Thursday, June 25, 2015

Firing up a celebration of joy in New Brunswick

John Adams famously predicted that the anniversary of America's independence would "be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty." In a letter to his wife Abigail just after the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the states, he said, "It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."

That brings up the question -- when did celebrations actually begin? Who declared the day an official event for commemorating the act of separation from Great Britain and the official birth of the United States? I'm sure if you go to Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, you'll find people who say their forebears were the first to make July 4 a major holiday, but they'd be wrong. Like so much of what occurred during the Revolution, the first celebration was held in New Jersey, ordered by General George Washington himself. You can't get much more official than that.

The story brings us to 1778, just after the Continental Army fought the British at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28. Having demonstrated to the enemy in a daylong conflict that the Americans were a force to be reckoned with, Washington led his 11,000 Continentals to New Brunswick to rest. The Raritan River would provide refreshment to the parched and exhausted troops, who camped on both banks during the first week of July while the General made his headquarters at Ross Hall on River Road in Piscataway.

Marking the route of the 1778 Independence Day celebration
on River Road in Piscataway.
Washington capitalized on the massive gathering of soldiers to make a LOT of noise on the Fourth. He ordered them to line the Raritan's edge in a single file that ran two miles from White's Farm -- the present-day Buccleuch Park -- to Sonman's Hill, where Douglass College of Rutgers University now stands. Bolstered by an artillery force of more than a dozen cannons, the men then fired their muskets one by one in sequence in a feu de joie, or fire of joy.

That was just the start of the celebration. Every soldier was issued an extra ration of rum, and the officers gathered at Ross Hall for an evening party. Notables including Baron von Steuben, Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette were among the 100 people in attendance at Ross Hall.

Imagining the celebration as it occurred is a little difficult these days -- subsequent development and Route 18 have obliterated the 18th century landscape in New Brunswick, though the terrain remains a little more natural once the Raritan flows into Piscataway. Ross Hall was torn down in the 1960s after a destructive fire, though a single wall was saved for eventual restoration; plans are to have it displayed at the nearby Metlar-Bodine House. However, anyone driving the length of the highway along the river can appreciate the sheer mass of humanity it took to create a two-mile long shooting range, along with the duration of the gunfire they created, firing one after the other in sequence.

We can still get a little taste of the 1778 celebration every year on Independence Day. On the afternoon of July 4, reenactors gather at New Brunswick's Buccleuch Park for a smaller though no less enthusiastic feu de joie, a reminder not only of our fight for independence, but of New Jersey's significant sacrifice toward the goal.


2 comments:

  1. Glad they issued the rum a f t e r the firing.

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    Replies
    1. Cuts down on the casualties...

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