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Celebration at Pluckemin

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol II. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

February 18.—This day, the anniversary of the alliance with France was celebrated at Pluckemin, in the Jerseys, at a very elegant entertainment and display of fireworks given by General Knox, and the officers of the corps of artillery. It was postponed to this late day on account of his Excellency General Washington’s absence from camp.

General Washington, the principal officers of the army, Mrs. Washington, Mrs. Greene, Mrs. Knox, the gentlemen and ladies for a large circuit round the camp, were of the company. Besides these, there was a vast concourse of spectators from every part of the Jerseys.1

A correspondent gives the following account of the rejoicings:—”On Thursday, the 18th, I rode from my lodging, near that celebrated spot where General Dickinson, in 1777, took from the enemy a large number of wagons, horses, &c., with but a handful of raw militia, to a place about eight or nine miles distant, called Pluckemin, where the artillery have their winter quarters. The huts of this corps are situated on a rising ground, at a small distance from the road, and unfold themselves in a very pretty manner as you approach. A range of field-pieces, mortars, howitzers, and heavy cannon, make the front line of a parallelogram; the other sides are composed of huts for the officers and privates; there is also an academy where lectures are read on tactics and gunnery, and work huts for those employed in the laboratory, all very judiciously arranged. This military village is superior, in some respects, to most of those I had seen. Its regularity, its appearance, and the ground on which it stands, throws over it a look of enchantment, although it is no more than the work of a few weeks.

“I am told the great philosopher and warrior of Prussia thinks it no dishonor to copy General Washington in the mode of quartering his troops. Indeed, this way of wintering an army has every thing to recommend it, and more especially in America, where a great plenty of wood naturally points to such a practice. Little aid from the country is required; and the hands that would be necessary for the sawing and transporting timber for barracks are, by this means, given up to the culture of our lands, or other useful employments.

“His excellency the commander-in-chief arrived from his head-quarters about three o’clock in the afternoon. Mrs. Washington was in a carriage, accompanied by that steady friend to the rights of mankind, Mr. Laurens, the late President of Congress. I had also the pleasure of seeing Mr. Duer, late a member of that honorable body from the State of New York.

“I was introduced to Mrs. Washington, Mrs. Greene, Mrs. Knox, and a circle of brilliants, the least of which seemed more valuable than that stone of immense price which the King of Portugal received from his Brazilian possessions.

“About four o’clock the occasion was announced by a discharge of thirteen round of cannon. We then repaired to the academy to dinner. The company was composed of the most respectable gentlemen and ladies for a considerable circuit round the camp, and as many of the officers of the army as could possibly attend.

“I had, till now, only seen the outside of the academy. It was raised several feet above the other buildings, and capped with a small cupola, which had a very good effect. The great room was fifty feet by thirty, arched in an agreeable manner, and neatly plastered within. At the lower end of the room was a small inclosure, elevated above the company, where the preceptor to the park gave his military lessons. This was converted into an orchestra, where the music of the army entertained the company. The style of the dinner was of that happy kind, between the extremes of parade and unmeaning profusion, and a too great sparingness and simplicity of dishes. Its luxury could not have displeased a republican. The toasts were descriptive of the day, while the joy and complacency of the company could have given umbrage to none, except our enemies the British.

“Just as night came on, we were called upon to the exhibition of fireworks. These were under the direction of Colonel Stevens, of the artillery. The eye was very agreeably struck with the frontispiece of a temple, about one hundred feet in length. It was divided into thirteen arches, each arch embellished with an illuminated painting, allegoric of the progress of our empire, or the wise policy of our alliance; the centre arch was ornamented with a pediment, and proportionably larger than the others; the whole supported by a colonnade of the Corinthian order. The different works in pyrotechny were very agreeably disposed, and displayed to great advantage.

“In all public rejoicings I make it a point to mix with the multitude; if they are not pleased, the demonstration may be considered as wrong. In the present instance I was charmed to find that every man’s heart went along with the occasion.

“When the fireworks were finished, the company returned to the academy; the same room that had served to dine in served to dance in; the tables were removed, and had left a range for about thirty couple, to foot it to no indifferent measure. As it was a festival given by men who had not enriched themselves by the war, the lights were cheap, and of their own manufacture; the seats the work of their own artisans; and for knights of different orders, there were hardy soldiers, happy in the thought of having some hand in bringing round what they were celebrating.

“The ball was opened by his excellency the general. When this man unbends from his station, and its weighty functions, he is even then like a philosopher, who mixes with the amusements of the world, that he may teach it what is right, or turn its trifles into instruction.

“As it is too late in the day for me to follow the windings of a fiddle, I contented myself with the conversation of some one or other of the ladies during the interval of dancing. I was particularly amused with the lively sallies of a Miss * * *, asking her if the roaring of the British lion in his late speech did not interrupt the spirit of the dance? ‘Not at all,’ said she, ‘it rather enlivens; for I have heard that such animals always increase their howlings when most frightened. And do you not think,’ added she, ‘you, who should know more than young girls, that he has real cause of apprehension from the large armaments and honorable purposes of the Spaniards?’ ‘So,’ said I, ‘you suppose that the King of Spain acts in politics as the ladies do in affairs of love, smile in a man’s face, while they are spreading out the net which is to entangle him for life.’ ‘At what season,’ replied the fair, with a glance of ineffable archness, ‘do men lose the power of paying such compliments?’

“If I have looked on the whole sex with an equal eye of observance, I here confess the atrocious philosophy; and were it not too late, I should wish to lead down the remainder of the dance with so sweetly vivacious a partner. But, alas! my dear friend, you will soon find that sixty is a better security against the hot-spur passions of man, than those beautiful icicles that Shakspeare tells us are curled of purest snow, and hung up ‘on Diana’s temple,’ for the benefit, we may suppose, of her chaste attendants.

“I do not recollect that I have ever been more pleased on any occasion, or in so large a company. There could not have been less than sixty ladies. I had no eyes to encounter that shot forward in rays of studied superiority, nor any of those conscious interchanges, too often the result of great experience and knowledge. Through the whole, there was a remarkable style of looks and behavior, undebauched by British manners or British entertainments. Their charms were of that kind which give a proper determination to the spirits, and permanency to the affections. More than once I imagined myself in a circle of Samnites, where beauty and fidelity were made subservient to the interest of the State, and reserved for such citizens as had distinguished themselves in battle.

“Is it that the women of Jersey, by holding the space between two large cities, have continued exempt from the corruptions of either, and preserved a purity of manners superior to both? Or have I paid too great attention to their charms, and too little to those imperfections, which observers tell us, are the natural growth of every soil?”2


1 New Jersey Gazette, March 3.
2 Pennsylvania Packet, March 6.