Smoke and Fire – August 2002 Article

How does history become accessible and intriguing to more than 5,000 spectators in Manahawkin, New Jersey, at the "Good Old Days" celebration held each Labor Day weekend?  Four years ago, six green reenactors and one historian from southern Ocean County, New Jersey, attempted to answer that question by bringing local history of national significance to life through the reenactment of the Skirmish at Cedar Bridge, the last battle of the American War of Independence. We had plenty of enthusiasm. We had a compelling local story of the American Revolution. And we had close to 10,000 eager spectators who take part in an annual town event that includes civil war encampments, historic tours, juried craft fair, children’s rides, several food courts, daytime music in three venues, and a night concert of contemporary music on the shores of an eighteenth century lake. But what we lacked was any idea how to transform these assets into an historical correct event that could educate the general public and prove meaningful and enjoyable for the reenactors who participate.

Fortunately, Bill Treusch from the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment, Coates Company, read about our efforts in the Smoke and Fire News event calendar and contacted us. He has provided invaluable assistance in growing the event and providing necessary historic authenticity. As a child, Bill had vacationed on Long Beach Island with his family and he had heard stories about Revolutionary War engagements in the New Jersey Pinelands, that mythic stretch of more than 1,000,000 acres of pristine wilderness that stretches between Philadelphia and the New Jersey shore, a vast oasis of nature in the most densely populated state in the union.

Bill’s selfless efforts at growing the event allowed his unit to become the "Pine Robbers" and Bill himself took on the character of Captain John Bacon, a loyalist so hated by the New Jersey Militia that after he is killed "resisting arrest," the Militia cart his unpreserved carcass through over fifty miles of dusty roads through open country over several days with the head dangling out over the end of the wagon. But for the last minute intervention of a grieving widow, Bacon’s body would have been buried outside consecrated ground under a crossroads of modern Pemberton, New Jersey. Bacon is held responsible for the "Barnegat Light Massacre" of October 1782 where 30 patriots are murdered in their sleep on the same beach where today thousands bath in the sun. Bacon and his band raid on both sides of the state and terrorize families who do not remain loyal to the crown. Only the Jersey Devil himself brings more fear to Pineland children’s dreams than the hated John Bacon. Bill and his unit thoroughly enjoy playing this rakish fellow and his merry band to the hilt.

With Bill’s help, the next year, fifteen reenactors and four sutlers came to tell the story, then twenty-five, and this year we hope to have more than fifty participants. Our goal is to have about 100 combatants and about fifty townspeople who actually become involved in the action. Some of the women reenactors have told us how completely they enjoy turning violent against their men during the engagement.

We anticipate new grant money for this year that should allow us to give generous honorarium to pre-approved participating units. We have room for more units, sutlers, and musicians. The local tavern, less than a hundred yards from the encampments, provides one free drink to anyone in period dress on Friday night. We have a period concert around the camp fires on Friday night and we have period music during the day on Saturday. We have a special children’s program where we recruit and train the Manahawkin "mini-militia." We provide a free meal, a free t-shirt (while they last), and free amenities such as ice, firewood, straw, water, and use of bathroom facilities. We hope that our reenactors have a good time and enjoy being part of a new page of revolutionary history.

The Battle of Cedar Bridge is different from other events in three important ways. First, this is a very large crowd of people who do not normally see living history. The educational opportunity is unique. Second, the event is new enough that the contributions of individuals and units is greatly appreciated and can make a significant difference. And third, you get to participate in an event where the number of reenactors represents very nearly the actual number of those originally involved in the battle of Cedar Bridge. Each reenactor represents a real participant and not the ghost of hundreds.

But why reenact the Skirmish at Cedar Bridge?  The Battle of Cedar Bridge allows us to illustrate to the general public the "civil war" nature of the War of American Independence. New Jersey in general and what is now Ocean County in particular was not a clear cut, textbook "us vs. them." Families, friends, and towns were divided between loyalty to the crown and loyalty to independence. The struggle was personal, vicious, and bloody. If the British had prevailed, Mel Gibson might have played the part of John Bacon in the movie. And as we continue the 225th anniversary of this and that Revolutionary War battle, the battle of Cedar Bridge is arguably the last battle of the American War of Independence.

Local New Jersey historian, Thomas Farner's book New Jersey in History: Fighting to Be Heard rediscovered this last confrontation between the patriots and loyalists.  In his book, the author quotes from the January 8, 1783, New Jersey Gazette, which published the only existing public account of the battle:

On Friday, the 27th of December, Capt. Richard
Shreve and Capt. Edward Thomas, having received
information that John Bacon with his banditti of
robbers, was in the neighborhood of Cedar
Creek...collected a party of men and went
immediately in pursuit of them.  They met them at the
Cedar Creek Bridge.  The Refugees [Loyalists]...had
greatly the advantage of Capts. Shreve and Thomas'
party...but it was nevertheless determined to charge
The onset on the part of the militia was furious,
and opposed by the Refugees...for a considerable
time...on the point of giving way when the militia
were unexpectedly fired upon by a party of the
inhabitants...who had suddenly come to Bacon's
assistance.  This put the militia into some confusion
and gave the Refugees time to get off... (55)

Later, a number of the town’s people are hanged for their part in this incident. (We currently do not reenact this part of the story.) Bacon is not brought to justice until April 2, 1783, days before news of the armistice reaches the colonies.

How important is this December 27, 1782, battle?  We believe that although Benjamin J. Lossing claimed that the final engagement of the American Revolution was fought on September 11, 1782, in Wheeling, West Virginia, and Mark M. Boatner III gave the honor to a skirmish on Johns Island, South Carolina, on November 4, 1782, clearly the Skirmish at Cedar Bridge supersedes these other dates and merits recognition as the "Last Battle of the American Revolution."

Amazingly, the building involved with this story and the surrounding site is pristine. A major state highway has bypassed the old dirt road and bridge, leaving God and few hardy individuals to stand guard over this sacred ground.  The actual wooden bar where combatants quenched their thirsts still stands inside this eighteenth century tavern, currently used as a private home. We have begun and seek assistance in our efforts to have both the battle and the site recognized as worthy of consideration for state and national recognition and preservation. 

Visit with us on August 29th, 2003, as we reenact the Skirmish at Cedar Bridge in southern Ocean County, New Jersey in a small town that has its full share of historic significance.  Dr. William Newell (later congressman with a young Mr. Lincoln, governor of New Jersey, and governor of the Washington territory) lived in Manahawkin when he witnessed hundreds of immigrants drowning in the Atlantic Ocean within sight of rescuers who stood helpless on the beach. In Manahawkin, he developed life saving apparatus and thereafter conceived a lifesaving service that eventually became the United States Coast Guard.  Also, it was in Manahawkin that the domestication and commercialization of cranberries began.  And it is our local pinelands that produced cedar for shipbuilding, pine trees for charcoal, bog iron for bullets and cannonballs (legend has it that the area even provided the bullets for General Washington's personal use); and the sandy earth of the area provided the necessary resources for major glassmaking factories.  

More information: Please contact Timothy Hart at 609-597-5947 or