Henry Lee Jr.’s Partisan Corps in its First Action

TOPICS: Espionage, Henry Lee Jr., Revolutionary War

by Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
January 10, 2020

In this post, I continue the story of Maj. Henry Lee, Jr. and his partisan corps (read the first installment of this series here). After several months spent manning and equipping his new unit, Maj. Henry Lee, Jr., finally got his partisan corps into the field in August 1778. Lee and his new corps marched into White Plains, N.Y., on the first day of August. An observer recorded the corps members’ impressive appearance:

On Saturday last arrived here, on their way to camp, a large body of cavalry, under the command of the celebrated Major Lee, who has frequently distinguished himself as a partisan. This corps consists of chosen men, whose courage and activity the Major has tried; and being completely uniformed, and extremely well mounted, they made an elegant and martial appearance.1

Gen. George Washington had assigned Lee to operate with Brig. Gen. Charles Scott’s light infantry brigade, the element of the army that had advanced closest to the British lines in the lower part of Westchester County. The brigade, “composed of the best, most hardy and active Marksmen” and “commanded by good Partizan officers,” numbered about 1,300 foot and about 400 cavalry.2 Washington’s orders to Scott specified duties that made operating with the light infantry brigade the logical assignment for the dragoons of Lee’s partisan corps:

With the detachment of light troops under your command you are to take post in front of our camp and in such a position as may appear best calculated to preserve the security of your own corps and cover this army from surprise. For the better execution of these purposes you will make yourself master of all the roads leading to the enemies lines. You will keep up a constant succession of scouting parties as large as can possibly be spared from the detachment without harrassing it by too severe duty. These parties are to penetrate as near the enemy’s lines as possible, and to continue within observing distance at all times….These parties will make you constant reports of their discoveries, and you will give me the earliest and fullest intelligence of all occurrences worthy of notice.3

Scott assigned Lee’s dragoons to patrol in the most forward areas near the enemy’s lines just north of King’s Bridge. In addition to Lee’s partisan corps, Scott operated with elements of two other dragoon regiments: Maj. William Washington, commanding dragoons from Col. George Baylor’s 3rd Regiment, and Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, commanding troopers from Col. Elisha Sheldon’s 2nd Regiment.

For the remainder of August and most of the next month, Lee and his corps carried out their patrol and intelligence-gathering duties, but in late September, that would change.

Henry Lee, oil on canvas painting by James Herring after Gilbert Stuart (c. 1834). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (NPG.78.51).

On the evening of Sept. 28, Scott sent out a detachment consisting of Lee’s corps, Capt. Alexander Spotswood Dandridge’s 3rd troop of the 1st Dragoons, and about 300 light infantrymen under Col. Richard Butler to “Check” enemy foraging (provision-gathering) parties. Butler commanded the combined force. Scott expected that the detachment would be out two or three days. For the next two days, Lee and Butler operated very near the enemy’s lines, but the enemy did not sent out any forces to counter them.4 That changed on the final day of the month.

In the predawn hours of Sept. 30, Butler ordered his command out of camp and headed them towards the heights between Dobb’s Ferry and the Sawmill River, very near the enemy’s lines. At daybreak that same morning, Lt. Gen. Wilhelm von Knyphausen, who was fighting on behalf of the British, sent out Hessian patrols of jäger to the front from both wings of his camp north of King’s Bridge. Capt. Johann Ewald, along with sixty foot jägers and twelve horse jägers, was sent north towards Dobb’s Ferry. Knyphausen also ordered Capt. Karl Moritz von Donop to march north on the road to Dobb’s Ferry with fifty dismounted jägers and Lt. Balthaser Mertz’s fifteen mounted jägers. Donop sent Mertz’s jägers to scout ahead of his force. Arriving at the heights above Dobb’s Ferry, Butler spotted Mertz’s horse jägers and Donop’s dismounted jägers.

Butler divided his force for an ambush. On the right, he placed two light-infantry companies and some horse; on the left, he positioned two light-infantry companies, Dandridge’s dragoons, and some of Lee’s dragoons under Cornet Ferdinand Neil (probably one company, or troop); and in the center, he deployed one light infantry company and the remainder of Lee’s Corps (probably the other two troops) under Lee and Lt. John Rudulph.

Mertz did not spot Butler’s greatly superior force until he was upon them. The German lieutenant saw the number of men waiting in ambush on his front and right. Realizing his dangerous position, he called for the help of Lt. Alexander Wilhelm Bickell, whom Donop had detached with thirty foot jägers to occupy a hill on the left of the road.

After positioning his men, Butler gave the order to attack. The fight was carried by the center and right divisions. The attack of the light infantry and Lee’s dragoons cut off Mertz and Bickell from the rest of Donop’s command. Both tried to fight their way back to Donop. Bickell, moving on foot along the Hudson, had only one non-commissioned officer and one jäger wounded. Mertz, trying to cut his way out with his horse jägers, engaged Lee’s dragoons, beat his way through, halted, and then again engaged Lee’s troopers. During this “heated skirmish,” Lee’s cavalrymen surrounded Mertz and took him prisoner.5 Dandridge’s party, due to the roughness of the country, did not have a chance to strike, and the infantry on the left was stopped by defiles, which prevented them from coming to action. At least ten jägers were killed in the fighting. Eighteen jägers, in addition to Mertz, were captured. Mertz was wounded across the nose and on both cheeks, but the wounds were not serious.6 Butler reported no killed or wounded from his command. However, shortly after the fight, an American dragoon informed German officer Johann Ewald that Mertz had personally killed a dragoon and that the Americans had counted twenty-nine killed and wounded.7 Ewald, who was on the field, wrote of the intensity of the fighting: “I have never seen a battlefield on a small scale more horrible than the little spot on which this slaughter had taken place. In a space the length of about 150 paces and the width of a country road, we found twenty-one completely mutilated bodies, counting friend and foe, and seven horses.”8

Butler was effusive in his praise of Lee’s dragoons and the light infantry: “I Assure you Sir I have never Seen Greater bravery Display’d than on this occasion, by both foot & horse.” Only the roughness of the country, Butler claimed, prevented him from capturing the whole of the enemy party.9 Upon being informed of the engagement, Washington asked Scott to present his thanks to Butler “and all the Officers of his party” for their behavior during the fight.10 Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene called the fight a “compleat” surprise of the enemy.11 In his report to Congress, Washington pointed out that Lee’s corps made up the major cavalry component of Butler’s command.12 In their first combat action, Lee and his dragoons had performed well. Lee had smashed Mertz’s horse jägers, though, to be sure, he had the advantages of surprise and overwhelming numbers. This first action showed the promise of Lee and his new corps—a promise that would come to fruition in 1779, especially at the attack on Paulus Hook, N.J., the subject of my next post.

  1. “Extract of a letter from headquarters August 4” in Virginia Gazette, 21 Aug. 1778.
  2. “General Orders, August 8, 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-16-02-0281. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 16:266–68; “Council of War, September 29, 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-17-02-0177. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 17:178–79.
  3. “From George Washington to Brigadier General Charles Scott, August 14, 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-16-02-0338. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 16:313.
  4. “To George Washington from Brigadier General Charles Scott, September 28, 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-17-02-0167. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 17:168–69; “To George Washington from Brigadier General Charles Scott, September 30, 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-17-02-0209. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 17:207–208.
  5. Col. Richard Butler to Brig. Gen. Charles Scott, Sept. 30, 1778, found at “To George Washington from Brigadier General Charles Scott, September 30 1778,” https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-17-02-0210; 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), 220–21, quote 221; see also Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin (New Haven and London, 1979), 150.
  6. Butler to Scott, Sept. 30, 1778; Baurmeister, Revolution in America, 221. Baurmeister claimed that von Donop lost only two jägers killed and two wounded and Mertz and another officer captured. Lee, impressed with Mertz’s gallantry in defending himself, obtained a parole for the German lieutenant.
  7. Butler to Scott, Sept. 30, 1778; Scott informed Washington that “not a Single man of ours [was] Hurt,” Scott to Washington, Sept. 30, 1778; Ewald, Diary, 151.
  8. Ewald, Diary, 151.
  9. Butler to Scott, Sept. 30, 1778.
  10. “From George Washington to Brigadier General Charles Scott, October 1, 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-17-02-0220. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 17:217.
  11. “To George Washington from Major General Nathanael Greene, October 5, 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-17-02-0278. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 17:265–66.
  12. “From George Washington to Henry Laurens, October 3, 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-17-02-0247. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 17:239–40.