For several years the Princeton Battlefield in New Jersey has been home of a clash between developers and preservationists — a fight on temporary hold pending legal cases.
This weekend, the old fight comes back.
In 1777, a rag-tag army of revolutionary soldiers based in Philadelphia known as the Pennsylvania Associators (including Lt. Charles Wilson Peale, who would later memorialize the battle on canvas) set out from Trenton at midnight, heading north under cover of dark. The surprise attack at dawn was to be General George Washington’s desperate attempt to surround and overwhelm the British.
“The very last of their ammunition, no rations to speak of, no sleep for over 24 hours,” said William P. Tatum, a former trustee of the Princeton Battlefield Society and now the historian for Dutchess County, New York. “This was the final make or break.”
In the wee hours this Saturday — the 238th anniversary of the battle — a group of 40 re-enactors will walk in their footsteps. They will make the 14-mile, pre-dawn march in full historical gear to meet with Tatum in Princeton who will be guiding a 7a.m. tour of the skirmish at the battleground.
“We’ve seen a lot of the march from Washington Crossing State Park over to Trenton, re-enacting the first battle of Trenton,” said Tatum. “But this will be the first time we will see a major re-enactment of the march from Trenton to Princeton, which was probably the more pivotal of the two in terms of its overall impact on American history.”
The Battle of Princeton – a victory for the Revolution – came days after Washington’s victory in Trenton (his second attempt). While considered a minor defeat by the British, the Battle of Princeton was a major morale boost for the ailing Revolution.
It was never supposed to happen in Princeton. That was just a quirk of bad timing. The movement of Washington’s troops around the British flank was behind schedule; he was not yet in place at dawn’s light. At the same time the British decided to move out earlier than anticipated.
Both armies were surprised when, at sunrise, they literally ran into each other at Princeton. The British noticed something fishy not 50 yards away.
“They were on that hill just looking around,” said Jerry Hurwitz, president of the Princeton Battlefield Society. “They saw the glint of the sun against the musket barrels.”
The fighting on January 3rd pushed the British out of the region, and ended General Washington’s New Jersey campaign on a high note.
Hurwitz is now engaged in a modern battle over the same terrain. A small portion of the battlefield is owned by the Institute for Advanced Study, an academic research organization famous for once having Albert Einstein on its faculty. It now wants to use its land to build faculty housing.
In November the Princeton Planning Board made a preliminary ruling to allow the development. Hurwitz is waiting for it to release its decision in writing, so he can appeal.