Spotlights replacing fires used to signal during the Revolution
By Michael Daigle, Daily Record
On Tuesday, just as dusk settles, a dozen hilltops covering 108 miles from Beacon, N.Y., to Princeton will be illuminated with bright spotlights to mark the day 225 years ago when the last British troops boarded ships in New York harbor and sailed away, leaving behind a free nation.
The day is known as Evacuation Day. It also was the day that the last shot of that war was fired in anger from a cannon on a retreating British ship at a crowd of jeering Americans standing on the shore of Staten Island.
To mark the event, Xenon spotlights will be mounted atop spots that approximate the sites of Revolutionary War beacon fires, said Catherine Litvack, executive director of the Crossroads of the American Revolution Association in New Jersey. Her organization partnered with the Palisades Parks Conservancy, the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area, Scenic Hudson and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to bring the event to life.
During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army chose numerous hilltops across the Watchung Mountains and other ranges as spots for beacon fires, which acted as the Army's communications system. Each site also had a cannon that if fired meant that the signal being sent was real, not some British feint.
"This is a great way to connect people to the Revolutionary War sites in New Jersey," she said.
There are seven sites in New Jersey, including Fort Nonsense in Morristown, part of the Morristown National Historic Park, and five in New York state along the Hudson River.
Each site will have a set of four rotating spotlights that will be turned on about 5 p.m. Tuesday. The display will be on until 9 p.m.
Litvack said the lights are best viewed from two to four miles away, and those who can find viewing sites with elevation could see, weather permitting, several of the New Jersey beacons.
The weather forecast for Tuesday is for clouds. She said the groups are trying to arrange with Google Earth to snap a photograph of the light show.
In addition to the historical significance of the locations, Litvack said, the event highlights the importance of preserving the state's historic landscapes.
Richard Seabury, a Morris County park commissioner, said he is planning to host a viewing group at The Tourne, a county natural wildlife area in Boonton Township.
The event also will draw attention to Evacuation Day, the existence of which baffled some local officials.
This Evacuation Day is different than the one celebrated in Massachusetts on March 17 that marked the exit from Boston Harbor by the British fleet commanded by Gen. William Howe. That Evacuation Day is an official state holiday aligned with St. Patrick's Day.
Historian John T. Cunningham said he is pleased that the groups involved are celebrating the beacons, though he said he did not know the full meaning of Evacuation Day even though he has written several histories about the war. A discussion about the use of the signal beacons is included in his book on George Washington's time in Morristown called "The Uncertain Revolution."
In the book, Cunningham also noted that left on the New York docks as the British sailed away on Evacuation Day were hundreds of black slaves once owned by the Tories.
The slaves, he said, were hoping to sail to England, where they would have been free.
For Lesley Bensley, executive director of the Morris County Visitors Center, and Freeholder Jack Schrier, the event Tuesday drives home the importance of learning the history of the country, even though neither of them knew what event Evacuation Day marked.
Bensley said there have been other days that marked the ends of wars, including Armistice Day, now known as Veterans Day, on Nov. 11 that marks the end of World War I, VE Day on May 8, which marked the end of World War II in Europe, and VJ Day on Aug. 14, which marks the surrender of Japan to end that war.
"Good for them," she said of the groups who joined to create Tuesday's event. "It is important to know our history, essential that we value our history and what it means to us as a society and a nation."
Schrier said he, too, was glad to hear about the event because it should raise awareness to the historic events that took place in Morris County. He noted, however, that he was concerned about the general lack of knowledge about that history and that of the country.
"For years I've felt that there has been a lack of interest in America and American history," Schrier said. "And during the recent presidential election, there was a certain derision about knowing about the past. But if you don't know where you came from, how can you go forward?"