Sunday, July 4, 2010

Old Barracks and Princeton

[Nota bene: This post covers one of the best tours of a Rev War-era site, not just in New Jersey, but in the entire country!]

Happy Birthday America!

What better way to celebrate 234 years of independence than by visiting the sites where American fortunes turned for the better. We had friends from upstate New York staying for the weekend and so I asked if they’d be interested in visiting some of the places that made this holiday possible. Their seven-year old daughter had just read a book on Washington crossing the Delaware, so the timing was perfect.

The period from December 25, 1776 to January 3, 1777 has been called the 10 Crucial Days because of the pivotal role the Battles of Trenton and Princeton played in securing our nation’s independence.

After the British took control of New York City in the fall of 1776, it looked like the high hopes of July would come to an unhappy end. The Continental forces had dwindled from more than 20,000 troops to the few thousand who retreated their way across New Jersey that November.

The soldiers’ enlistments expired on December 31. The army had suffered one humiliating defeat after another since Washington took command and the general was rightly worried that few would reenlist. If they didn’t, the Americans might lose the war simply by forfeit.

So Washington devised a plan. He would take his troops, now safely ensconced in Pennsylvania, back across the Delaware River on Christmas night and launch a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison in Trenton. It would be one last attempt to score a victory and raise morale. The rest, as they say, is history.

We actually did the 10 Crucial Days tour in reverse (it was easier for us to start in Princeton because of the events scheduled there).

Our first stop was Princeton Battlefield state park. This is a really nice open park with tree-lined walking trails. The centerpieces are a memorial on the western side and the Thomas Clarke farmhouse on the eastern side. The Clarke house stood witness to the initial engagement in the Battle of Princeton on January 3rd, 1777. Being the Fourth, the park had camp re-enactors, a cannon demonstration, and a reading of the Declaration of Independence. Huzzah!

The house was open to the public. The museum part of the building focuses on the martial aspects of the battle (e.g. a lot of guns and musket balls), but the restored living quarters are well worth a look.

As an added bonus, the Quaker Meeting House was open today. The building served as a hospital during the battle and is still in use by an active congregation of Friends. It’s a three-minute walk from the Clarke House through a wooded path. Members of the congregation were very gracious and informative. Even if the building is not open to the public when you visit, it’s worth taking a stroll back there to see the building and get a sense of the landscape.

From Princeton, we made our way to Trenton following Quaker Road. That’s the secret back road that Washington’s troops took after the second Trenton battle, at Assunpink Creek. Look for a concrete marker in a farm field – one of twelve erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution to commemorate Washington’s route from Trenton to Princeton.

We took the Perry Street exit from Route 1 past the Trenton firehouse and turned right onto Broad Street to the Trenton Battle Monument - the site of the American artillery placement. You can actually go up to the top of the monument (a tall column) to get a better view of the terrain.

Running downhill from the monument are Warren and Broad streets, then known as King and Queen streets. The Continental forces lined up behind and between the houses and fired at the Hessians as they hastily ran up the street to engage the Americans. (St. Michael’s Church on Warren Street is one remaining witness to this scene).

We then headed downhill to Lafayette Street for the highlight of the day, the Old Barracks Museum. Built to house British forces during the French & Indian War, this is where the Hessians were quartered when the alarm was sounded that the Americans were in town.

The one-hour tour here is top-notch! Tours usually start on the hour, so plan accordingly. To bide your time, there is a nice gift shop, a TV running the NJN documentary on the 10 Crucial Days, and a somewhat random exhibit on New Jersey in the French & Indian War.

Typically, the tour involves three staff members in period costume each playing a specific 18th century role. One “musters” the group in the courtyard and takes you through the officers’ house. Another describes the role of the soldier in a typical bunkroom. Finally, you are taken to the hospital for a fascinating description of 18th century medicine. [Little known fact: the Barracks was central to Washington’s plans to inoculate the entire army against smallpox.]

I’ve taken this tour before, and it is definitely first-rate. However, since today was a holiday, the staff was limited. Instead of the typical tour, we had one staff member in contemporary clothing take us through the entire facility.

While this could have been disappointing, the fact that our tour guide was Bob Butera – in a rather natty flag tie – more than made up for the difference. He brought the history to life, marrying descriptions of the building and its surroundings to the lives of those who passed through. More importantly, he did so in a way that appealed to both the 7 year olds and the 70 year olds in our group.

Short of being able to clone him, every historic interpreter in the state should take a tour with Bob to see how it should be done!

For the final scheduled stop of the day, we headed a few miles up the Delaware River to the place where it all started, Washington Crossing – which I’ve discussed in a prior post. We spent some time on the Pennsylvania side, which has a nice map (which shows another planned crossing south of Trenton that was aborted because of ice in the river) and replicas of the Durham boats which made the crossing.

When you examine all these sites as a group, you can’t help but consider the role of providence in the American cause. Like the fact that the Hessians decided not to send out their typical scouting party that morning.

Our day out and about left us no time for the traditional July 4th barbecue, so we headed back to Princeton for dinner. On the way, we passed Morven – home to Richard Stockton, signer of the Declaration of Independence. They also had activities today, but time did not permit us to stop there.

I’ve visited Morven before and it is well worth a stop, as it usually hosts an interesting exhibit in addition to the restored house itself. Hopefully, they will be able to remain open after losing their state funding during the recent budget cuts. [A fate which the Barracks was thankfully spared as lawmakers recognized that the site is integral to New Jersey’s legacy and image.]

We also passed Nassua Hall, Princeton’s University’s main building, where the British holed up under a siege from American cannon fire. One cannonball reportedly flew into a window and “beheaded” the portrait of King George. A good way to get a sense of 18th century Princeton is to take the Princeton Tour Company’s Revolutionary walking tour. I highly recommend their other tours as well. Mimi is a real pip!

After dinner, we headed up Nassau Street through the village of Kingston, passing the site of the "conference on horseback.” This is where Washington and his generals decided to head to Morristown for the winter rather than pursue the British to New Brunswick. There’s a DAR marker here too.

I decided to turn left on Church Street to follow Washington’s route for a bit. I figured it would make a nice cap to our day, since it is a pleasant drive along the tree-lined D & R Canal with preserved farmland all around.

But it was when we passed Rockingham that the magnitude of what we saw today really hit me. I’ve always “known” about the wealth of New Jersey’s Revolutionary War legacy. But it wasn’t until I was pointing it out to visitors – being able to identify a notable location on nearly every mile of our journey today – that I was actually overwhelmed by it. This state is something special.

As night fell, one of our friends said this was the most memorable Fourth of July she has ever celebrated. That’s because we actually celebrated the memory of the Fourth - in a way that is only possible in New Jersey.

2 comments:

Fox said...
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Sally said...

What a good Fourth! And you're exactly right about Bob Butera as a model historical interpreter. You couldn't have done better.

sally lane, trenton

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