A battle to save a bat­tle­field

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Ge­orge Will

— One of his­tory’s most im­por­tant bat­tles hap­pened here on a field you can walk across in less than half the 45 or so min­utes the battle lasted. If Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s au­dac­ity on Jan. 3, 1777, had not re­versed the pa­tri­ots’ re­treat and routed the ad­vanc­ing British, the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion might have been ex­tin­guished.

Yet such is Amer­ica’s ne­glect of some places that sus­tain its defin­ing mem­o­ries, the por­tion of the field over which Wash­ing­ton’s na­tion-sav­ing charge passed is be­ing bull­dozed to make way for houses for fac­ulty of the In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Study (IAS). To un­der­stand the grav­ity of this ut­terly un­nec­es­sary des­e­cra­tion, you must un­der­stand the as­ton­ish­ingly un­der­es­ti­mated Battle of Prince­ton.

In De­cem­ber 1776, the Rev­o­lu­tion was fail­ing. Bri­tain had sent to Amer­ica 36,000 troops — at that point, the largest Euro­pean ex­pe­di­tionary force ever — to crush the re­bel­lion be­fore a French in­ter­ven­tion on Amer­ica’s be­half. Wash­ing­ton had been driven from Brook­lyn Heights, then from Man­hat­tan, then out of New York. The na­tion barely ex­isted as he re­treated across New Jersey, into Penn­syl­va­nia.

But from there, on Christ­mas night, he crossed the Delaware River ice floes for a suc­cess­ful 45-minute (at most) at­tack on Bri­tain’s Hes­sian mer­ce­nar­ies at Trenton. This was Wash­ing­ton’s first vic­tory; he had not been at Lex­ing­ton, Con­cord or Bunker Hill. Trenton would, how­ever, have been merely an evanes­cent tri­umph, were it not for what hap­pened 10 days later.

On Jan. 2, 1777, British Gen. Charles Corn­wal­lis be­gan march­ing 5,500 troops from Prince­ton to at­tack Wash­ing­ton’s slightly out­num­bered forces at Trenton. Wash­ing­ton, leav­ing a few hun­dred sol­diers to tend fires that tricked Corn­wal­lis into think­ing the pa­triot army was en­camped, made a stealthy 14-mile night march to at­tack three British reg­i­ments re­main­ing at Prince­ton. They col­lided on this field.

The most lethal weapons in this war were bay­o­nets. The British had them. Few Amer­i­cans did, and they beat a pan­icked re­treated from the ad­vanc­ing steel. By his per­sonal brav­ery, Wash­ing­ton re­versed this and led a charge. An un­usu­ally tall man sit­ting on a large white horse, he was a clear tar­get rid­ing as close to British lines as first base is to home plate. Bi­og­ra­pher Ron Ch­er­now writes that, at Prince­ton, Wash­ing­ton was a “war­rior in the an­tique sense. The eigh­teenth-cen­tury bat­tle­field was a com­pact space, its cramped con­tours de­fined by the short range of mus­kets and bay­o­net charges, giv­ing gen­er­als a chance to in­spire by their im­me­di­ate pres­ence.”

When the red­coats ran, the British aura of in­vin­ci­bil­ity and the strat­egy of “se­cur­ing ter­ri­tory and hand­ing out par­dons” (Ch­er­now) were shat­tered. And the drift of Amer­i­can opin­ion to­ward de­featism halted.

In his four-vol­ume bi­og­ra­phy of Wash­ing­ton, James Thomas Flexner said: “The British his­to­rian Ge­orge Trevelyan was to write con­cern­ing Trenton: ‘It may be doubted whether so small a num­ber of men ever em­ployed so short a space of time with greater and more last­ing ef­fects upon the his­tory of the world.’ But such would not have been the re­sult if Wash­ing­ton had not gone on to over­whelm Prince­ton.”

This ground, on which pa­tri­ots’ blood pud­dled on that 20-de­gree morn­ing, has been scan­dalously ne­glected by New Jersey. Now it is be­ing van­dal­ized by the In­sti­tute for Ad­vance Study, which has spurned a $4.5 mil­lion pur­chase of­fer — more than $1 mil­lion above the ap­praised value — from the in­valu­able Civil War Trust, which is ex­pand­ing its preser­va­tion ac­tiv­i­ties to Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War sites.

In to­day’s academia there are many schol­ars against schol­ar­ship, in­clud­ing his­to­ri­ans hos­tile to his­tory — post­mod­ernists who think the past is merely a so­cial con­struct re­flect­ing the present’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, or power struc­tures, or some­thing. They par­take of academia’s pref­er­ence for a mul­ti­cul­tural fu­ture of di­luted, if not ex­tin­guished, na­tion­hood, and they dis­like com­mem­o­rat­ing his­tory made by white men with guns. The IAS en­gaged a his­to­rian who wrote a re­port clot­ted with to­day’s im­pen­e­tra­ble aca­demic pa­tois. He says we should not “fetishize space,” and he drapes dis­parag­ing quo­ta­tion marks around the words “hal­lowed ground.”

The na­tion owes much to the IAS, which sup­ported Al­bert Ein­stein, physi­cist Robert Op­pen­heimer and the diplo­mat and his­to­rian Ge­orge F. Ken­nan. It is es­pe­cially dis­heart­en­ing that a dis­tin­guished in­sti­tu­tion of schol­ars is in­dif­fer­ent to pre­serv­ing a his­toric site that can nour­ish na­tional iden­tity.

The battle to save this bat­tle­field, one of the na­tion’s most sig­nif­i­cant and most ne­glected sites, is not yet lost. The gov­ern­ment in to­day’s Trenton, and in the city named for the man who won the 1777 battle, should as­sist the Civil War Trust.

Ge­orge Will is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at georgewill@wash­post.com.

PRINCE­TON, N.J.

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