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The Hessians and the other German auxiliaries of Great Britain in the revolutionary war/19 The Neighborhood of New York, 1777 to 1779

< The Hessians and the other German auxiliaries of Great Britain in the revolutionary war




Chapter XIX.


THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF NEW YORK, 1777 TO 1779.


The history of the Revolutionary War is principally the history of a series of important expeditions, conducted with varied success, against various parts of North America. The contending armies appeared, fought, and disappeared again. But the city of New York was occupied from the summer of 1776 to the autumn of 1783 by the British troops. In the country, within a short march of Manhattan Island, hostilities were ever recurring. At no time during the first five years could the inhabitants of the villages of central New Jersey or southwestern Connecticut feel themselves safe. The forts on the Hudson were taken and retaken.

It may not be uninteresting, in this connection, to look at a description of New York as seen by Hessian eyes at the time of the British occupation. The following extract is taken from a letter written by an officer who came over with reinforcements in the summer of 1777, and gives his first impressions:

“Now to give you an idea of America, or rather, of the little piece of America that we have become acquainted with. I cannot help saying that it is a beautiful, pleasant, and level country, and New York, although the part nearest the sea is burned down, one of the finest and most pleasing seaports that I have yet seen. For the houses are not only all built in English fashion, regular and handsome, and most of them like palaces, but are also all papered and very expensively furnished. It is, therefore, a pity that this country, which is also very fruitful, is inhabited by such wretches, who in their luxury and wantonness have not known what to do with themselves, and who have only their pride to thank for their fall. Every one at home who takes their side, and thinks they had a reasonable ground for rebellion, should, for a punishment, live awhile among them, and so understand the condition of things here (for the worst man here, if he will only do something, can live like the richest at home). Whoever would do this would soon change his tone, and understand that not poverty, but crime and luxury, are the cause of the whole rebellion. For although most of them are descended from runaway vagabonds who were driven out from other places, yet they are so arrogant, and live in such state in all parts of the country, and especially in New York, as I hardly believe to be practised anywhere else in the world. For instance, the women, who are almost all handsome, be they the wives of shoemakers, tailors, or day-laborers (which last, however, are but few, for almost every soul here has a few black slaves to wait on him), go daily in mantles of silk or muslin. This luxury increases daily, for they receive much money from the troops, and do not have to give so much as a grain of salt for nothing. Nothing is, indeed, more annoying than that people who after all are no more than rebels, must, by express order of the king, be treated by the soldiers with the greatest politeness; and, as I said above, not a grain of salt can be demanded of them gratis. So the poor soldiers would have to die of hunger if they did not receive threepence worth of ships' provisions every day, consisting of a pound of biscuit, salt pork hardly fit to eat, a few mouldy beans, a little oat-meal, and a little rum; on which they must live, though many of them lose their health.”[1]

In the skirmishes and smaller expeditions about New York the Hessians generally took part; and it may be worth while to glance at a few of these events before turning to the more important operations in the Southern States, by which the fate of the country was finally decided.

In the latter part of August, 1778, the Jäger Corps was posted on the Spyt den Duyvel Hills, near Courtland's Plantation. Early in the morning of the 31st, a captain with one hundred and fifteen chasseurs, of whom fifteen were mounted, was sent out on a scouting expedition towards the Phillips House. They had marched less than half an hour when they were surprised by a party of Americans and Indians under the Chevalier Armand, who had been in ambush in a ravine on the right hand side of the road. Sixteen chasseurs were killed, wounded, or taken, and the others ran away. Colonel von Wurmb, who commanded the Jäger Corps, hastened to the assistance of his detachment as soon as he heard the firing, but the Chevalier Armand retired with his prisoners, and crossed the Phillips Manor towards East Chester, where Lieutenant-colonels Cathcart, Simcoe, and Emmerich were posted with their light troops.

The lieutenant-colonels heard of Armand's approach, and immediately prepared an ambuscade. Simcoe and Cathcart drew off their infantry into the woods, on the right and left, and so placed themselves as to command a defile through which the Americans and Indians had to pass. Emmerich's infantry was drawn up to await the attack, with orders to fall back before the enemy. Emmerich posted himself with the cavalry behind a hill, ready to charge on the attacking party as soon as it should have been drawn into the open. Captain Ewald, with two companies of chasseurs, was sent by Lieutenant-colonel von Wurmb to the support of Emmerich's infantry.

The plan of the lieutenant-colonels was successfully carried out. About four in the afternoon the Americans and Indians appeared on the field of battle. Emmerich's skirmishers retreated before them, and drew them into a field of Indian corn, where they were suddenly attacked in front and rear and upon both flanks. All the Indians were killed except one, who was left to tell the tale. They belonged to the Stockbridge tribe, and were led by Sachem Neham. About fifty Americans were taken prisoners, but Armand and some others escaped through the bushes.

Eelking remarks on this story that it is a proof that the Americans did not disdain to use Indian allies in this war, as well as the British. A distinction is surely to be drawn between leading Indians against British and German soldiers, as was here done by the Americans, and sending them against the inmates of lonely farm-houses and unprotected hamlets, as was constantly done by the king's servants. The Stockbridge tribe are said to have been in so far destroyed and so completely discouraged in this expedition that they took no further part in the war.[2]

Ewald does not confine himself to stories that tell to the glory of his own side. Besides accounts of Trenton, Redbank, and other important actions in which Hessians or Englishmen were defeated, he has a chapter on the bold and lucky strokes made by small parties of Americans. Thus, he tells how, in the spring of 1777, the British had collected a large quantity of forage at Sag Harbor, on Long Island, and how Colonel Meigs started from Guilford, in Connecticut, with less than two hundred men, in whale-boats. They crossed the Sound on a stormy night, dragged their boats over the land, launched them again, landed near Sag Harbor, surprised the guard, destroyed the provisions, burned several vessels, took a number of English prisoners, got into their boats again, and reached Guilford safely. A similar descent was made at Cow Bay in broad daylight in November, 1780. In 1781 a Brunswick major was kidnapped from his quarters on the north side of Long Island. Indeed, it was the custom for small bands of Americans to land on the island, dodge the English and German soldiers, and plunder the Tories. These expeditions were conducted with great boldness, and are a complete answer, according to Ewald, to the accusations of want of courage sometimes made against the Americans in this war. “He who has served against this nation,” says he, “will be convinced of the contrary, and will not be able to speak of them with contempt.”[3]

Ewald relates, with great admiration, the gallant taking of Stony Point by the Americans, under Anthony Wayne, on the 16th of July, 1779. “Do not these men deserve to be admired?” cries he, “who, but a few years before, had been lawyers, doctors, ministers, or farmers, and who, in so short a time, made themselves excellent officers, putting to shame so many of our profession who have grown gray under arms, but who would have been in a frightful state of mind if they had been commissioned to carry out such a plan. I shall perhaps be told that these men were endowed by nature with a great talent for war. This may be the case with one or another of them, but, on the whole, nature is not so extravagant with her favors. Allow me to say it, these people did not choose military service as a refuge, as the nobility generally does, nor as a house of correction for an ill-bred son who would not learn anything at the academies, as is often the case among the middle classes, but they chose this profession with the firm resolution of being zealous in every way, of serving their country usefully, and of pushing themselves forward by their merits. I was sometimes astonished when American baggage fell into our hands during that war to see how every wretched knapsack, in which were only a few shirts and a pair of torn breeches, would be filled up with military books. For instance, the ‘Instructions of the King of Prussia to his Generals,’ Thielke's ‘Field Engineer,’ the partisans ‘Jenny’ and ‘Grandmaison,’ and other similar books, which had all been translated into English, came into my hands a hundred times through our soldiers. This was a true indication that the officers of this army studied the art of war while in camp, which was not the case with the opponents of the Americans, whose portmanteaus were rather filled with bags of hair-powder, boxes of sweet-smelling pomatum, cards (instead of maps), and then often, on top of all, some novels or stage plays.”[4]

The British kept permanent possession of two or three places on the western side of the Hudson. One of these places was Paulus Hook, now Jersey City. The Hook was a peninsula made up of steep, rocky hills, and surrounded in part by the Hudson and in part by a marsh intersected by creeks and ditches. The position, strong in itself, was fortified with palisades, block-houses, and redoubts. It was occupied by a battalion of New Jersey Tories, under Lieutenant-colonel Bushkirk.

On the 18th of August, 1779, a party of forty Hessians, with two officers, were brought over to reinforce the garrison of Paulus Hook, and at nine in the evening of that day Bushkirk started on an expedition towards the new bridge over the Hackensack, some fourteen miles distant. Meanwhile, Major Henry Lee, of Virginia, with about three hundred men, supported by Lord Stirling with about five hundred more, approached the new bridge in the opposite direction, under pretence of foraging. Here Stirling halted, but Lee during the night came near Paulus Hook, having passed Bushkirk unperceived. On approaching the fort, Lee sent an officer, with a small party, forward to reconnoitre. The officer reported that the garrison were not on the alert. Lee then advanced with his command. They forded the ditches, entered the fort, and surprised a number of Provincials, sleeping in a block-house. They then approached a second block-house, occupied by a small party of Hessians. “Wer da?” cried the sentry. “Stony Point!” answered the Americans. The sentry fired, and thus gave the alarm, but the under-officer in command of the block-house surrendered with ten or fifteen men. Lee next surprised and took possession of the principal redoubt, and the whole of Paulus Hook seemed his. Fortunately for themselves, however, some twenty-five Hessians had their wits about them. They threw themselves into a small redoubt, where they were joined by their captain and by Major Sutherland, commanding the post, and refused to yield. Lee, who had not known that any Hessians were in the fort, and who probably overrated their numbers, made off before morning without even spiking the cannon or destroying the war material. He took with him about one hundred and fifty prisoners. Lee had received orders not to attempt to hold the place, and a rapid retreat was necessary to prevent his being cut off; but the twenty-five Hessians, by their gallant conduct, had probably prevented the capture or destruction of the stores and buildings in the fort, and had certainlysaved their side from the appearance of a complete and shameful disaster.[5]



The Hessians - Paulus Hook.jpg

PAULUS HOOK.—(from THE LIBRARY AT CASSEL.)

PLAN

of the surprise of an English post at Paulus Hook, in the Province of Jersey, at half-past two in the night of the 18th-19th of October, 1779.

A.  Approach and position of the rebels on the heights of Bergen, to cover the retreat.
B.  Attack on the bridge and the blockhouses 1, 2, and 3, and on the fort C, which mounted seven 6-pounders. These did not succeed in firing.
D.  Barracks in which the English garrison, one hundred and ten strong, were taken prisoners.
E.  Work which a Hessian captain and one officer with twenty-five men occupied; whereupon the rebels retired at daybreak, with their prisoners.




  1. Schlözer's “Briefwechsel,” vol. iii. pp. 32, 33.
  2. Eelking's “Hülfstruppen,” vol. ii. p. 17 and note; Ewald's “Belehrungen,” vol. ii. pp. 312-318. I can find no other account of this skirmish either in German journals or in Washington's correspondence, which at this time is almost entirely devoted to events on Rhode Island. Ewald was an eye-witness, however, and he is very trustworthy as to the main facts of his stories, though they generally lose nothing in his telling.
  3. Ewald's “Belehrungen,” vol. ii. pp. 247, 248.
  4. Ewald's “Belehrungen,” vol. ii. pp. 284-293.
  5. Marshall, vol. iv. pp. 87-92; Washington, vol. vi. pp. 317, 326, 332, 333, 336, 376; Bancroft, vol. x. p. 229; Ewald's "Belehrungen," vol. ii. pp. 295-299; MSS. journals of Chasseur Corps, Regiment von Lossberg (Piel and Heuser), Wiederhold's Diary. See also the "Life of General Henry Lee," by General Robert E. Lee, prefixed to Lee's "Memoirs of the War," etc. General R. E. Lee says that Paulus Hook was entered by a stratagem, but this statement is not confirmed by any German account, nor by Marshall.