Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Forgotten Revolution: Reviving Forsaken Locations

The Forgotten Revolution: Reviving Forsaken Locations
Written by Robert A. Mayers

Battlefields, encampments, and sites of many critical events of the Revolutionary War have been lost or neglected by history. Several are right here in New Jersey. These places where patriots fought and died are unmarked, shrouded in mystery, distorted by mythology, and unknown even to local people. After more than two centuries, some of these sites have entirely disappeared while others have languished unnoticed. Some are on private property or have been built over by towns and highways.

Army Movements at the Short Hills, New Jersey, 1777. Courtesy Robert A. Mayers.

Man-made changes to terrain have been enormous since the time of the American Revolution. The only way many places can be recognized is by historical markers. Fortunately, a few sites are in pristine condition and have been elevated to State or National Park status after being ignored for hundreds of years. Through his new book, The Forgotten Revolution, author Robert A. Mayers' objective is to revive these forsaken locations with fresh research from original military records and onsite visits.

His quest took many unexpected turns. Analysis of obscure sources ignored by earlier writers yielded many surprises and unknown details were revealed at well-known sites. He often makes detours outside of known boundaries and textbook timelines and finds that myths were often created when the winner wrote the history. Familiar stories recounted about America’s struggle for independence had other versions. Little known British, Hessian, and Loyalist accounts often revealed more accurate details than those that we have traditionally accepted as authentic. Defeats received less acclaim regardless of the bloodshed and valor displayed. The pivotal battle at The Short Hills (now Edison, Plainfield, and Scotch Plains) the hard winter at Jockey Hollow, and the British retreat from Freehold to Sandy Hook after the Battle of Monmouth were overlooked for centuries because they evoked only painful memories.

At each location, Mayers sought out “witnesses,” or people with special local knowledge. They were staff at national and state parks, regimental re-enactors, members of historical societies, private owners who live on the land, and descendants of original settlers whose ancestors are buried in local cemeteries. All have become caretakers of local history. They provided special insights and information that cannot be found in recorded history.

The Beacon of Federal Hill, 1777 - 1783. Courtesy Robert A. Mayers.

Mayers hopes his book provides as much thrill and comprehension of these places as he received from his research and seeing them as they are today. It was an enchanting experience for him to stand on a hill on unmarked private property in Newtown, New York, where a fierce battle raged in 1779. The place looked exactly as it did then. He rediscovered abandoned hut foundations at New Windsor, New York and walked the golf course of a posh country club in Plainfield, New Jersey where outnumbered Patriots held fast in 1777. The cruel wind stung his face on a winter day in deep snow at Jockey Hollow. Grasping a brown bess musket and discovering documents that had not been read in hundreds of years made those intrepid soldiers come alive.

Why were these places selected from among the many significant events in a war that lasted eight years and covered the original thirteen states and parts of Canada? While researching for a biography of a Revolutionary War soldier, The War Man, The True Story of a Citizen–Soldier who Fought from Quebec to Yorktown, Mayers examined the details of the life of a real soldier whose army service in the Continental Army spanned the entire war. During this time, the soldier marched thousands of miles and was present at many of the most crucial and pivotal events of the conflict. While following in his footsteps many these forsaken places were revealed.

These locations extend from Canada to Virginia. Living in New Jersey, truly the crossroads of the American Revolution, Mayers was geographically predisposed to many of them. Some are within 100 miles of Mayers' home or in nearby towns on ground that he traversed all of his life.

Geography was the pervading element that determined the location of all these places. Natural defenses were provided by mountains and waterways. Hills, rivers, cities, forests, and coastlines influenced troop movements, battle sites, supply routes, and the flow of action during the entire war.

Reflecting on his own experiences as a combat officer in the Navy and Marine Corps and those of many other veterans he spoke with over the years, he concludes that actions during any war must have appeared much different to the participants at the time. The average soldier or small unit had little understanding of the overall campaign strategy, tactics, or even why they are there. Reviewing the few extant accounts of common soldiers in the Revolutionary War, it appears that men of that era were no different. Dotted lines on campaign maps and historic accounts while adding to hindsight do little to reveal the frenzy, chaos, and rush of adrenaline endured during the sting of battle.

Reviving these events, visiting them, and relying on original documents provided an opportunity to view them through the eyes of those who took part. It creates a profound respect and empathy for the tenacity and stamina of the average soldier of the Continental Army. Many of these men endured for as long as the conflict lasted. These “War Men,” serving because of zealous patriotism or vague enlistment terms bravely accepted their fate and bonded together to achieve the final victory at Yorktown.

Muster Rolls, Orderly Books, other military records, diaries of officers, and the few journals left by enlisted soldiers allow us to follow events often on a day to day or hour by hour basis. But no amount of archival research compares with actually visiting these places and visualizing how they appeared over two hundred years ago.

The American Revolution was an old war. It was a war fought with inaccurate muzzle loaded flintlock muskets and smooth bore cannons that were manhandled from place to place. The bayonet, the assault rifle of the time, was a more deadly weapon than the musket. Ineffective volley firing from lines of men responding to drum commands, standing as close as 30 yards apart, was a standard tactic but often was just the prelude to the bayonet charge. Senior officers personally led men in close combat.

When overcome, the entire Continental Army could disappear into the vast county and appear reinvigorated at a more advantageous time. It was a racially integrated army, not seen again until World War II.  Threatening the enemy with a large army was often more effective than a battle itself. Soldiers marched thousands of miles and starved and froze in a bountiful country which failed to sustain them.

Not until this work was almost completed did Mayers realize that he had followed the model of writer and historian Benson J. Lossing who traveled to hundreds of the major historic sites in the early 1850s.  It was only 70 years after the war, but many had already been forgotten. His ambitious work is titled, A Pictorial Field Book of the American Revolution. He covered 8,000 miles to interview older people who remembered the war and created wood engravings of people, places, and objects he found along the way. Mayers visited the same places and it is interesting to compare our reactions and view the changes since then. Lossing had the opportunity to speak to eyewitness and artistic talent to skillfully illustrate his work. Mayers highly respects the many difficulties that he faced during his three year journey. Lossing is often in Mayers' thoughts as he navigates superhighways with a digital camera. Sadly, his once popular classic has now been largely forgotten.

Mayers often meets with many diverse groups having a common interest in the Revolutionary era. They are historically minded people who explore, discuss, and share knowledge of this critical period. He is amazed that they are enthralled by his stories. He hopes that the description of these neglected sites will encourage the reader to travel to each of these places or allow selective personal journeys to those found to be the most interesting.

About the Author
Robert Mayers is a storyteller, in the best sense of the word, and a dedicated historian and genealogist. As the descendant of patriot soldier Corporal John Allison, the American Revolution is very personal to him. He is an active member of ten historical societies and is a frequent speaker and contributor to their publications. His service as a combat officer in both the Navy and the Marine Corps provides him with a deeper perspective of the many battles depicted in his work. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and served as an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University. A resident of Somerset County, New Jersey, his previously published book, The War Man, (Westholme, 2009) is the biography of  Corporal John Allison, who fought all eight years of the Revolutionary War. Mayers’  also authored the Allison/Mayers Family History — The Portrait of an American Family,” covering 600 years of the family’s history. Mayers' work has been featured in History Channel Magazine, Garden State Legacy, and Comcast TV Programs. Visit his web site, Purchase a copy of his latest book, The Forgotten Revolution.

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