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Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage

New Jersey in the American Revolution An Overview

In 1774, a group of 40 residents of Greenwich disguised as Indians torched a boatload of tea that had been offloaded there in the hope of sneaking it into Philadelphia by land. The last royal governor in New Jersey, William Franklin, son of Benjamin Franklin (by an unknown woman who was not his wife), tried to slow the colony’s move toward independence – at the cost of his freedom and his previously close relationship with his father.

The provincial Congress had him arrested in June 1776 and sent to Connecticut, though he was later released. After the war, despite William’s pleas for reconciliation, his father disowned him.

When British troops crossed the Hudson and captured Fort Lee in the fall of 1776, Washington began a hasty retreat across New Jersey heading for safety on the far side of the Delaware River. His forces narrowly averted a quick defeat in Bergen County in late November by outrunning British forces to a drawbridge spanning the Hackensack River at New Bridge Landing, where British General Charles Cornwallis had been hoping to hem them in. For supporters of independence those were indeed “times that try men’s souls,” as Thomas Paine famously wrote during the hurried evacuation, and to which President Barack Obama referred in his inaugural address. It was also a pivotal moment when American military fortunes were reversed.

Photo: Troops with the Rhode Island Regiment & New Jersey Regiment Drilling & Marching (c. Lawrence E. Walker Foundation Collection)

For many New Jerseyans, conditions of life during the Revolution resembled a civil war. Important supply routes crossed the state, and there were numerous skirmishes as rival foraging parties scoured the countryside. Roughly one third or a little more of New Jersey’s population actively sympathized with the cause of the revolution, and nearly another third sided with the loyalists. Some New Jerseyans changed sides mid conflict. A large group – mainly Quaker pacifists – strove to remain neutral.

Photo: Continental Troops getting ready for war at the Battle of Trenton in 1776 (c. Lawrence E. Walker Foundation Collection)

All told, New Jersey played a pivotal role in the war. Washington’s main army spent roughly a quarter of the war on New Jersey soil, wintering three times in the northwestern hills, including important encampments at Middlebrook and Pluckemin. The Continental Congress, which had been forced to flee Philadelphia, was meeting at Nassau Hall in Princeton when news reached it, in late 1783, that the Treaty of Paris had been signed, formally ending the conflict. New Jersey’s central place in the struggle for independence is marked by Morristown National Historical Park, the first historical park to enter the national parks system.

The end result of the war in New Jersey was a badly tattered social fabric. The hope that a strengthened central government, as provided for in the United States Constitution, would hasten recovery, led New Jersey to quickly ratify both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

An Essay on Context for the Heritage Tourism Master Plan
Howard Green, Author. By permission of the New Jersey Historic Trust

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