As you watch the rockets glare and bombs burst into the New Jersey skies this weekend, share this little bit of Jerseyana with the people on the blanket or lawn chairs next to you.
The first “fireworks” display to celebrate the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence was ordered by George Washington himself along the banks of the Raritan River.
Yes, fireworks on the Fourth of July is a “Jersey first.”
It happened on July 4, 1778, while Washington was headquartered at Ross Hall on the Piscataway side of the river and the Continental Army was camped in the area that is today Johnson Park.
This was just days after the Battle of Monmouth and Washington was probably in good spirits. His troops held their own in open-field warfare with the British regulars, and his nemesis, Gen. Charles Lee, was being court-martialed at White Hall in New Brunswick for disobeying Washington’s direct orders at Monmouth.
Washington ordered a double ration of rum for his soldiers and a “feu de joie” (fire of joy), which is a successional rifle salute, making a continuous racket, like a modern-day fireworks finale.
The 11,000 troops formed two lines along the river. Thirteen cannon blasts honored the colonies-turned-states, and the troops began firing into the air. Presumably, the rum was held back until after the celebration.
Ross Hall burned down and like many of New Jersey’s important Revolutionary War sites, the historic area of Albany and Nielson Streets was torn down during New Brunswick’s sweeping redevelopment.
Still, the state has a proud Revolutionary War history.
On New Jersey soil, the battle was fought, nearly lost, and ultimately won.
At Fort Lee, the Continental Army abandoned what was supposed to be a Hudson River stronghold in November of 1776, and began the retreat across New Jersey.
The army stopped in the vicinity of Military and Washington Parks in Newark, where Thomas Paine, traveling with the army, wrote "These are the times that try men's souls," those famous opening words of the pamphlet "The American Crisis."
Then on to New Brunswick, where Alexander Hamilton led a cannon assault on the advancing British from the hill of Queen’s College.
Of the aforementioned places, only Fort Lee has a historic state park. The stewardship of our Revolutionary War history has been less than desirable. In Newark’s busy downtown, for instance, there is almost no evidence of the city’s Revolutionary War role, outside of the Washington sculpture and plaque at Military Park.
But here is a partial list of New Jersey places where our national history was made:
Morristown National Historic Park, Jockey Hollow and the Ford Mansion
Twenty-eight winter storms made the winter of 1779-80 a brutal test of survival for the Continental Army. There was a smallpox epidemic, and the men were starving. Washington ordered the horses removed so the men wouldn't slaughter them for meat.
The re-created soldier huts at Jockey Hollow show how the regulars lived and there is a relatively new interactive museum in the building behind the Ford Mansion, where Washington stayed.
The Washington Association formed in 1873 and bought the Ford Mansion and its furnishings, accounting for its pristine condition. If not, it might have been developed like many other critical New Jersey historic sites. The association deeded to the U.S. Park Service in 1933, it became America's inaugural historic national park – another Jersey first.
Washington Crossing State Park
The Pennsylvania side is much more ambitious, but New Jersey has a small museum with artifact collections and the Johnson Ferry House, down by the Delaware. The crossing and surprise attack on the Hessians at Trenton, for the first significant American victory, rekindled the dampened revolutionary spirit.
Several days after fighting in Trenton, Washington's army pulled away from Assunpink Creek and headed north to Morristown. At the Battle of Princeton, Washington added to his “bulletproof legend” as he charged to the front on horseback to rally his troops, who were falling back in disarray under British fire.
The biggest troop-on-troop battle of the war happened when Washington's army basically ran into the back of the slow-moving British, who were evacuating Philadelphia. The battle stretched for miles, but most of the action took place in the preserved meadows of the state park in Freehold Township.
There is much, much more.
But learning about the Revolution in New Jersey isn't really about sites. It's about perspective, especially in a time of political animosity. Our Revolution, after all, was as much a civil war as a revolt against England. Some of the fiercest fighting, especially in Union and Monmouth counties, pitted Patriots against Loyalists -- Americans against Americans.
Eventually, they came together as one nation. Indivisible by God? Maybe. But divisible by politics, then, as now.
We survived, and probably will continue to survive, based on the bedrock of individual rights guaranteed by those first few constitutional amendments. They are called the Bill of Rights, and, by the way, were first ratified by New Jersey.