A message from Jim Lighthizer, Civil War Trust president
A critical portion of the Princeton battlefield — site of George Washington’s charge that turned the tide of the Revolution — has just been saved as a result of an unprecedented agreement! Now, I ask you to join the charge to preserve this irreplaceable American treasure forever!
Today, in this season of miracles, please give me just a few moments to tell you about the one that has just happened:
I can publicly announce to you the historic compromise that will lead to the preservation of the Princeton Battlefield, the very ground where General George Washington personally led the charge that saved the American Revolution.
As you may recall, earlier this year, that hallowed ground was already being cleared in preparation for a faculty housing complex for a private independent academic institution called the Institute for Advanced Study.
Founded in 1930, the Institute hosted Albert Einstein as well as other scientists and scholars, including J. Robert Oppenheimer. Located on the eastern boundary of the battlefield, the Institute owns 21 acres known as Maxwell’s Field, over which the right wing of Washington’s heroic attack charged across this property during the January 1777 Battle of Princeton.
And let’s be clear – the Institute held all the cards, and we had none. They had every legal right to develop that land… they had all their permits… they had all their local governmental approvals…local groups had been attempting to stop the Institute’s development plans for 13 years, but time was running out.
And quite frankly, we – Campaign 1776 – got into the debate over this land at the 11th hour. Since it is also football season, I’ll use the analogy that we finally got into the game with less than a minute to go, down three touchdowns, and the Institute had the ball first and goal on our two-yard-line. The situation looked hopeless.
Earlier this year, we embarked on a massive public relations effort, funded by Campaign 1776 members, and launched the “Save Princeton Coalition,” an alliance of like-minded partner groups.
We were joined not just by groups like the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Society of the Cincinnati, and the Princeton Battlefield Society, but even organizations from “across the pond” like The Battlefields Trust of Great Britain.
The campaign was bolstered by very supportive articles and editorials published across the country, including a nationally syndicated column by George Will. You and thousands of other supporters signed an Open Letter to the Institute, asking them to reconsider their position.
Then, a few weeks ago, after extensive confidential negotiations, we and the Institute came to terms on a mutually acceptable agreement in which they agreed not only to limit the size and scope of their development…
…they agreed to sell us the most historically significant portion of Maxwell’s Field, plus a critical one-acre tract that was not even on the table previously!
This means that if we can raise the purchase price of $4 million by the closing date of December 15, 2017, this hallowed ground – arguably the most important piece of hallowed ground this organization has EVER tried to save – will be preserved forever!
15-acre target property to save at Princeton shown in yellow.
If we can raise the money in time, we will be able to acquire nearly 70 percent of Maxwell’s Field, as well as that critical adjacent one-acre tract that the Institute agreed to add to the deal at our request, for a total of 15 acres of this most historically important land.
The Institute agreed to squeeze 16 smaller townhomes onto the remaining 6 acres of their property – instead of the development of townhouses and much larger single-family homes that were originally slated to sprawl across much of this historic land – and those townhomes will be curtained off from the battlefield by a heavy screen of trees.
In summary, we got everything we could have realistically hoped for and then some, at a price that is not unreasonable for that part of the country. This is one of, if not “the” most momentous, historic, and – dare I say – “revolutionary” victories in the history of battlefield preservation!
You and your fellow members, who helped Campaign 1776 mount this nationwide public relations campaign, turned the tide of this battle, just as General Washington turned the tide of the entire American Revolution on Maxwell’s Field on January 3, 1777.
Come back with me once again to that frigid morning, nearly 240 years ago, as General George Washington executed a bold stroke – eager to follow up on his improbable Christmas night victory at Trenton, after he famously crossed the Delaware River, and before the expiration of 90-day enlistments threatened to dissolve his army completely.
Evading Cornwallis’s main army, Washington and his outnumbered rag-tag force stole a night march to attack the British reserve troops and baggage train, headquartered at Princeton.
But as Washington’s forces approached the town, the British commander there spotted the American vanguard, and fighting flared. Lines of infantry blazed away at each other from a mere 40 yards, until finally the Redcoats launched a furious bayonet attack, causing the Americans to break. American General Hugh Mercer – fighting off the blows with his sword – was bayonetted seven times and left for dead, as were many other American officers and men.
It was into this swirling chaos, with the army, and the cause of freedom, on the brink of destruction, that – in the words of historian Richard M. Ketchum – “a tall man on a white horse could be seen galloping toward the scene of battle.” Washington had arrived on the Princeton battlefield.
One patriot soldier wrote, “I looked about for the main part of the army which I could not discover, discharged my musket at part of the enemy, and ran for a piece of wood at a little distance where I thought I might shelter. At this moment, Washington appeared in front of the American army, riding toward those of us who were retreating, and exclaimed, ‘Parade with us, my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy, and we will have them directly.’ I immediately joined the main body, and marched over the ground again.”
With his men rallied behind him, Washington gave the order to advance across Maxwell’s Field, and led them to within 30 yards of the British line, ordering them to fire. The British returned the volley. Historian W.J. Wood writes that “Colonel John Fitzgerald of [Washington’s] staff covered his eyes so that he would not see his commander blasted from the saddle. Yet when the smoke began to clear, there was Washington, standing in his stirrups, calmly waving his men forward.”
It was too much for the British, and now it was their turn to break and run, with Washington shouting, “It’s a fine fox chase, my boys!” as he led the pursuit. Some British soldiers retreated all the way to Nassau Hall (now Princeton University) in the town, until a young artillery captain named Alexander Hamilton fired a few shots into the grand building. The 194 British defenders finally waved a white flag, ending the Battle of Princeton.
My friend, if the Continental Army had been destroyed – or General Washington been killed – that day at Princeton, just imagine how different our country, if we even had one, would be today.
Washington’s daring campaign, and his rallying charge across Maxwell’s Field which secured his first battlefield victory over British Regulars, was the moment that reinvigorated the Patriot cause and marked a decisive turning point in our War for Independence.
Historian David Hackett Fischer said, “This land is as central to the Battle of Princeton as the field of Pickett’s Charge is to Gettysburg and as Omaha Beach is to D-Day.”
My friend, the battlefield at Trenton is gone. Washington’s Crossing is a beautiful park, but it is not a battlefield. Princeton is the only battlefield remaining from the military campaign over these ten crucial days that helped ensure our freedom.
If we can pull this off, we will substantially complete the Princeton battlefield, turning it into one of the nation’s greatest battlefield parks.
I wish I could have told you about this stunning announcement sooner, but we have been working under a confidentiality agreement with the Institute until this week.
Now… the hard work begins. Raising the $4 million (plus an estimated $100,000 for restoration of the property) in six months will not be easy. We are actively pursuing state and federal matching funds, which we hope to secure before closing; however, the amount and availability of funds is just not known at this point.
Fortunately, some extraordinarily generous and dedicated members of our Board of Trustees, who understand just how important this land is to telling the story of our country, have already stepped forward, along with some other anonymous donors, and I can say with confidence that right now, we have about $1.5 million of the $4.1 million committed.
That still leaves $2.6 million to raise over the next six months, clearly one of the biggest challenges this organization has ever faced. That’s why I ask you, in the waning hours of 2016, to make the most generous gift you can today to Campaign 1776 to help us fund the preservation of this most-hallowed ground forever.
In honor of the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Princeton just a few weeks away, would you be able to send $240 to help save this land? If so, it will be my honor to include your name on the very first special Roll Call of Honor donor display that will stand in perpetuity at a Revolutionary War battlefield, at Princeton, just as the Civil War Trust has done at Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Appomattox and many other sites across the country.
You will be able to bring your children and grandchildren to this spot and show them that you played a major role in saving this historic landmark.
If you can give even more to this effort, it will be my honor to increase the size of your name as it appears on the Roll Call of Honor. I hope that you will seriously consider how large you would like your name to appear on this permanent marker. It’s going to be there a long time.
Your generosity right now is the only thing that gives us a chance to save the Princeton battlefield today, as well as all our nation’s threatened battlefields. Please let me hear back from you as soon as possible, and thank you for acting to save our nation’s history.
Very sincerely yours,
P.S. I know it is the end of the year, and that you are likely being bombarded with requests for help from many organizations. All I ask is this: as you are making your final year-end giving decisions, remember that Washington’s Charge at the Princeton battlefield will be lost if we cannot raise the money to save it. I obviously don’t expect you to donate the full $2.6 million to close the gap, but I do ask you to consider doing all that you can today, so that we can move one step closer to declaring this hallowed ground saved forever. Thank you, and I wish a very Merry Christmas to you and yours!
The Institute for Advanced Study and the Civil War Trust today jointly announced an agreement that would preserve 15 acres of battlefield land associated with the 1777 Battle of Princeton and enable the Institute to construct new housing for faculty on its campus. The compromise ends a decade-old controversy over Maxwell’s Field, a 21-acre tract owned by the Institute and located adjacent to the Princeton Battlefield State Park.