The Raid on Paramus & Hackensack
March 22, 1780 in Paramus & Hackensack, New Jersey
By 1780, the military focus of the War for Independence had moved south to the Carolinas, and northern warfare was largely relegated to community conflicts, and punitive or foraging expeditions. From its beginning, the war had been one of neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother, and nowhere was this more in evidence than in northern New Jersey.
One reason for the Continental Army post at Paramus, and part of the British desire to eradicate it, was the so-called London Trade, whereby local "disaffected" inhabitants supplied much-needed goods to British-held New York. Continental forces in the area were intended to interdict that trade, whereas the British high command certainly wanted to keep the lines open.
The March 1780 raid against Paramus and Hackensack was originally instigated by Major General William Tryon, former Royal Governor of New York, who recommended the enterprise to Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen, then overall commander at New York in the absence of Crown commander in chief Lieutenant General Henry Clinton. Tryon's wish was to punish the rebellious inhabitants of Hackensack, a sentiment Knyphausen supported. An intelligence agent, known only as "AZ", kept Tryon informed of area defenses.
On February 6, "AZ" relayed information supplied by a British soldier's wife who had just traveled through Paramus, the gist of which was, "the regiment that has laid at Paramus for some time past was relieved a few days ago by another consisting of between two and three hundred men, that they have guards at Hendrick Zabriskie's and the widow Ackerman's, on the road from Paramus Church to New Bridge, also another at a fulling mill to the eastward of the church. This being the case, they are open and exposed on every side but their front."
The only immediate result of this and other reports was an inconclusive February 10 British light cavalry incursion into Hackensack (in fact, an aborted attempt to capture the American commander-in-chief at Morristown), but that town and the post at Paramus remained on the British agenda.
On March 22, a "Cool Windy" day, a deputation of the "Magistrates, Sheriff & Officers of the Militia of the County of Bergen residing at Hackensack & its Vicinity" wrote Major Christopher Stuart, 5th Pennsylvania Regiment, commanding at Paramus, apprising him of the danger of a British attack.
On March 23, the British struck, confirming the well-intentioned but belated warning. Marching in two columns, Lieutenant Colonel John Howard's British Foot Guards grenadier and light infantry companies took a roundabout route to Paramus, while Lieutenant Colonel Duncan McPherson, commanding elements of seven units, the British 42nd and 43rd regiments, and German Anspach, Bayreuth, von Donop, Landgraf and Leib (also called "du Corps") Regiments, captured Hackensack, then proceeded to join Howard's force.
One of the earliest intimations the high command had of the attack was dated "8 Oclock A.M. 23rd March Acquackana[ck] Bridge," and sent by Lt. Col. Samuel Hay, 10th Pennsylvania Regiment, to Major General Baron Johann De Kalb at Springfield
De Kalb also received a 10:00 AM note from 5th Connecticut Captain Abner Prior stationed at Newark, reporting, "I Have this moment heard that the Enemy was in Hackansack last night Burning & Destroing it is Said to be about Three hundred british and they was advancen to wards Paramius ..."
Relaying these notes the next day to General George Washington, de Kalb also informed him "The four Prisoners, three of which are Anspackers, I will Send to Head Q. under Escort ... The Prisoners tell me that the Party at Hackensack to which they belonged, was to return to New York after Burning Sundry Buildings, that they had neither Baggage nor Provision with them."
The raid and several participating officers were recognized in general orders, "Head Quarters New York 25 March 1780":
His Excellency Lieutenant General von Knyphausen requests that his approbation be made known in published orders to Lieutenant Colonel Howard of the Guards, Lieutenant Colonel McPherson of the 42nd Regiment, and the officers and men under their command for the good conduct on the morning of the 23rd of this month during the fatiguing expedition to Paramus and Hackensack and, although it was not as successful as might be wished, due to unavoidable circumstances, it still provided honor to the troops. His Excellency is appreciative of the dedication to duty of Lieutenants Cranton and Peery of the Navy who commanded the division of flatboats, and also of Lieutenant Hatfield of the Royal Volunteer Militia for his bravery during this opportunity
The event was covered in a number of newspaper accounts, some of which offer new details. The 27 March 1780 New-York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury's article was written with a Loyalist bent:
NEW-YORK, March 24.
On Wednesday evening a detachment of the Royal Army, under the command of Col. Howard, crossed from this city to the Jersies, and proceeded to Hackensack, where a number of continental troops were assembled to protect sundry new fangled Justices of the Peace, who had assembled there to devise means to harrass and distress such of their neighbours as were thought to be disaffected to the cause of rebellion. It was not until the troops were close by them that they were apprised of their danger, when they fled with the greatest precipitation, after animating the rebel soldiers to stand their ground, that their retreat might be the more secure. The poor wretches did so for a little time, but after a few being killed, they broke and made the best of their way home; however, several of them were made prisoners, and brought to town last night. Our loss was, one killed and another wounded.