In the spring of 2011 two historians at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey created a course that brought students to several notable sites across the state while simultaneously teaching them about the origins of historic preservation programs nationwide, the rise of the heritage tourism industry, and the process of applying for public history funding. Moreover, because the various field trips associated with this class were themselves paid for partly through a state government grant, the sessions were open to interested members of the public as well as students, enabling me to hop on the charter bus and take free tours of places such as Batsto Village. The course, called “New Jersey History through Historic Places” was augmented by a collective blog which noted the most interesting aspects of the sites the group visited, including the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton (which I did not get to visit then, but did recently). Located only a few blocks from the state capitol—and standing out architecturally as the only extant Colonial era structure nearby—the Barracks is now home to as many forgotten 18th century stories as soldiers who once lived there.
The Old Barracks Museum is one of the oldest historic sites in New Jersey, dating back more than 250 years to the period of the French and Indian War. It is also one of the first to be preserved thanks to a partnership of private citizens, including members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, working in conjunction with the state of NJ nearly a century ago. First renovated in the 1910s, the site underwent extensive archeological excavations and further remodeling in the 1990s in order to restore it to its original 18th century appearance (as noted by the costumed guide in the first part of the tour). Unlike the area covering the museum’s long history, much of the building is accessible only by taking the tour, which continues in the Enlistedmen’s room following a brief outdoor introduction to the original role of the building as one of the five such barracks which served as the Winter Quarters (from early November until mod-March) for British soldiers during the French and Indian War. After detailing the daily lives of ordinary British troops—such as the fact that they cooked for themselves—the guide took us into the Officer’s Quarters, which included a fine dining room complete with a portrait of King George II. While occasional public programs and a second floor exhibit let visitors learn more about the French and Indian War era, the tour next moves forward into the era of the American Revolution (which the guide noted is the only conflict covered on most secondary school field trips), starting with the Hessians.
Visitors on the tour learn that the German-speaking mercenary soldiers called Hessians were mostly not from Hesse-Cassel and received no direct pay for their labors. Instead, their regional ruler, such as the Landgraf of Hesse-Cassel who sent the single largest contingent, was paid by the German speaking King of England. The tour guide also noted that in addition to infantry, cavalry, and artillery units, the ‘Hessian’ troops included several dozen ‘Jagers,’ or hunters, who acted as scouts and sharpshooters. Fully half of a large room exhibit covers pan-Germanic culture in 1776, which is especially important since many ‘Hessians’ stayed after the war. The other half of this room exhibit covers the Battle of Trenton following General George Washington’s 1776 Christmas Eve crossing of the Delaware River, which is covered by both displays and artifacts, as well as a video on the ‘Ten Crucial Days’ that stretched into January of 1777 and resulted in the expulsion of the ‘Hessians’ from the site. After the city was conquered by the Continentals, the Old Barracks became a military hospital for the remainder of the war, under the direction of Dr. Bodo Otto (himself a German immigrant), who carried out the largest Smallpox Inoculation campaign in history. On the last stop of the tour an interpreter tells visitors about how Otto infected over ten thousand soldiers with a live virus taken from patients with the weakest of the four forms of smallpox—losing only 1% of his patients to the disease—decades before Edward Jenner developed vaccination.
Yet there is more than just history on the grounds of the Old Barracks, which now also contains an iron sculpture garden created by a local arts collective that is visually arresting and emotionally engaging. Moreover, just outside the walls lies an open-air archeology exhibit on the evolving uses of waterworks in Trenton, while only a few blocks away is the huge New Jersey State Museum. The State Museum is home to a planetarium, dinosaur bones, and post-impressionist paintings as well as to massive displays of historic objects and several extensive ethnographic exhibits about the local Lenni Lenape tribe and their cultural clashes with colonial English, Dutch, and Swedish settlers. Finally for those more interested in recent history, a few hundred yards away (immediately across from the state capitol building) lies the New Jersey State World War II Memorial—the only official state memorial to that conflict— which brings together statues and a large dome with numerous images (requiring a set of four keys to decipher) and six pillars for those New Jerseyans who received Purple Hearts during the war (broken up by branches of service, with both the Coast Guard and Merchant Marines left blank), in an explosion of war memory only a few blocks from oft-forgotten military histories.