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Washington Rock:

Guardian of the Plainfields

by Katharine Scott
from Suburban Life, May 1969,Vol. 39 #4

"Gentlemen," General Howe was saying, "we must lure that wily rebel, Washington, down onto the plains!" Spy-glass in hand, with his staff grouped about him, the British general was standing on Ward's Point on Staten Island. From there he had an unobstructed view across the narrow waters of Arthur Kill to Perth Amboy. Beyond the town were miles of meadowland and wooded plains, but flanking those plains to the north was a long line of hills, the Watchungs.

On that hot morning of June 25th, 1777, Lord Howe, resplendent in his red regimental jacket and cream-colored breeches, could see those hills shimmering hazy blue beneath the blaze of sun. Mostly though, his attention was focused upon a boatload of red-coated soldiers being ferried back to Staten Island from the Jersey side of the water. A slight chop caused the boats to dance and dip; sparkles of spray glittered as waves slapped against Amboy Point.

"Yes," he repeated, "if we can get him down there in the open, we can fall upon him, destroy his army!" The General's epaulets gleamed golden as he leaned down to flick away an imaginary bit of dust from boots that shone like dark mirrors.

Then Lord Howe suddenly clenched his fist. "We'll fall upon him like a pack of wolves! And then, with Washington gone, the rebel cause will wither away." He turned to face his aides. "But first, gentlemen, we must lure the fox from his lair!"

Spy-glass to eye, General Howe again looked up to the hills while pondering his problem: how to move his troops overland to seize Philadelphia. To march his men across the narrow waist of New Jersey, foraging as he went, would be the ideal solution. But to do so with Washington snapping at his heels, harassing him from the cover of those mountains, would make the whole operations extremely chancey.

No, he could not risk such a move. First he must get the Americans down to the flatlands that lay below the Blue Hills of the Watchungs.

Atop the Hill, Another Watches

While such thoughts were occupying the mind of Lord Howe, General Washington was watching his every move from a rocky prominence atop those blue Hills. This massive outcropping of stone where the General stood -now called Washington Rock_lies to the north of today's cities of Plainfield and North Plainfield. In those days, though, the area was known as Milltown, or by the somewhat nauseous but distinctive name of Pinch-gut!

Through his spy-glass, Washington could see the whole sweep of the countryside from Staten Island and Raritan Bay over to New Brunswick. He could spot the movement of ships and troops. A wide expanse of plains was spread out before him like a vast patch-work quilt-green cornfields, ripening wheat, fat cattle, orchards and woodlands. Watering this plain, cutting across it in lazy curves to the southwest, were two good-sized streams, Green Brook and Cedar Brook. The larger farms were clustered along these water courses.

This line of hills, behind which the General had positioned his army of approximately 8,000 men, also commanded a strategic portion of the York Road (a route now followed by Front Street in Plainfield). This colonial post road led from east to west, through Quibbletown (New Market) on its way from Elizabethtown to the Delaware River. From there, on the Pennsylvania side of the river, the road veered sharply south to Philadelphia.

Narrow offshoots from this road branched off northward through tight little passes in the Watchung Hills. One cut through where Somerset Street leads into today's town of Watchung, another weaved through the north directly above the town of Scotch Plains.

On that sultry June day, Washington could see farm carts slowly moving along other dusty lanes that branched southward and to the east. One of those lanes went to Samptown (South Plainfield), another meandered off behind a group of rounded hills to Spanktown (Rahway). Those moundlike rises were the Short Hills. Today, Plainfield Country club occupies these pleasant hills that face back across the plains toward Washington Rock. Between these two elevations, on the flat lands, lies the sprawl of homes, business establishments and industrial buildings that make up the City of Plainfield. In the space of a few hundred years, almost all vestiges of that farming community have been obliterated.

HARDSHIPS AND SACRIFICES FOR FOUNDERS

It was in 1684, 93 years before Washington stood high on that mountainside, that the first settlers moved into the Plainfield area. At that time, Plainfield, Scotch Plains, and Westfields, too, were known as the West Fields of Elizabethtown, and were considered a part of that town (today's city of Elizabeth).

These first settlers were nearly all Scottish Presbyterians fleeing persecution in their homeland. Among them was Thomas Gordon, brother of the Laird of Straloch. His land lay along Cedar Brook. There he first constructed a bark wigwam as a temporary shelter for his family. Then he built a small, but more substantial cabin for them. In a letter back to Scotland he tells of clearing his fields, of his first home here and of his plans for the future.

"There are eight of us settled here," he wrote, "within a mile or a mile and a half of one another, and about ten miles from New Perth or Amboy Point, so that I can go and come in a day either on foot or on horseback_I love this country well_Blessed be God; myself and Wife, and Children and Servants have been and still are in good health, which God continue_"

Thomas Gordon thought the winters much more pleasant in this new country than in Scotland, and he had plans for a much larger, grander home. He liked the meadows and woodlands that sloped down to the brook. The land was fertile. The woods teemed with game; turkey, pheasant and deer were abundant. Fortune seemed to be smiling upon him.

But fortune was fickle. Within two years death had claimed not only the life of his wife, but the lives of his children as well. Thomas Gordon turned his back upon those green meadows he had thought so fair and moved to Perth Amboy.

Perhaps misfortune also plagued others of those first pioneers of Plainfield; within the space of not too many years their holdings had changed hands several times over. By the early 1700's the Gordon lands belonged to John Webster, and it was along Cedar Brook that Webster built his home in 1717.

This house, the oldest in the city, was later owned by the Martine family and is known by that name today. (James Martine, U.S. Senator from 1911-1917), grew up in that house and lived most of his life there.) The house stands on the corner of Cedarbrook Road and Brook Lane. Several additions were built onto it in the late 1700's, but since that time it has remained essentially unchanged. It is as sturdy and graceful now as when lovingly built by the Websters.

The Webster family did not lack for neighbors_not by Colonial standards, at any rate! More and more families were moving westward from Bergen, New York, Long Island. It was in 1736 that Cornelius Vermuele married a girl named Christina Cadmus and came to the Plainfield-North Plainfield area from Bergen. Christina's father owned considerable property near Green Brook, and Cornelius eventually bought 1200 acres of land from his father-in-law. These holdings extended northward, from present-day West Eighth Street in Plainfield, all the way back to the hills of the Watchungs. Cornelius called this home of his the Blue Hills Plantation. This farm, together with that of his neighbor Deacon Nathaniel Drake, was destined to play a vital role in this history of Plainfield and North Plainfield.

Cornelius built his home not far from where Clinton Avenue and Greenbrook road now lie. (This house no longer stands, but still there is the family cemetery set far back in a weed-filled lot, surrounded by housing developments. The small burial ground, though, is enclosed by a low brick wall, and has been cared for and kept tidy by local civic groups who have not forgotten the sacrifices this family made in the cause of freedom.)

Four Vermuele brothers, sons of Cornelius, were in the Continental forces. One of them, Adrian, was wounded and captured while on a reconnaissance mission. Imprisoned in the Old Sugar House in New York City, he died there of his wounds in 1778.

The home of another brother, Eder Vermuele, still stands in Myrtle Avenue in North Plainfield. Though no longer lived in by descendants of the Vermuele family, it is a private residence in fine repair. A two-story clapboard house, it faces upon Myrtle Avenue from the midst of a tree-shaded lawn.

Cornelius Vermuele's large farm is no more. Where the Blue Hills Military post used to be are houses, motels, and stores along busy Route 22. But in 1776-1777 that sturdy Dutch-American provided 95 acres of his own ridge of hills; it guarded the strategic Scotch Plains-Quibbletown portion of old York Road and the approaches to passes through the Watchung Mountains.

WASHINGTON OBSERVES TROOP MOVEMENTS

A path led from this fortification up to the massive rock where Washington stood watching and waiting. Probably Brigadier-General William Winds, Commander of the Blue Hills Post, was by his side.

The scene that the two men looked down upon must have been one of considerable activity. Men were coming and going, troops were drilling, huts for quarters were still being constructed. Carts loaded with flour and other supplies were arriving. General Washington may even have seen the Negro servant of the Drake's_Caesar was his name_unloading sacks of grain. Though this man was no longer young, he was serving as a teamster in Captain Davison's Brigade.

The muted sounds of hammering, of voices, floated up to the American officers. A short way off, certainly no more than a mile or so away from the camp, Washington could spot the new home of Eder Vermuele. The house had only recently been completed, but Eder wasn't having much time to enjoy it. He, along with his three brothers, was serving in the militia.

On this particular day, though, it was not the scene directly below them that was interesting Washington so deeply. It was the sign of troop movements_ activity that had been going on for the past few-days_that was keeping the General's eye glued to the telescope. Both to the southwest in New Brunswick and to the east over near Perth Amboy. , the British seemed to be moving back. Why was Howe pulling back his forces? What was he up to?

The General stood watching for yet another minute or so, then he and General Winds left the rock. A short while later, Washington accompanied by a small detachment of men, galloped up to the Drake farm. Leaving his mount with an orderly, Washington made his way up the walk to the house.

COULD THEY EVADE DEFEAT?

A bright new flag was flying from the flag pole in front of this house where a part of the General's staff was quartered. This was the flag only recently approved by the Congress. Designed by Betsy Ross, this ensign had 13 stripes of alternating red and white with a circle of 13 white stars on a blue field in the left corner. Washington had given orders that this flag was to be flown.

It would be small wonder, though, if the Commander-in-Chief had misgivings as he looked up at that flag. The American army was so pitifully small and ill-equipped to face Howe's force of 18,000. How long could they evade defeat, keep those colors flying?

Then he turned his mind again to the sight he had just seen with his own eyes: the British were withdrawing. Howe was moving back to Staten Island! Why? Did this sudden withdrawal indicate a miraculous weakening of British purpose? Or was it a lure, a baited trap?

With such thoughts in mind, the general entered the Drake's house. Almost absentmindedly he returned the salute of the sentries who had sprung to stiff attention at his approach. As the General disappeared inside, they relaxed somewhat but continued their watch.

From where they stood, they could see not only east and west along York Road, but they also had a view to the south where a dusty lane (now Plainfield Avenue) led off to Samptown (South Plainfield). Both roads shimmered with heat, for the sun was intolerably hot. If the sentries' thoughts were somewhat preoccupied with visions of a cooling swim in the waters of the brook flowing behind Deacon Drake's home, who could have blamed them?

This home, where Nathaniel Drake and his wife raised their children, is still standing on the corner of Front Street and Geraud Avenue. Back in 1746, it had been built for Nathaniel by his father, Isaac Drake, who had a farm on Randolph Road. Isaac had given the house and 500 acres to his son as wedding present. Here Nathaniel's ten children were born. Nathaniel's three eldest sons were to fight for the American cause. They served in the militia of Essex and Somerset Counties.

FROM THE DRAKE HOME TO THE DRAKE HOUSE

In this carefully preserved house are fine examples of period furniture and colonial household gadgets that seem puzzling to the eyes of modern children. Also, among the furnishings is a most beautiful bedspread of intricate design. This quilt, decorated with the Tree of Life pattern, was made by the daughter of John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence for New Jersey.

There are also cooking utensils, tools, maps, weapons and clothing from the Revolutionary era. However, the exhibits are not solely limited to the Colonial period, but encompass all of Plainfield's past.

Actually, this house is uniquely designed to reflect all of the city's past days, for it is a strange, yet somehow harmonious blend of the Colonial and the Victorian.

In the 1860's the house was sold by the Drake family to John Harberger, a New York banker. At that time, it was extensively remodeled. Harberger raised and changed the roof line, added on odd little bays and towers and another room or two. So, within the same house, one finds much that is solidly and uncompromisingly colonial in design and at the same time, a great deal that reflects the life and times of the Civil War years.

"_we must move cautiously"

When, on that hot day back in June 1777, Washington came to Drake House to confer with his officers, the house then contained the dining room, kitchen, sitting room, back bedroom and hall. Upstairs was a loft.

The house may have seemed dark and cool to the General after the glare and heat of the outdoors. As he entered the front hall, the door to the dining room would have been on his left. This was a fair-sized room with heavy, handhewn oak beams supporting the ceiling. In one corner, there was a fireplace. However no fire was needed there on that day to keep the room's occupants warm. The group of men seated at the table were already perspiring as they studied reports and scanned maps lying before them.

The men sprang up as their Commander-in-Chief ducked his head to pass under the low-linteled doorway. Washington nodded briefly, waved them back to their seats. He placed his spy-glass down on the table.

"Well, gentlemen, they're still pulling back. Even now boatloads of men are being ferried over to Staten Island."

The general leaned forward to pick up a map from the table before seating himself. He studied it for a moment. "General Winds and I have been discussing this apparent withdrawal. They have pulled back all along the line." Washington pointed to the roads leading from New Brunswick over to Woodbridge. "All morning they've been ferrying troops across Arthur Kill."

The tall General sat forward in this chair, seemingly pulling all the men there into a more cohesive group.

"Up until now, we have believed General Howe's design was to cut across New Jersey overland to move against Philadelphia. We feel that this withdrawal may mean one of two things: on the one hand, this plan may be too slow and dangerous to execute_unless he first destroys our army. Once he stretches himself out across the state, his lines of supply will become vulnerable to attack by us. Therefore, he may be giving up the idea, and will perhaps move by sea."

Washington paused, looking from one officer to another. Waiting for him to continue, they nodded their heads, but made no interruption.

"Or_on the other hand_this retreat may be only a feint to pull us off guard, to lure us far out onto the plains where he can get at us."

"Do you think him that devious, sir?" A young captain broke in, "Have you heard what Lord North is reported to have said in Parliament about Howe and his other generals? That he didn't know whether those generals scared the enemy , but they certainly scared him every time he thought about them!"

General Washington joined in the brief laughter that greeted this statement. "Possibly so," he said. "But Howe's a wily opponent no matter what his own Prime Minister may be saying of him." The American General's face was serious again. "No, we must move cautiously."

"Right now, strung out here in the hills are our entire forces for this area. Moving up from Pennsylvania and from farther south are elements of other troops from Arnold's command. But these, gentlemen, are all we have, and many are ill-equipped and poorly trained. I cannot risk our total destruction." The General lowered his voice, and, with quilled pen in hand, pointed again to the map. "Tell me what you think of this plan."

Washington spoke earnestly for a few minutes. Then moving across the room to a small table he busied himself with the writing of dispatches. These he sealed and handed to an aide. "See to these," he said. He seemed weary as he turned away. "I shall be taking a short rest. Call me if there is any need." Then he made his way across the hall, through the Drake's living room, to a small back bedroom. There he stretched out upon a couch.

A few minutes later, young Phebe Drake, peeking through the door, saw the General was sound asleep.

Outside, though there was a flurry of activity as men on horseback clattered off east and west down old York Road, and also down the lane already toward Samptown. The date was June 25, 1777. Most of Howe's men were already back on Staten Island.

The American Advance

Soon, on the road below the line of hills, groups of men were moving forward. It didn't take the British General long to note this activity. Quietly he awaited developments.

From the western flank of the hills, over near Middlebrook (Bound Brook), the American General Sullivan was moving down into Quibbletown (New Market). In the center of the line, another force, this one pressing forward to the Short Hills (Plainfield Country Club, Rahway Road, Cooper Road). On the eastern end, General Maxwell was moving over to cover the gap at Scotch Plains. Pickets were in position near the Baptist church yard (Park Avenue, Scotch Plains) not far from the Stage Coach Inn.

Howe saw this flurry of activity. Washington was moving forward! Cautiously, it is true, but he was moving down onto the plains!

American eyes, watching from the massive rock above Plainfield, could see no movement of red-coated troops on the Jersey side of the water. As dusk fell, all seemed serene.

Howe Begins to Close the Trap

But as soon as darkness offered its obscuring cover, Howe began moving his men back across to Perth Amboy. Officers, urging the men along, soon had them marching quickly through the night. At least the air was somewhat cooler at night, the sun was not baking their flesh, but these troops were hardly fresh. They had already put in a long day of marching. These soldiers of the King would be far wearier before June 26th had drawn to a close.

Howe sent out two main columns of troops. The right, under Lord Cornwallis, moved out through Woodbridge toward Scotch Plains. A second contingent, under the command of Howe and General Vaughn, swung over toward Metuchen. This second column would attack through Quibbletown before swinging over toward Scotch Plains to join the other force.

Surprise Skirmish Foils Strategy

Fortunately for the Americans, Morgan's Raiders, a corps of about 700 men, were scouting in the vicinity of Woodbridge that night. Meeting up with elements of Cornwallis's force, Morgan skirmished and fired upon them, but made no attempt to stand firm against the advancing British. Morgan pulled back and sent messengers racing back through the darkness to warn the troops stationed at Quibbletown.

The element of surprise, Howe's main hope for success, had been lost. The British General Vaughtn though, continued on to Quibbletown, and reached the spot (Plainfield Avenue) where Hartridge School camps is today. Here American pickets from Sullivan's command fired upon the British, challenging their advance.

Washington then ordered Sullivan to give way, to move back to the Blue Hills. Vaughn and Howe, instead of pressing forward to the attack, also prudently pulled back.

Meanwhile, Cornwallis's column was rapidly moving along the road to Scotch Plains . By midmorning, with the sun already scorching down, he was nearing the Short Hills where General Stirling had positioned his men.

Just why General Stirling chose to stand firm and give battle when so outnumbered by Cornwallis's men is not known. Some believe that this American General felt his advantageous geographical position on the hilltop outweighed other considerations. At any rate, no matter what his reasons, sharp fighting ensued at this point. Slowly Stirling's army, overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers, was pressed back. Fighting as they went, using the thick woods as cover for their retreat, the Americans moved back along Cooper Road toward Westfield. In their haste, they left behind three brass cannons.

At the juncture of Rahway Road and Cooper Road there is an old well on the Terry farm. Here the parched throats of both British and American soldiers were cooled on that day. First to pass by were the fleeing Americans, soon followed by sweating Redcoats who were chasing them. On that day, for the first time in the memory of the local inhabitants the Terry's well was drunk dry by those thirsty troops. The well is still there, filled with water and capable of slaking the thirst of passersby.

Retreat, Escape, Withdrawal

By now both sides were too weary from the heat of the day and the furious pace of the fighting to have much stomach for more. With the welcome approach of dusk, the Americans eluded the pursuing British and escaped back to Scotch Plains. The British continued on toward Westfield, and camped that night were Tamaques Park now is. Early the next morning, on June 27th, they marched with tired step all the way back to Perth Amboy.

Not many weeks later, American watchers from the Rock could see Howe's troops moving aboard transports, see their departure from New York.

General Howe did succeed in seizing Philadelphia, but he had not been able to move his troops overland, nor had he destroyed Washington's army.

Was there celebrating along the Blue Hills when Howe departed? Were toasts downed in the Vermuele household and in the old inn across from the Scotch Plains Baptist Church? Probably, so, and perhaps some of those who were so joyously celebrating were soldiers who had fought to protect that very town.

Stone Tablets Remember

Listed on a stone tablet in the burial grounds of that church are the names of 24 men who served in the Continental Forces. Among the graves marked by the 13-star, Betsy Ross flags is the grave of Deacon Drake's Negro servant, Caesar.

The stone above his grave shows the wear and tear of the elements, the passage of years. But still clearly legible are these words:

CAESAR_AN AFRICAN
Who died February 7, 1806
Aged 104 years
He was for more than half a
century a worthy member
of the church in this place
and closed his life in the
confidence of a Christian.
His numerous friends have
erected this stone as tribute.

Just below that tombstone there is a plaque imbedded in the earth. It reads:

CAESAR
NEW JERSEY
TEAMSTER IN CAPTAIN
DAVISON'S BRIGADE REV. WAR
1702 - 1806

Caesar, along with his white brethren lies at peace in that quiet cemetery. The stones marking their graves face directly into the setting sun and the blue hills of the Watchungs. They can still look up unto the hills which gave them their strength, where, in life, they had fought so hard for the cause of liberty.


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