Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fort Lee

Here’s where it all began. New Jersey’s status as the Crossroads of the American Revolution began in the early dawn hours 234 years ago today. There were certainly skirmishes and other activity in the state prior to that, but the fall of Fort Lee marked the state’s first major engagement and the commencement of a five year period where Washington and his troops would spend more time on the soil of New Jersey than any other state.

The fort was named after General Charles Lee as the twin bastion to Fort Washington across the Hudson River. The naming of these forts indicates the high regard in which both generals were held and underscores just how momentous Lee’s court martial would be after the Battle of Monmouth.

General Washington watched the British take his namesake fort from this spot on November 16, 1776. Four days later he would lead his depleted army on a harrowing “Retreat Across the Jerseys “ keeping one step ahead of the British and saving his troops to fight decisive battles just one month later in Trenton and Princeton.

View from Fort Lee
What is fascinating about this spot is that you can stand where Washington stood and look across to upper Manhattan. But instead of the British looting Fort Washington you see skyscrapers and the George Washington Bridge. To my mind, it is one of the most evocative Revolutionary War spots in all of New Jersey.

While places like Monmouth Battlefield have gone to great pains to preserve an accurate 18th century landscape, that is simply not possible here. Fort Lee is a place where the past and present collide. It forces you to think about what the American Revolution means to us today: how we went from a rag tag band of rebels with little hope for success to arguably the most powerful nation in the world. It makes you consider how the ideals of independence and freedom play out in our society today.

Now, as to the visitor experience – which is the reason for this blog to begin with – it is difficult for me to assess. As you may have noticed from the date of this blog entry, I visited on the anniversary of the fall of Fort Lee. So, the day was not a typical one – lots of re-enactors and other great activity.

There is a decent visitor center with a number of displays about the battle for control of the Hudson River that helps put the fort in context. Some of the interactive displays were not working on my visit, but I was told that they are going to renovate the exhibits soon. I’ll have to check back. [Fort Lee Historic Park is part of the Palisades Interstate Park. Their website has information about the park and history, but it could use an overhaul to make it better organized and easier to find information.]

The main fortress was located across the street from the current park – down a hill and up another hill. It is now a mixed commercial/residential neighborhood. It is difficult to place the fort, but there are maps in the park to help you. The town has also created Monument Park on part of the original site as “the only park in the United States that is dedicated to the soldiers of the American Revolution.” There’s an interesting statue there, as well.

In addition to the fort itself, you’ll want to drive along the river (Henry Hudson Drive) to get a view of the Palisades as the British would have seen it when they approached the fort. The Kearney House (circa 1761) makes a good stop, although it is infrequently open (even today when there was all the activity at the fort). Nearby is a sign marking the path the British took to climb the Palisades after they landed on shore (although the actual site of the landing and the climb is in dispute).

All in all, Fort Lee is a fascinating place to visit with quite a bit to see and do. Most importantly, it is an essential stop as the first “route marker” of the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Major John M Goetschius a decendent of my great
great aunt Carman Goetschius Bamber was in charge
of the Bergen County Rangers who participated in
this battle along with Washington's Regulars He
also fought in Springfield and Connecticut Farms

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