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Jersey Through History: Princeton Battlefield

During the latter half of the 18th century, a young country declared its independence from Great Britain. What historians would later call The American Revolutionary War reportedly began in April 1775; and did not end until September 1783. Though many battles took place, the one at Princeton Battlefield stands out among them.

By fall of 1776, the British had driven General George Washington’s army out of Manhattan. Throughout the next few months many soldiers left the Continental Army, as their faith in the revolution was quickly fading. After the army’s defeat in New York, they marched to Pennsylvania through New Jersey. As for General Washington, he planned to attack the Hessians – German soldiers fighting for Great Britain – in Trenton.

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A Night Worth Painting

On the night of December 25, 1776, Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware back into New Jersey. Legend says the Hessians were caught off guard, not ready for an attack on Christmas, but that’s not really true; in fact, records reveal the Hessians received several reports that the Continental Army might attack. Despite this, the rebels prevailed, winning the battle while only losing four soldiers in the attack. (Plus another two who froze to death.)

Following the Battle of Trenton, Washington received word British troops were heading his way via Princeton. These troops were led by Charles Cornwallis and General James Grant. After arriving in Trenton on January 2, 1777, they set up camp just on the other side of the Assunpink Creek from the Continental Army.

Princeton Battlefield

Cornwallis thought he had the rebel troops trapped, because he saw smoke from campfires in the distance. Meanwhile, Washington had 500 men tend these fires and make noise to deceive Cornwallis and his soldiers. As this smaller group kept the British occupied, Washington took the bulk of his force to Princeton. The last 500 then made the trip to Princeton before dawn.

The Battle of Princeton

On the morning of January 3, as Cornwallis prepared to attack, Washington’s army was nowhere to be found. By this time, Washington was nearly in Princeton and some of his forces were already engaged in battle en route.

During the early fighting in Princeton, General Hugh Mercer fell victim to British forces. Mistaken for Washington, he was attacked and taken down when he refused to surrender. He suffered several bayonet stabs and was later brought to the Thomas Clarke House, where he died nine days later.

Thomas Clarke House Museum

Washington arrived shortly after Mercer was attacked. He rallied Mercer’s troops and pushed back the British. Soon after, the British fled and Washington both looted the former British posts and took the remaining soldiers prisoner.

The Battles of Trenton and Princeton were more than just two skirmish “wins” for the rebel army; they were the “Christmas Conflicts” that turned the tide of the American Revolution.

Jersey Through History at Princeton Battlefield Today

Much of the Princeton Battlefield is still around. The undeveloped area is a landmark and tribute to the Founding Fathers and the men who fought for American independence.

You can visit Princeton Battlefield State Park today from Mercer Road in Princeton, Mercer County. In fact, there are several points of interest at Princeton Battlefield. The first, at the top of the hill (near the parking lot), is the Thomas Clarke House Museum. Built in 1772, this building contains Revolutionary period items and insight into the war and Battle of Princeton.

Further down on the Princeton Battlefield site is a tribute marker to Hugh Mercer as well as the Mercer Oak. In addition, across Mercer Road stands an Ionic Colonnade designed by fourth Architect of the US Capitol Thomas Walter. Beyond that, a stone patio serves as a grave marker for the soldiers killed during the Battle of Princeton.

Just minutes away from Princeton’s main street, Princeton Battlefield offers a great Jersey Through History day trip. It serves as proof of how barely a dozen small colonies can defeat a growing world power.

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All Photos: © Patrick Lombardi / Best of NJ