Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The General's Last Headquarters: Rockingham

The General's Last Headquarters: Rockingham
Written by NJ Historian

Sometimes when a historic home is moved, it loses its sense of place and some historic value. But when that home was used by General George Washington and has the distinction of being his last headquarters during the Revolutionary War, historians make exceptions. Rockingham has not been moved once or twice, but three times throughout its life. This simple, two-and-a-half story structure now sits on twenty-six acres of land, its final resting place. The story of Rockingham involves many, not just those during the American Revolution, but those individuals who worked to preserve this historic structure.

Originally located on the Georgetown-Franklin Turnpike, the first section of Rockingham was built circa 1710 by the Higgins family. In 1735, John Berrien purchased the house and about one hundred acres. John Berrien served as a Somerset County Judge in 1739, Trustee for the College of New Jersey (today Princeton University), became a New Jersey Supreme Court Justice in 1764 and finally served as an Assemblyman for the colony of New Jersey. Berrien enlarged the house for his growing family in the 1760s, adding the two-story front porch and a kitchen wing. He gradually added land to his estate, eventually totaling over 360 acres. Berrien passed away in 1772. His wife continued to live at the property after his death.

Rockingham on its original site, circa 1890s.
Rockingham gained historical importance in 1783. A number of Pennsylvania troops marched upon Philadelphia in June of that year, requesting their pay. They had not received any pay in almost a year. Congress was residing in Philadelphia at that time and moved to Princeton after being assured protection by the state.

In late July, Congress requested that Washington come to Princeton. Washington was in Newburgh, New York, near West Point with the remains of the standing army. By the time he received the message and was able to reply, it was August. Accommodations on short notice were difficult to find in Princeton since Congress had taken up a majority of the available homes. The only suitable headquarters sat four miles away and belonged to the widow of John Berrien. Mrs. Margaret Berrien was living in a townhome in Princeton and had Rockingham up for sale at this time. Mrs. Berrien agreed to rent Rockingham and its furnishings to the General and his entourage on a monthly basis. On August 23, 1783, General Washington, accompanied by his wife Martha, three aides-de-camp, a small guard of two to three dozen soldiers including dragoons, and servants and slaves, took up residence.

Rockingham, circa 1910.
George Washington occupied the house from August 23 to November 9, 1783, while Congress met in Princeton and the treaty ending the war was being negotiated in Paris. During his stay, Washington entertained frequently. His list of guests included congressmen such as James Madison and Elias Boudinot, military personnel such as General Nathaniel Greene and General Benjamin Lincoln, Revolutionaries Robert Morris and Thomas Paine, and local acquaintances such as Annis Stockton, the widow of Declaration of Independence signer, Richard Stockton. Washington hosted at least one party with nearly two-hundred guests in early September. He and Martha sat for portraits at Rockingham. Charles Peale painted a portrait of Washington for Princeton University to replace the one of King George III. Joseph Wright of Bordentown and William Dunlap also painted portraits of George and Martha. However, while at Rockingham, Martha Washington fell ill numerous times and in early October returned Mount Vernon for the winter. Washington accompanied her to Trenton, where he met General Greene and the two rode back to Princeton together.

Washington at the Battle of Princeton, 1777,  painted  in 1784 for Princeton University by Charles Peale.
In mid to late October, Washington wrote his 'Farewell Orders to the Armies of the United States,' giving thanks and praise to his troops and announcing his retirement from military service. The document was sent out on October 30 to be read to the army at West Point on November 2 and then published in Philadelphia newspapers. On October 31, 1783 Washington and Congress received word that the Treaty of Paris had been signed, effectively ending the Revolutionary War. On November 10, 1783, Washington left his brief yet relaxing stay at Rockingham and returned to New York to oversee the disbandment of the army.

After Washington’s stay, Mrs. Berrien moved back into the home and sold the property in 1802 to Frederick Cruser. In 1841 Henry Duryee bought the property and sold it to James Stryker Van Pelt in 1847. Van Pelt farmed the land until 1869 when he sold it to David H. Mount. Martin Howell purchased the home in 1872 and conveyed it to the Rocky Hill Quarry Company. By this time the house had fallen into a deplorable state and its future was uncertain. The quarry company used the mansion and outbuildings as temporary housing for Italian laborers. In 1896 two women, Mrs. Josephine Swann and Mrs. Kate McFarlane, became involved with a concerned group of citizens to save the house from demolition. Mrs. Swann donated $1,200.00 to purchase the mansion from the quarry company. The house and twenty acres of nearby land was then under the ownership of the Washington Headquarters Association and it was moved three hundred yards up the hill from the encroaching quarry. By August 25, 1897, the house was open for guests.

Rockingham being moved for the third time in July 2001.
By 1957, Rockingham was once again moved away from the encroaching quarry and the damage of the accompanying blasts. It was moved approximately a half-mile east on Georgetown-Franklin Turnpike. The final and last move occurred in 2001. In order to protect the building from the quarry operation, the home and its outbuildings were moved to land near the Delaware & Raritan Canal, about one mile from the original site. The mansion was restored and reopened to the public in 2004. This new site, pristine open space, allows visitors to step back in time uninterrupted by daily life and experience the headquarters in which Washington wrote his last major document as General of the Continental Army.

Additional photos of my trip to Rockingham on Pinterest

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Thank you for the revolutionary history summary of the Berrien/Rockingham house. I was looking for a map of the various house locations as it moved each time but your description pretty much sums it up. Wonder what that area looked like before it became a quarry. Thanks again - Susan

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