Washington’s Crossing and Princeton Battlefield

It turned out to be relatively nice last weekend and a group of us decided to go for a day trip to visit a few local historical sites.  We had several options on the table; on one hand, we had Germantown, Brandywine, and Paoli–all located near Philadelphia and within a half hour drive of each other.  The other option was Washington’s Crossing and Princeton (about 25 minutes apart).  While all of these locations are interesting, we ultimately decided upon the latter two, being as I’ve never been to either and yet both were so important to the American cause in 1776-7.

We left around 10:30 in the morning after picking up some coffee and breakfast.  Waking up early to go on these trips is always a difficulty for me–especially on a weekend–but usually after some Wawa coffee I’m ready to go.   What I didn’t take into account was whether I’d be able to sip any of that coffee; while Route 611 to Route 32 is quite scenic (great views of the valley and the Delaware River), the road itself is bumpy (and I was wearing a white shirt) so I didn’t actually get to drink my coffee until the first stop–the Bowman’s Hill Tower.

After an exhausting five minute climb up the windy staircase to the top, the view was breathtakingly awesome (despite being overcast):

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Posted at the bottom of the tower.

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Seems legit (inside a port-a-potty).

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Looking North.

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Looking East.

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Looking South

Neat, right?  Not bad for $6 a ticket.  It’s pretty cool to see the river cutting through the landscape like that.  We were supposed to be able to see a large American flag where a large number of Revolutionary War soldiers were buried, but we could not locate the site.

The venture back down took less than half the time than it did going up, and soon we were back in the car and onto the main attraction: Washington’s Crossing itself.

Granted, nothing of immediate significance surrounds Washington’s Crossing.  No battle was fought there (save against the elements); it was merely a part of Washington’s New Jersey campaign.  A fording of a river is common practice in military strategy (especially before the days of helicopters).  But it was an important event.  Washington’s army was significantly weakened at Long Island, when the British forces captured New York and defeated his army.  This also followed the defeat of Benedict Arnold’s force in Quebec (during which one of my ancestors, Philip Newhart, was captured).  These defeats cost Washington dearly; the morale of his army was nearly gone.  The cause suffered as well–the British victories sparked a rise in Loyalist activity that threatened to stamp out the wavering revolution.

Washington’s army sat balanced on the tip of a fulcrum.  If Washington could not rally his men and gain support for his cause, support would evaporate and the scales would tip–the war would be over.   He needed a decisive victory.  His decision to cross the Delaware and attack the forces at Trenton on Christmas night in 1776 would bring that very win the Continental army needed.

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Looking towards the Pennsylvania side of the river, where Washington and his army crossed, from the New Jersey side.

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Ditto.

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On the Pennsylvania side, at the site of the only house presently on the site that was there during the crossing: McConkey’s Ferry Inn. New additions have been made since the 18th century.

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Ditto.

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A beautiful rest area for a picnic.

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An explanation of the crossing and the significance of its location explained.

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From the museum at the site; an amazingly well-crafted powder horn.

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After Washington crossed the Delaware in 1776, the site began to grow into a small village. This is one of the 18th century homes built following the initial crossing (it was not there at the time of the Christmas crossing in 1776).

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A picture of a waterfall at the site on the New Jersey side.

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The letter from Washington indicating that a crossing was necessary.

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Durham Boat House which stores the replica Durham boats used in annual reenactments of the crossing.

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Pretty cool.

The location was fantastic and well-maintained.  We found a quiet little picnic area and at lunch before moving onward to Princeton.

The weather was finally starting to come around by the afternoon; the sun was coming out, though threats of severe thunderstorms continued to loom over us (pending word from local weather forecasters).  We arrived at Princeton around 2PM, finding that barely anyone was there (a hidden treasure to be sure).  Walking around the nearly deserted battlefield, no more than a few hundred acres in size, was quite thrilling for me.

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A bit of an explanation of the importance of this battlefield.

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The Thomas Clarke house still stands; you can just make it out behind the large tree in the background. It now functions as a museum to the battlefield.

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This is the lower end of the battlefield, facing the Thomas Clarke house (far upper-right). At one time a mighty oak stood here, a witness tree to the battle (and the only one surviving). The tree collapsed in the early 2000’s, unfortunately, leaving only this stump. A few yards ahead of this tree is where General Hugh Mercer was bayoneted to death while holding the ground for Washington and his additional troops to arrive.

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Another explanation of the importance of this battle.

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This flag stands in the center of the battlefield on this side of the road. It marks the line of the Continental army as it moved against the British (Continentals moved from right to left in this photo as the British were ascending up the hill from the left).

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Hugh Mercer memorial. In background, a bit of Thomas Clarke house is visible.

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From this spot (Clarke house is behind us and slightly left), the Continental army rallied and moved forward (directly to the front would have been the advancing British army) with General Washington actually at the head of the column–from here, victory was again won following the Battle of Trenton.

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Plan of battle. A map from the museum. Look for the Thomas Clarke house for perspective.

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This painting was done by James Peale, who actually fought at the Battle of Princeton in Washington’s army. A print exists in the museum.

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Photo from inside the museum. Note the Thomas Clarke house.

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Some of the relics inside the Thomas Clarke house.

It is easy to forget how powerful a battle this was; it is such a small parcel of land–a fraction of that which was fought over at Gettysburg (some 86 years later).  But the battle was the fiercest fought for its size and marked the second in a series of victories for Washington and his army; this battle occurred in January, immediately following the battle of Trenton.  It started with a few regiments of foot and grew to envelope tens of thousands of soldiers.  If not for Washington’s victory at Princeton, who knows what might have happened?

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George Washington leading his army forward at the Battle of Princeton, by Don Troiani (notice the Clarke house in the middle-upper-right and the green hunting frocks of the Pennsylvania riflemen? I did).

Following this excursion (and in a bit of non sequitur), we decided to make a quick trip into town to check out the local music stop (the Princeton Record Exchange), where we all got something fun (I made sure to get a Jazz LP).  I proudly (and courageously) wore my Rutgers cap the whole time we were in town (so take that, Princeton)!

The commute home was tedious and trying–the storm finally hit, causing us to pull off the road and into a parking lot because we could see nothing in front or around us.  It passed quickly enough, and we were again on our way.  It was a fantastic little outing that I hope to replicate again in the future (and hope you all do as well).  You know, I never did get to finish my coffee.  Oh well.

Discuss the past

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