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Hundreds turn out for family day at Red Bank Battlefield

Fort Mercer site is where American patriots crushed the Hessians


Many of the Continental Army victories during the Revolutionary War were in New Jersey, including the battles of Trenton, Gloucester, Princeton, Monmouth and Red Bank, located along the Delaware River in what is now National Park.

On the morning of Oct. 22, 1777, some 1,200 Hessian soldiers marched from Haddonfield to attack Fort Mercer, manned by 400 American patriots on the high ground in what was then known as Red Bank, near the 18th-century James and Ann Whitall House.

“The Whitalls were Quakers and pacifists and objected to the fort being built on their 400-acre farm that was basically all of the borough of National Park,” said Director Jennifer Janofsky during the Red Bank Battlefield family day on a sunny Sept. 25.

Fort Mercer was built by cutting down an apple orchard, and along with Fort Mifflin across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, effectively stopped ships from coming up the Delaware River to resupply the British Army in Philadelphia, said Janofsky, who is a professor of early American history at Rowan University.

“The rebels built a huge trough around the fort and the Hessians did not have ladders,” explained Janofsky, who earned a doctorate in history from Temple University, a master’s degree from Villanova University and a Bachelor of Arts from Scranton University. “It was a violent, one-hour battle, leaving more than 300 Hessian soldiers dead or injured and just 23 rebels dead or injured.”

As director of the battlefield park for nine years, Janofsky helps organize family day with Whitall House volunteers and current and former Rowan students, including Site Manager Robbie Taylor, a graduate history student; Elizabeth McFadden, who recently graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in history; and sophomore history major Abbie Ealer. 

Wearing authentic colonial clothing and getting ready to cook a campfire dinner outside the Whitall House on family day were Ben Carlton, of the Gloucester County Library System; volunteer Lenora Khan of Lindenwold; Carol Murphy of West Deptford; and Sharon Goodman of Middleton.

“I come to the Red Bank Battlefield four times a year. I enjoy the interaction with the visitors. People are very curious,” said Goodman, who had a table depicting colonial games such as dominoes and a contraption that enabled children to press a lever with their feet, send a ball airborne and try to hit it with a stick – a very early forerunner to American baseball.

“I participate in a lot of Revolutionary War reenactments across the state,” added Goodman, who was thrilled at the turnout of hundreds of people for family day.

Archeologists found the remains of 15 Hessian soldiers buried in trenches that were near the wooden Fort Mercer, according to Janofsky, who noted that a majority of those killed were buried in another spot that had already been discovered.

“The main monument on the hill is in the center of where Fort Mercer stood,” Janofsky explained, adding that the annual Jonas Cattell Run and battle reenactment will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 23.

“We are not sure if Jonas Cattell ran all the way from Haddonfield to Fort Mercer that morning to warn the rebels,” she said, acknowledging the legend. But the rebels knew the Hessians were coming.

The area is also of interest to the Gloucester County Archaeology Society, said Guy and Florence DiGiugno, who had a table featuring Native American arrow points and spears at family day.

“These were found about two blocks north of the battlefield,” they said of the items featured. “It is a Smithsonian archaeology site, registration number 22Gl228.”

As for what Janofsky calls public history, she said, “I like to see how people engage with history outside of a classroom. The battlefield and the Whitall House are a perfect spot for students and the public to learn about history.”

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