Jersey Reflections: Fithian of Greenwich

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At Princeton, he met with the likes of Henry Lee, Aaron Burr, and James Madison.

Philip Vickers Fithian may not be the most recognizable historical name today, but its place in the legacy of South Jersey and the early colonial era of this country is firmly cemented.

Fithian, born on December 29th, 1747, in Greenwich, New Jersey, was one of seven children in his family. He probably would have lived his life in southern New Jersey following in his parents’ footsteps working the family farm had he not witnessed an evangelical revival at the age of 19. The experience influenced his decision to become a Presbyterian minister and he convinced his father that enrolling in Rev. Enoch Green’s school in Deerfield would be beneficial. Green’s Presbyterian academy was the first step in an education that would serve him well.

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According to the American Historical Review, the next phase of Fithian’s journey brought him, on November 30th, 1770, to The College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton University. There, according to The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, he met Henry Lee, Aaron Burr, and James Madison, who formed a group the Princeton University Bulletin refers to as “that band of Princetonians who made themselves famous in the Revolution and the early years of our national life.” 

Upon graduating in 1772, he entered into the Study of Divinity. But over the next year, he was required to return home to care for his siblings after the death of his parents, and some sources claim he turned down an invitation from The College of New Jersey president John Witherspoon to continue his studies there, opting instead to continue his education under Green’s supervision in Deerfield.

Fithian may have turned down Witherspoon’s offer, but he chose to heed the college president’s recommendation for a job as tutor for the children of Virginian Robert Carter, whose Nomini Hall plantation provided as much inspiration for Fithian’s letters and journals as his Princeton environment. According to The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Fithian’s account of Nomini Hall, “which he gives of his residence in the Old Dominion is a most delightful picture of the social life of the period—of refinement and culture, of elegance of living and lavish hospitality, of balls and foxhunts, and an almost constant round of entertainments.”

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The Princeton University Bulletin reports that after Nomini Hall, Fithian “was then employed as a missionary among the settlers of Western Virginia and Pennsylvania.” Other sources indicate that his missionary duties were served in the Scotch-Irish Presbyterian settlements of the Shenandoah Valley and the Susquehanna River Valley. The Princeton University Bulletin also notes that “in October 1775, he married Miss Elizabeth Beatty, the ‘Laura of his journal.’ ” Beatty was the daughter of a distinguished Presbyterian minister. 

The completion of his missionary work led Fithian to join a New Jersey state militia, serving as chaplain. The position would afford him a first-hand account of several of George Washington’s earliest battles in the American Revolution. 

The Battle of Long Island, which occurred on August 27th, 1776, is considered the first major battle fought after the Declaration of Independence declared the colonies’ separation from England. It did not, as its title suggests, occur on the Long Island we know today; rather it was the area we now know as Brooklyn and afforded the victor the strategic advantage of controlling New York City. 

The Battle of Long Island proved to be Washington’s first major loss at the hands of the British. Approximately 300 American were killed and more than 1,000 captured, significant numbers when compared to the 59 casualties and 268 wounded for the British.

Less than a month later, on September 16th, Washington engaged the British again in the Battle of Harlem Heights in the locations now known as Morningside Heights and Harlem. A two-hour battle raged in what were then open fields. The British were driven back to their lines and the result was Washington’s first success in the battlefield, an achievement that bolstered the troops and encouraged the colonial fight for independence. There would still be a long way to go, but the victory provided hope.

Fithian was there for both battles, and the letters he wrote capture his account of the events. We’ll examine some of that correspondence in another article.  

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