Monday, August 12, 2013

Ambush at River Vale: the Baylor massacre

After an impromptu trip to Lake Tappan, Ivan and I found ourselves wandering just north of the state border in New York, looking for the site where British intelligence officer Major John Andre was hanged during the Revolutionary War. The town of Tappan has done a lovely job of retaining a historical air, and we couldn't help but do some light exploring around the yard of the Reformed Church. Among the aged and faded Colonial-era markers, we found something a bit more modern, with a New Jersey connection.


This was one I hadn't heard about, so I took a quick photo and made a note to look it up once we returned to Hidden New Jersey HQ. Might this ambush be something like the Hancock's Bridge massacre that had taken place in Salem County in March 1778? With so little data, all we could do was conjecture as we headed back home through the back roads of upper Bergen County.

The Baylor Massacre memorial and grave site.
As the Hidden New Jersey fates seem to determine sometimes, it wasn't long before we found ourselves passing a sign saying "Baylor Massacre burial site" and pointing to a park in River Vale. This coincidence was too, well, coincidental for us not to stop and investigate. What we found was a wooded park with memorials and a series of interpretive signs that tell the story of the area in Colonial times, the personalities involved, the massacre itself, and the archaeological work that's been done on site. We quickly found ourselves engrossed in an event which, while small in the overall scope of the Revolution, brings the horror of war home, to suburbia.

The Third Continental Light Dragoons hailed from Virginia and were led by 26 year-old Colonel George Baylor, a former aide-de-camp of General George Washington. They had little if any battle experience, being used primarily for reconnaissance and escort. In fact, Baylor's regiment was known as Lady Washington's guards in recognition to their service to the future first lady. As such, they were also lightly armed with sabers and a few pistols.

During the summer of 1778, the Third Dragoons were stationed in Paramus while Baylor's second in command, Major Alexander Clough, worked the area for intelligence and to recruit spies. When the British began to forage the area for food and supplies in late September, Washington ordered Continental troops to protect the area in an arc reaching from Newark into New York State. Baylor took quarter in a home on the main road through what's now River Vale, and his men took shelter in barns and other structures nearby.

From all appearances, they had no knowledge that British General Lord Cornwallis was planning to lure Washington and his troops into a battle. On the evening of September 28, 1778, Baylor's 104 enlisted men were fast asleep in several barns when they were ambushed by troops led by Major General Charles Grey. The attackers struck by surprise, and few if any dragoons in one barn could hear disturbances from another under siege, since Grey had instructed his troops to use bayonets rather than firing their flint-lock muskets.

The British acted with malicious savagery, spurred on by their commander's reputation for cruelty. Many dragoons were said to have been bayoneted repeatedly despite their cries of surrender, and Congressional investigation later determined that 11 were killed on the spot while 37 others managed to escape. The officers met a similar fate. Discovered in the house where they were staying, one was slashed to death while Baylor himself sustained injuries that continued to manifest until his death at the age of 32, six years later. Those troops who survived the night were brought to a makeshift hospital and prison within the church at Tappan, the site where Ivan and I originally discovered the story.

Originally the site of a tannery, the property apparently had eventually lain fallow for nearly 200 years, its history forgotten once a commemorative marker and the mill stone were removed. The remains of some of the murdered dragoons were said to have been entombed in tanning vats on the property, but their exact location was unknown. It was an unfortunate end for patriots who'd given their lives for our young country, but at least their final resting place was a placid one, near the meandering Hackensack River.

Their peace was threatened in the late 1960s, when a builder made plans to subdivide the tract for a housing development. Local citizens raised the alarm, and the county hired three college students to research the claims, interview older residents who remembered accounts of the massacre, and dig within the site for any evidence that would support the assertion that soldiers were buried there. The team ultimately found six skeletons, a belt buckle and other artifacts, confirming the importance of the site.

While the names of the found six dragoons are lost to history, their resting spot and story thankfully are not. The local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a commemorative marker to mark the spot where the soldiers' remains were reinterred, and the original tannery mill wheel was returned to the location, as well. And, of course, the acreage remains wooded and quiet, destined to never be marred by a developer's backhoe.

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