The military engagements that make the history books tend to be big set-tos with many participants offering their two cents. But for people of the time, small events that brought them face to face with the enemy in their own backyards might have been more consequential. And political differences with local people you might have previously trusted for years could degenerate into a civil war that could leave scars for years.
Why should the American Revolution be anything different? Ideals of equality might have been proclaimed by Enlightenment-influenced geniuses such as Franklin and Jefferson, but the fight remained to be fought by common people up and down the East Coast. More so than we can ever imagine, the Revolution was a fratricidal mess.
On this date in 1778, just such an incident occurred in Bergen County in northeast New Jersey, not far from where I live. Col. George Baylor, a Virginian in the Continental Light Dragoons, had bivouacked his Third Regiment along the upper reaches of the Hackensack River. These exhausted troops were sleeping in a barnyard that evening when they found experienced redcoats coming at them soundlessly (the commander was nicknamed “No Flint”) with bayonets drawn.
Subsequent estimates put the number of killed at 22 and wounded at 40, but mere statistics don’t adequately convey the shock and horror felt that night. The first question faced by Continentals was, “How did British intelligence find where we were?” One possible answer: from the number of Loyalists in the area, any one of whom might have been a neighbor who betrayed them?
Thirty-nine Continental soldiers managed to escape. They wanted very much to attend to their fallen comrades. However, they were also frightened that the redcoats were still in the area, looking to finish them off.
Their work to bury the dead, then, was performed in haste. The six men they found dead at a nearby bridge were buried in abandoned leather-tanning vats, located near the Hackensack River.
American propaganda made much of the massacre, but after the war, everything settled down for years until the late 1960s, when an archaological study rediscovered the remains of the six Americans by the bridge.
Last Sunday, I visited the spot where these men are commemorated, in present-day River Vale, NJ, near its border with Old Tappan. It was an appropriately lonely spot for soldiers who met their end—nobody except myself around at that point, with the shortening hours of the pale, late-afternoon light rendering the hallowed ground even more melancholy.