Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Revolutionary War Comes to North Bergen

The Revolutionary War is a huge part of New Jersey History, especially right here in Hudson County. The British held a fort in Bergen Neck, now present day Bayonne. At the time, the Continental Army used the area for spying on British held New York City. Even George Washington was known to travel along the top of the Palisades to observe British activity in New York harbor. The Battle of Paulus Hook was fought in Jersey City in 1779 so the county was a hot bed of activity between Patriots and Tories. However, one event always seems to fall through the cracks of history. Perhaps it has been overshadowed by the victories at the Battle of Monmouth and Stony Point, both turning points for the Americans in the war, it could also be overlooked due to the arrival of the French, or it could be the the Baylor Massacre took place only a year prior in River Vale. The war itself also started to move south, as the Siege of Charleston began only 3 weeks before, and was an utter disaster for the Americans. The main reason it's been forgotten is because it was not an American victory, even though it would later be proved successful in its own right. The event at hand is the Battle of Bull's Ferry, yes, as in Bulls Ferry Road - and no, it was not a battle to beat that red light at the top of the hill! It put one of the greatest American generals (perhaps in our nation's history), "Mad" Anthony Wayne and his troops against staunch Loyalists whose goal was to support the crown and keep the colonies as is, in the last major skirmish in the North Campaign.

A little background information on Bull's Ferry is need first to understand why the battle took place. First, Bull's Ferry is named for the Bull family that first operated the ferry. It was the second-most used ferry to get to New York City during the Revolution, first was Burdett's Landing in Edgewater. It was accessible from every major road way the time and was the link between the farms, forests and other resources the British desperately needed to supply New York City during the occupation. The main reason Bull's Ferry became a target for the American's was due to the harsh winter of 1779. The unbelievably harsh winter that year caused New York City to literally burn through their supply firewood to keep themselves warm. Some reports even claim people took to dismantling sections of their homes for firewood and even taken wood from the British fortifications throughout the city. British general Henry Clinton was in charge of the city and responsible for keeping it a safe, happy and fully functioning during the war. During the winter a blockhouse was built near Bull's Ferry, which some say was actually on the border of present day North Bergen and Guttenberg as the site of the Blockhouse is not clear based on different histories and maps, some placing it a top the Palisades, others right on the river and some with it placed in between.  The Loyalist  there would use it to gather lumber from the woods Hudson County, starting with the woods in the Woodcliff area of North Bergen and send it into New York. The British placed Captain Tom Ward there with seventy men to fulfill the task of supplying the city. As you could imaging, George Washington was not very happy General when he learned about this, so on July 20, 1780 he order Anthony Wayne to take care of the any means necessary. (Not his exact words! I may have just added that for some dramatics.)

The next day the attack began. Wayne commanded the 1st and 2nd Pennsylvania Brigade, which had 4 pieces of artillery and the 4th Continental Light Dragoons. The offensive began with an hour long cannonade, lasting about an hour. However, due to the locations of the blockhouse, which according to Wayne's battle report was nestled strategically along the Palisades, most of the American fire missed. The blockhouse was also well protected with a protective stockade and ditches to slow the American's advancement. Some men from Wayne's force did make it to the stockade but found it impossible to break through. The fight continued for most of the day with the British Loyalist, about 70 of them under the command of Thomas Ward peppering the attacking Americans with musket fire from the safety of the blockhouse. Wayne attacked with roughly 2000 men, 50 of which would be injured and 15 would fall during the attack. It is rumored that as the Americans pushed to take the blockhouse, the Tories were quickly running out of ammo and about to surrender. However, word reached Wayne that British Regulars were being sent from New York City to reinforce the despaired Loyalists, which made Wayne hasten and wisely get out of town.

The attack on the blockhouse may have not been a direct victory for the Americans but the attack would result as beneficial to the Americans in the area for the remainder of the war. First, the blockhouse was abandoned. The damaged caused by the Americans during the attack was enough for the Clinton to leave it and send his men to Fort Delancy in Bergen Neck (Bayonne). Second, with the blockhouse unusable, lumber supplies to British occupied New York City would have to come from somewhere else. Also during the attack, Wayne had sent the 4th Continental Light Dragoons, lead by "Light Horse" Harry Lee to Bergen Neck to round up cattle and horses that the British kept there. However, Wayne's reputation was tarnished, for the time being. Matters were not made any better due to the British Major John Andre's poem, The Cow Chace, mocking Wayne and his failed attack. The lash back was so bad Washington himself had to defend Wayne to the Continental Congress. Yet, in an ironic twist of fate, and on a complete side note, when John Andre was taken to the gallows for his actions in relation to Benedict Arnold, he was accompanied by no other than Anthony Wayne. But we all know what happened from there on out. The colonies win their independence, the United States is born and our history had begun to be written. But what happened to the blockhouse?

The blockhouse was last use by the British in 1780. After the Battle of Bull's Ferry, the house fell into disrepair. The area then became a lumberyard and mill in the mid 19th century. The door of the blockhouse was salvaged around the close of the 19th century and placed in a museum near Hasbrouck House, Washington's Headquarters at Newburgh. The foundation of the blockhouse was still visible until the late 1920s, but then covered due to the ever changing nature of the Hudson County waterfront. Today, there is no marker where the blockhouse once stood or the events that took place around it. Today, the door to the blockhouse sits in a storage room on Peedles Island State Park, as a relic of the past. It is a piece of forgotten North Bergen History, and I feel as a resident of this great town, the door should be returned.  So as the waterfront continues to develop, new homes and businesses will be added, but it is important the Battle of Bull's Ferry be remembered, and the it's legacy be a milestone in the town's history.