During the American Revolution, Bergen County, New Jersey, was flooded with combatants from all over America, many of whom had never been to the region before. Troops of the Continental Army hailing from New Hampshire to North Carolina were ordered to Bergen County to garrison the rich farmland and lend protection to the Whig inhabitants, sometimes with Washington’s Army but other times in smaller numbers. In late 1778 an incident occurred involving out-of-state soldiers who learned the perils of war in the Hackensack Valley.
After British troops left Bergen County in October 1778, Gen. George Washington filled the void by detaching the 2nd Virginia Regiment under Col. Christian Febiger to Hackensack. British intentions were unknown at the time, but were thought to be planning to evacuate New York or at least settling into winter quarters. Despite the decreased risk, Colonel Febiger did not feel his force adequate, being in an exposed position close to the British in New York and Paulus Hook (present-day Jersey City.) Writing to Washington on November 29, 1778, Febiger pleaded, “My Regiment is hardly sufficient to keep necessary Guards for our own Security, which renders it very severe Duty to keep a Guard at the Liberty Pole and parties out to intercept the Villains that are dayly carrying Supplies to the Enemy.”
Washington recognized both the inadequacy of the force and the precariousness of the position. Febiger and his regiment were removed from Hackensack and Bergen County, replaced by the North Carolina Brigade. The station this time was Paramus, a few miles from Hackensack.
The North Carolina Continentals had started 1777 in great strength and high spirits. Joining Washington’s Army in time for the campaign to defend Philadelphia, they consisted of ten regiments of infantry, plus artillery and cavalry, under the command of Brig. Gen. Francis Nash. This general was not long for the campaign however, being mortally wounded by a cannon ball at the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777. By late 1778 the brigade, now commanded by Col. Thomas Clark, consisted of only two regiments and an artillery company. On December 4, 1778 Washington ordered Col. Clark to move his men out of the area of the Clove and Suffern and down to Paramus, later sending more complete instructions as to his duties and disposition:
You are, agreeable to my orders of the 4th instant, to take post this Winter with the Brigade under your command at Paramus. You are to quarter the men in as compact a manner as possible both for the preservation of discipline and the conveniency of drawing your force speedily together in case of an Alarm. Your position is intended to effect three purposes—to cover the communication to King’s Ferry—to afford countenance and protection to the well affected inhabitants of Bergen County and to be within supporting distance of the Posts in the Highlands. The more effectually to secure the communication to King’s Ferry you are constantly to keep a Captain and fifty men at Kakiate which is the junction of several Roads leading to the North River and a place much infested by the Banditti of the Country. The Officer is therefore to see that his men are in their quarters at night and their Arms always within their reach. A succession of small scouting parties down towards Bergen and along the North River will be preferable in my opinion to stationing pickets, as they will not be liable to surprise and will be more likely to fall in with marauders from the enemy and with those of the inhabitants who make a practice of supplying the Enemy with provision. They will moreover, if they do their duty, prevent you from any danger by surprise. But this I leave to your own Judgment. The third object, that of supporting the post in the Highlands is the most material and what you are, next to your own preservation, principally to attend to. Should you receive information that the Enemy are moving up the North River in force, you are instantly to send advice to Genl. Mcdougal, and fall back with the Troops to Sufferans at the entrance of the Clove, giving him information of your removal and of acting afterwards agreeable to his directions. You will in such case send your Baggage to Pompton for its security.
As the establishment of good order and discipline will depend much upon a proper number of Officers remaining with the men, you are in granting Furloughs to observe the following Rule as near as circumstances will permit.
Two Field Officers to remain with a Regiment except in particular cases, and two Commissioned Officers to remain with a Company except in like cases.
You will cause the Brigade Inspector to put in practice the maneuvers and discipline introduced the last Campaign, as often as the State of the weather will admit. And you are above all things to attend to the Behaviour of the Troops and punish severely marauding or any kind of insult or damage to the persons or properties of the Inhabitants.
Colonel Clark and his southerners arrived in Paramus on December 11, settling into their new quarters and duties. On the 18th, Clark reported to Washington his concerns that, “from the scattered Situation of the Buildings, the Soldiers are not Quartered in so compact a manner as I could wish, but the attention & vigilance of the Officers will I hope make up for this inconvenience.” One of the houses used for quarters may not have been entirely welcoming of the North Carolinians, that of Albert Terhune. Terhune had renewed his oath of allegiance to the British upon their arrival in Bergen County in November 1776. After the British left and Continental troops moved in two months later, Terhune and a number of others “voluntarily” recanted and once again pledged their allegiance to the new United States. His grandson, Casperus Kough, years later recalled that a soldier named Thomas Barco of the 2nd North Carolina Regiment “was Quartered that winter at his Grandfathers Albert Terhune house as a Solger in the Northcarlina troops.”
Contrary to Washington’s recommendation of using constantly moving scouting parties, Clark opted instead for fixed guard posts, reporting at the same time: “Since the removal of Col. Febeger I have found it necessary to keep a Strong guard at the New Bridge, little ferry & Liberty Pole, for the purpose of cutting of[f] all intercourse between the Inhabitants & New York.” This set the stage for one of many incidents of le petite guerre, the little war that characterized much of the fighting in Bergen County between 1776 and 1783.
While the first two months in Paramus passed relatively quietly for the North Carolina troops, things soon changed. At some point during the last week of February, the 4th Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers, the Loyalist corps commanded by Lt. Col. Abraham Van Buskirk of Teaneck, removed from their quarters on Staten Island and took post at Hobuck, now Hoboken. Prior to the war Hobuck had been the “country seat” of the very wealthy loyalist William Bayard, through whose influence and money a regiment called the King’s Orange Rangers was raised, commanded by his son John. Bayard and his family had long before sought refuge in New York City; now his house and barn were converted into a fortified barracks of sorts for the 200 or so men under Van Buskirk’s command, mostly ruining the estate. This new post was strengthened with the addition of two iron artillery pieces along with six rockets, used to signal New York City in case of serious attack.
Since September 1776 the main British post in Bergen County had been heavily-fortified Paulus Hook. The first notice Washington had of the new post came not from Colonel Clark in Paramus, but from Brig. Gen. William Maxwell at Elizabethtown, who wrote on March 2, 1779 that “some of the Enemy had been fortyfying themselves for several days past at Hobuck or there abouts,” adding the next day that “it is believed that Buskirks Corps Joined by some Refugees lies somewhere near Hobuck.” The “Refugees” referred to were almost certainly a recently-raised, loosely organized group known as the King’s Militia Volunteers. The brainchild of William Franklin, New Jersey’s last Royal Governor, the Refugees did not serve as regular soldiers like the New Jersey Volunteers, but would hopefully attract Loyalists whose station in life led them not to serve as common soldiers. Such Bergen County Loyalists as Weart Banta, David Peak, Samuel Peak, Peter Earle, and Peter Myer served as officers in the corps.
Colonel Clark did not seem terribly concerned with the new post, writing to Washington on March 12: “The enemy remain quiet at Pawles Hook and Hobuck. 5 deserters came in, a few days ago from Col. Buskirks Corps Stationed at the latter place, from them I understand a general discontent prevails in the Corps.”The quiet quickly came to an end, when two days later Lt. Col. Van Buskirk discovered one of Colonel Clark’s patrols near his post:
On Sunday morning, March 14th 1779, Colonel Van Buskirk received intelligence that a Captain and Lieutenant, with a party of Carolina Troops, were at the Three Pigeons in Bergen Woods. He dispatched Lieutenant Haselop, of the Fourth Battalion of N.J. Volunteers, and a party of Refugees, in quest of them; but the Rebels, being apprized of his approach, took to their Heels, when, after pursuing them twelve miles into the country, came up with the party, and firing a few shot, made two of them prisoners, one of whom was wounded; the rest, with the advantage of sleighs and their wonted precipitancy, escaped, tho’ not without carrying some wounded with them; as appeared from the blood that was seen in the road for several miles.
One of the North Carolinians involved in the skirmish at the Liberty Pole was Pvt. Uriah Leftler, who had served in the brigade since enlisting in March 1777. Leftler soon deserted the Continental Army and make his way to Hobuck, where he promptly enlisted in the New Jersey Volunteers under Van Buskirk. This was not uncommon; after taking post at Hobuck, Van Buskirk and his men enlisted twenty men through April 24, 1779, including five known North Carolinians; only three of the twenty are known to have been from Bergen County.
Any of these North Carolina recruits would have at least some knowledge of the disposition of their former brigade, where the guards were posted, patrols, strength, etc. The county’s numerous Loyalist population, coupled with their frequent interaction with the British posts, likewise provided any enterprising Crown commander with excellent intelligence should they choose to utilize it. Come April that is just what happened.
While the picket at the Liberty Pole may have been the closest to the British and most vulnerable to attack, the weakest outpost was at Little Ferry, a few miles south of New Bridge and just south of the village of Hackensack. The purpose of this guard was most likely to intercept any small craft attempting to go down the river with goods to sell to the British. Indeed, Gov. William Livingston had grave concerns about the illegal practice, which he believed happened with approval by Bergen County’s leadership:
I am informed that some of the Magistrates of the County of Bergen make a practice of granting permissions to the Inhabitants to go into the Enemy’s lines; & that you, naturally supposing them to be thereto authorized by our Law, suffers the bearers of such permissions to pass accordingly. As this practice of the Justices is not only contrary to, but very penal by, the Laws of this State, I shall be obliged to you for stopping in future all the bearers of such passes, & to transmit the passes themselves to me, that I may be enabled to direct prosecution against the Magistrates who presume to grant them.
Capt. William Van Allen was the senior captain in the New Jersey Volunteers posted at Hobuck. When the war began he lived in a single story stone house in Hackensack Township, at New Bridge, which was confiscated by the state for his loyalty to the British. On April 12, 1779, he lead a party of his regiment to attack the North Carolina picket at Little Ferry. Where exactly the picket was posted is unknown today.
By a route not mentioned in any account, Van Allen and his force reached the east bank of the Hackensack River, where he detached Lt. John Heslop and Ens. Justus Earle with some men to cross and surprise the picket. The remainder of the detachment almost certainly included Uriah Leftler or any number of the other Carolinians to help guide the troops to their destination. What happened next is recorded in the New York City newspapers, under the heading “Intelligence from Hobuck:”
Last Monday night a detachment of the 4th battalion of New-Jersey Volunteers, (Lieut. Colonel Buskirk’s) commanded by Capt. Van Allen, Lieut. Heslop, and Ensign Earle, surprised a rebel guard at the Little Ferry, consisting of two non-commissioned officers and twelve privates of the Carolina brigade and one militia-man. Lieut. Heslop and Ensign Earle with 15 or 18 men were ordered by Capt. Van Allen to cross the river, which they did, by Lashing two canoes together, and after marching thro swamps and woods about three miles (during the violence of the storm) to get in the rear of the guard, they came up undiscovered to the centry at the door, and upon being challenged, rushed in, killed two, wounded two who attempted to escape and made defence, and took the remainder prisoners, with all their arms and accoutrements, without any Loss to the Loyal party who returned this morning, after sunrise, with their pockets filled with paper dollars.
No official report on the raid has been found, either by Captain Van Allen, Colonel Clark or any of their subordinate officers. The only account from the Congressional side comes from a brief newspaper article:
On the 12th instant a detachment of the enemy, consisting of about 60 men, belonging to Buskirk’s corps, commanded by a Capt. Van Allen, by taking a circuitous rout surprised one of our guards posted at Little Ferry, near New-Barbadoes in Bergen county. It consisted of two non-commissioned officers and 10 privates of the Carolina brigade, and one of our militia; two of the former escaped, the others were made prisoners and carried to New-York.
In many cases, it is impossible to reconcile casualty figures from opposing sides. In this particular case, however, the British prepared a list of the prisoners taken. The return names one sergeant, one corporal, and six privates of the 1st North Carolina Regiment, along with one Bergen County militiaman, Pvt. Lucas Brinkerhoff of Old Hackensack. Whether anyone was actually killed or wounded is not known. A numeric list of prisoners taken by Van Buskirk’s battalion, prepared in 1780, claims two non-commissioned officers and twelve privates taken at the “Little Ferry, Moonachie Picket” by Lieutenant Heslop.
In the final outcome of the war, this raid mattered not a bit. Hobuck was evacuated during the summer of 1779 and the troops of the New Jersey Volunteers were added to the garrison of Paulus Hook. The picket post at Little Ferry was so minor that its location was never recorded, nor was the “circuitous rout” taken by the New Jersey Volunteers to attack it. But to the men involved, it was an important event, a tense and dramatic few hours in a long war.
Capt. William Van Allen survived the war and settled afterwards in the Province of New Brunswick, along with thousands of their fellow Loyalists. Lt. John Heslop, an Englishman who had served as a lieutenant in the New Jersey Volunteers since March 1777 and was twenty-four years old at the time of the raid, also went to New Brunswick after the war. Hackensack native Ens. Justice Earle, thirty years old at the time of the raid, had a brother Edward who was a lieutenant in the regiment. Ens. Earle was at Paulus Hook when it was overrun by 400 Continental troops under Maj. Henry Lee. Taken prisoner, Earle was exchanged by January 1781, promoted to lieutenant later that year, and settled with his fellow officers in New Brunswick after the war.
North Carolina colonel Thomas Clark took his regiment south in 1779 to help defend the City of Charleston, and consequently was among the troops that surrendered there on May 12, 1780. He was exchanged and eventually retired from the army in January 1783. Of the eight North Carolinians taken prisoner at Little Ferry in 1779, only two, privates James Sexton and William Clark, were still held captive in New York nine months later. Pvt. William Williams was exchanged in four months’ time and rejoined the 1st North Carolina in time for their march south, where he was once again taken prisoner. Decades later he applied for a United States government pension for his service in the Continental Army. But there was a part of his military career that he neglected to tell the government in his pension application, and which they never found out: Nine months after his capture, Williams enlisted as a private in the Duke of Cumberland’s Regiment, a Loyalist corps in the British army composed of 500 fellow former Continental Army soldiers. The regiment was sent to garrison the island of Jamaica. Williams remained there until the end of the war and the corps was disbanded in the summer of 1783.
Deposition of Casperus Cough, April 9, 1818, Collection M-804, Pension and Bounty Land Application Files, No. S33253, Thomas Barco, North Carolina, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
Leftler, despite his desertion and joining the British, was living in Franklin County, Indiana in 1832, where he applied for a veteran’s pension from the United States. His desertion was discovered through a routine verification of his service through muster rolls. Collection M-804, Pension and Bounty Land Application Files, No. R6271, Uriah Leftler, North Carolina, NARA.
“Accompt of Bounty due the Recruits of the 4th Battn. of New Jersey Volunteers between the 24 Feby. and the 24 April 79,” Department of Defense Manuscripts, Loyalist Manuscripts, Box 19, No. 183-L, NJSA.
The last line is a reference to the highly depreciated paper money issued by the states and congress, as opposed to British gold currency, which was universally accepted by both sides. The Royal Gazette (New York,) April 19, 1779.
“Roll of Continental Officers, Prisoners of War in South Carolina as they stand for Exchange, regulated by a Board of Officers, and sent to Sir Henry Clinton and General Greene.” Emmet Collection, Mss No. Em. U, NYPL.
“Recruiting List of the Continental Prisoners of War, Taken at the Surrender of Charlestown, the 12th day of May 1780 and at Gates’s defeat by Cambden, the 16th day of August 1780 Now inlisted in His Majesty’s Service, since the 10th February 1781 For the West Indies, in His Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland’s Regiment of Carolina Rangers; Commanded by the Right Honble Lord Charles Montagu,” State Papers, Class 41, Volume 29, TNA. See also the muster roll of Captain William Oliphant’s Company, 1st Battalion, Duke of Cumberland’s Regiment, Fort Augusta, August 24, 1783, War Office, Class 12, Volume 10684, folio 14, TNA.