May 25, 2016

Theatricals and Time Travel on the Princeton Battlefield

By Stuart Mitchner

Ever since Einstein revealed his special theory of relativity, we’ve known that time travel — at least moving forward through time — is possible. Einstein didn’t pull this theory, or even the notion that time travel is possible, out of thin air. Rather, he took the knowledge of the day, saw an inconsistency — a piece of a puzzle that didn’t fit, so to speak — and thought about possible explanations. — PBS, Nova Online

Viewers immersed in the Starz series Outlander, where a feisty English nurse is transported from 1945 to the mid-18th-century Scottish Highlands, will know why I’m time-travelling back to January 3, 1777, and Brigadier General Hugh Mercer. The most sympathetic figure to emerge from the Battle of Princeton, Mercer might as well have been a time-traveller himself, given the shape-shifting sweep of his story. Born in 1726 in Scotland, a graduate in medicine from the University of Aberdeen, assistant surgeon in the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie, he survived the bloody Battle of Culloden, fled Scotland to America after months in hiding from the likes of Outlander’s Redcoat-from-Hell Black Jack Randall, practiced medicine for eight years before becoming a Redcoat himself in 1755, joining a Pennsylvania regiment in the French and Indian War, rising to the rank of colonel and becoming friends with fellow officer George Washington. Two decades later, after crossing the Delaware (some say the plan was his idea) and playing a key role in the Battle of Trenton, he met his fate at Princeton by refusing to stand down to British soldiers who at first mistook him for Washington, calling him out in language (“you damned rebel!”) that may well have sent his mind back to Culloden, moving him to draw his sword in what seemed at that moment a lost cause. After being savagely beaten and bayonetted, he died nine days later, January 12, 1777, at the Clarke house. According to legend, he refused to leave his men and was taken to a resting place under the white oak tree that would become known as “the Mercer Oak.” By that time, he’d have heard in one form or another Washington’s cry of victory, “The day is ours!”

The portrait of Mercer online has a timeless quality. Too often military portraits resemble busts, faces locked into noble or triumphant attitudes. Mercer seems to be listening to music or poetry, his eyes thoughtful and sensitive, suggestive of a man who sees beyond the battlefield, perhaps beyond the age.

Washington the Actor

Now that Broadway and the American Revolution have come together in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Hamilton, it seems a fitting time to consider the Battle of Princeton’s theatrical potential. Discussing the theater of war and political theater in George Washington’s Journey (Simon & Schuster $28), T.H. Breen says that Washington’s lifelong enthusiasm for the stage had “deep personal roots” involving “an almost excessive concern with appearances” and the conviction that he was “always an actor onstage,” which in turn made him “highly sensitive to the expectations of the different audiences that he encountered through his long career.” There are frequent references to “the stage of human action” throughout his correspondence, where he compares the drafting of the Constitution to an “unprecedented theatrical production,” writing to one friend “that a greater Drama is now acting on this Theater than has heretofore been brought on the American Stage, or any other in the World.” Comparing his political performances as commander in chief to “dramatic exhibitions,” John Adams saw him “crafting the role of president.”

Onstage at Princeton

The qualities Adams numbers among Washington’s “talents,” notably his handsome face and impressive height, were on display at the Battle of Princeton, where he appeared on a white horse, rallying his embattled troops as he rode to “within 30 paces of the British lines, presenting a tempting target to the Redcoats,” according to Patrick K. O’Donnell’s Washington’s Immortals (Grove Atlantic $28). One of Washington’s aides is said to have covered his eyes with his hat when British marksmen fired “a tremendous volley” at the general, but when the smoke cleared, Washington was still on his horse, “calling on his men to join him” in words that are essentially the same in every account of the scene, “Parade with us, my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy and we will have them directly!”

Hamilton Has a Blast

While Ron Chernow’s best-selling biography is the source and inspiration for Miranda’s musical, Alexander Hamilton makes an interesting entrance in Richard Ketchum’s The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton (Holt 1973) as “a small, delicate youth not quite twenty years old” riding “along beside the guns, lending his horse now and then to help pull a cannon over a rough spot while he walked alongside, patting the gun’s barrel from time to time as if it were a personal acquaintance.” Later in the book Hamilton makes good use of the cannon as British refugees from the lost battle holed up in Nassau Hall knock the glass out of the windows and open fire — until Hamilton starts “blasting away at the walls,” one shot blazing through the prayer hall, “decapitating the portrait of King George II inside,” another bouncing off the building and nearly killing someone’s horse. Hamilton’s earlier connection with Princeton is noted in the second number of Miranda’s musical, “Aaron Burr, Sir,” when Hamilton tells Burr “I heard your name at Princeton … I wanted to do what you did. Graduate in two, then join the Revolution.”

Comic Relief

Among the scenes that might be material for a comic subplot in a musical or opera based on The Battle of Princeton, there’s a British soldier’s account of the Nassau Hall aftermath in William M. Dwyer’s The Day Is Ours! (Viking 1983): “It was a warm, foggy morning. We had eaten our breakfast and were in the college yard, stripped, with our coats and hats off, playing ball.” At the sound of “men’s feet tramping,” there was no time “to look for our coats and hats,” nothing to do but climb over a fence: “I sprung and threw my breast across the top rail. At that instant, a ball from a field piece struck in the middle of the rail … took the rail in two … and I was cast to the ground swift, [it] gave me such a jar, I thought myself mortally wounded.”

In The Winter Soldiers, the ever resourceful Sergeant White of the victorious Americans, “always one to see what he could scrounge in the wake of the fighting” slipped into old Nassau, locked himself into a room where a table had been set with a plate of toast, a teapot, everything ready for breakfast, all his and why not, he’d been marching through the night and fighting in the morning. Looking around the room, he spotted “a brand new silk-lined British officer’s coat, so fresh that the paper was still on the plated buttons, an elegant silk skirt, a pair of silk shoes, and a small gilt Bible.” As there were also some huge barrels of flour among the supplies abandoned by the Brits, White bargained with a woman from the town. Would she be willing to bake him a few cakes if he paid for them in flour? Yes, she would. And did she by the way have any daughters? Learning that there were two girls, White presented one with the silk skirt and the other with the silk shoes and later on “went away happily, with the cakes stuffed in his knapsack.”

The Missing Map

The optimum view of the battlefield is with the Clarke House and the Institute Woods at your back and the expanse of the field stretching out before you like a vast green stage extending to Mercer Road and beyond to the four columns of the memorial to soldiers from both sides.

A visitor to that viewpoint in August 2012 commented on the Princeton Battlefield Society blog, “unfortunately when I visited this past weekend the old tile map that showed the American and British movements had been removed (hopefully for restoration and not the result of vandalism).” Almost four years later the map is still missing, nothing in its place but a scarred vacancy of raw stone, in contrast to the other attractively posted informational signposts. Around half a year before the map was removed, the Society began its campaign to discredit the Institute for Advanced Study’s plan to build a group of faculty townhomes and single family residences on a hitherto untended, overgrown parcel of land known as Maxwell Field. None of the various maps in the books I’ve consulted indicates anything of significance occurring on the proposed housing site where the Battlefield Society claims Washington “launched the famous charge that decided the Battle of Princeton.”


The Princeton Battle Monument adjacent to Monument Hall was dedicated in 1922, the year Albert Einstein received the Nobel prize for physics and some 11 years before he joined the Institute for Advanced Study and made Princeton his residence. Atop the massive sculpture, George Washington stares toward downtown Princeton. In his line of sight at the other end of Monument Drive, a bronze bust of Einstein mounted on a granite pedestal appears to be gazing in the same direction. It was Einstein who once said “I feel so much part of every living thing that I am not in the least concerned with where the individual begins and ends.”

Or where one portion of land or time begins and ends, whether at the Battle of Culloden or the Battle of Princeton, in the Clarke House or Fuld Hall, in the thinking feeling faces of men like Mercer and Einstein, who lived at 112 Mercer Street until his death. In the end, it’s all about relativity, and we’re all outlanders.


People interested in finding out more about what happened on January 3, 1777, might want to do as I did and pay a visit to the collection of books and documents in the Princeton Room at the Princeton Public Library.