Saturday, June 19, 2010

Monmouth Battlefield

Monmouth Courthouse, June 1778. The site of the largest and longest land artillery battle of the Revolutionary War. And the first time the Continental forces – newly trained by Baron Von Steuben at Valley Forge – stood toe-to-toe against the full might of the British army.

This weekend marked the annual reenactment of that seminal event. I’m not much of a battle reenactment aficionado. I prefer the daily life stories of both soldiers and civilians. But it is one of the hallmark Revolutionary War visitor experiences in New Jersey, and so off I went to Monmouth Battlefield State Park.

[I had another reason for heading there. The Crossroads of the American Revolution Association has hired a film crew to produce short video segments about New Jersey’s role in the fight for American Independence. They were shooting at Monmouth this weekend and I was curious to see how that was going. Hopefully, these video "ads" will help spark greater interest and awareness in this incredible part of New Jersey's heritage.]

I decided to take a somewhat “scenic” route – County Road 527 from Old Bridge through Englishtown. When I reached Route 33, I looked for the big banners advertising the reenactment.

And I looked. And looked. And looked.

No banners. In fact, if I didn’t already know where I was going, I probably would have missed the sign pointing to the exit for the park (it's on Business Route 33). Another missed opportunity. In fact, why doesn’t the state (when it has some money) invest in Diamond-vision screens for the Turnpike and the Parkway to highlight places and events in New Jersey? Talk about a captive audience!

Now, I’ve been to the park before. They have a decent visitor center (but they are in need of a good interpretive video). The building does block part of the view coming over the hill, but they are in the process of building a new visitor center that is friendlier to the landscape. So I look forward to that.

I parked by the “Continental camp.” As I walked through the rows and rows of tents, I tried to imagine what these soldiers and the family members who marched with them went through. It reached 90 degrees today – which was about 10 degrees cooler than the temperature on the day of the actual battle! The camp was even hotter than that, because the cooking fires were stoked and as part of the preparations for the oncoming battle. Walking amongst the reenactors, I caught snippets of conversation. Most of which centered on how to improve the authenticity of a uniform or replicate 18th century battlefield maneuvers.

Oddly, it put me in mind of a wedding I passed the day before. A sparkling white vintage car was parked at the church entrance. A small stand with a bottle of chilled champagne awaited the newly married couple emerging from the ceremony. I thought of how much of a “show” a wedding can be and how everyone involved worries that every detail is “exactly right” or the wedding will be ruined.

Reenactors are similar in their concern that everything has to be “just so.” However, in the latter case, they are trying to bring history to life and not just trying to fabricate a “moment.” The battle reenactment took place on just a small part of the actual battlefield, so you get some of the flavor, but it’s difficult to comprehend the full scope of that day.

The real beauty of the park is how much of the landscape’s 18th century contours are preserved. The park has many trails leading across a large section of the battlefield. (They were closed off today because of the reenactment, but I’ve visited the park before). The trails have wayside markers, including a fairly recent one I haven't seen yet that marks the site of Molly Pitcher’s cannon. The walk across the rolling hills is very enjoyable on a pleasant day (not so much when it’s 90 degrees).

There are a few 18th century buildings in and around the park – notably Old Tennent Church just outside the northwest corner of the park boundary – but most are not open to the public. However, there are working farms in the park, including one that does pick-your-own fruits during the summer and fall.

Also it’s worth taking a trip along route 522 (which cuts through the northern end of the park) to get a better sense of the troop movements from Englishtown. And speaking of which, on my drive down to the park, I passed through Englishtown and noticed that the Village Inn was open. (Wisely, they had also placed signs in the park advertising the fact). So on my way home, I stopped by.

The Village Inn is located on the intersection of routes 527 and 522 (Main and Water streets). The original 1726 structure was being used as an inn by 1766. It was enlarged a number of times in subsequent centuries, but has now been restored to its 1815 configuration.

The interior has been nicely furnished to represent an inn of both the late 18th and early 19th centuries. If you visit the Indian Queen or Indian King Taverns, much of this will be familiar to you.

The volunteers are very enthusiastic and rightfully proud of their work. However, like most places, there are few resources for staff and marketing, so the Inn is only open on special occasions (such as during battlefield events) or by appointment.

1 comment:

Travis Bowman said...

Great blog! My revolutionary war ancestor, Peter Francisco, fought in and was wounded during the Battle of Monmouth. Hope you get a chance to visit the monument at Peter Francisco Park in Newark.

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