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The history of the Battle of Princeton

A wreath laying ceremony at the Mercer Oak in Princeton Battlefield State Park marked the anniversary of the battle from Jan. 3, 1777.

Thomas Clarke and his sister, Sarah, were expecting a cold but peaceful day on their farm between the small village of Princeton and the larger town of Trenton.

The farm field glistened with frost, but soon after that field would glisten with the bayonets of British and American soldiers in the pivotal Battle of Princeton, when the two armies met unexpectedly shortly after sunrise on Jan. 3, 1777.

Standing in the field at the Princeton Battlefield State Park on Jan. 3 – exactly 244 years to the day – Roger Williams outlined the Battle of Princeton and its significance to the nascent American Revolutionary War, which would last six more years.

Williams, who is the president of the Princeton-Cranbury Chapter of the New Jersey Society of the Sons of the American Revolution and a member of the Princeton Battlefield Society, spoke at a wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate the Battle of Princeton.

On that cold day in 1777, Thomas and Sarah Clarke watched as a long column of American Continental Army soldiers and militiamen marched in front of their farmhouse toward Princeton. They had marched all night from Trenton, about 12 miles away, on a back road to the village and a planned attack on a small contingent of British troops.

The American soldiers were cold, tired and hungry, Williams said. They had successfully repulsed a series of attacks by British troops under the command of Lord Cornwallis in Trenton on Jan. 2, 1777, in what became known as the Second Battle of Trenton.

“The Americans had successfully defended themselves in an evening cannonade at the Assunpink Creek (in Trenton), setting the stage for this stealth overnight march around Cornwallis’ overwhelming and experienced force,” Williams said.

What the Americans did not know, however, was that Cornwallis had called for reinforcements to march to Trenton. Col. Charles Mawhood and the British 4th Brigade were on their way to Trenton when they saw the American soldiers marching toward Princeton.

Realizing that the small contingent of British soldiers that he had left behind in Princeton was in danger of being overwhelmed, Mawhood and his troops turned back and began to march toward Princeton to head off the American soldiers.

“Neither side had drawn up a plan to do battle on these fields,” Williams said.

In the meantime, Gen. George Washington sent Gen. Hugh Mercer and some troops to scout out what they believed to be just a British patrol. Instead, they met the British troops “head on” in the field near the Clarke farmhouse, he said.

Mercer’s riflemen shot at the British troops, but they did not have enough time to reload before the British charged at them with bayonets fixed. As the frightened Americans scattered, Mercer tried to regroup them until his horse was shot out from under him, Williams said.

Mercer continued to fight on foot, but suffered several bayonet wounds, Williams said. A British soldier struck Mercer on the side of the head with his musket, while Mercer’s second-in-command, Col. John Haslet, died instantly when he was shot in the head.

Washington, who was about a quarter-mile away, watched the battle unfold. He led Col. Edward Hand’s Pennsylvania rifle regiment and another brigade to join the battle playing out on the Clarke farm fields. It was Hand’s regiment that had delayed Cornwallis and his troops from arriving in Trenton earlier in the day on Jan. 2, 1777.

The Americans attacked Mawhood and his troops, forcing the British to retreat. Washington and his soldiers  continued on their march to Princeton, where they defeated a small number of British troops.

Not wishing to risk another encounter with Cornwallis’ troops, Washington and his Continental Army and militiamen marched north to Morristown, where they spent the winter, Williams said.

Back at the battlefield on today’s Mercer Road, several American soldiers picked up Mercer and carried him to the Clarke farmhouse. Thomas Clarke and his sister accepted wounded British and American soldiers and with the help of their slave, Susannah, and army doctors, tried to nurse them back to health.

Despite the physicians’ efforts, Mercer died Jan. 12 of his injuries.

“The significance of the battle that took place here 244 years ago this morning (Jan. 3) cannot be overstated,” Williams said. “What happened here was the culmination of those 10 crucial days that reversed the psychological conditions of the ‘times that tried men’s souls.’ ”

The so-called “Ten Crucial Days” marks the period between Dec. 25, 1776, when Washington and his army crossed the Delaware River to surprise the Hessian troops in the First Battle of Trenton, to the Second Battle of Trenton on Jan. 2, 1777, and the Battle of Princeton the following day.

The 10-day period, which saw Washington and the Americans fight and win three decisive battles, served to energize the soldiers and demonstrated that the Americans were far from beaten, Williams said. It also reversed Washington’s declining reputation as a military commander “in the minds of both politicians and military leaders,” he said.

British morale, confidence and prestige plummeted in the aftermath of the battles, Williams said. The British and Hessian reputation for invincibility was shattered as a result of the Americans’ string of victories, he said.

“We are Americans because of what happened here,” Williams said.

In a nod to the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited the number of participants at the commemoration, Williams said that 2020 was a year that “tried our souls.” It was a year of pain and for many Americans, a year full of terror and death in a battle against an unseen enemy.

“Let us remember and honor the resolve of our fellow Americans – those who fight today, and of our ancestors who fought here on this farmland. They fight so our descendants can be proud of our history’s heroes,” Williams said. “Let the spirit of America prevail.”

Wrapping up the ceremony, Rosemary Kelly, regent of the Princeton Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Princeton Battlefield Society treasurer Thomas Pyle, Princeton Mayor Mark Freda and state Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Mercer/Somerset/Middlesex/Hunterdon) laid a wreath at the Mercer Oak, where Mercer is said to have fallen.

The New Jersey Societies of the Sons of the American Revolution presented the Princeton Battlefield Society with a $2,500 check on Jan. 3.
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