On this day in 1779, a Patriot force consisting of 300 men led by Major Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee assaults the defensive positions of the British at Paulus Hook, New Jersey, now known as Jersey City. Lee wins one of only eight medals awarded by Congress during the war–and the only one awarded to a soldier beneath the rank of general–for his role in this action.
Although Lee planned to attack immediately after midnight, his forces set off later than expected and lost some of their number in their march through the surrounding marshland. Still, the 23-year-old College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) graduate was able to capture the position, possibly because the British mistook the Patriots for Hessian mercenaries until they reached the fort’s gate.
Although the Patriots damaged the fort, took 50 lives and 158 prisoners, they failed to destroy the structure or spike its cannon. With daybreak approaching, Lee decided to withdraw, concerned that the British would send reinforcements from New York City across the Hudson River. Thus the fort remained in British control until the war ended and the British evacuated and sailed for home on November 22, 1783. The neighborhood erected a monument in memory of the battle in 1903.
Despite the limited success of the action, it gave Patriot morale a major boost. Following the assault, several officers jealous of the flamboyant Lee’s success drafted a substantial set of charges, including reckless endangerment of his men, against him, leading to his court martial. Lee offered his own persuasive defense and was not only vindicated but praised for his actions by the court; he was then awarded the Congressional medal.