Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Marching toward victory: New Jersey and the Rochambeau route

Our recent story on the Battle of Connecticut Farms noted that many of us have trod on hallowed ground, sites of Revolutionary War battles, without realizing it. Coincidentally, the same day we watched a reenactment of that battle, we discovered that another vitally important yet generally overlooked part of the Revolution was just a couple of miles away.

It wasn't a battle site or a historic house. George Washington didn't sleep in it, at least not in the portion we found. In fact, it's a long, thin line that stretches from north of Mahwah to the Delaware River at Trenton. Well, parts of it do. Others kind of squiggle around the northeastern part of the state until they meet at Princeton.

It's the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, the Rhode Island to Virginia path that the Continental and French armies took on their way to the final engagement with the British in Yorktown. In other words, it's the path that led to the end of the American Revolution, and it works its way along several old roads and former Lenape paths in New Jersey. We found signs for it on Mountain Avenue in Mountainside, just south of Route 22.

To understand the importance of the route, we need to go back to the earlier days of the Revolution. Recognizing that the Continental Army was no match for well-equipped and expertly-trained British forces over the long haul, American representatives reached out to France for help. The French and British had longstanding antipathy toward each other; both had established colonies in the New World. The Americans realized they had a very likely ally in the French, and one whose support would add legitimacy to the claim for sovereignty as an independent nation.

Initially, France's support for the young United States came in the form of funding, weapons and ammunition, all of which were essential to the cause. The last great push of the war, however, would require more, as the conflict was at a stalemate. France responded with manpower: 5300 seasoned soldiers and 450 officers, led by General Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, compte de Rochambeau. They landed in Rhode Island in July 1780 and prepared for a long hard winter, during which Washington and Rochambeau planned for decisive action in the spring. The Continentals, meanwhile, wintered in Newburgh, NY.

The two armies began their southward trek in June 1781, moving along established roads and less traveled paths before joining forces near White Plains, NY. Contemporary accounts from the French reported that many of the American troops were without sufficient clothing, yet cheerful, their spirits lifted, no doubt, but the presence of able reinforcements. From there, the combined troops continued, largely as one, on a route that tracks somewhat along Interstate 95 south of Princeton. The National Park Service map of the route shows several alternate routes for the Continental troops in North Jersey, though another map represents the main path through the state.

Standing next to the route marker along Mountain Avenue, as I did, it's not hard to imagine how New Jerseyans of 1781 must have felt as they saw the French and Continentals making their way along the road. The state's segment of the conflict was over, though residents couldn't yet know it. Weary of war, still suffering from the harsh damages of battle and pillaging, the locals must have been relieved to see the troops marching southward, out of range. Though somewhat suspicious of the French, there were probably many who hoped that with fresh reinforcements, the United States would be able to vanquish their opponents, leaving the new nation to chart its own course as an independent entity. Ultimately, when they marched northward after the victory at Yorktown, the combined forces were hailed as heroes.

The path of the commemorative route travels along well known New Jersey roads like Routes 202, 22, 27 and 206, sometimes diverting onto local and county roads. We haven't tried it yet, but it looks like an ambitious jaunt for a weekend drive, or maybe a good bike ride. And there are plenty of historic sites along the way, or maybe just a few blocks off the path. From what I can tell, the Washington Rochambeau Route signs are relatively new, just waiting to be found. Take a look around your neighborhood -- they might just be nearby!


  1. I ride past these signs every day on my bike. Thanks for filling in the gaps.


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