New York Harbor froze solid as Washington’ starving army huddled in huts at Morristown. Yet, hope springs eternal, even in the coldest winter of the century....
The American Revolution had become a world war as France joined the fray, plotting an invasion of England and agreeing to dispatch a sizable army to North America under Comte de Rochambeau. Recognizing the impending threat to their valuable sugar plantations in the West Indies, the British turned their focus from New York, Philadelphia and the Hudson Valley to a major offensive in the American South, besieging Charleston in March 1780. From his winter headquarters, Washington established a ring of outposts, encircling New York City, to protect loyal citizens, to prevent illicit commerce with the enemy and to obtain good intelligence of the enemy’s movements and designs. And so the scene was set for the War of Outposts between January and June 1780.
On March 23, 1780, a clandestine British pincer movement against Hackensack and against the Continental outpost at Paramus Church in Ridgewood left the Court House in flames and the homes of patriots plundered. A second attack on April 16, 1780, focused on Ho-Ho-Kus, where British and Loyalist cavalry and infantry burned the homes and gristmill of John J. Hopper and Captain John A. Hopper. On both occasions, New Bridge was the scene of heavy fighting.
Played out against the backdrop of the worst winter on record, this tale of running battles has all the elements of a good story. Fought on the military frontier between opposing armies, oppositely quartered around New York Harbor and Morristown, New Jersey, it has neighbors spying on neighbors; it involves amphibious landings and midnight marches slipping past yawning watchmen in a friendless night. There are villainous foreign troops, torching partisan homes and a courthouse, rounding up anyone suspected of aiding the rebellion, while indiscriminately looting and terrifying womenfolk into betraying their heirloom silver. We can almost hear angry musket balls swarming over gravestones in the old Paramus Churchyard as startled soldiers hurriedly muster in the opening dawn to oppose the invader. And we can hear brave orders shouted as soldiers of the British rear guard, working under heavy fire, pried planks from New Bridge to prevent the deployment of American cannon.
A third raid against the Continental outpost is less well known. On May 29, 1780, Lieutenant Colonel Chapple Norton led a detachment of British Foot Guards across the Hudson River to Fort Lee to press yet another attack against several hundred Continental troops posted in the neighborhood of Paramus Church and Hopperstown (Ho-Ho-Kus). This time, the invaders rested in hiding somewhere in the English Neighborhood, only advancing under cover of darkness the next evening, May 30, 1780, with intent to capture a militia guard, who took refuge for the night in John Zabriskie’s stone mansion at New Bridge (River Edge). Forewarned the militiamen abandoned the house and hid in a nearby grain barrack. At about midnight, half of the attacking British infantry forded the Hackensack River a mile above the bridge (in the vicinity of River Edge Avenue) in order to come in the rear of the unwary picket. At 1 A.M., the remainder crossed over New Bridge and attacked the Zabriskie-Steuben House. With only a first-quarter moon shining overhead, the two divisions of British infantry mistook each other for the militia guard and killed or wounded several of their own number in a little-known incident of “friendly fire.” According to one supposed eyewitness, “… the ground round the [Zabriskie-Steuben] house being in a measure covered with blood, and in some places the clotted gore remained in heaps when I arrived at the spot, which was at five o’clock. After this, they, finding their mistake, retreated over and took up the bridge to prevent our men pursuing them. Tis said they had seven or eight killed on the spot, besides wounded. –All were carried off.”
Welcome to Bergen County, where America truly begins. As Abraham O. Zabriskie, Esq., said long ago, “We stand on Revolutionary ground, hallowed by martial mementos of the past….” And it is our privilege to experience History in the storied places where it was made!
Join us for the War of Outposts at Historic New Bridge Landing, 1201-1209 Main Street, River Edge, NJ, 07661 on Saturday, October 13, 2012 (11 am to 4 pm) and Sunday, October 14 (11 am to 3 pm). Hosted by Outwater's Militia, the 4th NJ Volunteers and Bergen County Historical Society, 40 re-enactors are scheduled to demonstrate period trades and cooking. Children's drills and battle reenactments occur both days. Activities include a scavenger hunt. Three Jersey Dutch sandstone houses and Out Kitchen will be open. Visit the tavern for refreshments and gift shop. By donation: $7 adult, $5 children (covers both days), BCHS members free.
Ask yourself—Just how valuable are the lessons of history? If you enjoyed this article, then please consider joining the Bergen County Historical Society, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) volunteer organization, founded in 1902. We are dedicated to preserving important evidence of the past and promoting historical literacy through interesting programs and publications.
We don't receive public operating support or grants the way other groups do, but rely entirely upon private donations, membership dues and volunteer contributions of time and talent. We are presently trying to raise $350,000 to construct a first-rate historical museum building and library for Bergen County on the Society’s property at Historic New Bridge Landing, 1201 Main Street, River Edge, NJ 07661. Please help us, if you can. We are also looking for safe and secure space (approximately 1,000 square feet) to house our research library and archives of historical documents, photographs and maps. If you are willing to donate use of appropriate space, we would be most grateful. Please contact us at contactBCHS@bergencountyhistory.org.
We value your membership! For further information or membership application, visit: http://www.bergencountyhistory.org