HAWTHORNE, NJ – With two brigades of the Continental Army’s light infantry, the Marquis de Lafayette encamped in October and November of 1780 in the area of southern Hawthorne, then known as “Wagaraw”. The Continental army was strategically positioned to monitor British-held New York City, only about 20 miles away. John Francis Ryerson, a loyalist who had been forced to flee to Canada after rebels confiscated his property, lived in a house which is now Bottagra Restaurant on Wagaraw Road. It is believed that this was the location of the 23-year-old general’s headquarters during his time in what would later become known as Hawthorne.
The cousin of John Francis Ryerson, John George Ryerson, was opposed to British rule and as such, did not face confiscation by rebel forces during the war. John George Ryerson’s home, which burned down in 1950, stood in what is now Goffle Brook Park. Until recently, the monument was a largely overgrown and unmaintained ring of bushes with a graffiti-marred brownstone wall and a neglected bronze plaque. Today, the bushes which concealed the monument have been removed and a path has been installed. Now open and visible, the brownstone has been cleaned up and the 65 year-old bronze plaque restored to its proper glory. The laureled aristocrat is also remembered in Hawthorne by the county avenue which bears his name, stretching the length of the borough north to south, carrying thousands of vehicles each day.
Lafayette, whose full name was the ponderously long Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, was born in southern France to an ancient aristocratic family with a long military tradition. Taken with the cause of the American colonists, he self-financed his voyage to America to do what he could to help, despite being forbidden from doing so by King Louis XVI. Lafayette’s familiarity with the English language and his military knowledge—coupled with the offer to serve without pay—gained him a position in the Continental army. Soon after, he became close with George Washington, whom the young Frenchman came to regard as his “friend and father”.
In 1780, Washington established his headquarters at the Dey Mansion (in today’s Wayne), throughout July and again from October 9 - November 27. During that summer, the light infantry brigades had been created. With them, Lafayette monitored British activity from northern New Jersey. Therein the connection with Wagaraw, later Hawthorne, was formed with the legendary French figure from America’s founding story.
In the summer of 2017, Passaic County Director of Cultural and Historic Affairs Kelly Ruffel was approached by the Royal Sussex Society, a historical group dedicated to living history education based in northern New Jersey. The proposal was to hold a commemoration of the encampment in Goffle Brook Park. With the county’s support, Sunday, October 22, was billed as a day to commemorate the marquis and the revolutionary soldiers who occupied the borough.
The bright and sunny Sunday morning found two flags fluttering over the verdant stretch at the intersection of Goffle Road and Diamond Bridge. One was instantly familiar to all who passed it, but this American flag bore only 13 stars, each with six points instead of the usual five. This flag was known as the Francis Hopkinson flag, named after the New Jersey lawyer, Continental Navy Board official, and later US Congressman, who designed it. The other flag was white, covered with golden fleur-de-lis, representing the Kingdom of France and wholly different from the red, white, and blue revolutionary tricolor in use today since 1789. Just south, the athletic fields were busy with 21st Century sports teams, while to the north visitors found themselves in the 18th Century.
From 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. military drills and demonstrations of camp life were ongoing with representations of colonial civilians, New Jersey soldiers of the Continental Army, British grenadiers of the 35th Regiment of Foot, and a French soldier from the Regiment Bourbonnais. The participants spoke with students from area schools, their teachers, local history buffs, and curious onlookers attracted by the sights from the roads. Reenactors fired off their muskets to demonstrate the weaponry used at the time, performed the drills used by the militaries during the war, and showed off the uniforms of each of the armies. The civilian women on hand discussed the lives of women connected with the army and the privations which they endured during the eight-year struggle for independence.
Tom Carton, 30, from Monroe, New York, came to the encampment dressed and armed as a grenadier from the predominantly Irish 35th Regiment of Foot. “Lafayette was a major player in the revolution and helped turn the tide for the Americans. The encampment was an important event in local history, he kept Washington alert to any potential British assaults.”
Carton, donned in a red and orange woolen uniform and clutching a Brown Bess musket, showed off his collection of personal effects which could have been carried by a soldier at the time, from eating utensils to period playing cards. “I think there was a great turn out. It was great seeing school groups on a weekend coming out to learn about local history.”
Stephen Pellegrini, 28, wore a white linen uniform of the French Regiment Bourbonnais. “The biggest significance of France’s contribution to the American Revolution was the fact that they widened the strategic scope of the war from a local rebellion to a global conflict. The effect of that was to draw out the British Royal Navy which, up to that point, had been decisive in maintaining the viability of the British army. It also forced Britain to focus on other areas of the empire outside of North America. While the contribution of the ground forces was important, in terms of numbers it was a token force. France’s major contributions were financial and strategic.”
Pellegrini conducted musketry firing demonstrations with the New Jersey Continental regulars, filling the air with a crash of flame and cloud of white smoke. “I think the relationship between Lafayette and Washington was symbolic of the relationship between the US and France itself. It wasn’t just a revolution, it was a world war which drew supporters from around the world, Lafayette foremost among them.”
Rebecca Cataldi, 36, of Arlington, VA, drove hours to be one of the camp followers at the Passaic County event. “I think Lafayette is a good symbol of people who helped us win our independence who didn’t really have to. He came of his own volition because he wanted to help us, and I think that sacrifice, and being willing to help people who were struggling halfway around the world is worth remembering today. I would hope that would help us think about the interconnectedness of the world today, not only with our relationship with France and appreciating what they did to help us win our freedom, but also in thinking about other parts of the world today. Ways we can support each other and be aware of what is going on, that is what he means to me and I hope he would mean to other people.”