See also Fort Montgomery, NY: The First "Gasm"
Wargasm 2003 (aka March to Monmouth)
In the spring of 2003, I began to consider taking part in activities planned to celebrate the 225th anniversary of the Battle of Monmouth. One of the activities that most appealed to me was a recreated march of the British army from Cooper's Ferry in Camden, NJ to Monmouth Battlefield in Freehold, NJ. Unfortunately, the coordination of this activity never materialized. Since I'd already taken the vacation time for the week prior to the Monmouth reenactment, I decided that I would continue with planning my own march.
My initial plans were to march four or five miles along the actual routes and then attend the daily historical events that were still being planned by the Friends group. However, I was reminded of a book called Confederates in the Attic, written by Mark Hurwitz. One of the chapters, entitled "Wargasm," describes the strange journey of the author with a Civil War reenactor named Rob Hodge. The journey was a weeklong road trip to various historical sites, done in uniform and ending each day at a different obscure site. Rob Hodge came across as a slightly crazed individual, who was fanatically devoted to experiencing his subject of historical interest.
I wouldn't describe myself as crazed, but I think fanatical describes quite a few people in the reenactment community. Therefore, I determined that it would be appropriate to try to do something similar from a Revolutionary War living history perspective. There were several decisions to be made fairly quickly; where to stay for the week, what to eat, which route to follow, which days to march on, etc.
I thought that it would be interesting to camp at Monmouth Battlefield and eat nothing but the British ration. Which days to march on was an easy decision due to the fact that the anniversary dates of the march from Mount Holly to Freehold happened to coincide with the dates that I'd taken for vacation. The route to follow was a bit more difficult. The Loyal American Regiment wasn't a part of this campaign. However, the majority of the provincials marched in Knyphausen's column, so that seemed the best route to follow. This amounted to a little more than 8 1/2 miles per day. Additionally, the Friends of Monmouth had marked Knyphausen's route with red signs and provided a detailed map that showed me where the current roads varied from the actual route.
L to R: Tom, Ian. (Photo courtesy of Ian Johns)
June 22nd - Mount Holly to Columbus (Black Horse):
Three members of the LAR and myself decided to spend our Sunday morning marching through the great colony of New Jersey. The day was largely overcast and as pleasant as New Jersey can be in June. We passed two police cars on the way out of Mount Holly, but they didn't ask any questions, so we didn't stop to give them a chance to put us in the back of their car. We took a slight detour to climb the "Mount" of Mount Holly, which in retrospect wasn't the best way to start an 8-1/2 mile march. However, it was the site of the Battle of Iron Works Hill in 1776 and had some pretty significant historical importance. Von Donop and 2000 German troops were here fighting some rebel militia, rather than supporting Rall at the small action at Trenton.
After passing through Jacksonville, we were stopped by a rather attractive woman in a car. She was just about to pull into her driveway and was interested in what we were doing. Pvt. Andy Garcia was running though his usual repertoire of pick-up lines when the woman's husband started yelling things from the front porch of his house. We decided to move on at that point.
On the final half of the march we passed over Petticoat Bridge, where Von Donop had skirmished with some rebel militia prior to the Battle of Iron Works Hill. Pvt. Dave Woolsey, who had been suffering with cramps in his legs for the last few miles, made it to the site where the provincials camped on June 22, 1778. The rest of us continued into Columbus, stopping briefly at a large oak under which German soldiers had rested during the march in 1778.
After the march, we picked up Dave and drove to Haddonfield to see the Indian King Tavern. There we were entertained by the antics of the 1st New Jersey Volunteers. Of course we found out that the township had an ordnance against alcohol, so it wasn't as entertaining as we'd anticipated. (Damn those Quakers!)
Three of us then drove to the campsite at Monmouth Battlefield. The Friend's group maintains a house on the battlefield as their headquarters and had offered the grounds for use by reenactors who wanted to camp. When we arrived, there was no wood, no water and no necessary house. The Friend's HQ looked like it had been abandoned for most of the last decade and only a bright red sign on the front lawn indicated that we were in the right place. Later in the week we found out that they had left the house open, but without a note and with a noticable sign about the alarm system on the front door.
That evening we found a park ranger who also indicated we were in the right place, but suggested that we call the President of the Friend's Group if we needed anything. When asked if he had the phone number, he said he didn't have it. I was about to ask him why he told me to call the guy if he didn't have the number, but thought it was better not to antagonize the park staff this early in the trip.
We ended up camping behind the Friends HQ on the edge of a cornfield, just to the west of the Sutfin House. As we were setting up camp, I looked in my haversack and saw my dinner - biscuit bread and salt pork. I thought for all of two seconds before asking the others if they wanted to go to the local diner. Hardcore Rob Hodge would not be impressed, but I was exhausted, foot sore, hungry, thirsty and I didn't really care what Rob Hodge would think at that point.
June 23rd - Columbus (Black Horse) to Chesterfield (Recklesstown):
The next day we woke to a beautiful sunrise over the battlefield. Dave and I spent the better part of an hour using flint, steel and char cloth to light our damp tinder. However, eventually we had a respectable fire and were drinking weak tea and gnawing on moldy biscuit bread. We lingered at the site for some time and only left after the sun had completely risen.
Dave couldn't finish any more of the march so he drove home. Two of us drove to Columbus to meet Pvt. Ian Johns for the march from Columbus to Chesterfield (known as Recklesstown in 1778). It was sunny, hot and humid by 9am when we started marching and it only got worse throughout the day. Several people stopped us to ask questions and we gave out notices written in English and German called "Sauve Guards" (Safe Guards). These were notices that were placed on homes by British army officers in the 18th century to protect them from being pillaged.
Just outside of Columbus, a police officer finally stopped to ask us questions. Though we had been assured that the local communities knew we were out here marching around, I was somewhat concerned about carrying firearms in New Jersey. It was a needless worry though, because the officer knew what we were doing and seemed very interested. Ian, seeing an opportunity, immediately brought out brochures and went into his recruiting speech.
At about the halfway point we were marching down a tree shaded lane, when we were "forced" to stop every hundred feet or so by local residents. One woman was a local teacher and had set up a table with water and other refreshments for us. At another location, a herd of small children came chasing after us to ask some questions. Though it was oppressively hot and humid, it was actually quite nice meeting people and telling them about what we were doing. Those pleasant interludes didn't detract from the brutal heat and fatigue of the last two miles into Chesterfield. Ian and I fell way behind and it was very difficult to put one foot in front of the other. When we finally reached the Chesterfield Inn, we sought a small bit of shade and collapsed.
Later we went to the public event at Mount Laurel. We were surprised to find that this well-publicized event drew five reenactors; three LAR soldiers and Sue & Ted Huskin of Rancocas Merchant. With very short notice we were drafted into the staged death of Captain Beasley at Clinton's HQ and then we were the living historians on display at Mount Laurel Friends Meeting House. The tourists came in droves expecting to see a skirmish and were disappointed that there were only three loyalists and two merchants standing around. However, we entertained them as much as possible and they calmed down after a bit.
Of course, I did see that one of the tourists looked vaguely familiar and then I recognized him as Pat Jordan, from the 3rd PA. He laughed at me sweating in my wool and said he had all of his stuff with him in the car, but he wasn't going to put it on. Many of you who know Pat may find this somewhat ironic. I like to refer to Pat as the multiple personality disorder reenactor. He easily has more 18th century uniforms than I have 21st century suits. Yet, at this event, he refused to put on one of his uniforms. He was either very smart or we were very stupid.
June 24th - Chesterfield (Recklesstown) to Imlaystown:
We stayed that night at the house of Huskin in Moorestown and were up early the next day to try to get the march done before the heat really hit. Sue offered me the use of a shower, but I wanted to try to maintain as much of the marching life-style as possible.
I was surprised to find that no one but me wanted to march. It was only 95 degrees in the shade with 90% humidity at 8am. All that and hills too, what more could a reenactor want? Or was it the fact that I hadn't bathed in three days?
I would love to elaborate on the historical significance of this portion of the march, how much the others should envy my perseverance, etc. Unfortunately, I really can't remember much of what I did on June 24th. I know I completed the march from Chesterfield to Imlaystown, but I remember very little else except for the blur of fierce heat and exhausting fatigue.
However, there were two sections of the march that remain clear in my mind as something really special. Just southwest of the Crosswicks Creek and the bridge at Walnford Mill the modern road diverges from the historical route. At the divergence, a path of sorts was visible leading away from the modern intersection into the woods and the map given to me by the Friends of Monmouth had the original route highlighted. So, I took out my 18th century-style brass compass and determined that the original road was more or less following a dirt road on a hill in the distance. I bushwhacked through some woods, skirted a horse farm and ended up on the dirt road that I'd seen from the intersection.
This sandy tract passed through an orchard and was surrounded beyond that by rolling forested hills. It was odd that nothing of modern manufacture was visible. As I walked down the lane, I had one of those remarkable experiences that all reenactors hope for. The feeling that I was close to the men I was trying so hard to emulate. I felt that what I was doing at that moment was the same thing that they had experienced 225 years ago. To be honest, I don't know if it was the heat, but I half expected other soldiers to come out from behind the trees in the orchard and join me on the march.
I followed that sandy road for the better part of an hour until it dropped down to a modern road near Crosswicks Creek. At the bridge over Crosswicks Creek is a site called Historic Walnford, a county park maintained in largely in the same condition that Knyphausen would have found it 225 years ago.
On June 24, 1778, Knyphausen's column of 10000 men, 600 wagons and assorted camp followers arrived to find the bridge over the Crosswicks broken down. Knyphausen had spent the next two hours repairing the bridge and getting his column across Crosswicks Creek. After his men were across and encamped as far north as Imlaystown, he went to the home of Mr. Waln to get some supper. At the door of the house, he found that his officers had reached the home before him and had taken every seat at the table. He retired to a nearby shed and was served there, much to his disgust.
225 years later (to the day), I was standing on the same porch as Knyphausen. I looked into the house and then wandered around to all of the various outbuildings and foundations of outbuildings that surrounded the house. Then after smoking my pipe while briefly resting by the creek, I walked down the dirt lane that ran in front of the house and continued toward Imlaystown.
There was a public event that afternoon at Mount Holly, but I managed to get lost and didn't reach it till it was long over. However, another reenactor in modern clothes stopped by and offered us a place to stay. That evening I succumbed to the temptation and took my first shower in three days. However, I was so exhausted that I removed everything but my shirt and trousers outside the house. Then I walked directly to the bathroom and into the shower. As the warm water poured over me, I looked down at the drain and watched the water wash the sweat and dirt out of my shirt and trousers. I hadn't realized how dirty I really was after only three days. Filthy doesn't even begin to describe it.
June 25th - Imlaystown to Charleston Springs (Freehold Township):
The next day I was alone again and the day was very much a blur, though the heat didn't seem as extreme and my feet didn't hurt as much. I started the 8-1/2-mile march at 7am and finished by 11:30 am.
The most memorable part of this day for me was the public event at Columbus. This was billed to the town residents as a skirmish. However, the reenactors that turned up were the usual suspects from the LAR and Rancocas Merchant, plus a corporal with the 1st New Jersey Volunteers. Barbara Johns luckily brought her spinning materials, I set up my tent and we did some drill and firing for the tourists so they didn't get too upset.
Afterward we went to the local town of Mansfield board meeting and after we threatened them with bodily harm, they presented all of us with certificates of appreciation. Apparently, they have more in common with His Majesty's Royal Government than we had anticipated.
After this meeting, the Friends of Monmouth bought us dinner at the Columbus Inn, which sits on the sight of historic Black Horse Tavern. A contingent of Queen's Rangers joined us for dinner. They were trying to emulate their alter egos by riding their horses along Cornwallis' route.
I was lucky enough to sit next to a young woman from the Queen's Rangers. She was dressed in a fine green riding habit, while I had on my worn and tattered small clothes. She looked at me as if I were a bug and wrinkled her face in obvious disgust. She had a look that I recognized easily as, "Get me away from this person!" However, it was too late, all of the other seats were taken. I just couldn't understand her reaction. After all, I had bathed the night before!
June 26th - Charleston Springs (Freehold Township) to Freehold:
On the final day three brave LAR marksmen started at around 8am from a point three miles east of Clarksburg. The Maryland Loyalist Orderly Book describes the original Provincials as having camped at the Freehold Township line before the final march into Freehold. Though I can't be completely sure, I think we were close to where they would have camped. Not surprisingly, it was hot and humid, reaching the high 90's in both temperature and humidity.
Around this time, we met up with Joe Ryan and Christy Morrison from History Hunters (a local cable TV show). For the last two days, Joe and Christy had tried to find the LAR on the march but were unsuccessful in finding the lone loyalist marching across New Jersey — me.
Ian and I continued until we reached Freehold around 2:30pm. At about the same time, some reenactors were beginning to set up at Monmouth Battlefield. Apparently, some of the Royal Artillery had seen Ian and I, taken our picture and were now taking bets on whether or not we were going to make it to Freehold.
That evening there was a public event at Crosswicks Meeting House that turned out to have several reenactors from the 43rd and Hessians. I was absolutely exhausted and unable to participate.
Finishing the march was somewhat anti-climatic. I was extremely happy that it was over. More so than I was proud of having done something like this to begin with. Even though I hadn't done it nearly as "hard-core" as I'd wanted to, I realized that I would have been physically unable to complete it if I stuck to my original plan. The food wouldn't have been enough and camping would have meant a great deal of additional physical energy that I didn't possess.
Nonetheless, I consider it a valuable experience. I appreciate, to a much greater degree than I did before the march, just how difficult the life of a private soldier was. I also began to understand that I might have some misconceptions of their daily life and the harsh realities of it.
I know now that it is impossible for us to truly comprehend how utterly fatiguing their daily life must have been. Though as a reenactor I feel that I had more awareness of the plight of the soldiers than the general public, I know that I underestimated the difficult conditions of their existence. Just the simple matter of ending the day's march was instructive. The first evening at Monmouth Battlefield we had to gather wood, make a shelter, start a fire, boil water, etc. In the end, that one day's exertion became too much for me. But I knew that they still would have had to post guard and continue with the numerous other tasks required of an army on the march.
Tom and Ian at Freehold, NJ
(Photo courtesy of Ian Johns)
I also began to appreciate that hygiene is important. From this experience, I don't think that the soldiers 225 years ago could have made the march if they hadn't practiced some simple personal hygiene. On my march, by the third day without a bath I had broken out in a body rash from the sweat and was chaffing from my filthy trousers. However, once I cleaned myself up and washed the filth from my clothing, I felt fine and didn't have those problems again. I think that we as living historians may make too much of 18th century bathing habits, or lack thereof. Hot water was a commodity that I can see them doing away with just because of the effort required in boiling the water. However, I think we give a mistaken impression to the public that the soldiers wouldn't have cleaned themselves. I think they would have washed themselves with a cloth, put on a clean shirt and maybe even washed the sweat out of the old shirt. I also doubt that a nearby river, stream, or creek would have gone unused as a communal bath tub.
The third and final thing I began to understand is that walking in 18th century shoes on modern road surfaces is needlessly masochistic. My feet really aren't used to the hard-soled leather shoes and to subject myself to them in this way wasn't a lesson, it was torture. The soldiers back then would have been used to these shoes and had calluses to such an extent that they wouldn't have felt it the way I did. Additionally, they would have been marching on dirt roads, which certainly had more "give" than asphalt. In the end, I walked in the grass on the side of the road as much as possible.
-- Tom Briggs
Copyright © 2010,
The Loyal American Regiment