Graduate Students Organize Reenactment of Historic Continental Army March

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All photos courtesy of Old Barracks Museum

In the early morning hours of Saturday, Jan. 3, organizers Dave Niescior and Matt White will march with Revolutionary War reenactors – depicting Charles Willson Peale’s company of the Philadelphia Associators – from Trenton to Princeton, tracing the footsteps of the Continental Army’s grueling, overnight march from Jan. 2 to 3, 1777.

But the march isn’t an opportunity to “wave the American flag, or commemorate American greatness,” explains the students in the graduate history program at Rutgers University–Camden.

“The goal is to gain a better understanding of the hardships endured by individuals who lived and made a critical moment in history,” says Niescior, who also earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Rutgers–Camden in 2012. “It is one thing to write ‘the troops marched overnight to Princeton,’ it is yet another to understand what that physically and mentally meant to the men who had to put one foot in front of the other all night long.”

Photo credit: Old Barracks MuseumThe reenactment will culminate the daylong “To Princeton with Peale” living history event, held from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 2, at the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton. Held as part of Trenton’s Patriots Week Celebration, the event will give visitors the opportunity to meet Peale’s company and experience a day in their lives before they set off for the Battle of Princeton. Tickets are $8 for adults; and $6 for students, seniors, active U.S. military, and children five and under.

On Saturday, Jan. 3, the assembled “Model Company” group, comprised of highly authentic reenactors from numerous organizations, will participate in a free walking tour and living history event at Princeton Battlefield State Park.

Beginning at 6:45 a.m., historian Will Tatum will lead guests on a two-hour walking tour, traversing open, rolling grass fields and hills as he recounts the Jan. 3, 1777 Battle of Princeton. Guests will follow the flow of the battle minute-by-minute over the actual ground it took place.

After the tour, Peale’s company will once again give free demonstrations recreating the lives of the soldiers and civilians of the American Revolution era. The demonstrations, which will continue into the afternoon, may include military drill and musket fire, cooking, and other skills of the period. The Thomas Clarke House and Revolutionary War exhibits will also be open for touring. For more information, call the park’s information hotline at (609) 921-0074.

According to Niescior, this is the first-ever reenactment of the historic march and will poignantly take place in real time on the actual anniversary dates of the events it commemorates.

To stage an authentic depiction, he notes, participants are being held to a high standard of quality, known as the “impression” in the living history world, with regards to their uniforms and general appearances. The uniform of the Philadelphia Associators has been faithfully and accurately recreated, and participants have thoroughly researched their roles, in order to not only create the impression, but interpret and explain their experiences and the meaning of those experiences to the general public.

Photo credit: Old Barracks Museum

Niescior adds that the depiction must encapsulate the radical and revolutionary aspects of the soldiers whom they are representing. “’All men are created equal’ was a very radical idea in 1776, and these men not only fought for that idea, but realized it in the way that they organized their martial institutions,” says Niescior, a lifelong resident of Cherry Hill. “That’s really worth talking about.”

As Niescior recalls, he and White came up with the idea for the march one evening over dinner with family and friends. The pair had discussed a similar march held in Valley Forge and decided to follow suit rather than stage a traditional encampment. Niescior handled registrations, and coordinated the event at the Old Barracks Museum, where he serves as a historical interpreter. Meanwhile, White handled the logistics for the march as well as the bulk of the research on the Associators. The pair also worked with fellow, seasoned reenactors to tap into the organized structure of other Model Company events.

“No reenactor can ever experience anything more than a bare fraction of the hardships Continental Army soldiers actually experienced,” says Niescior, who credits his classes with Rutgers–Camden history professor Andrew Shankman for instilling his interest and understanding of colonial and early Republic American history.

“However,” he continues, “there is still the opportunity to have a better frame of reference to understand that suffering.”

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