Independence Day is a good time to brush up on American history before heading to the grill and fireworks. But any weekend is a good time to get outside, and those of us on the east coast have a variety of opportunities for an American Revolution history adventure.
This July 4 will mark 237 years since the Declaration of Independence was issued as the basis for a new nation. America has faced many challenges since then, as the pursuit of liberty has been an ongoing project.
Walking around places where liberty was cried out by so many provides a chance to connect with the past and understand what it means today. Here’s a short list of places to give you some ideas. A few interesting sites can be combined with big hikes too. Keep in mind that there could be crowds or special events for the holiday.
Independence National Historic Park, Philadelphia
This is where the big news happened in July of 1776. Today Independence National Historic Park contains a number of old buildings and exhibits including the original Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. It is a nice place to walk around.
Freedom Trail, Boston
Tensions between American colonists and the British government were rising for years before independence, and this was especially true in Boston. The city’s 2.5 mile Freedom Trail includes several sites that played a significant role in the Revolution.
Minute Man National Historic Park, Massachusetts
American rebels and British troops first fired on one another at Lexington, MA on April 19, 1775. After the skirmish, the British regulars continued to Concord to look for hidden weapons. A bigger fight took place at a bridge over the Concord River. As the British troops withdrew to Boston, they faced continuous harassment from colonial militia. The bridge over the Concord River has been replaced several times since the battle, but it still marks an important historic location within Minute Man National Historic Park.
Fort Lee Historic Park, New Jersey
Fort Lee was built in the summer of 1776 to obstruct the British navy from sailing up the Hudson (which was sometimes called the North River). It was abandoned in November as George Washington’s forces were chased out of New York and across New Jersey, during the times that try men’s souls when the prospect of victory for the Patriots looked dim.
Occupying a small wooded area on the Hudson Palisades just south of the George Washington Bridge, Fort Lee Historic Park is good for a stroll past fortifications, views of Manhattan, and signs that describe the traps patriots laid for British ships. There are a surprising number of deer for a place right across the river from Manhattan. If you are up for some serious trail time, the 356-mile Long Path officially starts in the park.
Washington Crossing State Park, New Jersey
One of the crucial early battles of the Revolution (and the subject of an epic, though not entirely accurate painting) was the Battle of Trenton in December 1776. Washington’s forces took boats across the partially frozen Delaware River on a stormy Christmas night to attack the garrison of Hessian soldiers at Trenton on the following morning. The decisive victory got Washington back into New Jersey and gave a major boost to the patriot cause. A number of trails and historic markers are available to the visitor in Washington Crossing State Park.
A trip to Bennington offers numerous hiking opportunities just outside of town, as well as a chance to see the tallest structure in Vermont, a 306 foot tower commemorating the Battle of Bennington. A little northwest of the town, New England troops commanded by Brigadier General John Stark turned back a force of British regulars in August 1777, leading up to the crucial Battle of Saratoga.
Saratoga, New York
Many places have a claim to be a turning point in the Revolutionary War, but the American victory at Saratoga was undeniably critical. The surrender of General Burgoyne to Horatio Gates on October 17, 1777 not only halted the British advance in the Hudson valley, but also showed that Americans could defeat the British in a pitched battle and helped convince France to formally support the American cause. A visitor to Saratoga National Historic Park will be greeted by rolling hills, a number of scheduled programs, and signs describing Benedict Arnold’s more glorious days.
Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
The site of Washington’s winter encampment from 1777-1778 boasts historical demonstrations and nearly thirty miles of trails.
Patriot’s Path, New Jersey
Kings Mountain, South Carolina
The site of a battle between American Patriots and Tories on October 7, 1780, Kings Mountain is interesting for several reasons. The victorious Patriots largely used rifles, which were slower to reload but significantly more accurate than the muskets their Tory enemies used. Thomas Jefferson called the battle “The turn of the tide of success” because it was the first major Patriot victory in the South after the British began their Southern campaign in the winter of 1778-1779.
Hikers will enjoy the trails in Kings Mountain National Military Park as well as other nearby opportunities. The Kings Mountain Hiking National Recreational Trail is a 16-mile loop through scenic parks in the hills of South Carolina and North Carolina. (Thanks to Zack for the tip!)
Cowpens National Battlefield, South Carolina
Brigadier General Daniel Morgan effectively used a mix of sharpshooters, militia, and regulars to defeat a British and Tory force under the dreaded Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781. The battlefield does not include a lot of hiking mileage, but it was the site of a decisive victory in the Revolution and it is not far from Kings Mountain.
The British war effort collapsed when General Cornwallis surrendered with his 8,000 troops to George Washington on October 19, 1781 following a lengthy siege by American and French forces. Much of Yorktown was destroyed in the course of the battle. The struggle for a favorable peace would eventually be won on September 3, 1783 after much diplomatic wrangling and a few minor battles.
Independence was achieved, but the outcome of the Revolution could only be settled in political battles over its meaning.