9. Bravo, Barracks!

The Old Barracks Museum in New Jersey’s capitol city of Trenton has enjoyed a unique history dating back to 1758, when it was built to house British soldiers during the French and Indian War. A remnant of the eighteenth-century town then in Hunterdon (now Mercer) county, this registered State and National Historic Landmark helps visitors in particular to understand two key military engagements that occurred during the “Ten Crucial Days” campaign of George Washington’s Continental army in the winter of 1776-1777: the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776 and the Battle of Assunpink Creek (also known as the Second Battle of Trenton) on January 2, 1777. More generally, the building now known as the Old Barracks offers visitors a singular perspective on the story of its surrounding area.

Its Past

The history of the Old Barracks is characterized by a diversity of uses and distinctions over the past three centuries:

  • It is one of five such structures throughout New Jersey built to house British soldiers in the 1750s and the only one still standing.
  • At the time it was constructed, this was the largest building in Trenton and the second largest public building in New Jersey after Princeton’s Nassau Hall.
  • It is the only surviving and restored military structure left in New Jersey that is associated with the colonial wars predating the Revolution.
  • The original structure was utilized for a variety of purposes during the Revolutionary struggle: holding British prisoners of war, raising four companies of the 2nd New Jersey Continental Regiment, and serving as an army hospital where smallpox inoculations were performed on Continental army soldiers—making this the site of the first mass medical treatment in the Western Hemisphere.
  • After the Revolution, part of the building was demolished in order to extend Front Street to the newly erected State House; however, the building continued to meet a variety of community needs over time, as: The Indigent Widows’ and Single Women’s Home Society of Trenton, the residence of the first mayor of Trenton, and a boarding school.
  • This site was the object of a joint campaign by the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames at the beginning of the twentieth century, which organized the Old Barracks Association and orchestrated an effort to “Save the Old Barracks.”
  • From 1985 to 1998, the structure underwent a multi-million dollar second restoration that resulted in its current appearance, which is thought to be a much more accurate representation of how it originally appeared.

Its Present 

Today, the Old Barracks Museum hosts an array of programs and activities designed to inform and entertain people of all ages. These include: onsite tours, virtual field trips for schoolchildren, digital exhibits, a History Summer Camp and Patriots Week events—including the annual Colonial Ball—each December (all subject to current public health considerations), and more.

Yes, the museum is open, but reservations are required to visit. You can purchase tickets in advance here—they are not available at the museum. The admission fee is: $10 for adults, $8 for students, and $8 for seniors (age 62 and up). Admission is free for museum members, active-duty military personnel, and children age five and under.

Tours are available Tuesday through Saturday and begin at 10 am, 12 pm, and 2 pm. Visitors have up to two hours to see the museum and are required to leave by the start of the next tour. While there, check out the Quartermaster’s Store, which offers a wide variety of books and other items relating to the Revolution and early America. Of course, masks must be worn at all times inside the building.

And for anyone who’s interested, several rooms within the Old Barracks are available for group rentals. Find out more here.

Want to Know More?

The Old Barracks Museum is located next to the New Jersey State House, and parking is available nearby at the Capitol Complex Visitor Parking Garage, metered street parking, and other parking garages. The street address is: 101 Barrack Street, Trenton, NJ 08608. For more information, call the museum at 609-396-1776 or visit its website.

When you’re in downtown Trenton, history is right around the corner. It lives at this iconic landmark. Just ask the tens of thousands of people who have come here from across New Jersey and around the globe. And if you’re a Rev War buff living in the Delaware Valley, failing to visit would be, well, revolting.

5. George Washington Didn’t Sleep Here

But many of his soldiers did—that is, on its grounds or nearby. This historic treasure, known today as the Thompson-Neely farmstead (TN), is located in upper Bucks Country, Pennsylvania, and is a featured attraction of Washington Crossing Historic Park (WCHP).

A History-Laden Spot

In December 1776, a Continental army brigade commanded by General William Alexander, known as Lord Stirling, encamped here (although Stirling himself stayed at another residence). Over 600 soldiers were posted on or near the grounds of TN in Solebury Township, two miles south of Coryell’s Ferry (New Hope today). During this time, the house was used to care for soldiers who were ill and served as a headquarters for several Continental officers, including: Captain William Washington, the commander-in-chief’s second cousin, once removed; and eighteen-year-old Lieutenant James Monroe, the future fifth President of the United States—both with the 3rd Virginia Regiment.

On Christmas Day 1776, the soldiers in the brigade who were physically able to do so marched four miles south to McConkey’s Ferry, which is in today’s lower section of WCHP. There they joined in the fabled Delaware River crossing that led to a dramatic victory over the German troops (known as Hessians) occupying Trenton, New Jersey—the first significant success enjoyed by George Washington’s army and the beginning of its legendary “Ten Crucial Days” campaign that changed the course of the war.

Kimberly McCarty, WCHP Museum Curator, describes TN’s historical significance as follows:

The Thompson-Neely property is one of the most meaningful spaces at Washington Crossing Historic Park. For sick and exhausted soldiers, this campsite served as a temporary home after an arduous retreat across New Jersey—and for some it became their permanent resting place. Here the beleaguered Continental army struggled to replenish itself before its daring crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776.

The House

TN is a stone structure built in three sections and characteristic of stone farmhouses constructed by early-eighteenth-century settlers of Bucks County, who typically replaced their log cabins or framed cottages with stone dwellings. The house is located near Pidcock Creek (named after the first European immigrant to live on this property), which provided power for the owner’s gristmill, and is surrounded by a barn and a cluster of small outbuildings that are restored examples of structures from an eighteenth-century farm complex. The stone house has undergone several stages of construction and restoration since its original section was built around 1740.

The Families

When the Continental army arrived at their doorstep in December 1776, two families occupied TN. They included Robert Thompson and his wife Hannah (he being her second husband), their daughter Elizabeth and her husband William Neely, and the Neely’s two young children—Jane and Robert.

The families operated a thriving milling business. Their success reflected the importance of millers in the agricultural society of colonial Pennsylvania at a time when the grinding of grains such as wheat, corn, and barley was an essential life-sustaining activity and the prosperity of local wheat farmers derived from Philadelphia’s burgeoning export market for flour. In fact, Robert Thompson was one of the wealthier men listed in the Solebury township tax records for 1761, 1778, and 1783, all the while expanding the size of his stone house. A later version of the TN gristmill, built around 1870, is now accessible to the public (see below).

We’re (ahem) Neely at the End

Today, TN is open for guided tours from April through November. For more information, check online or call the WCHP visitor center at 215-493-4076.

This venerable piece of Bucks County history has a fascinating story behind it—the hardships faced by Revolutionary War soldiers, the sweat and enterprise of eighteenth and nineteenth-century millers, changing family fortunes over the decades, the rescue and restoration of a deteriorating house by the state of Pennsylvania, and the revival of a now-operational gristmill by the Friends of Washington Crossing Park. Plus the kids will love the sheep and miniature goats residing in the barn, and there’s the Bowman’s Hill Tower and Continental soldiers’ cemetery nearby.

Come visit. If you’re a history buff or just love old houses or gristmills, you won’t regret or forget your time at TN. Indeed, this is no (wait for it) run-of-the-mill experience.

4. A Hero’s Home

Historic Rock Ford was the residence of Edward Hand (1744-1802), who may have been the most unsung Patriot military hero of the American Revolution. That conviction led me to dedicate my second book, The Road to Assunpink Creek, to Hand and the soldiers he led into battle on January 2, 1777—which was not, well, an offhand decision.

Hand’s Heroics

On that pivotal day in our struggle for independence from Great Britain, the Irish-born colonel of the 1st Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment led a remarkable defensive action along the road from Princeton to Trenton, New Jersey, against a British-Hessian force that outnumbered his contingent by more than six-to-one. In so doing, he may very well have forestalled the destruction of George Washington’s army and paved the way for one of the most remarkable military maneuvers in history. The rebel forces successfully parried the enemy thrust, then counterattacked the redcoats at Princeton in the climactic victory of the “Ten Crucial Days” campaign that reversed the course of the Revolutionary War.

You have to (ahem) hand it to those Pennsylvania riflemen, but especially their colonel who demonstrated inspiring leadership at a critical moment for young America’s fortunes. He went on to become a brigadier general, a breveted major general, and a steadfast associate of General Washington—perhaps best known for being the last adjutant general (chief administrative officer) of the Continental army. Shortly after the conflict ended, the commander-in-chief wrote his comrade-in-arms to express “my entire approbation for your public conduct.”

Hand’s House

With the war over, Hand returned home to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he would build Rock Ford, a Georgian-style brick mansion on several hundred acres of land he had purchased. Here he lived from 1794 until his death, along with his family and their servants and laborers—both enslaved and free. Hand practiced medicine, served first as a member of the Congress of Confederation and then the Pennsylvania Assembly, and later as a delegate to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention. Tradition has it that he played host to Washington during the president’s 1791 visit to Lancaster.

Today, Historic Rock Ford consists of 33 acres at the southeastern edge of Lancaster City enveloped by Lancaster County Central Park. The street address is: 881 Rockford Road, Lancaster, PA 17602.

A registered National Historic Landmark, the mansion is recorded in the Historic American Building Survey. It’s widely considered one of the most important examples of Georgian domestic architecture in Pennsylvania and the most intact building in Lancaster County built before 1800. The mansion’s elegant rooms feature an exceptional display of period furnishings and decorative arts.

You could say the folks at Rock Ford deserve a hand (oh, please) for their efforts to preserve the general’s legacy and home, and to educate the public about the realities of eighteenth-century life in America. Find out more about what they have to offer on their website.

Hand in Hindsight

I’ve taken the Rock Ford tour, and for any history lover it would be an absorbing experience. But for an aficionado of eighteenth-century Americana, I can’t think of a better place to visit. Most Americans don’t know who lived here, but I wish they did. This site ought to be regarded as one of the leading shrines to a new nation’s spirit and enterprise—hands down.

3. Hail Hale-Byrnes

What is it?

Situated on the banks of White Clay Creek near Stanton, Delaware, the historic Hale-Byrnes House dates from circa 1750. Built by millwright Warwick Hale, who left it to his son Samuel, the house was purchased first by David Finney of New Castle who added the south wing, and then by Quaker Daniel Byrnes (1730-1797) in 1773. Byrnes, who became prosperous operating a grist mill on the creek, added the house’s service wing. The southern section has four fireplaces and is a fine example of Georgian brick architecture. This was the first building in Delaware to receive the State “Heritage Plaque” and is a registered National Historic Landmark.

Where is it?

The house is located on old Route 7 just south of Stanton, near the intersection of Route 4 East and Route 7 North. The street address is: 606 Stanton-Christiana Road, Newark, DE 19713.

What happened here?

On September 6, 1777, three days after the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge, General George Washington held a council of war in the Hale-Byrnes House with other officers of the Continental army, including the Marquis de Lafayette who turned twenty that day. From there the American troops marched north to Chadds Ford in Pennsylvania, where they unsuccessfully engaged a British-Hessian army under General William Howe at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11.

Kim Burdick oversees this treasured link to our colonial past. She is a retired history instructor, founder and chairman of the American Revolution Round Table of Northern Delaware, and former chairman of the Delaware Humanities Council. The author of Revolutionary Delaware: Independence in the First State (The History Press, 2016), Kim has written frequently for the Journal of the American Revolution, including her 2015 article, “A Quaker Struggles with the War,” about pacifist Daniel Byrnes. She recounts the depredations Byrnes suffered at the hands of his Patriot neighbors because he stubbornly adhered to his religious convictions in refusing to support the war effort, as well as his letter to President Washington in 1793 seeking compensation for eight wheels of cheese as “the Army had my property to Live upon and I think the States aught in Justice to pay me a Reasonable price for it.”

What’s happening here?

During April through December, Hale-Byrnes House is open to visitors on the first Wednesday of each month from 12 to 3 p.m. (yes, that includes NOW) and at other times by appointment. In addition, it can be rented for meetings and weddings. Please note: the house is closed from January through March. You can email to halebyrneshouse@aol.com, which is the much-preferred method of contact, or leave a voice message at 302-998-3792. And you’ll find more information on the website, including the public programs—currently on Zoom—listed on its calendar of events.

History lives here. Check it out.