In November 1776, a British army under Lieutenant-General Sir William Howe was on the offensive, having successfully driven American forces off of Manhattan island and the surrounding regions east and north of New York City. The remnants of General George Washington’s defeated army had retreated across the Hudson River to the apparent safety of Bergen County, New Jersey. The Hudson was wide with a strong current, but the British had substantial naval assets to ferry troops across. What afford protection were the high sandstone cliffs on the western shore called the Palisades which rise over 300 feet above the river.
In spite of this obstacle, British forces under Howe’s aggressive subordinate, Lieutenant General Charles, Earl Cornwallis, were given the following orders on 19 November:
“The following Corps are to strike their tents, load their Waggons and be in Readiness to march, with their Blankets and Provisions, this Night at 9 o’Clock: Two Companies Chasseurs, 1st and 2d Light Infantry, 1st and 2d Grenadiers, 2 Battalions of Guards, 33d Regiment, and 42d Regiment, 3 Battalions of Hessian Grenadiers, 100 Men of Rogers’s, without Arms; two Engineers, with twelve Carpenters and three Guides. They will receive their Orders from Lieut. Gen. Earl Cornwallis.”
With these orders the British invasion of Bergen County was set in motion. British troops landed at the foot of the Palisades near one of the few steep paths that traversed the nearly vertical cliffs. More rapidly than anyone thought possible, they scaled the cliffs and began a rapid advance on the Continental Army garrison at Fort Lee which escaped in the nick of time.
The British force was composed of troops chosen for their ability to move rapidly: hand-picked men from German regiments formed into ad-hoc companies called Chasseurs, the agile light infantry companies taken from each British regular regiment and formed into temporary battalions, the volunteers from the British Foot Guards regiments organized into temporary battalions for service in America, men from the Loyalist corps commanded by Major Robert Rogers, and other seasoned professional troops. But these elite troops could not do the job without the essential services of “three guides” familiar with the roads and terrain of Bergen County.
The use of guides in a country unknown to an invading army, especially when accurate maps are unavailable, is of utmost consequence to the success of a mission. Starting with the very first action at Lexington and Concord in 1775, the British Army never stirred without local Loyalists by their side, showing them the way. During the course of the war certain New Jersey Loyalists became prominent in the role, amongst them Cornelius Hatfield, jr. of Elizabethtown and Weart Banta of Hackensack. But at this early stage, all the players were new to the British.
Most prominent among the three who served the initial British incursion in 1776 was Bergen County’s would-be brewmaster, John Aldington, who continued to assist the British army throughout the war. He was not native to America, having been born in England. Emigrating to America in 1768, he settled in Bergen County where he was “the Owner of a House and Farm and was in the possession thereof situate in the English Neighbourhood in Jersey containing about Twenty acres of rich Grazing Land and worth about Seven Pound per Acre, Together with a new Brewery not quite finished which the Rebels converted into a Store house, and which cost your Memorialist with other Improvements Ninety pounds Sterling.” By October, 1776 he had joined the British cause and was immediately put to good use, giving “the only Intelligence to the Renown and two Frigates in the North River, of the Fire Vessells that were fitted out to be sent down upon them so that the Men of War were prepared for their Reception before they came down, and your Memorialist was at his own desire in the Tryal Tender a Head of the Man of War to receive them.”
This Bergen County Englishman’s property made him an ideal choice as someone to guide British troops to Fort Lee, “the Land itself being every foot of it exceeding rich and fertile, with the orchard He had planted and Dwelling House, must be worth and would have sold for £ 20 Currency an Acre exclusive of the Brewery; that the Brewery from its situation being the only establishment of that kind thereabouts; from its proximity to Hackinsack and having a Water carriage to New-York and in the center of a rich Populous part of the Country, must have turned out to very great advantage.” His brewery, situated close to Fort Lee, was converted into a storehouse by American troops. Cornwallis himself attested to Aldington’s service as a guide, writing in 1784: “I hereby certify that Major John Aldington was a zealous Loyalist & that He guided the troops under my command, when I landed in the Province of New Jersey, in the year 1776.”
Aldington’s services during the invasion did not go unrewarded. By May 1777, he was commissioned captain in the corps of Guides & Pioneers. Detachments of this corps served throughout the New York area as well as on many of the expeditions to the South. Aldington’s career included participation at the Battles of Brandywine, Monmouth, the relief of Rhode Island, the Bergen County Grand Forage, and the Siege of Charleston, South Carolina; he ended the war as a major in command of his corps. His property in English Neighborhood, as well as that obtained in New York City through marriage, was confiscated during and after the war in consequence of his loyalty to the British. Aldington left New York City prior to the November 1783 evacuation, sailing to England where he attempted to recover some of his lost wealth through the act of parliament passed to compensate Loyalists for their losses and services. He eventually took up permanent residence there, enjoying half pay as major for the remainder of his life.
The second guide for Cornwallis and his troops that in November 1776 was a resident of Hackensack, Isaac Perkins. Perkins was born in North Castle, Westchester County, New York but appears to have settled on the Hackensack River by 1775. The river helped him make a living as a small farmer. For not signing an association in support of congress, this Loyalist was imprisoned and “Committed to Close Confinement”; two river craft that he owned, a pettiauger and bateau, were confiscated. Finding means to break jail, he chose not to go home but instead found his way to the British in New York. Realizing the value of a local inhabitant to lead the way to New Bridge and Hackensack, he was at their head “when Lord Cornwallis marched across the North River [and] was his Guide at fort Lee.”
Perkins did not have nearly as prestigious a career as Aldington did, but it was probably more exciting. Meeting up with his former neighbors across the Hudson, he signed on under Colonel James DeLancey in his corps of Westchester County Militia & Refugees. Serving without pay, uniforms or any of the other emoluments given to regular British or Provincial soldiers, DeLancey’s corps was more active than any other corps in the New York garrison. Between October 1779 and May 1782 Perkins and the Refugees took 464 officers and men prisoners, both Continentals and militia. The former guide was amongst those Loyalists who evacuated New York in what was known as “The Spring Fleet” of April 1783, arriving at the mouth of the Saint John River on 13 May. Perkins remained in the new Province of New Brunswick, settling on the Kennebacasis River.
The final member of the trio that guided Cornwallis is a bit of a mystery as to his value in this particular role. Joseph Hawkins was the son of a tenant of the same name who lived on the estate of William Bayard at Weehawken. Apparently a young man, and active, he may have had knowledge of the river, the Palisades and its passes, but that is simply conjecture. His only service prior to the invasion was being sent out by Andreas Emmerick, then captain of the Guides & Pioneers, to distribute “manifestos” from Sir William Howe into the countryside. Recalling his service, he merely noted that event in November as “guide to Lord Cornwallis at the taking of Fort Lee.”
Hawkins continued to act as a guide and pilot to the army and navy, serving the troops in 1777 at Perth Amboy and later that year on the expedition up the Hudson to take Forts Clinton and Montgomery. His most famous incident took place in early February 1778 when he, Weart Banta and two other Loyalists ambushed and took prisoner Abraham Brower, a Bergen County Militiaman who along with another had killed a Bergen County Loyalist, John Richards. The capture of Brower by Hawkins and the others was celebrated in New York, as shown by this newspaper account:
Brower the Person who last Week murdered Mr. John Richards, of New-Barbadoes Neck, has, from the admirable Measures concerted for that Purpose, been secured, and was on Thursday Afternoon lodged in the Custody of the Provost Guard.
Upon examining into the Means used by the four intrepid and loyal Persons, who voluntarily undertook to apprehend the aforesaid Brower, and brought him to Town, it was found they had endured inexpressible Anxiety and Fatigue; to reward such brave and fortunate Exertions, a Subscription is opened at Mr. Rivington’s and Mr. Gaine’s for collecting the Contributions of those who have a generous Sensibility of their spirited Enterprize.
Like Perkins and Aldington, Hawkins’ property (he owned a small brick house with some property in New York City) was confiscated and sold after the war. He joined his brother guides in exile, attempting to recover his losses estimated at nearly £ 600. Sterling.
History does not always give up her secrets. We are fortunate, in this particular case, that the three individuals tasked for one particular adventure in war survived that endeavor and almost seven more years of war so they could record their service. All the documents identifying these individuals were written at the end of the war or shortly thereafter and have survived to this day, giving us the identity of the “three Guides” who helped Cornwallis accomplish his dramatic invasion of Bergen County in November 1776.[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Detail of “A Map of the Country ’round Philadelphia including Part of New Jersey, New York, Staten Island and Long Island.” Source: Scots Magazine, September 1776]
 General Orders, Head Quarters, DeLancey’s Mill, 19 November 1776. “The Orderly Book of Lt. Col. Stephen Kemble, 1775-1778, “ Collections of the New-York Historical Society for 1883 (New York: printed for the Society, 1884), 411.  “List of Officers of His Majesty’s Provincial Forces…25 November 1783.” Colonial Office, Class 5, Volume 111, folios 463-468, The National Archives of the United Kingdom. Hereafter cited as TNA.  Memorial of John Aldington to the Commissioners for American Claims, no date. Audit Office, Class 13, Volume 108, folio 1, TNA. This refers to an American attempt to destroy British warships by using fire ships, vessels laden with combustibles that were sent into the current so that they’d drift into their targets where they’d be set on fire, consuming both the fire ships and the enemy vessels. The attacks failed.  Aldington to the Commissioners for American Claims, 24 November 1785. Audit Office 13/108/5, TNA.  Certificate of Lord Cornwallis, 24 January 1784. Audit Office 13/108/2, TNA.  Memorial of Isaac Perkins to the Commissioners for American Claims, Burton, New Brunswick, 11 March 1786. Audit Office 13/19/44, TNA.  Perkins to the Commissioners for American Claims, 4 February 1787. Audit Office 13/19/45, TNA.  Certificate of William Bayard, 17 November 1783. Audit Office 13/96/431, TNA.  The New-York Gazette, and the Weekly Mercury, 9 February 1778. The other militiaman involved in the killing, John Lozier, was captured the following month by a party of New York Volunteers stationed at Paulus Hook. The two were kept closely confined in the provost for nearly a year, until exchanged in 1779.