George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Israel Putnam, 28 September 1778

From Major General Israel Putnam

Highlands [N.Y.] 28th septr 1778 8 OClock at Night

Dear sir

By sergeant Robinson of Col: Bailer’s Regt of Lt Dragoons, I am this moment inform’d, that this morning Just before day, The Enemy found means to surprize Col. Bailer with his whole Regiment, then laying at Harring-Town. They came upon them when they had only one man out to Reconnoiter, which they took and advanced immediately to where the Regt lay: They was so compleatly surprised, that sargt Robinson tells me, only himself, and two officers effected an escape. It is probable he may exagerate a little, but I believe they have met with a verry severe blow.1

I have Just seen an officer who informs me that the Enemy last Night, landed a large body at Tappan Meadows, and advanced towards Kings Ferry.2

General Woodford with his Brigade Marchd this morning. It being late last night, before I Receiv’d your Excellencys Orders, to send the Detachment,3 and there being a number of them on Fatigue at the Fort, it was late in the forenoon before they could March, I believe they will not get further than Kings-Ferry to Night.

Inclos’d is the Examination of a Deserter who has Just come in.4 I am with great respect Dr Sir Yr Most Obedt Servant.

Israel Putnam


1Col. George Baylor’s 3d Continental Light Dragoon Regiment had been severely crippled as an effective scouting and fighting force in the predawn hours of 28 Sept., when it was surprised by a large British detachment while camped for the night near a bridge crossing the Hackensack River in the vicinity of present-day River Vale, N.J., about a mile and a half southwest of Old Tappan, N.J., and about four miles southwest of Tappan, N.Y. (also called New Tappan). British officer Stephen Kemble describes the attack from the British point of view in his journal: “The Troops moved on that Night [27-28 Sept.] in two Columns, the right upon the Tappan road led by Lord Cornwallis; the left, by General [Charles] Grey, crossed the Hackinsack at New Bridge; the whole proposed to meet at Tappan [N.Y.] at day break, with a view of surprising a party of 700 Militia in that neighbourhood, but they were apprised of our march by two Deserters, and escaped. General Grey was more lucky by getting notice of a party of Dragoons lying on his Route, called Lady Washington’s, whom he Effectually surprised, and without one Shot being fired; out of 120, Killed about 50, and took as many prisoners—the Colonel, by name Baylor, and Major [Alexander Clough], with one Capt. and 6 Subalterns—of latter number the Colonel like to recover, the Major dead; the [British] 2d. Battalion Light Infantry were thought to be active and Bloody on this Service, and it’s acknowledged on all hands they might have spared some who made no resistance, the whole being compleatly surprised and all their Officers in bed; this Regiment consisted of 180 [sic.], and by this rencounter totally disabled from further Service” (Kemble Papers description begins [Stephen Kemble]. The Kemble Papers. 2 vols. New York, 1884-85. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 16–17. description ends , 1:163).

In addition to the 2d Light Infantry, General Grey’s column, which marched up the west side of the Hackensack River, consisted of the 2d Grenadiers, the 33d and 64th regiments, and about fifty dragoons. Cornwallis’s column, which marched up the east side of the Hackensack, consisted of the 1st Grenadiers, the Guards, and the 42d and 37th regiments. A third British column commanded by Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell, which consisted of the 71st Regiment and the Queen’s Rangers, had crossed the Hudson River a short distance east of Tappan, N.Y., to participate in the intended attack on that post, and like Cornwallis’s column, it was not involved in the surprise of Baylor’s regiment. For other British accounts of this expedition, see André, Journal description begins John André. Major André’s Journal: Operations of the British Army under Lieutenant Generals Sir William Howe and Sir Henry Clinton, June 1777 to November 1778. 1930. Reprint. New York, 1968. description ends , 98–99; Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends , 183; Gruber, Peebles’ American War description begins Ira D. Gruber, ed. John Peebles’ American War: The Diary of a Scottish Grenadier, 1776–1782. Mechanicsburg, Pa., 1998. description ends , 222–23; Baurmeister, Revolution in America description begins Carl Leopold Baurmeister. Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776–1784, of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces. Translated and annotated by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf. New Brunswick, N.J., 1957. description ends , 220; Simcoe, Operations of the Queen’s Rangers description begins John Graves Simcoe. Simcoe’s Military Journal: A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps, Called the Queen’s Rangers, Commanded by Lieut. Col. J. G. Simcoe, during the War of the American Revolution . . .. 1844. Reprint. New York, 1968. description ends , 90; Ritchie, “New York Diary,” description begins Carson I. A. Ritchie, ed. “A New York Diary [British army officer’s journal] of the Revolutionary War.” New-York Historical Society Quarterly 50 (1966): 221–80, 401–46. description ends 279–80; New-York Gazette: and the Weekly Mercury, 5 Oct.; and Royal Gazette (New York), 3 Oct.; see also the depositions of the two British deserters who warned the American militia at Tappan, N.Y., dated 29 Sept., in Israel Putnam to GW, 29 Sept., n.1.

For American accounts of the attack on Baylor’s regiment, see particularly Charles Stewart to GW, 28 Sept.; Otho Holland Williams to GW, 28 Sept.; Baylor to GW, 19 Oct.; and the several eyewitness accounts in the Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser (Philadelphia), 29 Oct. (see also the manuscripts in DNA:PCC, item 53, and the version in Thacher, Military Journal description begins James Thacher. Military Journal of the American Revolution, From the commencement to the disbanding of the American Army; Comprising a detailed account of the principal events and Battles of the Revolution, with their exact dates, And a Biographical Sketch of the most Prominent Generals. Hartford, 1862. description ends , 150–52). The consensus of American opinion about this troubling defeat was expressed succinctly by Asst. Q. M. Gen. Charles Pettit in his letter to Nathanael Greene of 1 Oct.: “I am told it was a kind of Massacre as little or no Resistance could be made” (Greene Papers, 2:531–36). Writing to Henry Laurens on 31 Sept., Steuben said that the disaster had been “The Consequence of a bad discipline. The service of the guards, piquets, & patrolls is totally neglected in our Army. . . . Brave, it is true, but bravery never made an Officer” (Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 14:370–72). Laurens replied to Steuben on 12 Oct.: “I am afraid indeed that unfortunate Gentleman [Baylor] was off his guard, but does his error warrant the Butchery which we are told the Cruel English exercised upon himself & his party? If this shall be proved ought we to suffer their guilt to pass with impunity? when & in what manner should retaliation be made?” (Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 14:400–401). For GW’s views on this subject, see particularly GW to Charles Scott, 29 Sept., to Horatio Gates, 30 Sept., and to Henry Laurens, 3 Oct. (second letter). For Congress’s efforts to document British cruelty in this instance by obtaining and publishing affidavits from the survivors of the attack, see William Livingston to GW, 13 Oct., and note 4 to that document, and Stirling to GW, 14, 16 October. For a Loyalist condemnation of the British conduct, see Jones, History of New York description begins Thomas Jones. History of New York during The Revolutionary War, and of the Leading Events in the Other Colonies at that Period. Edited by Edward Floyd De Lancey. 2 vols. New York, 1879. description ends , 1:286.

The initial reports of the casualties suffered by Baylor’s regiment were uncertain and inexact. A more precise and accurate casualty report was provided by Dr. David Griffith, the surgeon and chaplain of Brig. Gen. William Woodford’s brigade, in his letter to Stirling of 20 Oct.: “Notwithstanding the Cruelty of the [British] Orders, it does not appear that they effected their Purpose so fully as they intended, or might have been expected: The Number of Privates present were 104, out of which Eleven were killed outright, 17 were left behind wounded, 4 of whom are since dead, 33 are Prisoners in N. York, 8 of them Wounded, the rest made their escape. There are, besides, Prisoners in New York, a Captain ([John] Swan) two Subalterns ([Robert] Randolph and [Francis] Dade) a Volunteer ([John] Kilty) and the Surgeons Mate; And, besides Major Clough who died of his wounds, there were wounded of the Officers, Colonel Baylor, Lieutenant [Robert] Morrow and Mr [George] Evans the Surgeon” (DNA:PCC, item 53; for another excerpt from this letter, see Baylor to GW, 19 Oct., n.1). Griffith’s figures indicate the regiment’s total losses, including both officers and men, were sixteen killed, twenty-four wounded, and thirty-eight prisoners in New York City, including eight of the wounded, for a grand total of seventy casualties. For other reports of the strength of Baylor’s regiment before and after the attack, see GW to Otis & Andrews, 27 Sept.; Edward Conner’s return of 29 Sept. in William Woodford to GW, 29 Sept., n.3; and GW to Robert Smith, 11 Oct., in Smith to GW, 4 Oct., n.2. Maj. Alexander Clough died of his wounds on 29 Sept. (see Griffith to William Woodford, 30 Sept., in Stirling to GW, 1 Oct., n.1). Although Baylor lived until 1784, his health was so impaired that he was unable to play an active military role for the remainder of the war. His regiment was rebuilt under the command of Lt. Col. William Washington, and in May 1779 it was sent to the Carolinas, where on 1 Jan. 1781 it was redesignated the 3d Legionary Corps.

2The unidentified officer apparently was referring to Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell’s column, which during the previous night had embarked at the Philipse house on the east side of the Hudson River and had landed on the west side about two miles east of Tappan, N.Y. (see Charles Stewart to GW, 28 Sept., and note 1 to that document; Gilbert Cooper to Ann Hawkes Hay, 28 Sept., in Israel Putnam to GW, 29 Sept., n.2; and Baurmeister, Revolution in America description begins Carl Leopold Baurmeister. Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776–1784, of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces. Translated and annotated by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf. New Brunswick, N.J., 1957. description ends , 220).

3For these orders, see GW to Putnam, 27 September.

4According to this undated intelligence report, Michael Mullen, who had deserted from Lord Rawdon’s Loyalist corps, the Volunteers of Ireland, “says he left his Corps yesterday Morning—between Hackinsask and the Liberty Pole—That he amagines there is about 6,000 Troops on that side the River; That Lord Cornwallis Commands—That they are repairing the old Bridge, at Hackinsack, to get their Cannon over—That there is no Troops on the west side of the River, but British & Hessians—That the New Levies Garrison the Forts at the Bridge—That the Troops take from the inhabitants all their Cattle Hogs, Fowles & Forage of every kind” (DLC:GW).

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