NPS Logo

Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Suggested Reading

Colonials and Patriots
Survey of
Historic Sites and Buildings

National Historic Landmark PRINCETON BATTLEFIELD
New Jersey

Location: N.J. 583, south edge of Princeton, Mercer County.

Ownership and Administration (1961). Department of Conservation and Economic Development, Forests and Parks Section, State of New Jersey.

Significance. Washington's victory at Princeton on January 3, 1777, like that at Trenton a week earlier, heightened the morale of the American Army as well as that of the citizens, and strengthened the reputation and authority of Washington himself. The twin victories of Trenton and Princeton came at a time when the spirits of the American people had reached a dangerously low ebb, when another defeat might have been fatal to the cause of independence. The situation brightened with these successes at the year's end, and from every corner militiamen flocked to the colors. A new Continental Army emerged.

Following his defeat of the Hessians at Trenton on December 26, 1776, Washington returned to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. Safely across, he determined to hit the enemy again and returned to New Jersey on the night of December 30-31. Lord Charles Cornwallis, British commander in New Jersey, took a position confronting Washington, who stood with his back to the Delaware. Confident that the rebels could not escape, Cornwallis decided to wait until morning to strike the Americans. In a daring maneuver, Washington slipped away in the night, got in the rear of the British forces, and early on January 3 struck two British regiments just leaving Princeton to join Cornwallis. In the sharp fight that followed, several American assaults were thrown back in confusion. For a time the Army appeared on the verge of defeat, but Washington rallied his forces and finally drove the enemy from the field. One detachment of the enemy sought refuge in Princeton's Nassau Hall, where it was easily captured. The 15-minute fight at Princeton cost the Americans 40 killed and wounded, including Gen. Hugh Mercer, who died of wounds shortly after the battle.

Mercer Oak
The "Mercer Oak" marks the traditional site where Gen. Hugh Mercer was mortally wounded in the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777. (Courtesy, New Jersey Department of Conservation and Economic Development.)

Present Appearance (1961). The scene of heaviest fighting in the battle is preserved in a 40-acre State park on the southern outskirts of Princeton. A handsome oak tree marks the spot that tradition identifies as the place where General Mercer received his death wound. The Clarke House at the edge of the battlefield was the scene of Mercer's death. A memorial arch on the west edge of the field marks the site where unknown American dead were buried in unmarked graves. The battlefield tract is surrounded by urban housing but, because of the small-scale nature of the action, the 40 acres of the field now preserved is sufficient to protect the scene. The park is undeveloped and there is as yet no attempt to interpret on the field the action that occurred there. Of the sites of the two crucial battles of Trenton and Princeton, only Princeton remains. The scene of the fighting at Trenton has been obliterated by the growth of the city, although an extensively restored and altered barracks building dating from 1759 still stands. [36]

Previous Next
Last Updated: 09-Jan-2005