J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Present Battle of Princeton

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has released its latest list of most endangered sites in America, and on that list is the Princeton Battlefield.

I’m of two minds on this. While I like preservation of historic sites and open spaces, the development that’s threatening part of that battlefield isn’t a new strip mall or factory or interstate highway. It’s faculty housing for the Institute for Advanced Study, which helped to create the battlefield park in the first place. The institute likes to provide peace and quiet and a level of rusticity for the scholars working there. I can’t help but see that use of land as a Good Thing. (For full disclosure, my uncle spent several months at the I.A.S. a few years ago, though it wasn’t a big change of scene for him since he lives on the other side of Princeton.)

I also think the Battle of Princeton isn’t quite as important as it’s often made out to be. It looms larger in American memory because it was a rare battlefield victory for Gen. George Washington, and because it was so close to the campus of an influential college. Indeed, the Princeton buildings that existed then, including Nassau Hall, were used by both armies. But since the campus and nearby neighborhood have already been developed (and people are fond of the result), there’s no preservation outcry. Of course, such an outcry would be far too late.

This map shows land now used by the I.A.S. in brown at the right. The present battlefield park is in green at the center. The grayish area marked 2 is where the I.A.S. wants to build more housing while keeping the blue area as a wooded buffer. Some fighting and maneuvers occurred over all four areas, as well as developed land nearby. Does that make preserving all the possible land more important? Or does that mean the battlefield park is necessarily symbolic, and the specific land is less important?

I’ll let you make up your own (two?) minds. For folks in the region, on 29 September the Princeton Battlefield Society is sponsoring:
A full day of activities including Battlefield and Clarke House Tours, Children’s Scavenger Hunt and games, Colonial Demonstrations, Soldiers of the Battle, and book sales, giveaways, and prizes.

Programs start at 10:00 A.M. and go to 4:00 P.M. At 4:00 P.M., Colonial Music by THE PRACTITIONERS OF MUSICK and at 5:00 PM, a performance of CATO A TRAGEDY, by Joseph Addison, by the Princeton Shakespeare Company at the Columns. (George Washington requested a performance of CATO during the encampment at Valley Forge.)
I believe there‘s been some recent questioning of that last statement, but there’s no question that Washington quoted from Cato in his letters from the start of the war.


Will Tatum said...

In point of fact, there was a Princeton Battlefield State Park prior to the IAS's sale of land, which was used to expand it. And the IAS had to be pressured into making that sale by the then-governor of New Jersey. They have since signed several agreements that stated they would not develop Maxwell Field, the last remaining piece of the battlefield that is not yet under modern buildings.

Having led eight staff rides of the site, I can testify to the importance of this surviving land as a teaching tool. It is also an invaluable archaeological time capsule for confirming our ideas of how the battle played out. The IAS will happily destroy all of this in the name of profit, joining a growing list of educational institutions that characterize the new predatory corporate model of higher learning. And let us not forget that these "faculty" do no teaching and otherwise make no direct contributions to the cause of education in this country as part of their tenure at that institution.

I am very much surprised at your dismissive approach to the importance of this battle: perhaps it appears minor from the perspective of Boston in 1775, but I doubt many of the participants in that campaign would agree with your dismissive and indeed narrow analysis. One would think that the reversal of British fortunes in New Jersey and their virtual abandoning of that province would be enough to mark Princeton as a signal engagement. Considering that you have felt empowered to ignore decades of scholarship on the topic, I suppose there is little anyone could say to convince you to the contrary of your current opinion.

I really am surprised and shocked at this post, Mr. Bell. I have generally been impressed with the quality of your scholarship and the amazing perspectives you have opened on revolutionary Boston. Your myopic post on Princeton and the continuing fight to save an irreplaceable part of our revolutionary heritage does no justice to your prior work. Perhaps this post best falls under the "gossip" portion of your blog's description.

For better information on the struggle to save the last surviving portion of the Princeton Battlefield, I suggest readers consult the Princeton Battlefield Society's website at www.theprincetonbattlefieldsociety.com

J. L. Bell said...

I wrote clearly that I was "of two minds" on this issue. I linked to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the Princeton Battlefield Society, and highlighted an upcoming event of the latter, because I wanted to let readers learn about the conflict and make up their own minds.

One thing that could certainly sway me against the preservation effort is a sanctimonious and close-minded lecture.

That lecture appears to include waving the bloody shirt (invoking "the participants in that campaign"), dismissing the work of scholarly institutions that don't directly involve teaching (like the David Library of the American Revolution and many others), and claiming that a non-profit organization is acting "in the name of profit."

That lecture does not include any evidence to bolster the relative importance of the Princeton battle compared to Trenton (usually seen as the real "reversal of British fortunes in New Jersey") or Brandywine (a much larger fight over much wider ground, little of it within the state park).

There's no regional myopia in how I've questioned the importance of parts of Revolutionary history, including James Otis's "writs of assistance" argument and even Paul Revere's ride on 18-19 Apr 1775. And perhaps someone who's "led eight staff rides of the site" is literally too close to that land to lecture others about wider perspectives.

In the posting above I sought to lay out my mix of feelings about this particular issue. I'm glad that part of the Princeton battlefield has been preserved, and I hope that its interpretation budget can grow. (The last time I was there, the biggest signage seemed to be a Boy Scout project. An impressive one, but still.) But, as with how the preserve Battle Road here in Massachusetts when it's also a well traveled highway through the suburbs, there are necessary considerations and compromises.

John Mills said...

John Mills

I would like to make several comments relative to the Battle of Princeton and to the preservation of the site.

In and of itself, Princeton was one of the more fiercely fought battles of the war with comparitively high casualities for the number engaged. As you mentioned it is one of Washington's few victories and his first over British troops. The battle was a very active engagement for Washington and his actions, riding between the lines (where several eyewitness place him) and leading from the front, were critical to the outcome. It is also the first major land engagement for the Continental Marines including the loss of a PA Marine officer.

But above that,Princeton demonstrated that the critical Battle of Trenton was not just an isolated victory, or even just a successful raid but rather turned the whole affair into a campaigne, with enormous implications for keeping an American Army in the field, for keeping Washington in command, and impressing upon the British command that this war needed to be fought in a much different manner. Its local strategic value was to move Washington's forces into a stroger and more defensable position at Morristown, and causing the British to lose control of central New Jersey.

As to preservation of the property in question, it should indeed be preserved. The State Park on the site was created by the State of New Jersey in 1946, well before additional property was acquired from The Insititue For Advanced Study. That additional property from the IAS was the result of public action against an earlier IAS faculty houing project circa 1970. The current housing project is on land owned by the IAS and zoning does permit the project they propose. But in terms of preservation interest, this parcel was fought upon and is centrally located in the historic battle ground. It is adjacent to the exsiting park and is part of the historic viewscape of that park and is of great import in understanding and appreciating the history of the site. It is also the last remaining parcel either not preserved or developed.

I have been associated with the battlefield for 27 years and I am constantly finding new things to learn or appreciate with the site and the site's history. I grew up in Massachusetts, grew to love history, particularly colonial and revolutionary history, there. I joined my local minute and militia company and would make the march from our historic training field in Framingham, to Concord each Patriot's Day. I also volunteered at Minute Man NHP and worked for several museums in New England. I always felt we had a corner on Revolutionary War history there. But living in NJ has made me appreciate how much of the war was a struggle for control of the Delaware and Hudson Rivers. The Battle of Princeton had a critical role in that struggle and preservation of the land upon which it was fought has a critical role in helping the general public, the military staff rides,and school and scout groups appreciate and understand what happened there. The IAS deserves the respect it has earned as a place research and advanced thought in science, mathmatics, and the humanities. The important and critical Battle of Princeton (which shares the same ground)and the men who fought there also deserve the respect they have earned. Preservation is a way to show that respect.