Preserving Princeton Battlefield Should Be Top Priority
For the past eight years I’ve been proud to serve as a trustee for the Princeton Battlefield Society and help further the cause of preserving an important piece of American history.
During the overnight of January 2-3, 1777, George Washington led his rag-tag army of patriots from Trenton on a daring all-night march in an attempt to outflank the far superior British army by attacking the garrison in Princeton. Upon arrival, a portion of Washington’s army was routed by the British. In response, General Washington personally led his army on a successful counterattack, sweeping the British from the field.
The Battle of Princeton is widely recognized by historians and writers, such as James McPherson, David Hackett Fischer, Tom Fleming and David McCullough, as one of the most important engagements in the American Revolution. The British had claimed that Washington’s victory at Trenton a week earlier was a fluke won only because they faced the poorly led and inferior Hessian mercenaries. The victory at Princeton over British Regulars, made possible by the courage, foresight and tenacity of Washington and his men, destroyed the myth of British invincibility and firmly established Washington as a master strategist and revolutionary leader. The victory at Princeton inspired Americans everywhere to challenge the British and ultimately lead to the liberation of New Jersey a few months later.
The site of the proposed development is Maxwell’s Field which is the exact location where Washington led the successful counter-attack which won the battle.
In 2009 the Princeton Battlefield was named one of the Ten Most Endangered sites in New Jersey by Preservation New Jersey, and prior to that in 2008 the National Park Service named the Princeton Battlefield a “Priority I Principal Site” in its report to Congress. The Princeton Battlefield is among just 29 Revolutionary War sites with that status.
John Milner Associates (JMA) completed a thorough mapping project which was accepted by the National Park Service in 2011 as having satisfied the high standards of scholarship, technique and analysis. The conclusion that this is the site of heavy fighting is supported by an archeological study showing the military artifacts, mostly musket balls and cannon shot found on the Institute’s development site as well as by JMA’s analysis of the eyewitness descriptions of the action recorded by both British and American participants and witnesses. The Study directly contradicts the Institute’s stated position that nothing important happened on the land earmarked for development.
Up until recently they have denied that any part of the battle was fought on Maxwell’s Field. Despite the overwhelming evidence and admissions by some witnesses for the IAS of the significance of the field, they claim that it is irrelevant because the town no longer has a right to block their plans.
A victory at the planning board may force the IAS to finally reconsider their ill-advised development and perhaps open the door to renewed negotiations which our experts have offered for many years to relocate the development to an alternate site.
Trustee, Princeton Battlefield Society
Putting the Princeton Battlefield into its Historic Context
I think that it might be useful to take a step back in understanding that the site of the Battle of Princeton Counterattack was envisioned from the beginning to be a vital part of Princeton Battlefield State Park. In 1944 C.S. Sincerbeaux, a local well-respected civil engineer, prepared a map for the American Scenic and Historical Preservation Society showing Washington’s Counterattack at the Battle of Princeton. He showed the Counterattack to be on what is now the proposed faculty housing site. That was way back in 1944. We don’t know the sources that he used but he was amazingly accurate. We know now that he placed the Continental Army attack line just a little West of where archaeological and original account evidence now places. But Sincerbeaux’s map clearly shows, even then, that this line crossed the site.
This map then became the basis for Governor Walter Edge’s Park boundary lines, and his parcel-by-parcel determination of what needed to be acquired to establish the Park – I have a copy of that map. The Governor had originally wanted the Federal Government to create the Park, but with tight economic times at the end of World War II, and encroachment threatening the Battlefield, he rolled up his sleeves and committed to getting the job done and persuading the NJ Legislature to pass the necessary appropriation. His representative, George Brakeley , who also happened to be Vice President and Treasurer of Princeton University, then approached the Institute for Advanced Study and asked the Institute to contribute 36 acres to the project -that was in 1944. Governor Edge also sent a copy of the Sincerbeaux map to the Institute. The Institute, at that time indicated that it was favorably disposed to working with the Governor in putting the Park together. Then in 1945, the Institute purchased 129.99 acres from Robert Maxwell including the site of the Counterattack – a site that Governor Edge passionately wanted to be in the Park. It is not clear whether Mr. Maxwell knew at that time that Governor Edge was acquiring properties for the Park, but Mr. Maxwell did retain ownership of a small parcel – where it was believed that General Mercer had fallen. Later he gave that property to Governor Edge for the Park (sold it to the State for $1). I have a copy of the telegram that Mr. Maxwell sent to Governor Edge from West Palm Beach offering the property in a quick response to the Governor’s 1946 request. Mrs. Agnes Pyne Hudson also gifted property to the Park in 1947. Other parcels were purchased, some acquired under the threat of eminent domain.
In 1947 Governor Alfred Driscoll replaced Governor Edge in the State House, and continued to work with George Brakeley in developing the Park. Extraordinarily Governor Driscolll also continued to coordinate closely on Park development former Governor Edge. Upon retiring, Governor Edge purchased and moved into Morven, eventually gifting it to the State in 1954. The Governors shared a belief that the Park would have a major educational function. They also shared the strong belief that the site of the Counterattack should be a part of the Park.
Governor Driscoll sent another copy of the Sincerbeaux map to the Institute. Negotiations with the Institute dragged on for 25 long years. Finally, in 1973, the Institute for Advanced Study agreed to deed two parcels to the Park. One, a parcel of 12.264 acres was sold to the State, not gifted, for $335,000. This site bordered the Friend’s Meeting property and was the site of a previously proposed housing development. The other, in the amount of 19.38 acres was on the East side of the Park between the Clarke House and the Institute. So far I have not been able to find a copy of the deed for this property. Since that time, however, there has continued to be interest by the State in adding additional pieces of the Battlefield to the Park. The public record includes a letter addressed to the Institute in 2002 from Alvin Payne, Acting Director of Parks and Forestry, who stated: “ I would like to request that the planning board and the institute reevaluate this proposal to develop this land. I would like to recommend the institute work with the state’s Green Acres program and allow the state to purchase these parcels.”
When an issue is as charged as the proposed Institute Faculty Housing project is, it is important to get as clear an historical understanding as possible.
Kip Cherry, 1st Vice President,
Princeton Battlefield Society
Battlefield is Sacred Ground
This Thursday will likely be the last meeting of the Planning Board in Princeton at 400 Witherspoon Street at 7:30pm to decide the fateful go ahead for the 15 unit housing facility that the IAS wishes to build. The central argument seems to be whether or not there was a battle on this IAS land. In the past several months I have attended all of the planning meetings and have been following articles in the newspapers and one point sticks out. The ABPP Study along with testimonials of published historians clearly states that about 60% of the battle or what many like to call Washington’s counter attack did take place on this IAS land. An IAS supporter came forward to say that he is tired of hearing about this so-called sacred land. What else can we call ground where over 500 American and British soldiers died or were wounded on January 3rd 1777?
The IAS is pushing to develop this land and to date they don’t even have
all of their approvals including wet lands, zoning, variances, engineering issues and a 1992 resolution on cluster housing which one would surmise would be put forth before going to the Planning Board. I join many others who are passionate for history and its preservation in a biodegradable society that cares more about tearing down and building up.
History is becoming an endangered species!
R. Iain Haight-Ashton
Site Director, Wyckoff-Garretson House
Institute Should find Alternative Location
The advice of others to the Princeton Battlefield Society to focus its efforts exclusively on the needs of the battlefield and Clarke House prompts my letter. I am a Society trustee, but I write to you because I have a personal commitment to protection the Princeton Battlefield.
The Society’s challenge against IAS’ housing development on historically significant battlefield land, and the money the Society is spending, was a result of actions and disrespect by the IAS. The Society had no other recourse if we were to fulfill our mission to protect, preserve and promote the Princeton Battlefield, the Clarke House and the Revolutionary War Heritage of both. (On the same point, I question whether a housing development is contained in IAS’ mission.) A housing development on this land was and continues to be unacceptable. If some consider our stance at Planning Board meetings as obstruction, I accept that statement. The alternative is to give in to a housing development. I refuse to accept that.
Who else stepped up to take on the challenge to protect battlefield land, determined by study and testimony to be historically significant to the outcome of the battle? There are no fast food restaurants on Little Round Top in Gettysburg, so why should we stand by as a housing development is built on Princeton Battlefield land? Our challenge continues because this land is significant to American history and to our Revolutionary War heritage.
Yes, we have invested money, generously donated by people from Princeton, from New Jersey and throughout the United States, in our challenge. We continue to welcome their support. We would have preferred to invest in other ways, but the decision to build housing on this land was not ours. To step aside without a challenge to the IAS’ plans was unacceptable. Again to the point, what has been the financial drain on IAS funds for lawyers, architects, and others to plan and defend their housing development?
I continue to ask: Is this housing development necessary on this land? Wouldn’t another location be as suitable to the IAS’ purposes and respectful of the historic land in question?
The land we are fighting to protect is critical to our American Revolutionary War heritage and for the future. I ask the IAS to respect the significance of this land and to help us protect it.
Princeton Battlefield Society Trustee