Three hundred years ago at the time of the American Revolution, when the city of Trenton was a mere village half its current size on the north bank of the Assunpink Creek, the tendency to dismiss New Jersey as the place you passed through on the way to New York and Philadelphia was already well-established.
Yet precisely because of New Jersey’s strategic location between the capital at Philadelphia and the British troops stationed in New York City, there were more battles fought on New Jersey soil during the Revolution than in any other colony, says historian and Ewing resident Larry Kidder, one of nine authors of a new book titled “The American Revolution in New Jersey: Where the Battlefront Meets the Home Front.”
Kidder will be the author-in-attendance at Princeton Battlefield State Park on Saturday, May 23, for a Memorial Day celebration billed as “Washington Returns! Battlefield Encampment and Mini-Re-Enactments.” He will be stationed under a tent amid uniformed re-enactors from the Second Pennsylvania Regiment, who will demonstrate the firing of muskets and cannons, the logistics of dueling, and the domestic activities of a Revolutionary War encampment. He also will be available to answer questions and to sign copies of his previous book, which focuses more on one local militia group, the First Hunterdon County Militia Regiment, whose members hailed from what is now Hopewell, Lawrence, Ewing, and the city of Trenton.
While local residents may be somewhat familiar with the battles of Princeton and Trenton and the deeds of George Washington’s Continental Army, much less has been written about the contributions of New Jersey militiamen during the eight years of the War for Independence, Kidder says.
The Continental Army was a voluntary, full-time, professional army called up by the Continental Congress at the start of the Revolution and led by General George Washington. In contrast, the colonial militia system dates back before the Revolution and comprised groups of part-time citizen soldiers who had other full-time jobs — 90 percent of local militiamen were farmers, Kidder says, and some were blacksmiths or other craftsmen. By 1775 all New Jersey men between the ages of 16 and 50 were required to serve. The usual term was one month, but during the war militiamen often ended up being away from their families and farms for longer periods.
It is the service of these militiamen and how it affected their homes and families that forms the subject of the first chapter, written by Kidder, of the new book edited by James J. Gigantino and published in April by Rutgers University Press.
The title of Kidder’s essay, “A Disproportionate Burden on the Willing,” comes from a quote by William Livingston, governor of New Jersey during the Revolution.
“It was his criticism of the militia system because the militia laws were not well-enforced, and the militia system had so many loopholes for people to dodge having to do militia duty,” Kidder says.
A New Jersey man called into the militia could be exempted because of religious beliefs if he were a Quaker, for example. He could also have one of his servants represent him or hire another man to serve that month in his place. He could simply not show up if he were willing to pay a fine.
New Jersey’s strategic location as the “Crossroads of the American Revolution” meant that a one-month term could stretch and multiply.
“The whole idea of the militia was they weren’t supposed to have to fight unless the enemy came close to home,” Kidder says. “New Jersey’s situation, with so much happening here, that’s really what caused the militia system to change from a very part-time system to darn close to full-time in many cases.”
At the same time that militia service kept a man away from his farm or business, it imposed other economic challenges, as well.
“All of his equipment he had to supply himself, including his clothing, his weapon, anything that he carried pretty much he was supposed to supply himself,” Kidder says. “That means there was an economic problem for the family. Guns were expensive. It meant that the wife had to make, mend, and wash his military clothing, the same as his civilian clothing. When he went off on militia duty he had to take food with him, which came from home. Once he got out to a post where he was assigned for a month, he’d get food there from the government.”
If a farmer was out on militia duty, his wife and children would need to take over his farm duties, and even his neighbors might pitch in, Kidder says.
If a man had sons ages 16 or over, plans had to be made for who would perform the chores each month, he says, and those plans had to include hired hands and slaves. His research did not find slaves as militiamen in the First Hunterdon Regiment, Kidder says, and slaves were not required to serve in the militia. He is convinced, however, that some New Jersey men must have sent slaves as substitutes. One man of mixed African and European ancestry did serve in the First Hunterdon Militia Regiment, Kidder says. He was originally an indentured servant who later volunteered with the Continental Army.
The militias tried not to take all the men from one family together, Kidder says. They would divide a company into two or three groups called classes, and the father might be in one class, his 18-year-old son in a different class, and maybe another 20-year-old son in the third class. This could mean that the father called out for militia duty one month might send his son as a substitute, and then at the end of the month, when it was his son’s turn, the son might stay out for a second month. And then if the father was supposed to be out again, the son might stay for a third month, he says.
This had the potential to create conflict between husband and wife, as well as between father and son. And sending your son to fight in your place must have caused a lot of inner turmoil.
“Remember that when the father is sending his son out as a substitute, he might be sending his son to his death,” Kidder says. “So there might be guilt feelings on the part of the father who has to send his son out. In general, men who got substitutes often felt that kind of guilt. I have seen accounts by soldiers who got substitutes who said they simply gave their captain money to hire the substitute, and they didn’t want to know who he hired.”
With husbands who were frequently off serving in the militia, women in New Jersey assumed new responsibilities for the family farm and finances, and then had to give them up upon their return.
“I have seen studies that, particularly because of the way the militia system was in New Jersey, women had to take over for their husbands so much that it was kind of a spark to recognizing women being able to do these things that only men were supposed to be able to do,” Kidder says.
Kidder was born in Berkeley, California, where his father was a graduate student and his mother was a homemaker, and at age six he moved with his parents to Bloomington, Indiana, where his father attended graduate school and taught film production at Indiana University.
He has been interested in history for as long as he can remember. As a boy in Indiana, he lived next door to a 19th-century farm house that had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, and the woman who lived there proudly showed the neighborhood children where the slaves were hidden.
“That got me thinking, I live on a site where some stuff was happening that was really interesting in the past, and that kind of thing really got me started on history,” Kidder says.
He graduated from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in history and earned his master’s degree in history and education there in 1969. He served in the Navy for four years and taught junior high and high school history for 40 years, including seven years at the junior high school level in Ewing. The last 32 years of his teaching career were spent at the Hun School in Princeton until he retired in 2011.
Kidder has been volunteering since 1987 at Howell Living History Farm in Hopewell Township. He began by creating educational programs, and is now the farm’s historian. Several years ago, he says, he was asked by Pete Wilson, the director of Howell Farm, to research the history of the Phillips family, who owned the farm from 1737 to 1860. Members of the family served in the First Hunterdon County Militia Regiment, and Kidder soon realized that to understand the Phillips family he would have to expand his research to include the entire militia regiment.
His 2013 book “A People Harassed and Exhausted: The Story of a New Jersey Militia Regiment in the American Revolution” and his chapter in “The American Revolution in New Jersey” both came out of this research.
Kidder and his wife, Jane, have two daughters — Susan, who is a second grade teacher at Far Hills Country Day School in Hunterdon County, and Debi, who teaches history at Butler County Community College in Pennsylvania.
Kidder says he was told when doing his research that not many people would be interested in the New Jersey militia. He is happy to report having sold 400 copies of his self-published book, which is available online from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and he has been asked to speak at local historical societies and libraries, at the Old Barracks Museum, and at Patriots Week in Trenton.
He believes that it is important to remember on Memorial Day the militiamen and their neighbors and families.
“One of the things that as an historian I like is looking at history through the experiences and the eyes of ordinary people,” he says. “Your average militiaman, your company commander, even your colonel of the First Hunterdon Regiment that nobody’s ever heard of. These are real people who had real experiences, suffered, and many times, contributed in many ways that never get recognized. I like the stories of those kinds of people.”
Washington Returns! Battlefield Encampment and Mini-Re-Enactments, Princeton Battlefield Society and the Second Pennsylvania Regiment, Princeton Battlefield State Park, Mercer Road, Princeton. Saturday, May 23, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free. www.theprincetonbattlefieldsociety.com.