Tracking a general through New Jersey

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Unlike many travelers whose familiarity with New Jersey is limited to glimpses from highways - George Washington stayed awhile. He became well acquainted with what was then a small colony, thanks to the vagaries of the Revolutionary War and slow-moving foot soldiers. Fourth of July celebrations might include visits to any of the carefully preserved homes and stopping stations that hosted him on his journeys. During the war, Washington led his men across the Hudson River from New York to New Jersey and over the formidable Palisades, the cliffs that line the west shore. He crossed the now-famous Meadowlands on a corduroy road. He followed the present-day route of the New Jersey Turnpike. He trudged westward to the state's rolling hills and south to the fertile flatlands. And he made the celebrated crossing of the Delaware not once, but at least three times within a few days.

After successful battles with the British at Trenton and Princeton, Washington and his troops marched north to Morristown. He never expected that winter stays (in 1777 and 1779) in this lovely region would bring hardships of severe cold and lack of food and clothing.

The Ford Mansion, which served as Washington's headquarters, looks much as it did when the widow Ford offered the hospitality of her handsome home. There are authentic reminders in every room of that time of misery. Even the entrance hall tells part of the story. People who had business with the general were asked to wait on one of the chairs that lined the walls. The rest of the hall was bare, as it is now. Continental troops had a tendency to pilfer, so Mrs. Ford had removed all of the furnishings.

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In 1778, the troops wintered in and around Middlebrook (now Bound Brook). For a sum of $10,000, Washington and Martha, his wife, stayed at the Wallace House, a farmstead still under construction at the time.

Though Washington was busy with plans for coming campaigns, there was time for socializing. His officers entertained in the nearby homes where they were billeted. And Washington was a gracious host at the Wallace House. On one occasion, he dressed in ruffles and a black velvet suit.

The Wallace House today is furnished as it was during Washington's stay. Reminders include a Queen Anne-style dining table and pieces of a Lowestoft tea set said to have belonged to Martha.

For most of 1779, the Continental forces fought elsewhere in the colonies. But in the spring of 1780, they were forced into a primarily defensive battle with the British, who had advanced into New Jersey. In July, October, and November, Washington made his headquarters at the Dey Mansion in Wayne in New Jersey's northeast region.

It was an especially difficult time for Washington. He had just ordered Maj. John Andr'e to be hanged for spying. This move so enraged British Gen. Sir Henry Clinton that he threatened to kidnap Washington. The Dey Mansion, tucked in the Watchung Hills, proved to be an effective ``hideaway.''

Today the mansion is an authentically restored example of 18th-century Federal style, and the grounds feature outbuildings and gardens in the style of Washington's day.

In 1781 the Washingtons returned to the state after the signing of the peace treaty with England. While the Continental Congress met at Princeton from August to November, they stayed at Rockingham in nearby Rocky Hill, where the general wrote his farewell address to the troops. It was during these jubilant months that Charles Willson Peale painted Washington's portrait. The stay at Rockingham came to a climactic close when Washington offered his formal farewell to his guard of honor from the second story porch of the farmstead. Rockingham has been moved twice, but it has retained its distinctive Georgian style, highlighted by handsome mantels, wall panels, and rich period furnishings.

The Washington Crossing State Park marks the site where Washington and his men landed after crossing the Delaware River in 1776. It features an arboretum and a carefully reproduced version of the McKonkey Ferry House, a colonial tavern where Washington rested before advancing on Trenton.

Before and after the Battle of the Short Hills (1777) in central New Jersey, Washington conferred with his officers at the simple home of the Rev. Nathaniel Drake. On other occasions as well, he was entertained here by the Drakes, who had four sons serving in the militia. The Drake House Museum today displays the kitchen, dining room, and first floor bedroom as they might have looked during Washington's visits. In the mid-19th century, a New York banker purchased the house, enlarged it, and added Victorian flourishes to the fa,cade. The furnishings of the parlor and library show this influence.

Practical information

The Ford Mansion, 230 Morris Street, Morristown, is open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on major holidays. Small admission charge.

The Wallace House, 38 Washington Place, Somerville, is open Wednesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 12 noon, 1 to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Closed on major holidays. Admission charge.

The Dey Mansion, 1740 Preakness Valley Park on Totowa Road in Wayne, is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, 1 to 4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission charge.

Rockingham, Route 518 in Rocky Hill, is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 12 noon, 1 to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 2 to 5 p.m. Closed on major holidays. Admission charge.

The Drake House Museum, 602 West Front Street, Plainfield, is open on Saturdays, 2 to 4 p.m. Small admission charge.

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