Saturday, September 20, 2014

Places: Middelbrook


Nestled at the beginning of the Watchung mountains of New Jersey lies the colonial town of Middlebrook. During the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies Middlebrook was a small village north west of Bound Brook. The village of Middlebrook no longer exists but has been absorbed by the town of Bound Brook. During the American Revolution this small farming community sat astride the
route of two armies engaged in a struggle for a continent and much more - a struggle for ideas. In the case of the Continentals it was a struggle for a new nation and a new idea of government. For the British Army it was a struggle to maintain the old order and the rights of a King.

NJ: Area of operations

Good ground

Gen Washington at Princeton
General George Washington had marched past Middlebrook after the Battle of Princeton on his way to Morristown, in January 1777. Its advantage as a strategic position did not go unnoticed by the former surveyor. Late in the spring of 1777, Washington moved his small army of about 7,000 from their winter encampment at Morristown to the Middlebrook Heights. Why? The ground was good, enabling the Americans to observe the British troops at New Brunswick and Perth Amboy. He moved Anthony Wayne's Brigade onto the forward slopes to defend the approaches to the pass. The Americans fortified the already defensible terrain. From these positions, Washington could kept watch on the British garrisons in New York and New Brunswick. But even better, it provided him a position to flank the British if they attempted to cross New Jersey to Philadelphia.


As in so many other hard fought battles,
Hessian troops played a pivotal role at Middlebrook
However, the British also realized the advantages the positions around Middlebrook gave the rebels. So on the night of June 13th, 1777 Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis moved out of New Brunswick hoping to draw Washington out of his Middlebrook defenses into the open flat land for battle. With Hessians leading his columns, Cornwallis launched a four-pronged attack on the village. Washington responded, but not in the way the British had hoped. The commander in chief sent the militia, re-enforced with some Continentals, to harass the enemy columns. But most of the Continental Army did not leave their
secure positions. By the end of June a frustrated Cornwallis and his British forces retreated to Staten Island. The British held ground near New Brunswick, the Amboys and at the Paulhus Hook (Jersey City) but much of the
rest of Jersey was a no man's land where Loyalist and Patriot factions, militias, and criminal elements from both sides fought. Middlebrook was at a pivotal point of that no man's land.

Observation point

Troops marching near Washington's
The attack on Middlebrook, as well as other  forays and feints, caused General Howe   to change his strategy.  The British commander in chief  made a naval maneuver towards the Chesapeake to capture the rebel capital at Philadelphia from the south. Most of the British regiments left their fortress New York for a sea-land campaign that would succeed in driving the rebels from their capital but left
British General Burgoyne's army to founder in the wilds of upper New York. Thus the modest engagement at Middlebrook played a key role in a chain of events that helped turn the course of the war. Realizing the need for a new strategy for 1778 summer campaign, the British abandoned Philadelphia to once more concentrate in New York. Washington struck them from the rear and the largest pitched battle of the American Revolution was fought at Monmouth. When the British column withdrew to its safe zone around New York and its immediate environs, Washington once again  used the Middlebrook area as a base from which to observe and threaten the British.

Winter Encampment

The Wallace House
In November 1778 George Washington once more took the army back to the Middlebrook area. Again, it provided a natural defensive position while enabling him to keep watch on the British foothold in New Jersey. Washington set up his headquarters at the Wallace House in what is now Somerville. The main army, consisting of brigades from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, with the Delaware regiment, the artillery Corps, and the support units, dug in along the base of the
Watchung Mountains. Here they were protected from some of the weather, had a good supply of trees for construction and firewood, and were supported by a generally patriotic population, with an active militia. Fortunately the winter was a relatively mild one. The Continental army remained in the second Middlebrook encampment until late June of 1779. That winter quarters at Middlebrook would be noted for a symbolic event.

Site of the first flag flown at
an Army base

First Flag

There is an interesting footnote to the story of Middlebrook. On June 14, 1777, Congress adopted the Flag Resolution, establishing the famed Betsy Ross flag national flag. An official flag was brought from Philadelphia to be flown at the Middlebrook encampment before the soldiers took the field for the summer campaign season. In an act whose symbolism was important to the new and struggling nation, the first thirteen star American flag was flown at an American army base. One wonders what the beleaguered but determined soldiers would think if they could see into a future where their descendants would champion the very ideas they fought for in campaigns across the globe. Or a future in which the flag they flew over Middlebrook would be flown as a symbol of liberty at hundreds or army bases across the yet unexplored  continent and later on scores of foreign shores.

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