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Thomas O'Neil in Iraq.

Thomas O'Neil in Iraq. (Courtesy of Thomas O'Neil)

Thomas O'Neil in Iraq.

Thomas O'Neil in Iraq. (Courtesy of Thomas O'Neil)

Leo Bridgewater in Baghdad, Iraq in 2004.

Leo Bridgewater in Baghdad, Iraq in 2004. (Courtesy of Leo Bridgewater)

WASHINGTON — Thomas O’Neil III is on the march for unity.

The former Marine infantry officer returned to the United States in 2013 following two tours in Iraq and six years in Afghanistan running a telecommunications program as a civilian.

He barely recognized his own country, he said, lost among partisan bickering and deep social and racial divides.

O’Neil’s long departure drove his desire to find out who he was without the Marine Corps, he said.

He turned to history to find comfort in ancestral ties to the American Revolution, and he confirmed a family legend: His distant relative Ezekiel Anderson, a second Continental Army scout, helped guide Gen. George Washington in a pivotal battle in 1777 credited with saving the cause and boosting morale during the bitter and bloody winter campaign.

That discovery gave way to an idea: Retrace the famous 14-mile march from Trenton, N.J., to Princeton, N.J., while carrying a message of unity and common purpose following a blistering, deeply divisive presidential campaign that often included debates on allegations of police using excessive force against black citizens.

The culmination is Ezekiel’s March, a reenactment beginning at the Old Trenton Barracks at midnight Jan. 2, to coincide with the 240th anniversary of Washington’s evacuation in Trenton, and ending at the Princeton battlefield. It’s part of a week’s worth of living history events marking the battle.

The divide between races especially troubled O’Neil, who is white, during his research into his ancestor’s service, he said. He discovered there were many black militiamen and soldiers in the battle, and as many as a quarter of troops were black.

“We come from battlefields of New Jersey where we bled and cried and died together,” O’Neil, 42, a native of New Jersey, said Friday, describing a shared history of a common struggle between whites and blacks at the revolution battlefield.

African-Americans enlisted as one of few options to win freedom from slavery.

Leo Bridgewater, 41, a black Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, will join O’Neil and about 12 others. Bridgewater, also a New Jersey native, is a “fellow son of Trenton,” O’Neil said.

Anderson’s contribution was significant, O’Neil said. Washington’s forces, fresh from their surprise Christmas victory over Hessian mercenaries, were pursued by British Gen. Charles Cornwallis. Washington withdrew his 5,000 troops and reentered New Jersey to attack the British garrison at Princeton.

Washington needed a guide. Anderson owned the land needed for the maneuver, and he knew every bog, creek and woods by heart. The British lines collapsed as they expected to quarter for the winter. The attack on Princeton netted an American victory.

“It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world,” British historian George Otto Trevelyan famously said about the battles of Trenton and Princeton a century later, describing the victories as reinvigorating morale and momentum in the Continental Army.

O’Neil and Bridgewater hope to open a pathway to unity and purpose in the same way. “We hope Americans can be motivated and feel proud,” O’Neil said.

He plans to reenact the march next year, transforming it into a nonprofit to help develop leadership skills in Trenton youth, he said. The city was paralyzed by riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and is deeply affected by crime and social problems, but could be an example of unity and shared progress, O’Neil said.

“Americans have forgotten who we are. So we are going to remind them,” he said. Twitter: @AlexHortonTX

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