January 3, 2021 will mark the 244th anniversary of the Battle of Princeton. In that 1777 engagement, George Washington’s army won its third and climactic victory of the fabled “Ten Crucial Days” campaign that profoundly altered the course of our war for independence. It was one of the very few encounters in which the Americans defeated British regulars in open-field combat, although Washington’s roughly four-to-one numerical advantage clearly facilitated that outcome.
Courage amidst the Carnage
Princeton’s frozen ground could not absorb the blood shed during a winter morning’s savage clash. Few Revolutionary War encounters were more ferocious, and brave men abounded on both sides. Here are a few of them:
Charles Mawhood: The lieutenant colonel was an eccentric but highly esteemed officer—routinely riding into battle accompanied by a pair of “springing spaniels”—who commanded the British 4th Brigade, which held Princeton when Washington’s army arrived on January 3. Mawhood led a spirited and skillful resistance by his small contingent that held off the much-larger rebel force long enough to enable most of the British supply wagons to escape from Princeton and so exhausted the attackers—already weary after a twelve-mile overnight march from Trenton—that they were unable to achieve Washington’s primary objective of assaulting the redcoats’ supply depot at Brunswick (New Brunswick today).
Hugh Mercer: The Scottish-born general led the advance guard of his small Continental brigade into battle against Mawhood’s elite 17th Regiment of Foot in the initial phase of the engagement. Mercer refused to surrender when he toppled from his wounded horse and was surrounded by the British. He was bayoneted seven times while attempting to fight off the enemy and died nine days later in the Thomas Clarke House adjacent to the battlefield. (Mercer County, NJ, was named after him when it was created in 1838.)
John Haslet: The Irish-born colonel of the Delaware Continental Regiment was killed by a musket ball to the head while attempting to rally Mercer’s men or come to the general’s aid after the latter had fallen from his horse. Following the battle, a search of his pockets found an order from Washington for Haslet to return to Delaware to recruit soldiers for his depleted regiment, which he had deferred acting upon until the army concluded its winter campaign. Legend has it that Washington wept over the colonel’s body.
Joseph Moulder: The 62-year-old captain of the 2nd Company of Artillery, Philadelphia Associators, orchestrated a cannonade from his two-gun battery that halted the British advance—after Mawhood had routed Mercer’s vanguard—long enough for the Americans to regroup and launch a countercharge that turned the tide of battle. Today a marker graces the spot where Moulder’s young gunners stood their ground at this most pivotal moment.
Thomas Rodney: The Delaware militia captain was among those holding off the British advance until the rebel army organized its counterattack. His account attests to the ferocity of the action: “the enemies fire was dreadful and three balls, for they were very thick, had grazed me; one passed within my elbow nicking my great coat and . . . another carried away the inside edge of one of my shoesoles, another had nicked my hat and indeed they seemed as thick as hail.”
George Washington: The battle featured one of the most remarkable moments of the war when the Continental army’s commander-in-chief personally rallied his regulars and militia as he rode to within thirty paces of the British line. Washington presented an easy and obvious target for an enemy musket yet escaped without a scratch, much to the amazement of some very fretful subordinates. He reportedly inspired his troops with these words: “Parade with us, my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy, and we will have them directly.”
John Cadwalader: The colonel of the Philadelphia Associators made a valiant effort to rally his militia in the face of a fierce British bayonet charge across the frozen field after Mercer’s outnumbered vanguard had been forced to retreat. Cadwalader would lead his men forward as part of the counterattack that ensued from Washington’s effort to personally rally his troops.
Today the 96-acre Princeton Battlefield is a New Jersey state park and a registered National Historic Landmark. Visitors can walk the grounds and, once public health restrictions are lifted, will be able to explore the 1772 Thomas Clarke House, the last surviving witness to the battle. In the meantime, the Princeton Battlefield Society (PBS)—celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021—has been developing a new educational exhibit for the Clarke House Museum with the generous assistance of donors to its History & Heritage Fund. The exhibit’s opening is planned for early next year.
In recent years, PBS has been conducting tours from May through October in conjunction with the NJ Division of Parks and Forestry, and although the pandemic frustrated that effort in 2020, PBS looks forward to its resumption as soon as practicable. In addition, area Rev War buffs can anticipate (not this year but as soon as public health circumstances permit) a continuation of the annual PBS early-morning, premier educational event that celebrates the battle’s anniversary in late December or early January. For now, you can learn more about PBS and a variety of related informational resources on the PBS website while we await more opportune circumstances to celebrate and promote in person the legacy of a Revolutionary generation’s gift to posterity.