Whitall House candlelight tours evoke property’s Colonial life

Built in 1748, it was a makeshift field hospital for Hessian soldiers

The historic brick and stone Whitall House built in 1748 glistens in the sun along the Delaware River shoreline in National Park. Earlier this month, more than 1,000 visitors took candlelight tours of the home to get a sense of life in Colonial times.

Standing tall near the Delaware River shoreline, the Whitall House was built in 1748 by Quakers James and Ann Whitall to overlook their 400-acre plantation at Red Bank, now part of National Park.

The prosperous estate featured a lumberyard, fruit orchards, shad fishing, livestock and a shipping ferry. The Whitalls’ nine children worked with dozens of indentured servants from Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany to keep the property operating smoothly.

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That idyllic life came to a crashing halt when the Battle of Red Bank erupted on Oct. 22, 1777 at Fort Mercer, just a few hundred yards north of the house. More than a thousand residents learned the history of the riverfront home, and what it was like to live in Colonial times, during three evenings of candlelight tours Dec. 3 through 5.

“Between the candlelight and the hearth cooking taking place, our visitors were able to get the sense of what a cold winter’s night was like in the 18th century,” said Jennifer Janofsky, director of the Red Bank Battlefield Park and a Giordano Fellow in Public History at Rowan University.

“Our staff and volunteers absolutely love this event,” she added. “Many say it’s their favorite and look forward to it all year. Some dress in period costume, including our hearth cookers.”

Tour visitors took in holiday decorations throughout the brick and stone house, and many enjoyed browsing at the pop-up holiday crafters shop on the park grounds that offered unique handmade items made by local artisans.

The house was decorated by the Gloucester County Certified Gardeners,” Janofsky explained. “They are all volunteers and commit long hours to making the house look spectacular. We are so appreciative of their efforts.”

From an historical perspective, Janofsky said that although the Whitalls were pacifists, Ann Whitall refused to leave her home during the Battle of Red Bank, then opened it to injured Hessian soldiers.

“The entire house was utilized as a field hospital because there were so many injured,” noted  Janofsky, who pointed out that the Hessian army reported casualties of 377 killed and wounded –  with 20 missing or captured – while the Americans reported losses of 14 killed and 27 wounded.

The American Revolution had interrupted life at Red Bank in 1777, when American forces constructed Fort Mercer immediately north of the house on a high point overlooking the Delaware River. Some 1,200 Hessian soldiers attacked the fort on Oct. 22, but Col. Christopher Green’s Rhode Island Regiment inflicted heavy losses on the mercenaries in a victory for the patriots.

According to the family’s descendants, the Whitalls never forgave the American forces for the devastation they inflicted on their beloved property. Although no documentation exists, they claim that Ann treated the wounded and chastised them for their war-like ways.

“There are many Whitall descendants in the area and they love to visit the park and house,” Janofsky said.

A marker in front of the house quotes an eyewitness report from Nicolas Collin of the Swedish Ministry of Swedesboro, who saw the wounded Hessians after the battle in the makeshift hospital.

“Here was a pitiable sight,” he reported. “About 200 were laying on straw in two large rooms, some without arms and legs and others with their limbs crushed like mush. Some floated in blood and told me that some had died for lack of something to bandage their wounds with. While I was there, several men died in great agony and convulsions.”

Ann and James Whitall were Quakers who abhorred war, yet they tried to save the wounded. Local residents learned that history while guided by candlelight.


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