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Re-enactment group transports visitors back to the Revolutionary War era

Most days, Matt Murphy of Jersey City is an archive director at a photo collective in New York City. But sometimes, he is a Revolutionary War soldier.

Murphy portrays a Commander in the 2nd New Jersey Regiment, Helms’ Company, a re-enactment group that will be setting up a living history camp on the Quad as part of the College’s birthday celebration for the Marquis de Lafayette on Sept. 6.

During the 2007-08 academic year, the College is planning a celebration in recognition of the life and legacy of the man for whom it is named. Major events will include a lecture series, entitled Lives of Liberty, featuring renowned speakers; a historical exhibit at the Williams Center for the Arts, entitled A Son and his Adoptive Father: The Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington, and a birthday party on Sept. 6.

  • A web site dedicated to the celebration and to the Marquis’ unique connection to the College provides information and updates.

Visitors to the living history camp will see men portraying front-line Continental soldiers, such as those whom General Lafayette would have commanded, and women portraying camp followers. The re-enactors will discuss life during the Revolutionary War and answer questions about the diet, lodging, recreation, and duties of soldiers.

“I love applying my knowledge of New Jersey Continental soldiers,” Murphy says. “There’s no better way of getting away from everyday life then by putting yourself into an environment so different than the usual. Instead of commutes on the subway, city streets, and work issues, you have the sounds and smells of an 18th century camp.”

The original 2nd New Jersey Regiment was formed on Oct. 9, 1775, at Trenton, N.J., to serve the Continental Army under the command of Colonel William Maxwell. The soldiers in the regiment saw action in a number of Revolutionary War battles, including the battles of Brandywine, Monmouth and Yorktown, as part of armies under both George Washington and General Lafayette.

The story of the Marquis de Lafayette during the Revolution has close ties to the 2nd New Jersey Regiment. During the legendary Battle of Brandywine in 1777, Lafayette was wounded while in the vicinity of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment. At that time, he was serving under Colonel Israel Shreve, who was also wounded in the battle.

After returning from a period of recuperation in France, Lafayette was given control of an elite corps of American light infantry and was told to make operations difficult for the British army in Virginia. This corps included the best soldiers from the 2nd New Jersey Regiment and was involved in a number of skirmishes during the spring and summer of 1781.

In September 1781, the regiment joined a larger army under the command of Lafayette and fought alongside General Washington’s Franco-American army during the siege of Yorktown. British General Charles Cornwallis’ eventual surrender at Yorktown led to the end of the Revolutionary War.

The 2nd New Jersey Regiment was re-activated in 1975 to celebrate the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. The group participates in encampments, battle recreations, and town festivals, while portraying the regiment as it appeared during the Monmouth campaign in 1778.

“There is no better way to teach history than to immerse the spectator in an environment which replicates the event,” Murphy says. “While books and television documentaries are informative, they are two dimensional and can’t answer questions. If people can enter into the living diorama of a reenactment – smell the campfires, foods and gunpowder, feel the clothing and equipment, hear the drumming, singing, and booms and see up-close the details of 18th century military life – then they are most likely going to remember what they’ve witnessed.”

Many of the regiment’s current members live in western New Jersey, where most of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment’s original soldiers resided, but members also hail from Pennsylvania and New York.

The re-enactors work very hard to maintain historical accuracy in everything from their clothing to their presentation of camp life to their manner of speech.

“The general theme of the life of a Continental soldier is destitution. In an army of ragged, starving men, those from the state of New Jersey were worse off than most,” says Murphy. “While the soldiers were supposed to receive new clothing from time to time, they were often in a very bad state and many cases of nearly-naked and barefoot men [have been documented].”

According to Murphy, an ideally equipped soldier was to have a cocked hat, wool coat, vest, two shirts, breeches or trousers, shoes, two pairs of stockings, leather neck-stock, blanket, knapsack, canteen, cartridge box for ammunition, a haversack to hold his food, and a musket and bayonet. The vast majority were never so lucky.

A typical soldier from the 2nd New Jersey Regiment in 1778 would have had ragged clothing, a fringed linen hunting frock instead of a coat, shoes (maybe), leather neck-stock, a blanket, a haversack, a musket and a bayonet. His belongings would have been stored within his rolled-up blanket and he would have had to use his pockets and haversack to hold ammunition.

The state of soldiers’ nutrition was equally unfortunate, Murphy says. The most common food items which were issued to Continentals were flour and beef. Depending on the season and availability, dried peas, molasses, rice, fish and pork were also options. Part of the regular rations included an alcoholic drink such as rum, spruce beer, brandy, whiskey or cider.

And the hardship did not end there. Soldiers rarely were paid, and the Continental dollar was so deflated that their wages were rendered nearly useless. Often, soldiers were away from home for years at a time. When they were granted leave, they usually didn’t return to the front.

In the late 18th century, warfare was much different than today, Murphy explains. Men stood side-by-side and, in unison, loaded and fired their inaccurate smooth-bore muskets as quickly as possible. The accompanying artillery pieces did the same. Battles were very loud and chaotic, with the thick, sulfuric smoke from burnt gunpowder obscuring the view. Commands were being given via drum beat. Many men who were lucky enough to survive the thick of the fight died of disease.

“Americans must forever be reminded of their Revolutionary origins,” Murphy stresses. “While the representatives who sat in Continental Congress deserve a tremendous amount of credit for risking their fortunes to keep the Revolution pure and moving forward, their actions would have been nothing without the service of the soldiers who fought the war.”

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