Source: Courier News

A Gide to Bridgewater
May 26, 2004

Though few may realize it, Bridgewater -- especially the area now paved over by Route 22 and Interstate 287 -- was critical to the outcome of the American Revolution.

Bridgewater was the site of the Second Middlebrook Encampment in 1778-79, a lull in the struggle for independence in the war's fourth winter that allowed Gen. George Washington to plan his strategies, lobby in support of the war and turn the ragtag Continental Army into the disciplined fighting force that allowed it eventually to defeat the British.

About 8,500 troops were encamped at Middlebrook at peak strength, says Jim Kurzenberger of the Somerset County Historical Society, with the brigades camped several miles apart. The Route 22 area was the site of the Maryland and Virginia camps, which some historians put at the site of the Courier News building.

"It is sacred ground that we walk on and drive on if we but knew," says Marguerite Chandler of the Heritage Trail Association, which spearheaded six months of activities in observance of the 225th anniversary of the encampment.

Unlike the encampment in Valley Forge the winter before, which was plagued by illness and starvation, or in Morristown the succeeding winter, when the Army dealt with the hardship of an unusually cold winter, the Middlebrook Encampment was a relatively easy interlude in the eight-year struggle for independence.

The break allowed the Army to regroup and muster strength for the long haul.

The Middlebrook site, which was mostly in Bridgewater, but also took in parts of what is now Branchburg, Somerville, Manville and Bedminster, was chosen for its road network, the availability of timber for soldiers' huts in the nearby First Watchung Ridge and the sympathetic local populace.

A number of sympathizers opened their homes to senior officers of the Continental Army, including Philip Van Horne, whose home was the headquarters of Brigadier Gen. William Alexander and Derrick Van Veghten, whose home was the headquarters of Quartermaster Gen. Nathanael Greene.

Today these houses, which are open to the public, as well as a small part of the original encampment, offer an opportunity to experience the history of an important chapter in the history of the American Revolution.

The Van Veghten house is tucked away on an acre lot in an industrial park, but the bucolic landscape of the Raritan River viewed from the rear is much as it would have been 225 years ago, providing a glimpse of what life was like when the county was occupied by 10,000 people -- only slightly more than the number of soldiers.

Now the headquarters of the Somerset County Historical Society, the brick, federal-style house was the scene in March of 1779 of a dance, or "frisk," in which Washington -- who had an eye for Kitty, Greene's pretty wife -- danced with her for three hours "without sitting down," Kurzenberger says.

The Van Horne house, which is being restored, was only narrowly saved from development. Located across the street from Commerce Bank Ballpark, the former headquarters of Quartermaster Gen. William Alexander, also known as Lord Stirling, is now a history learning center operated by the Heritage Trail Association.

Apart from these two houses, most of the encampment has been erased by time, though a few acres on the northern fringe survive, preserved by the Washington Campground Association. The 225th anniversary events will end June 12 with a celebration there commemorating Washington's departure from Middlebrook.

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last updated 5 July 2004