Book Review: Crossroads of the Revolution: Trenton, 1774 – 1783 by Larry L. Kidder. (Lawrenceville, NJ: Knox Press, 2017)
As there are hundreds of new books written each year on the people, battles and other events of the American Revolution, it is difficult to create a distinctive approach for a new book. Public historian and Journal of the American Revolution contributor William L. Kidder accomplishes this feat by describing the full scope of events during the entire war in one location, Trenton, New Jersey. While most of the numerous books on Trenton cover only the few short days of the famous battles in December 1776 and January 1777, Kidder’s new book depicts residents and activities of this small but strategically important city throughout the ten year Revolutionary era.
Aptly named Crossroads of the Revolution, Kidder pens the essence of what is captivating about Trenton. This western New Jersey city was not just metaphorically, but physically for its residents and for the country, on the crossroads of Revolutionary America. The city is a key way station on the land route from Philadelphia north to New York City and New England and is at the head of navigation on the commercially important Delaware River. As the fastest and cheapest mode of travel, considerable amounts of goods and people transited by boat between Philadelphia and Trenton.
At the start of the Rebellion, the City of Trenton consisted of five hundred to one thousand inhabitants. Facilitating trade, two commercial Delaware River ferries operated within the city limits. Inns, shops and taverns sprang up to support the frequent travelers with sustenance and lodging. Further, residents operated numerous tanneries, mills and other manufacturing plants powered by the area’s waterways.
Most authors describing the Revolutionary activities in and around Trenton place the British and Rebel armies at the center of their accounts. However, Kidder tells the story of Trenton primarily through the diaries and memoirs of notable town residents as well as through local sources such as issues of New Jersey’s first newspaper, the New Jersey Gazette. The residents’ political views and allegiances span the gamut from Rebels, Loyalists, the neutral and the vacillating who were just trying to survival the brutal conflict. Several interesting examples include:
- Samuel Tucker – A successful pre-war merchant and prominent citizen, Tucker became an early supporter of the Rebellion and assumed several leadership positions the new Rebel government. An early joiner of the New Jersey Committee of Safety, Tucker rose up the ranks to become the President of the New Jersey Provincial Assembly, which replaced the Royal government. In addition he served as State Treasurer and as a second Justice of the Supreme Court. However, during the British invasion, he failed to safeguard unendorsed state money and eventually signed British protection papers. As a result, he lost his political standing and was forced to resign all governmental duties. Contrary to many other parts of the country, Tucker continued to be a leading Trenton citizen during and after the war.
- Daniel Coxe – A successful lawyer, Coxe owned considerable property in and around Trenton. Even though Coxe remained loyal to the Crown, British and Hessian forces destroyed much of this property. Despite this financial disaster, Coxe’s political loyalties remained with the king and he retreated to New York City with the British Army. After the war, he moved to Britain and never returned to live in Trenton.
- Stacy Potts – One of Trenton’s wealthiest business owners, Potts operated a tannery and a steel mill. True to his Quaker beliefs, Potts did not take the Patriot or British oaths at any time during the war. Potts’ neutrality did not hurt his standing with the community and he continued to serve as the town’s clerk. Interestingly, Hessian Colonel Rall used Potts’ house as his headquarters and reportedly played a game of checkers with his host the night prior the fateful battle. During the game, shots were heard from Hessian pickets. A Patriot skirmishing force under the command of Brig. Gen. Adam Stephen raided outer Hessian sentries. As the attacking force was small and quickly retreated, Hessian officers viewed the Rebel attack as just one of many harassing attacks over the last month and returned to normal duties.
- John Fitch – A silversmith, gun maker and ardent Rebel, Fitch joined the New Jersey militia. When not reelected to lieutenant, Fitch left the militia but continued to make and repair guns for the Rebel forces. During the British capture of Trenton, Fitch fled to Pennsylvania with his gun shop tools and joined the Bucks County militia. Apparently upset over his neighbor’s snub, he never returned to Trenton.
- Abraham Hunt – An early patriot and officer in the militia, Hunt appeared to change sides after the British rampaged through New Jersey in late 1776. Hunt signed British protection papers and ended his rebel military service. Although wary of Hunt’s true allegiance, Colonel Rall attended a party at Hunt’s home (after the checkers game) the night before Washington’s surprise attack. Interestingly, when the Rebels re-established government, Hunt was not prosecuted as a traitor and he continued as the town’s postmaster after the war.
Through the lives of these prominent citizens, readers experience what it was like to make risky loyalty decisions and to live in the turbulent times of Revolutionary Trenton.
While Trenton residents get top billing, Kidder engages in considerable name-dropping of prominent north-south travelers who passed through the town. Prominent visitors partaking in Trenton’s hospitality included, among many others, Paul Revere, George Washington (on his way to Boston to assume command and various additional visits), John Adams (and many other congressional delegates), Benjamin Franklin, Benedict Arnold, Casimir Pulaski, French ambassador Conrad-Alexandre Gerard, Spanish ambassador Don Juan de Miralles, and the famous travel writer Marquis de Chastellux.
It’s not only the famous that Kidder recounts, but also the names and contributions of ordinary and subjugated people. Kidder recognizes the countless obscure Trentonians who supported the Patriot cause by serving in the militia, by housing and feeding prisoners of war and by driving wagons full of supplies to remote army posts. Also, Kidder describes the widespread practice of slavery in the Trenton area. While any one individual likely owned three or fewer slaves, many wealthy Trenton residents utilized slaves in their businesses and homes. Further, city authorities hosted periodic slave auctions and admiralty courts that supervised the sale of slaves captured from British ships. In an inkling of the future abolitionist movement, many Quakers freed their slaves, leading to small numbers of free blacks that lived and worked in the area.
While the Battle of Trenton’s role in turning around the Patriot spirits is well known, less recognized is the town’s contributions throughout the war as a supply depot, hospital and staging area for the Continental Army. In fact, such a large volume of supplies moved through Trenton that residents designated one of the ferries as the Continental ferry which offered a reduced Continental Army fare for army transit. In barracks built during the French and Indian War, the Continental Army alternatively operated a hospital for convalescing soldiers and a prisoner of war compound for British soldiers captured in the Canadian campaign. In addition, Trenton served a training and refit location for several Continental Army units.
But in the end, it is Kidder’s description of the everyday concerns of Trenton citizens that is most thought provoking. Residents faced numerous intractable and life threatening issues including incessant clashes of Rebel and Loyalist forces, the strain of continual militia service, commercial disruption from not being able to sell products to normal markets in New York City, destruction of property and investments by invading armies and uncontrolled monetary inflation. What makes Kidder’s book most interesting is the sense of people trying to keep a normal life during such abnormal times. He describes a Philadelphia family sending their daughter to a Trenton school for women amid the intense conflict. Kidder also describes trials of deserters, admiralty courts and the confiscation of Loyalist lands. This rich detail of life in Revolutionary Trenton makes Crossroads of the Revolutiontruly compelling. Lastly, the clever tactic of not only focusing on a location’s famous events, but mining local primary sources for information on people from all walks of life throughout the duration of the war, is a historical interpretation approach that I hope other authors duplicate.