The Princeton Battlefield Area Preservation Society, known for short as the Princeton Battlefield Society (PBS), has received a grant of $47,100 from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP) for an archeological study on 29 acres of land at the site of the Battle of Princeton.
The battle was fought on January 3, 1777, after General Washington and his Continental Army had defeated the Hessians at Trenton. General Hugh Mercer, for whom Mercer County is named, lost his life there after being bayonetted.
According to the grant announcement, the PBS project would include an application to expand the boundaries of the American Revolution-Stonybrook Settlement Historic District.
As described on the municipal website, this historic district was settled circa 1686 to 1777. Placed on the National Register in 1966, it contains the site of the Battle of Princeton and includes Battlefield Park and the Stony Brook bridge on Route 206, both of which are National Historic Landmarks. In 1989 the district was enlarged to encompass the area of Stony Brook settlement established by the first Quakers in the community.
“The focus of the grant will be the D’Ambrisi property, which the State of New Jersey is in the process of acquiring with assistance from the Municipality of Princeton, Mercer County, and Princeton Open Space,” observed PBS First Vice President Kip Cherry in a press release supplementing the ABPP announcement.
“The D’Ambrisi property is important, not as the site of heavy fighting, but rather as a prominent ridge containing troops just before the battle began and as an area of retreat when most avenues of retreat were blocked, and, most importantly, as the likely burial site, possibly in a mass grave, for 36 British and American soldiers killed during the battle. The area is marked by the colonnade sitting at the top of this ridge and by a medallion placed behind the colonnade,” said Ms. Cherry.
The above-mentioned colonnade was once part of the portico to Mercer Manor, which stood on land owned by the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). After the home was demolished in 1957, the IAS preserved the columns, originally designed for a Philadelphia residence by Thomas U. Walter, architect of the dome of the U.S. Capitol building. As is recorded on a plaque at the site, the columns were donated by the IAS to the State of New Jersey. They serve as a memorial to the soldiers who died in the battle on both sides.
As Ms. Cherry pointed out in a telephone interview yesterday, the ground was frozen and General Washington was in a hurry to get his soldiers out of the area in order to evade the British General Cornwallis before he fast-marched his army back to Princeton. “The timing and the fact that the ground had frozen overnight, made burying the dead difficult,” said Ms. Cherry, adding that the extent of the burial ground is unknown.
Asked whether there were any plans to dig up the mass grave thought to be close by the colonnade, Ms. Cherry said that whether there was a mass grave or not had yet to be determined. “We are hoping that archaeological evidence will give us clues so that we can better interpret what happened in both the early stages and the late stages of the battle, and where the mass grave might be.” She mentioned the importance of using ground penetrating radar in acquiring such information.
According to Ms. Cherry, the D’Ambrisi property will be annexed to Princeton Battlefield State Park. She stated that the Princeton Battlefield Society sees this effort as an ideal method for acquiring Battlefield property that had a major role in the Battle of Princeton. “The key is to have a willing seller who understands that by putting this land into the public domain to be interpreted as a part of the Battle, they are creating a permanent legacy.”
The scope of the proposed PBS study is being described by Mr. Hurwitz as a “model for any archaeological survey.” As such, it is being compared by the PBS to the archaeological survey currently being conducted by the Institute for Advanced Study, which plans to build faculty housing on its property close by the Princeton Battlefield State Park.
The IAS has been required by the Princeton Planning Board to conduct the survey and hopes to do so before a public hearing of its housing plan by the Board on September 18.
The site on which the IAS plans to build is known as Maxwell Field and is described by the PBS as the site of General Washington’s winning counterattack at the Battle of Princeton.
“Unlike Maxwell Field, where the winning counterattack occurred, this property [D’Ambrisi property] has never been explored for artifacts,” commented PBS President Jerry Hurwitz. “Therefore the work will begin with historical research, followed by ground penetrating radar (GPR) to determine whether there are any anomalies or indications of artifacts. The property will then be plowed and cross-plowed followed by a full regimen of metal detection.”
Referring to the Institute for Advanced Study’s current archeological survey, Mr. Hurwitz commented that “the plowing and cross plowing is always a necessary first step before metal detection and thus far we have not seen any sign of plowing and cross plowing by the Institute for Advanced Study on Maxwell Field.”
“This is one of a number of concerns we have regarding an archaeological survey of Maxwell Field by the Institute,” he said.
In addition, Mr. Hurwitz pointed out that the ABPP grant for the D’Ambrisi property calls for Geographic Information Systems-based mapping (GIS) and Key Terrain Observation and Fields of Fire, Cover and Concealment, Obstacles, Avenues of Approach (KOCOA) analysis similar to what was done for the site of the counterattack on Maxwell Field under a previous ABPP Grant to the Battlefield Society.
This analysis resulted in a 2010 report by John Milner Associates, titled Battle of Princeton Mapping Project: Report of Military Terrain Analysis and Battle Narrative, often referred to as the “Milner Study.”
Findings of the Milner Study are commented upon on the IAS website (www.ias.edu/about/faculty-housing/perservation-historical-context).