Fort Lee history has a prominent place in the American past. In 1776, the British were trying to control New York City along with the Hudson River. General George Washington, who later became the nation’s first president, was working to defend both New York City along with the Hudson River Valley, after having resisted the siege by the British in Boston.
In the history of Fort Lee, New Jersey, Washington rightly believed the army needed to build up and fortify the defenses spanning the Hudson River – just as fortifications has been created in both New York and Long Island.
However, the British believed they could best control the Hudson by the sheer force of the Royal Navy. The Brits believed they could use this strategy to divide the Colonies into two and smash the American rebellion early and quickly.
Fort Lee, NJ background includes the time in July 1776 when the Americans first began working to build up this site, which was first called “Fort Constitution.” The name was later changed to Fort Lee in the honor of General Charles Lee. His army had a massive victory earlier that summer in Charleston, South Carolina.
On the area just north of this site, now known as Fort Lee, work has already started on another fort – called Fort Washington, which sat in what is now modern day northern Manhattan. On the fateful day of July 12, British Admiral Richard Howe ordered two British ships to go up the Hudson. The Rose and Phoenix ships weren’t affected much by the cannons fired at them from Fort Washington. General Washington demanded the efforts to build up Fort Lee should move ahead as fast as possible in the history of Fort Lee.
Then, General Israel Putnam thought of sinking some obstructions in the river channel between the two forts. Once these were set in place, the Americans planned to fire up on the ship from not one but both forts. The Americans plan was to assault the ships without major American losses.
Another significant time for Fort Lee background was the summer of 1776 when British King George III sent the biggest force of his ships and troops to New York Harbor. It was the largest number of ships and troops ever sent off by King of England. At this same time in the middle of August, British Commander-in-Chief Sir William Howe had put together a massive army of more than 31,000 troops that were on Staten Island and composed of British and Hessian.
The British landed on Long Island on Aug. 22 – a move that forced the Americans to retreat to New York City five days later. Back then the city was made up of just the southern tip of the Island of Manhattan. In the fall, the British took New York City and the rest of Manhattan, but they didn’t capture Fort Washington.
Fort Washington fell on Nov. 16 when the British forces attacked. They were successful in capturing over 3,000 American troops.
But the insightful General Washington believed that Fort Lee would be of little value from a militaristic standpoint since Fort Washington had fell. Washington commanded General Nathanael Greene, who was Fort Lee commander, to start working to evacuate. But leaving so soon would not be in the cards.
Just four days after taking Fort Washington on Nov. 20, General Howe commanded General Charles Cornwallis to move a troop of 5,000 across the Hudson River just a few miles north of Fort Lee. As General Washington heard that the army was coming, Washington commanded a speedy retreat – before the Fort Lee troops could be cut off and taken by the British army. The Americans had to leave most of their precious supplies and artillery behind. Author Thomas Paine wrote his famous pamphlet, “The American Crisis” during this time with the prolific words, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”