WEST ORANGE, NJ — The Battles of Lexington and Concord. The Siege of Fort Ticonderoga. The Battle of Bunker Hill. All of these military engagements are famous today, but they were hardly the only battles that made up the Revolutionary War. In fact, there were battles, skirmishes and quarrels right here in Essex County, and in neighboring Union and Morris counties. Some of these struggles have been recognized with plaques and markers, in history books, and even in the structures and landscape that remains.
These visual reminders got West Orange resident Jack Zackin thinking about the Revolutionary War, researching how it played out here in the Newark settlement and the Watchung Mountains. All of this led to Zackin’s second novel, “A Revolutionary Journey: From Colonial Doctor to American Spy.”
The ambitious novel, which is impeccably researched, follows Sidney Foster, a teenager who comes to New Jersey colony from England, becomes a doctor and, adamant in his Patriot views, pretends to be a Loyalist and spies on the British armed forces. While the writing does leave something to be desired, the story is engaging. Though the novel struggles through sometimes implausible scenes and numerous typographical errors, the reader is drawn to certain characters and moved by their lives.
The greatest strength of “A Revolutionary Journey” is its historical information, which sheds light on the role New Jersey, specifically our neck of the woods, played in the Revolutionary War. The novel is peppered with characters both historical and fictitious, who marry together into a comprehensive and intriguing look at this period of time. Perhaps one of the most engaging fictitious characters is Lucy Tompkins, Sidney’s fiancee who turns spy herself. The novel also includes deft representations of individuals who appear in our history books, from well-known historical figures like George Washington and Thomas Paine, to lesser known — though no less important — figures like Newark Pastor Alexander McWhorter, a vocal proponent of independence both near and far, and Elias Boudinot, the Elizabethtown statesman who served as Washington’s commissary general of prisoners during the war.
Zackin, a nearly lifelong West Orange resident — he attended Pleasantdale, Lincoln Junior High and Mountain High schools as a youth and, after becoming an attorney and working in Washington, D.C., for many years, he returned to West Orange and has been living here for more than 40 years — was amazed to discover the history that surrounded him here.
“I frequently walked my dog in the South Mountain Reservation, passing by Washington Rock that overlooks Hobart Gap. Historical markers at Washington Rock state that tradition places George Washington at this site watching the battles of Connecticut Farms — now Union — and Springfield in June 1780,” Zackin told the West Orange Chronicle. “Although always interested in American history, I was intrigued by the markers, not having previously known about the battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield.”
These two battles are the final strike of the novel and Sidney’s story. To read about these battles that were waged nearly in our backyards is astonishing.
“I began to read books and scholarly articles about the battles,” Zackin said. “Although it turns out there is no evidence that George Washington actually watched either battle from Washington Rock, I was fascinated to discover how important these little-known battles were. Having grown up in West Orange and worked in Newark for over 30 years, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to research and write about what life was like in Colonial and Revolutionary Essex County in the context of a historical novel, ending with the battle of Springfield that permanently expelled the British from New Jersey.”
While these battles both took place in what is today Union County, Zackin strongly focuses on Essex County in the novel. Sidney and his mentor, Dr. David Bell, both take up residence in Newark, which was then a small town, and become enmeshed in the political culture there. As doctors, they travel throughout the town and into the Watchung Mountains, rendering medical aid as needed.
“Living in West Orange today, it is hard to imagine that, at the time of the Revolutionary War, no towns existed in the Watchung Mountains,” Zackin said. “The Watchungs were the frontier, populated by small farmers eking out a living amid dense forests. I pictured Lucy, the main female protagonist, living on such a farm on the first ridge of the Watchungs in what is now West Orange.”
For Zackin, living in the area served not only as inspiration for the novel, but as a research aid.
“Once I had developed a general outline, I began to research each aspect of the story by reading history books and contemporary memoirs and letters on subjects dealt with in the book, including transatlantic voyages, the practice of Colonial medicine, the lifestyle of the people who lived in Newark and the Watchung Mountains — of which modern-day West Orange was a part — their reactions to the events leading to the Revolutionary War, the horrendous conditions in which American prisoners of war were kept, and the bloody fighting between Tories and Patriots which marked the war in Essex County,” Zackin said. “While the passage of time and urban growth have changed many of the locales described in the book beyond recognition, a little imagination while hiking in the South Mountain Reservation can conjure up a picture of life in the Watchungs when they were essentially the frontier. Jockey Hollow National Historical Park, the site of the Continental Army’s encampment during the brutal winter of 1779-80, is a treasure for anyone interested in this period of American history. The home of Elias Boudinot, an important historical figure who appears in the book, is still standing in Elizabeth.”
All in all, Zackin said his favorite historical character to bring back to life was Nathanael Greene, one of Washington’s most trusted and capable generals during the war. In “A Revolutionary Journey,” it is Greene who enlists Sidney to become a spy. Though the novel focuses on Greene’s career in New Jersey and New York, Greene is most known for his military successes in the southern theater of the war.
“After the battles of Lexington and Concord, he attempted to enlist as a private in the Rhode Island Brigade. He was told he was ineligible for service because he walked with a limp. Being from a prominent Rhode Island family, he was subsequently named as brigadier general of the Rhode Island Brigade, despite having no previous military experience,” Zackin said of Greene. “He was a bluff, no-nonsense commander who learned his craft on the job. Vastly outnumbered at the Battle of Springfield, he remained cool and calm. He devised and implemented a strategy that foiled the British plan to capture the American artillery and supplies at Morristown, turning them back at the Battle of Springfield and driving them out of New Jersey for good.”
While he greatly enjoyed writing Greene, he found it challenging to write Washington.
“To most Americans today, I think Washington is a somewhat mythical icon, seen only as a figure in a portrait or on a statue. But Washington was obviously a real man with feelings and emotions. I tried to capture this in describing his personal anguish in being forced to order the inoculation of the entire Continental Army against smallpox, a very risky procedure at the time,” Zackin said. “Also, his personality emerges in the rage he exhibited at the conduct of Gen. Charles Lee at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse. At the same time, accounts written by his soldiers and officers in the Continental Army make clear that they viewed him with adoration. I tried to capture this also in Washington’s interactions with other characters, real and fictional.”
Zackin’s ability to write characters with varying viewpoints with understanding is one of the novel’s greatest successes. “A Revolutionary Journey” includes characters compassionate and characters harsh on both sides of the war. One of the most intriguing characters is Edward Scott, a captain of the New Jersey Volunteers, a regiment of Loyalist men fighting for the Crown. Scott begins the novel as a typical young men, but becomes twisted by cruelty and the war that rages around him.
“Prior to writing the book, I was not aware that in New Jersey, and Essex County in particular, the revolution was very much a bloody civil war between Tories and Patriots,” Zackin said. “Many Essex County residents remained loyal to England. They formed Loyalist regiments stationed in New York City and Staten Island, and made frequent and devastating raids into Essex County, killing soldiers and civilians alike and burning farms and towns. When well-known Patriot leaders were captured during these raids, they were imprisoned in appalling conditions in New York City prisons that were no better than medieval dungeons. The Patriots responded in kind. Gen. Wasington ordered New Jersey citizens to take a loyalty oath to the new government and those that refused were exiled to New York and their property confiscated.”
This seeming civil war is exceptionally detailed in Zackin’s novel. Learn more about the Revolutionary War as it was fought in New Jersey with this engaging novel, which can be purchased on Amazon.
“I hope that my readers enjoy the story,” Zackin said. “But I also hope that by reading the book, they will understand the hardships endured by the Revolutionary War generation in New Jersey that enabled those that followed to live in a free society.”