The American Revolutionary War is a fundamental subject in any US history textbook. As a result, it’s hard to overstate the war’s importance. New Jersey, when it was still a British colony, built what is now known as the Old Barracks in 1758. The goal was to construct housing for British soldiers during the winter months of the French and Indian War. Presently, what remains of the Old Barracks is a fitting subject for our Jersey Through History series.
Many Revolutionary War relics are still around today, thanks to careful preservation. These include anything from tools and weapons to properties, large and small. The Old Barracks, in Trenton, was an integral part of the American Revolution. However, its history dates back more than 15 years before that.
The History Behind The Old Barracks
Prior to the building’s construction, residents of the area were protesting the quartering of soldiers in their own homes. In response, the colony built an edifice that could keep the soldiers warm and in good health during colder months. Though the term “British soldiers” denotes a sense of foreignness today, that was not the case in the late 1700s. The colonies were still a part of the British Empire, yet housing soldiers was nonetheless stressful and inconvenient. The Old Barracks solved this issue, remaining in use until the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.
In 1764, Barracks Master John Allen moved into the Officers’ House (the most luxurious of the dwellings) with his family. The following year, he began renting rooms to the public in an effort to alleviate financial stresses on the Crown.
At the start of the American Revolutionary War, the barracks was suffering from poor maintenance. As such, the intent was to use the facility to house British prisoners of war. When soldiers of the continental army began inhabiting the barracks, they had to reside in the least desirable rooms. Despite this, four companies of the Second New Jersey Regiment of the Continental Line made the barracks their home.
A Wartime Legacy
It wasn’t until December 1776 that the barracks began making notable contributions to the Revolution. During this time, British and Hessian troops were both occupying Trenton and residing in the barracks. After crossing the icy Delaware on Christmas Day, 1776, General George Washington and company fought in the Battle of Trenton. Then, upon defeating a stronghold of Hessian mercenaries, Washington briefly withdrew to Pennsylvania.
One week later, Washington returned to Trenton to lure the British forces south before capturing Princeton the following day. Following these victories, Americans held Trenton, primarily utilizing the Old Barracks as an army hospital. Subsequently, the barracks became the first mass medical treatment facility in the Western Hemisphere.
The Old Barracks, Post-War
When the Revolutionary War drew to a close in September 1783, the barracks were no longer useful. In fact, they were quickly seen as cumbersome and in the way. A decision was made to partially demolish a portion of the barracks in order to extend Front Street. Consequently, the Old Barracks split into two separate entities.
In the early 1900s, members of the “Daughters of the American Revolution” and the “Colonial Dames” had an idea; forming the “Old Barracks Association,” their goal was to “Save the Old Barracks” from complete destruction. They were able to purchase the southern section of the barracks in 1902; meanwhile the State bought the northern portion in 1914. Not long after the State’s purchase of the northern part, construction began on a middle section to rejoin them. Additionally, between 1981 and 1998, the building underwent a multi-million dollar, large-scale restoration. They did this to create a more accurate depiction of the building in line with its 18th century roots.
The Old Barracks, which operates as a museum today, now preserves this piece of American history. It is the only freestanding barracks from this era in the entire country. With daily tours, incredibly knowledgeable staff, and a comprehensive gift shop, the Old Barracks Museum delivers an amazing, historic experience. Unique artifacts, like a patriotic Pine Tree flag, grace the museum’s galleries. Offering patrons a trip back to a time when freedom was just out of reach, it tells a captivating tale. One that our Founding Fathers fought more than eight years to create.
All Photos: © Patrick Lombardi / Best of NJ