PRINCETON, N.J. — One of history’s most important battles happened here on a field you can walk across in less than half the 45 or so minutes the battle lasted. If George Washington’s audacity on Jan. 3, 1777, had not reversed the patriots’ retreat and routed the advancing British, the American Revolution might have been extinguished.
Yet such is America’s neglect of some places that sustain its defining memories, the portion of the field over which Washington’s nation-saving charge passed is being bulldozed to make way for houses for faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). To understand the gravity of this utterly unnecessary desecration, you must understand the astonishingly underestimated Battle of Princeton.
In December 1776, the Revolution was failing. Britain had sent to America 36,000 troops — at that point, the largest European expeditionary force ever — to crush the rebellion before a French intervention on America’s behalf. Washington had been driven from Brooklyn Heights, then from Manhattan, then out of New York. The nation barely existed as he retreated across New Jersey, into Pennsylvania.
But from there, on Christmas night, he crossed the Delaware River ice floes for a successful 45-minute (at most) attack on Britain’s Hessian mercenaries at Trenton. This was Washington’s first victory; he had not been at Lexington, Concord or Bunker Hill. Trenton would, however, have been merely an evanescent triumph, were it not for what happened 10 days later.
On Jan. 2, 1777, British Gen. Charles Cornwallis began marching 5,500 troops from Princeton to attack Washington’s slightly outnumbered forces at Trenton. Washington, leaving a few hundred soldiers to tend fires that tricked Cornwallis into thinking the patriot army was encamped, made a stealthy 14-mile night march to attack three British regiments remaining at Princeton. They collided on this field.
The most lethal weapons in this war were bayonets. The British had them. Few Americans did, and they beat a panicked retreated from the advancing steel.
By his personal bravery, Washington reversed this and led a charge. An unusually tall man sitting on a large white horse, he was a clear target riding as close to British lines as first base is to home plate.
Biographer Ron Chernow writes that, at Princeton, Washington was a “warrior in the antique sense. The eighteenth-century battlefield was a compact space, its cramped contours defined by the short range of muskets and bayonet charges, giving generals a chance to inspire by their immediate presence.”
When the redcoats ran, the British aura of invincibility and the strategy of “securing territory and handing out pardons” (Chernow) were shattered. And the drift of American opinion toward defeatism halted.
In his four-volume biography of Washington, James Thomas Flexner said: “The British historian George Trevelyan was to write concerning Trenton: ‘It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world.’ But such would not have been the result if Washington had not gone on to overwhelm Princeton.”
This ground, on which patriots’ blood puddled on that 20-degree morning, has been scandalously neglected by New Jersey. Now it is being vandalized by the Institute for Advanced Study, which has spurned a $4.5 million purchase offer — more than $1 million above the appraised value — from the invaluable Civil War Trust, which is expanding its preservation activities to Revolutionary War sites.
In today’s academia there are many scholars against scholarship, including historians hostile to history — postmodernists who think the past is merely a social construct reflecting the present’s preoccupations, or power structures, or something.
They partake of academia’s preference for a multicultural future of diluted, if not extinguished, nationhood, and they dislike commemorating history made by white men with guns. The IAS engaged a historian who wrote a report clotted with today’s impenetrable academic patois. He says we should not “fetishize space,” and he drapes disparaging quotation marks around the words “hallowed ground.”
The nation owes much to the IAS, which supported Albert Einstein, physicist Robert Oppenheimer and the diplomat and historian George F. Kennan. It is especially disheartening that a distinguished institution of scholars is indifferent to preserving a historic site that can nourish national identity.
The battle to save this battlefield, one of the nation’s most significant and most neglected sites, is not yet lost. The government in today’s Trenton, and in the city named for the man who won the 1777 battle, should assist the Civil War Trust.
George F. Will is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.