Washington College Magazine

History Rendered

  • A third-year intern with the GIS lab, Katherine Wares ’13 has worked on projects mapping Chester River switchgrass and Q...
    A third-year intern with the GIS lab, Katherine Wares ’13 has worked on projects mapping Chester River switchgrass and Queen Anne’s development, in addition to the historic visualization of the Pluckemin Artillery Cantonment (shown on screen).
  • Students used mapping software to convert geographic and archeological data into 3-D maps of the Pluckemin Cantonment.
    Students used mapping software to convert geographic and archeological data into 3-D maps of the Pluckemin Cantonment.
  • A rare contemporary drawing of the camp, produced by Capt. John Lillie and titled “A Southwest Perspective View of the A...
    A rare contemporary drawing of the camp, produced by Capt. John Lillie and titled “A Southwest Perspective View of the Artillery Barracks, Pluckemin, N.Jersey, 1779,” shows a layout that meshes well with the archaeology and provides important clues as to construction.
  • The three-dimensional rendering allows users to add details and manipulate views.
    The three-dimensional rendering allows users to add details and manipulate views.
  • The view from above the camp provides an overview of its extent and of the fields and farms protected by the Continental A...
    The view from above the camp provides an overview of its extent and of the fields and farms protected by the Continental Army.
  • Officers were required to attend classes in the academy building in the center of the cantonment.
    Officers were required to attend classes in the academy building in the center of the cantonment.
April 12, 2013
The past is virtually present in the hands of some Washington College students, and that could make their futures.

A team of students is creating something not seen since the birth of the nation, visual evidence that shows how our first military academy – no, not West Point – actually was complex of barracks, classrooms and artillery emplacements on what today is a New Jersey hillside crowded by condos and townhouses.

Basing their work on archaeological artifacts and the sole surviving sketch of the grounds, students are rebuilding the long abandoned and largely forgotten Pluckemin Artillery Cantonment, pixel by pixel, on computers.

“Ultimately what we’d like to do is create a virtual world, like gaming, where using computer controls you can enter the site and essentially walk around in it and ask soldiers about their lives, go to gunsmiths and ask questions,” says John Seidel, director of the College’s Center for Environment & Society and an associate professor of anthropology and environmental studies.

The work is going on at the center’s Geographic Information Systems labs, located off-campus in the industrial park on upper High Street. Twenty-three students took summer jobs with GIS to work on graphics mapping, and their numbers swelled to 65 during the academic year.

To date they have created a 3-D flyover of the 10-acre cantonment that replicates the buildings and artillery placements just as they stood in the winter of 1778-79. A $50,000 grant in the fall allowed students to work through the school year on a much higher-resolution rendering of the site and the surrounding Bedminster Township, so that every plank in the walls and every stone forming the fireplaces will stand out in 3-D when viewers zero in on details.

Ignored for two centuries, Pluckemin Artillery Cantonment was the place where Brigadier General Henry Knox, with the support of General George Washington, settled a cadre of their poorly trained officers for instruction in the arts of war in classrooms and on firing ranges under the supervision of foreign professionals.

As a doctoral candidate in historical archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, Seidel wrote his dissertation on the site and has continued to study it throughout his career. He believes Pluckemin is barely a blip in American history because it was occupied for only seven months, but also because it represents one of Washington’s more deceptive stratagems in the Revolutionary War.

Soldiers knew what the generals were doing there but, Seidel observes, Congress mostly didn’t. Washington and Knox understood the troops needed professionally trained officers, but Congress didn’t want that at all. Political leaders, furious by the forced billeting of Redcoats in civilian homes during the lead-up to war, viewed a professional officer class as a threat to democracy itself. So, it appears, Washington wasn’t entirely forthcoming about the officer training at Pluckemin, letting Congress view it as a resupply depot, which it also was. Two decades would pass after it was abandoned before Congress did formally recognize the need for such instruction and authorize the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in 1802.

The research into Pluckemin is revealing a military encampment very different from the picture most Americans hold of revolutionary soldiers: hungry and sick, living in tattered tents or drafty cabins, their feet wrapped in rags. That’s the old schoolbook description of their winter at Valley Forge—but that was in 1777-78, the year before. That’s not how it was when the Americans marched to the Pluckemin site, which quickly became the well-stocked larder for a growing military force.

“They weren’t eating their shoes,” is how Seidel puts it in wry understatement. “In the Pluckemin barracks site we found plenty of bone, shell, and the latest ceramics from England. Hundreds of pieces of porcelain were found in a dump behind their barracks, along with broken wine bottles. It sure looks like they were having a good time. They also held a ball, with dancing and fireworks… a real disconnect with our images of bloody footprints in the snow.”

Seidel’s discoveries at Pluckemin date back to the late 1980s when he led a team of archaeologists and historians to the forested site, initially just to try saving it from residential development. What amazed them was determining how quickly it was built—in just two months—and how expansive and well built the structures were. They found remnants of stone fireplaces and stone walls, nails and pane glass, abundant evidence of sophisticated construction. Here stood timber-framed barracks, one of which was a structure extending more than 450 feet.

“The project quickly grew into a major mystery story,” Seidel observes. “Why did the soldiers seem so well-supplied and well-fed? How is it that officers were drinking tea from Chinese export porcelain and inviting the local ladies to visit? Why was so little known about this winter, which was overshadowed by the previous winter at Valley Forge? Crack open any history of the war and you’ll find no more than a passing mention of the winter of 1778-79.”

Yet, as they dug into the records, the team found evidence to back up what they had dug from the grounds. Overlooked documents indicated that Pluckemin was, indeed, a critical site for developing an American army that could effectively fight the British. General Knox had hired a European-trained engineer and scientist, Christopher Colles, whose main function was to be “Preceptor of the Academy.” All of Knox’s officers up to the rank of major were directed to attend military training at this academy six days a week—the first time the Continental Army had placed an educational requirement for artillery officers.

As Seidel sums up the findings, “Officers were taught the science of gunnery and warfare, men were drilled in gun evolutions, craftsmen made and repaired everything from muskets to canteens, supplies were brought into warehouses from around the country.… Pluckemin is a story of American success and it is a story worth telling.”

Historians now believe it may be due to this officer training that the Continental Artillery was more effective in its later campaigns, leading to the successful artillery bombardment and eventual surrender of the British at Yorktown.

The importance of the facility can be deduced by the fact it was here in the artillery cantonment that George and Martha Washington attended The Grand Alliance Ball that February, celebrating the official war entry of France on the side of the Americans. Those who have attended Washington College’s Birthday Ball, held at just about that same time of the year, will find some similarities in what was reported about this particular soirée, attended by 400 dignitaries.  Celebrations started early, at 4 p.m., “many toasts were drunk” and, wrote General Knox in a letter to his brother, “we danced all night.” George Washington himself, however, so it was said, never danced but instead “always honored some lady with his hand [and] merely walked through the figures.”

 If not completely a party animal by contemporary standards, The Father of His Country was into serious styling. His attire that night was described as “black velvet, with knee and shoe buckles, a steel rapier, and his hair, thickly powdered, drawn back from the forehead and gathered in a black silk bag adorned with a rosette.” [Of course any Washington College student would sympathize: if you went, like George, to a Birthday Ball wearing a velvet suit with buckles on your knees, and your hair in a silk bag, never mind the rosette, and you danced like a stiff, you might want a sword at hand before the night was over, too].


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Although the National Park Service finally acknowledged the old cantonment in the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, today it is no destination for anyone. It is overgrown with scrub and brambles, some of the grounds sprouting residential development. No one is currently digging for clues of its existence, either. That fieldwork is suspended while scholars analyze the findings already in hand, and there’s plenty of it. Seidel reports up to half a million bits of artifacts have been collected, mapped and catalogued to date, and researchers are still interpreting, and sometimes reinterpreting, what it all means.

For instance, archaeologists originally thought the planking of the Pluckemin barracks was vertical. But, Seidel observes that the preponderance of nails found in the ground were where the buildings’ corners and doorways once stood, the indication of horizontal planking. So the next virtual design rendering will be adjusted to depict that.

The research ongoing is a joint project of Washington College, Monmouth University, the cultural resource management company Hunter Research, and the Friends of the Jacobus Vandeveer House, where General Knox lived then and which now serves as the museum of Pluckemin. It’s at Vandeveer House where the 3D design work of Washington College students gets the most prominent display, though it may also be viewed on YouTube and on the website of the Center for Environment & Society.

Their guide is the only known drawing of the cantonment, sketched in a notebook by Captain John Lillie back in 1779—its accuracy confirmed by archaeologists’ trowel work. Students building the virtual reality in the GIS lab have some advantages over Lillie’s pen, utilizing Google Earth 3D as well as ArcGIS and GeoWeb3d. If what that means is as baffling to some as it would have been to the captain, it’s no mystery at all to a growing number of Washington College students.

The GIS operation is a fast-growing success at Washington College. When Katherine Wares ’14 began working there as a freshman two and a half years ago, she says, “It was me and one other student.” Some 60 students have worked as paid interns in the lab during this school year.

Stewart Bruce, the assistant director of the CES who runs the GIS lab, calls what they do “experiential learning,” creating a blueprint of what Pluckemin looked like by drawing on a range of background and skills, from Photoshop to script writing, employing students from history, anthropology, psychology and environmental studies.

“It takes a team of talented students from multiple disciplines and with varied skill sets to build the virtual reality model,” says Bruce.

Other colleges in the region also have GIS labs, but Bruce says Washington College is different. Elsewhere, GIS typically is a professional operation with a few student interns. Here, students outnumber the ten staff members six to one and, Bruce says, “the students are doing the work.”

What will the GIS background mean for the student workers?

“It means they are going to get jobs,” Bruce says. “I don’t know how to say it any other way—and these are high-paying jobs.” Noting there are 18 U.S. defense agencies in the Washington metropolitan area and countless defense contractors using GIS applications, Bruce says such employers are looking for graduates who know more than just technology.

“They want the kind of young adults we graduate, students who are thinkers, who have the liberal arts education plus they know the technology. It gives our kids that advantage.”

Bruce foresees a time when Washington College students will be mastering technology to make their current renderings of Pluckemin Artillery Cantonment seem, by comparison, as simple as Captain Lillie’s penned sketch. “One day their mapping and 3D work will be holographical,” he says. “But that’s a few years away.”

For more information about the Pluckemin Project please visit http://www.washcoll.edu/centers/ces/gis/pluckemin-artillery-cantonment-3d.php


John Lang is a freelance writer living in Chestertown.

Last modified on Apr. 16th, 2013 at 2:06pm by Katherine Nau.