Sunday, May 31, 2015

Things that are Places: Liberty Pole

Liberty Pole as Symbol

To many colonists, the patriot cause in the battle for independence from Great Britain represented liberty. Patriots felt that representation in the government, economic freedom, and personal freedoms were the very definition of liberty. Yet, this view was by no means held by everyone. This first fight for American liberty included an ideological battle between neighbors and brothers and in some regions just as many people were loyal to the King as there were patriots. To many, there existed legitimate doubt over which side was right and which side was wrong. These folks were undecided, at least at first. And sadly, just as today, a number of the populace was indifferent, and many changed their loyalties from patriot to Loyalist depending on which army controlled the area. Not everyone thought that the best way to seek individual freedom was to create a new government. Many colonists felt that, as Englishmen, the King would protect their rights. Anything else was treason. So to some, the Liberty Pole became a symbol of freedom. To others, it was a symbol of treason. Stark differences.

Liberty Tree: Boston
But the Liberty Pole actually began as a Liberty Tree. The original Liberty Tree was a large elm tree in the South End of Boston. Angry citizens of Boston first used it around 1765 as a rally point during the Stamp Act crisis, when the British Parliament was threatening a tax on paper goods such as legal documents, newspapers, etc. The Sons of Liberty was an organization started in Boston by Samuel Adams to protest British taxes, and their membership grew rapidly in the colonies. As the movement spread from Boston, Sons of Liberty kept the practice of meeting under a large tree, which were present in most village greens, and these came to be known as the Liberty Trees. Their goal was to organize public opinion and coordinate patriotic actions against Great Britain. In towns without a tree big enough, the patriots sometimes would erect a tall pole to symbolize a Liberty Tree. These became known as Liberty Poles. The patriots erected most Liberty Poles in the town squares, as these were the center of civic life. They consisted of a tall straight pole often as much as 100 feet high. Now the square served not only as a central meeting place for townsfolk, but also as a symbol of resistance to the British.

Liberty Poles spread across the colonies: Erecting a Liberty Pole Goshen, NY

In New York City, where later some of the first battles of the Revolutionary War were fought, there was an ongoing struggle over the Liberty Pole. In May 1766, when news arrived of the repeal of the Stamp Act, the Sons of Liberty celebrated by the erection of a Liberty Pole. It became a rallying point for mass meetings and an emblem of the American cause. In June, two regiments of British regulars arrived in New York City and were quartered in the upper barracks. These troops cut down the liberty pole on August 10th. A second and third pole were erected and also cut down. A fourth pole was
erected and encased in iron to prevent similar action.

First Liberty Pole in New York City

Liberty Pole as Place

And that place would be New Jersey, in a time long ago: before the Sopranos, Bridgegate, or even the Turnpike. In present day Englewood New Jersey there stands a pole erected in 1964. It is believed to be at or near the site of an earlier pole erected almost 200 years earlier to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act. This event was more than symbolic as it proved a catalyst for further action in the defense of liberty in the Hackensack Valley, the venue for lots of political agitation, and warfare. The "English Neighborhood" (which included today's City of Englewood ) in New Jersey were part of the great Patriot and Loyalist tangle in the state. Even the name, "English Neighborhood" reveals the separation of peoples in the valley. The name was given by the Dutch settlers to highlight it as the settlement closest to the foreign English in Manhattan, then called the Island of New York. Even before the fighting started, neighbors disagreed with one another on issues of religion and government. The place in the "English Neighborhood", known to all the colonists (even George Washington) as Liberty Pole, would become a key symbol to all of the meaning of liberty, but on November 20th, 1776, the Liberty Pole was a scene of great despair. The valley was a strategic crossroads between New York City, and Long Island and the west as well as the Hudson Highlands and the south. Besides the waters of the Hackensack, the Kings Highway ran north south and then turned west. At the junction stood a tavern that became, as so often, the focus of much social, economic and political activity. In 1776, the proprietor of the inn, a zealous patriot, followed the example of the Liberty Boys in New York and erected a Liberty Pole with a gold Liberty Cap to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act. The inn, known as the Liberty Pole Tavern, was the center of economic, political and social activity, and the surrounding area was also called Liberty Pole.

Watching the Hudson from Fort Lee

Although no major battles were fought here, events vital to the American cause did occur in Englewood. On the night of November 20, 1776, the British General Lord Cornwallis crossed the Hudson with nine thousand men to what is now Alpine, planning to capture the rebel forces at Fort Lee, under Nathaniel Greene. General Washington, alerted to the plan, led his army from Fort Lee, down the King's Highway to the Liberty Pole Tavern, and cut over on what is now Teaneck Road to New Bridge, where he was able to cross the Hackensack. By the summer of 1776, the war for independence, with real armies, crept closer to the English Neighborhood. The British drove George Washington's army from Long island and lower New York across the North (Hudson) River. For a while, Washington made his headquarters in Hackensack. From there he tried to organize a defense against a British attack up the Hudson River. He ordered the arming of forts on either side of the Hudson River, Fort Washington and Fort Lee. On November 16, 1776, the British captured Fort Washington in upper Manhattan, leaving Fort Lee unsupported and giving the Royal navy unopposed movement up and down the river. Fort Lee as a defensive post was compromised by the fall of its sister Fort. Washington realized he would be exposed to a British attack and now was faced with moving his dwindling force of 2,000 men across the Hackensack - by ferry or via the one bridge (located in River Edge at New Bridge ). General Washington was criticized during this crisis, and the morale of his army was low. Realizing Washington's predicament General Howe, who commanded the British troops, agreed to let Lord Charles Cornwallis launch an amphibious attack on New Jersey, a few miles north of Fort Lee. They moved on the night of November 19, 1776. The next day General Washington received word of the British invasion, and he quickly sped to Liberty Pole on his horse. At Liberty Pole, Washington planned to meet the commander of Fort Lee , General Greene, and his men, who now were evacuating from Fort Lee . The British were located about 2 miles away in Tenafly. Most of the soldiers marched together (down modern day Grand Avenue in Leonia) until they reached Liberty Pole and General Washington. In the chaos of the retreat, some soldiers were ordered to secure the "little ferry" route across the Hackensack , and went through modern day Ridgefield . Most soldiers continued the six-mile trek between Fort Lee, Liberty Pole, and New Bridge with Washington.

Cornwallis moves across the North River (Hudson)  to the Jerseys

As the weary American army receded from the Jerseys, the area around Liberty Pole entered into a different kind of war, the kind that symbolized the war for independence even more than the pitched battles noted in most accounts. A war of political intrigue, espionage, sabotage and small engagements took place. Raids were conducted. Loyalties questioned (many of the Dutch were at best ambivalent to the struggle). Spies operated. Spies were caught. General mayhem by any definition scourged the area around Liberty Pole. The struggle would smolder throughout the area, and occasionally, as the armies returned, would flare up into short but violent bursts of action. Liberty Pole was the site of a celebrated skirmish later in the war. In 1779, a weary but game band of troops under famed General "Light Horse Harry" Lee bravely fended off attacks by Tories as a Patriot force returned from a successful raid on the Paulhus Hook, today's Jersey City. The attack on the Hook was only partially successful but Lee's audacity and successful "retrograde" to safety across the Hackensack River was praised by General Washington and noted by a grateful Congress.

Light Horse Harry Lee's rear guard fought
bravely at Liberty Pole

In 1780, Washington’s Army was in the Hudson highlands and the forward lines around
Tappan drew lots of attention from spies of both sides, Tory bands, militias, Continentals foraging, and sundry banditi. A British pardon drew American deserters from the highlands, providing British intelligence a trove of information. In one instance of recorded reprisal, a raiding party of American militia bore down the valley to Liberty Pole and seized several deserters. These are just examples of the kind of war waged around the pole and throughout the valley in the long struggle for America's independence.


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