As Thanksgiving approaches next week, this is a time to reflect on many things in our lives as Americans, from the most recent visit of a superstorm named Sandy and the ensuing havoc, to those things we all have to be grateful for in our Fort Lee of 2012.
Each November, our borough takes on the look of the town depicted in the Ray Bradbury story, Something Wicked This Way Comes. The book and the film based on this story evoke all the darkness and mystery of autumn, and, in a way, if you look from our perch on the Palisades, Fort Lee too takes on a very Gothic look, as the grayness of the days gives way to long crisp nights.
This is the climate that is just right for a step back in time, that time being 1776.
Fort Lee has changed markedly since 1776, but some of our streets, a few laid out by that famous General and surveyor George Washington, remain the same in shape and form.
Old Fort Lee Road, our present-day Main Street, winds through the center of town, much as it did on Nov. 20, 1776, when General Washington led more than 2,000 of his troops out of Fort Lee to successfully escape British capture.
Imagine if you will, as you run your daily errands like picking up stamps at the post office, or seeking out a household item at Holtje’s Fort Lee Hardware Store, or picking up a pair of new sneakers at Sneak Times, that all of a sudden there appeared more than 2,000 soldiers led by a General named Washington on horseback. In terms of history, we are not that far removed from that autumn some 236 years ago here on Fort Lee’s Main Street.
Washington had his troops stationed here in Fort Constitution, later Fort Lee (both named by Washington; Constitution changed to Lee to honor General Charles Lee) in the summer of 1776.
The soldiers encamped in the neighborhood surrounding Parker’s Pond, present day site of Monument Park between Parker Avenue and Palisade Avenue. Here, huts were constructed, and the American soldiers lived through Nov. 20. Each day those thousands of soldiers would march east down the narrow streets of Fort Lee’s English Neighborhood, the oldest section of town. Once atop the bluff of the Palisades, those very soldiers handled cannons and mortars as they, along with the American soldiers across the Hudson River in Fort Washington, attempted to maintain control of the Hudson over the British forces.
On Nov. 16, the British captured Fort Washington. Patriot Thomas Paine, an adjutant of Fort Lee’s commanding General Nathanael Greene, witnessed the capture of those American troops from his position on the bluffs of Fort Lee’s Palisades. This, the darkest hour of the American Revolution, was the inspiration for Paine to start his greatest work, The American Crisis.
Paine quickly put pen to paper as he retreated with the American troops from Fort Lee on Nov. 20, 1776. Paine's words speak to us with as much force and meaning today as they did to Americans in 1776:
These are the times that try men’s souls; The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: ‘Tis dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.
Please join the Palisade Interstate Park and the Borough of Fort Lee this Saturday, Nov. 17, at 11:45 a.m. as Revolutionary War re-enactors assemble at the Fort Lee Historic Park for our annual reenactment of Washington’s Retreat to Victory at 12 Noon.
Follow the soldiers out of the park on Hudson Terrace to Main Street as we retrace the same route that General Washington, General Greene, Thomas Paine and the American Army took on this very street 236 years ago, a route that led to the freedom we enjoy as a nation today.
For more information on the Retreat to Victory weekend events, Nov. 17 and 18, visit this website.