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THE ENEMY CROSS THE HUDSON - RETREAT OF THE GARRISON
IN CASE OF EXTREMITY.
WITH the capture of Fort Washington, the project of obstructing the navigation of the Hudson, at that point, was at an end. Fort Lee, consequently, became useless, and Washington ordered all the ammunition and stores to be removed, preparatory to its abandonment. This was effected with the whole of the ammunition, and a part of the stores, and every exertion was making to hurry off the remainder, when, early in the morning of the 20th, intelligence was brought that the enemy, with two hundred boats, had crossed the river and landed a few miles above. General Greene immediately ordered the garrison under arms, sent out troops to hold the enemy in check, and sent off an express to Washington at Hackensack.
The enemy had crossed the Hudson, on a very rainy night, in two divisions, one diagonally upward from King's Bridge, landing on the west side, about eight o'clock; the other marched up the east bank, three or four miles, and then crossed to the opposite shore. The whole corps, six thousand strong, and under the command of Lord Cornwallis, were landed, with their cannon, by ten o'clock, at a place called Closter Dock, five or six miles above Fort Lee, and under that line of lofty and perpendicular cliffs known as the Palisades. "The seamen," says Sir William Howe, "distinguished themselves remarkably on this occasion, by their readiness to drag the cannon up a very narrow road, for nearly half a mile to the
top of a precipice, which bounds the shore for some miles on the west side. " 1
Washington arrived at the fort in three-quarters of an hour. Being told that the enemy were extending themselves across the country, he at once saw that they intended to form a line from the Hudson to the Hackensack, and hem the whole garrison in between the two rivers. Nothing would save it but a prompt retreat to secure the bridge over the Hackensack. No time was to be lost. The troops sent out to check the enemy were recalled. The retreat commenced in all haste. There was a
want of horses and wagons; a great quantity of baggage, stores and provisions, therefore, was abandoned. So was all the artillery excepting two twelve-pounders. Even the tents were left standing, and camp-kettles on the fire. With all their speed they did not reach the Hackensack River before the vanguard of the enemy was close upon them. Expecting a brush, the greater part hurried over the bridge, others crossed at the ferry, and some higher up. The enemy, however, did not dispute the passage of the river; but Cornwallis stated in his despatches, that, had not the Americans been apprised of his approach, he would have surrounded them at the fort. Some of his troops that night occupied the tents they had abandoned.
From Hackensack, Colonel Grayson, one of Washington's aides-de-camp, wrote instantly, by his orders, to General Lee; informing him that the enemy had crossed into the Jerseys, and, as was reported, in great numbers. "His Excellency," adds Grayson, thinks it would be advisable in you to remove the troops under your command on this side of the North River, and there wait for further commands."
Washington himself wrote to Lee on the following day (November 21). "I am of opinion," said he, " and the gentlemen about me concur in it, that the public interest requires your coming over to this side of the Hudson with the Continental troops. . . . The enemy is evidently changing the seat of war to this side of the North River, and the inhabitants of this country will expect the Continental army to give them what support they can; and failing in that, they will cease to depend upon, or support a force from which no protection is to be derived. is, therefore, of the utmost importance, that at least an appearance of force should be made, to keep this province in connection with the others."
1 Some writers have stated that Cornwallis crossed on the 18th. They have been misled by a letter of Sir William Howe, which gives that date. Lord Howe in a letter to the Sec etary of the Admiralty, gives the date we have stated (the 20th), which is the true one.
In this moment of hurry and agitation, Colonel Reed, also, Washington's fidus Achates, wrote to Lee, but in a tone and spirit that may surprise the reader, knowing the devotion he had hitherto manifested for the commander-in-chief. After expressing the common wish that Lee should be at the principal scene of action, he adds: "I do not mean to flatter or praise you, at the expense of any other; but I do think it is entirely owing to you, that this army, and the liberties of America, sc far as they are dependent on it, are not entirely cut off. You have decision, a quality often wanting in minds otherwise valuable, and I ascribe to this our escape from York Island, King's Bridge, and the Plains; and I have no doubt, had you been here, the garrison of Mount Washington would now have composed a part of this army; and from all these circumstances, I confess, I do ardently wish to see you removed from a place where there will be so little call for your judgment and experience, to the place where they are likely to be so necessary. Nor am I singular in my opinion; every gentleman of the family, the officers and soldiers generally, have a confidence in you. The enemy constantly inquire where you are, and seem to be less confident when you are present."
Then alluding to the late affair at Fort Washington, he continues: "General Washington's own judgment, seconded by representations from us, would, I believe, have saved the men, and their arms; but, unluckily, General Greene's judgment was contrary. This kept the general's mind in a state of suspense, till the stroke was struck. Oh, general! An indecisive mind is one of the greatest misfortunes that can befall an army; how often have I lamented it this campaign. All circumstances considered, we are in a very awful and alarming situation; one that requires the utmost wisdom, and firmness of mind. soon as the season will admit, I think yourself and some others should go to Congress, and form the plan of the new army. ... I must conclude, with my clear and explicit opinion, that your presence is of the last importance.'
Well might Washington apprehend that his character and conduct, in the perplexities in which he was placed, would be liable to be misunderstood by the public, when the friend of his bosom could so misjudge him.
Reed had evidently been dazzled by the daring spirit and unscrupulous policy of Lee, who, in carrying out his measures, heeded but little the counsels of others, or even the orders of
1 Memoirs of Reed, i., 255.
government; Washington's respect for both, and the caution with which he hesitated in adopting measures in opposition to them, was stamped by the bold soldier and his admirers as indecision.
At Hackensack the army did not exceed three thousand men, and they were dispirited by ill success, and the loss of tents and baggage. They were without intrenching tools, in a flat country, where there were no natural fastnesses. Washington resolved, therefore, to avoid any attack from the enemy, though, by so doing, he must leave a fine and fertile region open to their ravages; or a plentiful storehouse, from which they would draw voluntary supplies. A second move was necessary, again to avoid the danger of being enclosed between two rivers. Leaving three regiments, therefore, to guard the passes of the Hackensack, and serve as covering parties, he again decamped, and threw himself on the west bank of the Passaic, in the neighborhood of Newark.
His army, small as it was, would soon be less. The term of enlistment of those under General Mercer, from the flying camp, was nearly expired; and it was not probable that, disheartened as they were by defeats and losses, exposed to inclement weather, and unaccustomed to military hardships, they would longer forego the comforts of their homes, to drag out the residue of a ruinous campaign.
In addition, too, to the superiority of the force that was following him, the rivers gave the enemy facilities, by means of their shipping, to throw troops in his rear. In this extremity he cast about in every direction for assistance. Colonel Reed, on whom he relied as on a second self, was despatched to Burlington, with a letter to Governor William Livingston, describing his hazardous situation, and entreating him to call out a portion of the New Jersey militia; and General Mifflin was sent to Philadelphia to implore immediate aid from Congress, and the local authorities.
His main reliance for prompt assistance, however, was upon Lee. On the 24th came a letter from that general, addressed to Colonel Reed. Washington opened it, as he was accustomed to do, in the absence of that officer, with letters addressed to him on the business of the army. Lee was at his old encampment at Northcastle. He had no means, he said, of crossing at Dobbs' Ferry, and the round by King's Ferry would be so great, that he could not get there in time to answer any pur"I have therefore," added he, "ordered General Heath, who is close to the only ferry which can be passed, to detach
two thousand men to apprise his Excellency, and await his further orders; a mode which I flatter myself will answer better what I conceive to be the spirit of the orders, than should I move the corps from hence. Withdrawing our troops from hence would be attended with some very serious consequences, which at present would be tedious to enumerate; as to myself," adds he, I hope to set out to-morrow."
A letter of the same date (November 23), from Lee to James Bowdoin, president of the Massachusetts council, may throw some light on his motives for delaying to obey the orders of the commander-in-chief. "Before the unfortunate affair of Fort Washington," writes he, "it was my opinion that the two armies that on the east, and that on the west side of the North River - must rest each on its own bottom; that the idea of detaching and re-enforcing from one side to the other, on every motion of the enemy, was chimerical; but to harbor such a thought in our present circumstances is absolute insanity. In this invasion, should the enemy alter the present direction of their operations, and attempt to open the passage of the Highlands, or enter New England, I should never entertain the thought of being succored by the western army. I know it is impossible. We must, therefore, depend upon ourselves. To Connecticut and Massachusetts I shall look for assistance. . . . I hope the cursed job of Fort Washington will occasion no dejection: the place itself was of no value. For my own part, I am persuaded that if we only act with common sense, spirit, and decision, the day must be our own."
In another letter to Bowdoin, dated on the following day, and enclosing an extract from Washington's letter of November 21, he writes: "Indecision bids fair for tumbling down the goodly fabric of American freedom, and, with it, the rights of mankind. 'Twas indecision of Congress prevented our having a noble army, and on an excellent footing. 'Twas indecision in our military councils which cost us the garrison of Fort Washington, the consequence of which must be fatal, unless remedied in time by a contrary spirit. Enclosed I send you an extract of a letter from the general, on which you will make your comments; and I have no doubt you will concur with me in the necessity of raising immediately an army to save us from perdition. Affairs appear in so important a crisis, that I think the resolves of the Congress must no longer too nicely weigh with us. We must save the community, in spite of the ordinances of the legislature. There are times when we must commit treason against the laws of the State, for the salvation of