Commentary: The new battle of Princeton

By Mark Edward Lender

Our country just marked the 240th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence with the customary parades, fireworks, and family gatherings that have become American traditions. As welcome as these celebrations are, we should take a few moments to reflect upon the fact that - just 50 miles from Independence Hall, where that momentous document was signed - a modern academic institution is destroying the battlefield where the declaration's lofty ideals were secured by our nation's first soldiers. It is an astonishing example of "Ivory Tower" arrogance.

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George Washington at Princeton by Charles Peale Polk

America's founding generation had been emboldened in that heady summer of 1776 to proclaim independence after patriot victories in the early clashes of the Revolution, before the ponderous British military machine was fully mobilized. As the Declaration's signers sat in Philadelphia that storied July, the British were about to descend on New York City with the largest army ever to set foot on the North American continent up until that time. The young nation's fortunes were about to take a turn for the worse.

Despite patriot enthusiasm, the inexperienced Continentals and militia were no match for the seasoned Redcoats. A series of defeats nearly destroyed Gen. George Washington's army, and by September, New York City had fallen. In November, Washington was forced to retreat deep into New Jersey, and within a month, the British juggernaut had forced the rebels across the Delaware River. They were, in the words of the patriot evangelist Thomas Paine, "the times that try men's souls."

Washington's leadership shone through. He needed a victory to rescue a cause that appeared doomed, and on Christmas night, he led his army across the nearly frozen Delaware River to surprise and capture the enemy outpost at Trenton. Thus began a daring 10-day campaign that led Washington and his soldiers on to Princeton.

Three days into the new year of 1777, elements of the opposing armies converged on the New Jersey town. The encounter did not begin well for the Americans; the British regulars had routed part of Washington's army and mortally wounded one of his principal lieutenants.

On the brink of defeat in yet another battle, Washington personally led a spirited counterattack that stunned the Redcoats. In hand-to-hand combat, Washington's army broke the British line, securing a crucial victory and scattering their opponents. This marked the first time Washington's soldiers witnessed the British retreating from the battlefield.

The Battle of Princeton did not win the Revolution outright, but it helped save an American cause that had seemed all but lost just 10 days before. It remains an inspiring story of how a small rebel force of citizen soldiers overcame the odds, harsh winter weather, and the mightiest army of their age to keep the Revolution alive.

Unfortunately, the remarkable story of Princeton is not universally appreciated today. At present, an important part of the battlefield known as "Maxwell's Field" is being targeted for development by the Institute for Advanced Study, a center for innovative scholarship that should be helping to protect the battlefield - not moving forward with plans to obliterate it.

The institute is preparing to build 15 faculty houses on the site where Washington's surprising counterattack first struck the British. This is property designated as a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior and likewise identified as historically significant by the National Park Service, the state of New Jersey, and countless military historians.

Adding insult to injury, to justify its decision to bulldoze part of the battlefield, the institute insists nothing particularly important happened on the property. It also ignores archaeological research, conducted over several decades, indicating that a Revolutionary War battle action occurred on the site.

In the end, I hope the institute will see the error of its ways and work with preservation advocates and local leaders to find a solution that saves the site of Washington's famous counterattack at Princeton for future generations. If it does not, it does a disservice not just to American history but to its own legacy and traditions. Equally disturbing, it will set a dangerous precedent for other developers eyeing historically significant sites.

If we can't save the Princeton battlefield, what can we save? Not a happy thought so near July Fourth - but an unpleasant reality nonetheless.

Mark Edward Lender is a professor emeritus at Kean University and the author of the forthcoming "The War for American Independence." penmark12@comcast.net