Washington's crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Night of 1776 is one of the most iconic historical events that the American nation holds within its collective memory. Arguably the most famous painting in America depicts the crossing, albeit with massive inaccuracies. Most educated Americans have heard the tale of the surprise attack that caught the Hessians in Trenton completely by surprise (because they were hung over from drinking too much at Christmas dinner, at least according to legend). After several months of disastrous defeats, with the Revolution tittering on the brink of collapse, Washington's brilliant and daring strategy restored faith that America might actually win the war.
But Trenton was only the first of two American victories during that epic winter campaign. Less well-known, perhaps unfairly, was the battle that took place a few days after the crossing, a few miles to the northeast, at Princeton, New Jersey.
The story is dramatic. The British were enraged by Washington's success at Trenton and moved swiftly against him. But Washington eluded the enemy at Assunpink Creek during the night of January 2, leaving his campfires burning to deceive the enemy and pushing his men out onto the roads for a night march. Quickly moving north around the British left flank and pushing deep behind enemy lines, the Americans arrived at Princeton in the morning. A fierce battle erupted between the Americans and the British regiments that were passing through the town.
By the standards of later conflicts, it was a not a big battle. 4,500 Americans faced off against 1,200 British troops. In the American Civil War, it would have been considered a medium-sized skirmish. Yet it was a fiercely contested engagement and the outcome of the American Revolution was going to be determined by its outcome. At first, the British appeared to have the advantage. General Hugh Mercer, one of the unsung heroes of the American Revolution, valiantly fought with his saber until being struck down by a dozen bayonets. Mercer's brigade broke under the British onslaught, for the redcoats at Princeton were some of the finest infantry in the world. American militiamen under General John Cadwalader appeared, but they also collapsed in a rout. It appeared that the British were about the win a decisive victory. If they did, it would surely result in the destruction of Washington's army and the end of the American Revolution.
It was at this moment that Washington himself appeared on horseback. It was a dramatic event, tailor-made for a Hollywood epic. A British bullet could have killed Washington in an instant, and with him the hopes and dreams of the infant American republic, yet no bullet touched him. With him were Virginia and New England Continentals, who took up good positions and poured volley after volley into the ranks of their British enemies. Stunned by the sudden turn of events, the British ranks broke and fled. The Americans had triumphed.
Just a week after their sensational triumph over the Hessians at Trenton, the Continentals had smashed a force of British redcoats and sent them fleeing. The effects were nothing short of dazzling. The British retreated almost all the way back to New York City, abandoning New Jersey back into the hands of the rebels. From New Hampshire to Georgia, the spirit of liberty and independence was restored as news of the victory spread.
Had the Americans lost the Battle of Princeton, it is quite likely that Washington would have lost his army and the last chance of an American victory in the Revolutionary War would have been snuffed out. The men who fought and died on that ground deserve the thanks of their nation.
Which is why I'm writing this blog post.
As Americans, it is incumbent upon us to protect and preserve the ground on which our ancestors fought and died. Much of the ground on which the Battle of Princeton was fought is today under terrible threat from developers who want to take the sacred soil and turn it into residential units. Although a fine battlefield park, run by the State of New Jersey rather than the National Park Service, currently protects and preserves 681 acres of the battlefield, the rest has little or no legal protections at all.
The Institute for Advanced Study, a division of Princeton University, wants to build residential units on a critical 7-acre portion of the battlefield. I happen to be quite fond of the Institute for Advanced Society, which has been the home of scientists as eminent at Freeman Dyson, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the great Albert Einstein himself. Yet its cavalier attitude towards the sacred ground of the Princeton battlefield is disgraceful and a stain upon the honor and dignity of a venerable institution. If it goes forward with its plans, and prevails in the legal disputes currently ongoing, history will neither forget or forgive what it did and its future reputation will be damaged beyond repair. For its own good and for the good of society, the Institute for Advanced Study should immediately renounce its plans to build homes on the sacred soil of the Princeton battlefield.
You can help save the priceless soil of the Princeton battlefield by supporting the Save Princeton effort of Campaign 1776, a national effort to preserve and protect battlefields of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The men who fought and died upon that ground in the early days of 1777 were fighting for our liberty and independence. The least we can do is ensure that the ground upon which they fought is preserved as an eternal monument to their sacrifice. Even a small financial donation can make a big difference.
Do it for them. After all, they did far more for you.