J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2021

“My vanity once more got ascendancy over my reason”

Yesterday I started to quote Ens. George Eld’s account of the Crown raid on Paramus, New Jersey, which started on 23 Mar 1780.

Most of the fighting took place on 24 March as British and Hessian units attacked the Continental positions and then withdrew, pursued by an enemy force.

Eld was in charge of part of the rear guard, and starting to resent his commander, Lt. Col. John Howard, for not providing more support.

The ensign’s account continues as the British column reached the Hackensack River:
we arrived at a Bridge; so great was Howards confusion, that as the rear Guard was crossing the Bridge, he was threatening the trembling Owner of the adjacent house, with death & destruction if he did not take up the planks of the Bridge—

as this was impossible, our army not chooseing to make the attempt & the Owner of the house from inclination not intending to do it, I volunteered the duty & promised Coll. Howard to destroy the Bridge. I never professed myself a volunteer for any duty, but on this occasion I had two reasons for my Conduct.

The first reason arose from my having perceived that the Enemy were bringing Cannon & horse—the whole weight of which must have been sustained by the rear guard, the other was, vanity; the vanity of attempting that danger, which a whole army had avoided—

I now called the Light Infantry, which composed the rear Guard to assist me, but so great was the panic, that only FOUR remained.—

Capn. [Francis] Dundass hearing my voice joined me as did Capns. [David] Anstruther & [George] Dennis with one private of the 43d. & 2 privates of the 42d. Regt. The Hessian detachment perceiving our intentions formed on a small rise & covered our attempt—Under a very heavy fire, we effected our design, by dislodging the planks—which effectually prevented the horse & feild pieces from following our line of March.

As this was done in the full view of the whole army, my vanity once more got ascendancy over my reason, inducing me to remain the last on the Bridge—In our retreating from the Bridge—three of the Light Infantry were killed, one of the 42 & 43—Capn. A: was wounded—Lt. Dennis slightly—Dundass & myself escaped.—

For having thus destroyed the Bridge, which rendered the rest of the retreat safe & easy—Capn. Dundass & myself recd. in public orders the thanks of Genl. [Edward] Mathew, the Commanding Officer at Kings bridge—as also Genl. [Wilhelm von] Knyphausen’s thanks Commr. in Chief at New York.

We now (March 24th. 5 o’clock even’g) recrossed the North river, after a march of 40 miles thro’ the enemys Country—We took 1 Capn. & 100 privates—our loss must have been nearly 300—
As usual, as the sources in Rees’s overview show, the two sides disagreed on who had come out best and how many casualties the other side suffered. Eld’s account was unusual in wildly overstating his own side’s losses. 

As for Eld’s memory of being praised for his brave action, Col. Howard did report:
After crossing the River Hackinsack, I ordered the Bridge to be broke down to prevent the Rebels passing it; in this Service Capts. Dundass and Elde of the Light Infantry were particularly active themselves taking up the Boards under the Enemy’s Fire.
However, Rees also quotes Knyphausen’s general orders, and he thanked five other officers—but not Eld or Dundas. Eld’s vanity may have affected his memory. 

(The picture above shows Francis Dundas, who went on to be a general and acting governor of the Cape Colony.)

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