannon and a considerable parcel of Tents & Baggage.” About two hours after its garrison marched off, General Greene returned to the huts and tents outside Fort Lee to round up several hundred more men. It was this last body of retreating Americans that an advance guard of the invaders spied on the road.
Lord Cornwallis formed his men into two columns, with his reserve on the left, and began marching south down Tenafly Road at about 2 p.m. At the outset of the march, he was about seven miles from Fort Lee. As Captain Ewald would later record in his journal—
“As soon as the grenadiers joined us, the corps advanced a half an hour farther into the country, and both Jager companies were posted on the highway [presumably Tenafly Road] somewhat forward toward New Bridge. I saw a plantation lying at a distance of a thousand to twelve hundred paces, whither I proceeded with several jaguars to learn from the inhabitants just where I was. The owner of the house approached and informed me that this highway [Liberty Road?] ran to New Bridge, a small place where there was a bridge over the Second River [i.e., Hackensack River], which joined another road [presumably West Palisade Avenue] from [the English] Neighborhood that one must take to get to Fort Lee.”
“During this conversation I discovered a great glitter of bayonets and a cloud of dust in the distance – Who is that? – That must be the garrison of Fort Lee! – Can’t we cut them off from the bridge? – Yes, you have only two English miles from here to there! – I ran back to Captain Wreden and told him of my discovery. He believed that these people were the second column of our army. I wanted to know the truth and took several jaguars with me to draw near this column in the flank, crawling from stone wall to stone wall, and discovered that it was American. I began to skirmish with them and sent back a jager to fetch more men, but instead of jaguars, I received an order from Lord Cornwallis to return at once. I had to obey, and informed him what I had discovered.”
“ ‘Let them go, my dear Ewald, and stay here. We don not want to lose any men. One jager is worth more than ten rebels.’ ”
There is no other recorded account yet discovered of any skirmish along the route of the American retreat. Instead, the British columns continued towards Fort Lee, abandoned by all but a hundred stragglers and drunks. Completing a nine and a half mile march from their landing point on the Hudson River, the advance guard of British and German troops reached Fort Lee at about 4 p.m. The main columns (“after making a large detour”) arrived at Fort Lee at about 5 p.m. By then, it was dark.
Captain Thomas Glyn later reported, “Lord Cornwallis’ Corps took possession of the Fort and Redoubt, where we found great Magazines, several pieces of Cannon, a very convenient Block House for the protection of our troops.” An important storehouse full of corn [wheat] was found at the foot of the mountain in Edgewater and large quantities of provisions were stored in almost every house. Echoing Lord Cornwallis’ assessment, Johann Emanual Wagner, of the Von Minnegerode grenadier battalion, wrote, “The hope is now indulged in that most of the Rebels will return to their homes because they had pinned their faith on Forts Washington and Lee.” British troops would demolish Fort Lee and the “Rock Redoubt and Batteries depending” on December 10, 1776.
Without a single entrenching tool, however, Washington perceived the level country between the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers would be equally unsuitable to making a stand against a superior enemy force. Thus, on November 21st, he continued the retreat across the Passaic River at Acquackanonk Bridge, where he paused awaiting three regiments left to defend the crossings on the Hackensack River. Looking over his shoulder at the well-tended farms of the Jersey Dutch, he greatly regretted leaving “a very fine country open to their Ravages, or a plentiful Store House from which they will draw voluntary supplies.”
At 9 a.m. on November 21, 1776, Major-General Vaughan set out from Fort Lee with the 2nd Battalion Light Infantry, the 2nd Battalion Grenadiers, one company of Chasseurs and the Donop jager company to secure New Bridge. According to Captain Johann Ewald,
“Toward morning on the 21st the 1st battalion of Light Infantry under Colonel Abercromby, and the Donop Jager Company under Captain Wreden, occupied New Bridge where there was a bridge over the Hackensack River, which cannot be detoured. The Americans had occupied the houses on both sides of the bridge and defended themselves very well, but in spite of this the post was forced and the greater part were killed, wounded or captured."
Ensign Henry Strike, of the 10th Regiment of Foot, also participated in the advance to the strategic river crossing, and left his account for posterity,
“We push’d on New-Bridge, where the Rebels (on our appearance) began to set fire to their Stores, and some Houses; but on Our advancing to the bridge, they fled without effecting as much Mischief as intended; as a good part of the Stores fell into Our hands. On the March one of our flanking parties fell in with a Rebel advanced Guard and kill’d 2, or three of them. This day a body of Light Dragoons landed and joined us. At night we took post at Old Bridge [River Edge-New Milford], which ye Dastardly Rebels had broke down to stop the pursuit. 22 miles from New-York.”
Thomas Paine immortalizes this event in The American Crisis, first published a month later on December 23, 1776;
Our first object was to secure the bridge over the Hackensack, which laid up the river between the enemy and us, about six miles from us, and three from them.
Read more on the Steuben House page.
New Bridge in Maps of the American Revolution
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