Saturday, August 17, 2013

Paulus Hook (Aug 19, 1779)

   On August 22, 1779, Major Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee wrote from Paramus, New Jersey to report the Continental Army captured the British, Hessian and Tory garrison at Paulus Hook, near Jersey City.
   On August 19, the American forces under Major Lee took 158 prisoners.  British forces, on several occasions, killed and mutilated wounded or disarmed Americans.  
Retaliation was part of the informal laws of war in that era, but Lee reported to George Washington, "American humanity has been again signally manifested. Self-preservation strongly dictated, on the retreat, the putting the prisoners to death, and British cruelty fully justified it; notwithstanding which, not a man was wantonly hurt."
   Lee also reported, "I intended to have burnt the barracks; but on finding a number of sick soldiers and women with young children in them, humanity forbad[e] the execution of my intention."   
   Congress ordered the publication of Lee's letter, along with other correspondence reporting the American victory at Paulus Hook.  Philadelphia paper The Pennsylvania Packet published the correspondence in its issue of September 2, 1779.
     British Historian Matthew H. Spring offers several explanation for the reputed brutality of English light infantry during the American Revolution.  Spring points first to the feeling of superiority in an elite corps like the light infantry, and the widespread contempt for unlawful rebellion.
     Spring also mentions British exasperation with less savory American tactics.  Spring cites two occasions when some Americans feigned surrender, only to turn on the British who tried to receive them.  Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and With Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008; paperback, 2010), pages 232-237.

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