How Washington’s Retreat Became Stabilized at Passaic
By William W. Scott, City Historian of Passaic
Passaic County Historical Publication, September 1, 1931
I wish I could impress upon the teachers of history and the pupils of our schools, one of the most important events of our Revolutionary War, transpiring right here in Passaic, then known as Acquackanonk Landing, and Acquackanonk Bridge, on the never-to-be-forgotten, November 21, 1776.
It is my wish that what I now write may arrest their attention and lead them to place a value on that event, equal to any and superior to many events of that seven years’ struggle for liberty and independence.
Because not one of the writers of American history was a Jerseyman, explains the scant attention paid to events here. Raum, Gordon, and Winsor simply state that the troops crossed the river and went to Newark, whereas sufficient happened to fill a volume.
The Great Retreat
The Great Retreat of the American Army across New Jersey with Washington in the lead, was incidentally begun August 27, 1776, following their defeat and the loss, in killed and prisoners of over 1,100 men and officers in the Long Island (Brooklyn) battle.
From Brooklyn, they retreated to Harlem, where they were again defeated, September 15, following which they retreated to Fort Washington, on Mount Washington, in the vicinity of the present George Washington Bridge at 178th Street. Here they were besieged by the Hessians under General Kniphausen, a member of Sir William Howe’s staff, and compelled to surrender, on November 16, not only the fort but a great part of their artillery, some of their best guns and arms.
With the remnant of his troops, Washington took refuge in Fort Lee, on the Jersey shore of the Hudson River, a flimsy structure, totally inadequate to withstand a siege. To avoid further defeat the fort was abandoned, together with all but two of their cannon (the British reported the taking by them of 47), a thousand barrels of flour, between two and three hundred tents, and all their clothing and a start was made on the nineteenth for Hackensack, where Washington and his officers arrived the same day, and the troops on the following evening of a cold, rainy day, and took post on the “Green” still in existence, wishing to escape being penned in between the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers, Washington decided to go to Acquackanonk Landing (now Passaic) cross Acquackanonk Bridge, over the river and thus place that river between him and the British.
The March Begun
In the early afternoon of November 21, 1776, the American army of about 3,500 men, headed by Washington and his officers: Generals Beall, Ewing, and Heard, started from the “Green,” led by Gen. Heard, mounted on “Britannia,” considered the most attractive horse of the entire army; over five feet tall. The line of march was from Essex Street to the Polevey Road (now Terrace Avenue) over that road to Albert Terhune’s lane, running along the north end of his dwelling, now the “Old Homestead,” over that lane to Paramus Road, now South Main Street, Lodi, over that road to Peck Hoek Road, over which the march was continued for about a thousand feet, and then turned toward the south, over a low marshy plain, which today (1930) is full of sand hills and hollows, remaining after excavating the sand. At the end of the march, the road continued over higher ground, as it does today to the River Road, now Main Street, Wallington, which was followed to near Union Place. During the march Washington had time for reflection. Not only had he lost two forts and thousands of men by capture and death, but two full regiments had disbanded and left him, whose place he had endeavored to fill by recruits at Hackensack. But all in vain, as he found Bergen County a hotbed of Toryism, whose men, right before his eyes, were flocking to the King’s standards, to his mortification and chagrin. These recruits included the most influential men, not only of Bergen but adjoining New York County, noted among whom were preachers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, farmers, artisans, etc., whom Washington had expected assistance from (but all of them suffered the loss of all their valuable possessions). Their names and losses are set forth in volumes one and two of the Second Report of the Bureau of Archives, of the Province of Quebec, Ontario, 1904.
In an Enemy’s Country
During their march from Hackensack it’s recounted, scarcely one friendly door had welcomed them; all because the farmers along the way, in view of all their defeats and losses, believed that the struggle for liberty and independence, was lost and that the Americans were on their last march, which would end the struggle. During this trying ordeal, Washington realized the manly words he had addressed to his troops that: “Each one for himself, resolving to conquer or die, and trusting in the smiles of Heaven, on so just a cause, would behave with bravery and resolution.” That Washington was dissatisfied with the result of his campaign is evident from a letter to his brother, wherein he writes, “I am wearied to death with the retrograde motion of things,” and solemnly protests that a pecuniary reward of twenty thousand pounds a year would not induce him to undergo what he suffered. It was not alone his mental and bodily suffering – sufferings of one brought up in a home of plenty, but those of his troops, whose tents and clothes were insufficient to protect them from the weather – raw, rainy, November. This march was called “Mud Rounds” because of the half frozen roadway, over which these troops walked – some with no shoes and some with hay or straw bound around their feet.
In addition to this, he was “heartsick” to reflect that a brother’s sword had been sheathed in a brother’s breast and that the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched in blood or inhabited with slaves. Sad alternative, but can a virtuous man hesitate in his choice.” With it all, his troops never distrusted him, whose virtue and greatness shone resplendently, as they halted on the main road near Union place, this dark November day.
March to the Bridge
At this point they were welcomed by a committee from Acquackanonk, which had been chosen at a meeting of farmers held that forenoon at the Tap House on the hill; Henry Garritse, of the present Clifton, Halmagh Van Winkle, who resided near the bridge, owner of the land over which they were to march to that structure; Richard Ludlow, merchant, Adrian Post and John Sip, farmers, who led the cavalcade followed by the rank and file on foot. They left the road and proceeded across a hay field and through an apple orchard, to the bridge, whose entrance was about one hundred feet north of the present bridge, extending across the river, not at right angles to the shore line, but on a course of about north fifteen degrees east, to ease the pressure of the ice against the bridge, which had destroyed two other bridges which had stood there.
At the Bridge
Arriving at the bridge they were welcomed by General Greene with his brigade sent there early in November to fortify it, and by General Stephen and his brigade, directed to assist in its protection. As if these, more than a thousand men, would not be sufficient to save the bridge General Mercer and his invincible troops, had arrived the day before. To witness, in addition to these soldiers the beaming countenances, and the cordial greetings of the Acquackanonk farmers, in striking contrast to the indifference of the Bergen County people, were such as to put fresh courage in Washington, particularly when the Dominie of the Reformed Dutch Church (now our Old First) the Rev. Hendricus Schoonmaker, stepped up to Washington and said, in a most gracious manner: “Welcome Sir, to our shore.” That was all, and yet it spoke volumes to him who stood in need of just such a welcome.
After the bridge was crossed Washington and his generals took the post in the Tap House which stood on the west side of the river road, opposite the bridge, on an elevation, in front, and south of the church now owned by a Polish congregation. (The Tap House was destroyed by fire March 17, 1877.)
At the Tap House
Washington was accompanied to the Tap House (then a tavern kept by James Leslie) by a crowd of farmers led by the Dominie and Benjamin Helme, a lawyer both of whom delivered addresses of welcome to which Washington made a short reply and was escorted into the tavern through the center of which ran a wide hall on the first two floors. To the right on the first floor was the barroom. To the left, a large reception room, into which Washington and his generals were conducted, and introduced to many of the farmers. Supper was served in a room in the rear of the reception room.
After supper Washington and his generals inspected the troops encamped in what is now Washington Park, pausing before some ancient gravestones and listening to the description of some of the men there buried, by the sexton of the old church, from who Thomas Paine who had accompanied the Great Retreat so far, was inspired thereby to begin writing his book “The Crisis,” that very evening, after returning to the tavern. While he was thus engaged, Washington dictated a letter to his secretary, superscribed “Acquackanonk Bridge,” directed to Governor Livingston, wherein he spoke of the retreat, the crossing of the bridge, etc., and that because terms of enlistment of many Jerseymen would soon expire, he submits whether it would not be proper for him to call together such a number of the militia, as, in conjunction with the troops he should have left, would serve to cover the country and stop the progress of the enemy if they should attempt to penetrate it.
Washington was assigned a bedroom at the southeast corner of the second floor overlooking the bridge, and river, where he spent the night, undisturbed. At a public meeting of farmers held in the tavern that morning, it was decided to render the bridge useless so soon as all of Washington’s troops had gotten over.
But all were not over when the above stated letter was written, as three sharpshooters and three regiments had been left behind as covering parties. It was late that night when they crossed, and so dark that operations on the bridge were deferred until the next day.
Dismantling of the Bridge
Early the next morning Michael Vreeland, who had been chosen the chairman of the committee the day before went to the bridge at the head of a party of soldiers, belonging to the brigades of Generals Greene and Stephens, custodians of the bridge.
In addition, there was a crowd of men and boys, conspicuous among the latter being John H. Post, who rendered assistance. Vreeland figured that the counties could not afford to destroy, nor even harm the bridge, and simply directed the planks to be lifted up for about fifty feet, carried from the Bergen County end to the opposite end of the bridge where they remained piled up for ten days or until the last man of the enemy had left this vicinity. On November 26 Isaac Noble, a member of a company of British Light Dragoons determined to force a passage over the bridge from the Bergen County shore, to which he came with a small detachment of troops, whose attempts to get upon the bridge, being frustrated, led him to open fire upon the American troops on the bridge, who returned the fire in which Noble was shot in the head and fell to the ground whereupon his troops forsook him and fled. General Stephens went to him, and finding him unconscious called for a surgeon, which was responded to by Dr. Nicholas Roche, or Roach, who was the surgeon of the South Battalion of the Second Regiment of Essex (now Passaic) County, who subsequently married Antje Garritse, and resided with her father’s family on Weasel Road overlooking the present Dundee Lake (not then in existence) Clifton. The surgeon found the man badly wounded in the head and had him carried to the Tap House, where he trephined his skull with a set of instruments which Dr. Gerret Stymets of Saddle River had given him by will.
Noble recovered with the loss of an eye and was appointed Deputy Commissiary of Prisoners. He was considered a dangerous man by the Americans and a reward of five hundred dollars had been offered for his capture. He eventually was killed by an American and his large farm at Ramapo was sequestered January 26, 1779. His widow Rachel was harassed beyond endurance by her neighbors, compelling her one night, with a nine month infant, to abandon their home, walked to the Hudson River, where she secured passage on a vessel to New York, whence she sailed for the home of her parents in Germany. She and her husband were Germans. The name Noble he adopted when he came to this country.
No concerted attack on the bridge was made by the British, who in order to cross the river went from Hackensack to the river near the corner of the present Outwater Avenue, Garfield, where they remained for several days, and then forded the river. Lord Stirling was placed in charge of the bridge with a suitable number of soldiers to protect it until the close of the war during which there were numerous conflicts, but no battle for possession of the bridge. Among the Jerseyman there, I mention the following for future preservation: Job Compton, officer of the guard, and his sergeant, Jacob Levy, who got after Tories and refugees in Bergen County, of whom one was killed and fifteen taken prisoners. John Stiles, who was Issuing Commissary. Peter Hill received a shot in his right arm which was dressed by Dr. Johones, surgeon. Isaac Bedell, who took first rank in number of wounds, Captain Josiah Hall, Chris Mayer, and James Wood, a sergeant were expert in gun shooting. Benjamin Thompson, who captured sixty Hessians, Sam Elston, a shoemaker and weaver, by trade, wore his long red hair in a braid hanging down his back, whereby he was nicknamed “Carrot.” Captain John Ward, who the next year recruited the Ward Company, of 68 men. Captain Arteman Day in charge of the Polifly fort which was located on the east side of present Terrace Avenue, about two hundred feet north of Terhune Avenue, Hasbrouck Heights, one of two forts. He had a hard fight with the enemy at the bridge. Phineas Chichester and Dan Cook although wounded, remained at the bridge, until transferred to the fort and again wounded. It was at the bridge that Captain John Bell was mortally wounded. Expiring immediately in the arms of his friend, Samuel C. Seeley, who owned the land at the entrance to the bridge where he conducted a small country store.
A tablet which may be seen in the stone wall along River Road, refers to the old tavern as the Blanchard House of 1776. This is a mistake as Blanchard did not become proprietor until ten years later. James Leslie was proprietor in 1776 as appears by the following receipted bill:
Acquackanonk Bridge, November 22, 1776.
Michael Vreeland, Chairman of Committee
To James Leslie, tavern keeper, dr.
two bottles of toddy for the soldiers at work on the bridge, six shillings.
We should never forget the importance of the work of these men, the neglect of which might have resulted in the capture of Washington, his officers and men, putting an end to the war and all hopes of independence. To this aspect serious thought should be given by us, who partake of the benefits which the struggles and hardships of our ancestors secured for us, after seven strenuous years during which the farmers of old Acquackanonk never lost faith in Washington, or their cause.