Throughout this past election, partisans on both sides felt that only the thinnest of lines protect this republic from catastrophe. As demonstrated in this photo I took last month at Fort Lee Historic Park, not far from where I live in Bergen County, NJ, that was, quite literally, true in this week back in November 1776. There was no bridge crossing the Hudson the way there is now, but Americans soldiers still dreaded that their British foes would come pouring over the river in pursuit of them.
They had every reason to fear this. The prior two months had seen the largest fleet of ships ever to leave the shores of Great Britain, unloading 31,000 British and Hessian troops in the New York area. They promptly proceeded to whip the Americans at Long Island, then the southern tip of Manhattan, then all of Manhattan up to Fort Washington.
On November 16, 1776, even that stronghold was out of patriot hands, as an assault by Hessian troops seized Fort Washington—and with it, nearly 3,000 American troops. (The misery was only starting for the latter: only 800 would survive their imprisonment aboard the British death ships.)
George Washington had seen enough, knowing it was pointless to continue to hold Fort Lee after its counterpart across the river had been taken. Even those plans for an orderly retreat, however, had to be abandoned: another Hessian attack, this time on Fort Lee, led the Americans to leave more precipitously.
For the following month, Washington had to curb his aggressive instincts, retreating across New Jersey rather than engaging in another pitched battle, in order to keep his army together as a unit. At last, he spotted an opportunity through surprise, and his twin victories across 10 days at Trenton and Princeton bought him much-needed time even as they cheered his troops.
Earlier today marked the 240th anniversary of the British invasion of New Jersey. At the Fort Lee Historic Park, a recreation of the Continental Army’s encampment, the occasion was observed through music, cooking artillery demonstrations, and a parade to Monument Park—the kind of festivities that would not have occurred in 1776. Back then, the bright promise of the Declaration of Independence seemed to be flickering out, and many in the young country feared the extinction of their rights with their nationhood.
That feeling has been shared more than a few times since then.