Fight over the battlefield
The Princeton Battlefield has been a place of quiet contemplation for more than two centuries, where scholars and aspiring history buffs can walk on the hallowed ground of one of the nation's most pivotal battles. Yet a new struggle has emerged on this land in recent years, not between the redcoats and the rebels, but between an academic institution and a local preservation society.
At stake is a parcel of land, roughly 25 acres in size, owned by the Institute of Advanced Study, on which the Institute wants to build faculty housing. Members of the Princeton Battlefield Society — a volunteer group dedicated to preserving the Revolutionary War site — claim that the parcel is part of the original battlefield and must be saved.
"There are some sites that are hallowed ground, that are just too sacred to be played with," said Jerry Hurwitz, president of the Princeton Battlefield Society.
Hurwitz said that by developing the land, the Institute will permanently destroy an important part of history.
Critics of the planned development say the Institute, situated on over 500 acres of wooded and open property, has plenty of land to build on without compromising the small tract adjacent to the eastern edge of the battlefield, which is now a state park.
Hurwitz, a self-proclaimed history buff, has led the charge against the Institute's plans and urged other community members to follow suit. "What happened on that battlefield touches us today," said Hurwitz, noting the countless individuals who enjoy visiting the site each year and learning about its history.
According to Hurwitz, the Institute went before the Princeton Regional Planning Board in 2003 with plans to develop 15 to 19 units of faculty housing on the battlefield site.
At the time, the committee determined there was a flaw in the plans and sent the Institute back to the drawing board. Hurwitz and his supporters have continued to lobby against the development.
Institute Director Peter Goddard declined to comment over the holiday weekend, and repeated calls to the Institute's public affairs office went unanswered.
Princeton students in battle
As one ascends the main bluff overlooking the open fields that played host to gruesome scenes of bloodshed, the bell tower of Nassau Hall is the lone landmark that can be spotted, edging over the tree line. The University, then known as the College of New Jersey, was intimately linked to the events that transpired on the battlefield less than a mile away.
Nassau Hall was used as a barracks, hospital and prison while the British occupied the town from Dec. 7, 1776, until the Battle of Princeton on Jan. 3, 1777.
John Mills, the park's chief historian, noted that at least two Princetonians witnessed the battle firsthand. Benjamin Rush, a graduate of the Class of 1760 and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, is said to have tended to the mortally wounded General Hugh Mercer, who was stabbed seven times during the battle.
Mills said Ashbel Green, a graduate of the University and its president from 1812 to 1822, originated the legend of the cannonball decapitation of King George II's portrait in Nassau Hall. As a student, Green observed Alexander Hamilton's unit firing a cannonball through the portrait, Mills added.
Historians are largely unanimous in their assertion that the Battle of Princeton was a critical point in the war — part of the period commonly referred to as the "10 crucial days" — that turned the tide in favor of George Washington's forces during a time of great desperation.
Emeritus history professor John Murrin said in the context of the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Princeton "is one of the really big significant actions."
"I think the Trenton-Princeton campaign really did turn the war around," he added.
Great place to visit
The Princeton Battlefield State Park, as the grounds are officially termed, was dedicated in October 1946 and named a historical landmark in 1961. The 85 acres of woodland and open plains boasts hiking trails and is open to cross-country skiing in the winter.
The William Clarke Museum, established in the former Clarke family residence that hosted many of the wounded after the battle, hosts Revolutionary War displays. Parts of the house are furnished as they might have been during the era.
Mills credits Princeton's ability to "attract a lot of people from around the world," as a contributing factor for the diverse crowd at the park. "We have local people; we have school groups; we have organized bus tours," said Mills, adding that "a great many people just use the park itself as a great place to fly kites and picnic."
Murrin, who has led tours to the site, said that "when you walk over that field, it's hard to imagine it was a battlefield; it's such nice pastoral scene."
A long fight
Given the seemingly stoic and tranquil nature of the battlefield, it can be easy to forget that a legal tug-of-war is underway.
Hurwitz said the best solution for resolving the issue is for the Institute to obtain a conservation easement from the state to build on land farther away from the battlefield currently off-limits to development.
In return for permitting development elsewhere on the property, the Institute would agree to sell the tract of land adjacent to the park back to the state.
"We're simply talking about swapping," Hurwitz said, "I would dare say that most Americans, if they knew about [this swap proposal], would say the same thing."
Mills, who interacts with battlefield visitors on a daily basis, said that many are concerned about the prospect of housing on land that may have been part of the battlefield.
Supporters of the preservation program say they are geared up for a long fight.
"There is so much that one can learn about our country," said Hurwitz, reflecting on why the Preservation Society continues to advocate on behalf of the state park. "There are lessons there that still hold true today."
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