2010-12-01 / Front Page

Historians shed light on site of 1777 battle

Artifacts found on Edison land being nominated for national registry
BY KATHY CHANG Staff Writer
Local historians hope to have 297 acres of Edison land with ties to the Revolutionary War added to the National Register of Historical Places.

Above, a member of the historic preservation and cultural resource service firm John Milner Associates holds a musket ball found in June on 5 acres in Edison where historians believe the Battle of Short Hills took place. Below, a leather scabbard was among the items discovered. Above, a member of the historic preservation and cultural resource service firm John Milner Associates holds a musket ball found in June on 5 acres in Edison where historians believe the Battle of Short Hills took place. Below, a leather scabbard was among the items discovered. Walter Stochel Jr., president of the Metuchen-Edison Historical Society, said he became interested in the area’s history in the 1970s.

“I heard about the Battle of Short Hills when a re-enactment of the battle was done in Scotch Plains during its bicentennial in 1977,” he said. “Then I read a book about the battle, not realizing that some of the battle was fought in Edison.”

Last year, the local historical society received a $31,000 grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program to prepare a National Register nomination for the Short Hills Battlefield.

“We had enough written information on the battle, but part of the grant and being eligible for the nomination was to find some physical material from the battle,” Stochel said.

The historical society and John Milner Associates gave a public presentation about the Short Hills Battlefield National Register nomination project on Nov. 16.

According to historical accounts, early on the morning of June 26, 1777, the British marched out of Perth Amboy toward the Quibbletown village in Piscataway to destroy George Washington’s Army. The only obstacle was the American Division under Lord Stirling (William Alexander). The British attacked the Americans camped at what is now part of northern Edison Township in a fight that became known as the Battle of Short Hills. Approximately 18,000 British and Hessian forces were led by Lord Charles Cornwallis and General Robert Howe, while 10,000 Americans were led by Washington and Lord Stirling.

The British objective was to attack Washington at Quibbletown with two columns of troops, trapping the American Army before it could retreat into the Watchung Mountains, and thus ending the American Revolution.

Stirling was positioned between Ash Swamp and the Metuchen Meeting House. Cornwallis engaged Stirling in the “Short Hills,” allowing Washington to retreat to the Watchungs. The Americans lost three cannons and had 300 casualties. They retreated toward Westfield and Quibbletown. The British casualties were recorded as 100, including Capt. John Finch.

The British then marched to Westfield, camped for the night and left New Jersey three days later, with much of the army headed toward Philadelphia.

Based on what has been written about the battle, historians mapped out 5 acres where they believe it was fought.

“There was no specific document that said the battle took place here,” said Stochel. “But what were described were the hills, streams, swamps and fields. We took that description, and following where the soldiers marched … this is the only area in Edison that fits this description.”

That area in part is now home to the Plainfield Country Club on Woodland Avenue.

Over a two-day period, last June 26 and 27, some 233 years to the hour of the battle, experts from John Milner Associates Inc. of West Chester, Pa., came to the area to look for artifacts from the battle.

“This was the first time anyone has searched the area,” Stochel said.

One of the first significant findings was a British coin dated 1717.

“When we heard that the coin was found, we were thinking that things were going to get interesting,” he said.

Next came a musket ball, then a Hessian button and then brass buckles. Then toward the end of the day on June 27, workers dug up a scabbard, which is a leather piece for holding a sword.

“Putting all the items together gave us a pretty good idea that something happened here during the battle,” said Stochel.

The items were first tagged and bagged, and a GPS navigational system was used to pinpoint where they were found.

“This can be used for future studies of the area,” Stochel said. “We could find the exact projections of where the musket ball came from.”

The experts believe that the musket ball was fired and hit someone or something, because it was no longer perfectly round.

“Thousands of musket balls were fired that day; more could be found,” he said.

Stochel said he could only think of one word to describe the artifacts’ discovery in Edison: “Thrilling,” he said with a smile.

Local historians really started diving into the research of the Battle of Short Hills in 2000.

“What we found were recollections and stories that led us to the Oak Tree Pond area,” he said. “We had these pieces of the battle, which at the time we thought were part of a separate battle.”

The nomination project was a culmination of a decade’s worth of research and the use of 26 primary sources through books, letters and personal records. With the help of John Milner Associates, Stochel said the historical society gained access to Hessian diaries, which were translated into English.

“They had Revolutionary War experts who had contacts all over the world,” he said.

The deadline for the project is at the end of the month, and the society expects to receive word in January about whether the nomination has been accepted. The National Register is the U.S. government’s official list of historic locations deemed worthy of preservation. Some 30,000 properties are added each year.

“I plan to give these items found to the [New Jersey] State Museum in Trenton,” he said. “This way, other researchers will have access to them.”

Stochel said the society will look for additional grants to further study the area

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