Let me take a break from Civil War topics here and shift back “four score and seven years” further back in time and 150 miles east (from Gettysburg).
The place is Princeton, New Jersey. General George Washington lead the Continental Army to victory there on January 3, 1777. A victory for the Americans, it was a key point in the Revolutionary War. Not familiar with the battle? Let me direct you to the Campaign 1776 site for more details about the battle of Princeton.
Why I bring it up? Well, Princeton is in the news this summer. On September 16, the Princeton Battlefield State Park officially grows by 4.6 acres, putting some important ground within the park boundary. Campaign 1776 helped facilitate this preservation project, in conjunction with the Princeton Battlefield Society and others. An early victory, if you will, in that worthy campaign. The article goes on to state, “The Princeton Battlefield Society plans to use National Park Service grants to conduct an archaeological investigation in cooperation with and supervision by the state Park Service.” So not only is this just adding more ground that you and I can walk over, this is ground that will be examined – properly examined – to help tease out more details on events that took place 238 some odd years ago. In other words, the preserved resources will further our understanding of history.
Not to downplay that positive note, but there are still portions of the battlefield at Princeton that are not preserved, can be preserved, and in need of attention. Another portion of the battlefield which has been in the news this summer is eyed for development. The Institute for Advanced Study owns property adjacent to the state park and has plans to build a set of townhouses. The ground is not simply near the battlefield, but actually the location of some significant fighting. Indeed, 663 artifacts, 10 of which related to the action, were collected on the 7 acre tract. In July, the courts upheld a temporary injunction requested by the Princeton Battlefield Society to halt development. There was another hearing on September 3. But I have not seen any details on that.
This is a similar story line we hear in regard to Civil War sites. And in part why I am bringing this up is to demonstrate that preservationists are not narrowly focused on one era or period or genre. In that regard, we can take lessons from one effort to apply to others. At Princeton, the battlefield society has ably and rightly called out the presence of artifacts intact on the field. Quoting Kip Cherry, Vice-President of the society:
“What were the troop movements? How did the battle progress? The Battle of Princeton was a critical turning point, so it is an important battle to understand.”
Now some will say as a counter to this that we have written accounts, maps, books, and over two centuries of study to help us understand the battle. Why do we need the land and those artifacts? Well I would respond that we simply don’t know what we don’t know. And what we do know is not enough.
Now history tells us that on January 3, 1777, Washington’s command was an underdog. Chances of Washington winning a campaign, much less the rebellion, carried long odds. Yet, here we are. The story of what happened at Princeton, and earlier at Trenton, that winter are classical cases where a military commander turned the odds around. How those odds got turned around is the heart of the Princeton story. And precious details to that lay in the ground and with the land itself. Plotting where artifacts lay will in some cases shape the understanding of the battle lines – affirming what has already been written or introducing new data that might change those notions. Detailed study of the lay of the land offers insight into factors that faced the soldiers on that cold winter day.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating – battlefield land is a primary resource. That’s why I champion preservation of battlefields from any era.