Fighting to Save an Endangered Revolutionary War Battlefield
A common misconception about the National Coalition for History is that almost all of what we do, and care about, is focused inside the Beltway, on issues predominantly dealing with Congress and federal agencies.
However, NCH has also been a strong advocate in historic preservation cases. In years past, we joined with one of our member organizations, the Civil War Trust, in two high-profile preservation battles. NCH helped prevent the licensing of a casino on a site a half mile from Gettysburg National Military Park and joined a coalition of historical and environmental groups to persuade Wal-Mart to abandon a plan to build a superstore adjacent to the Wilderness Civil War Battlefield.
Now, once again, the NCH is joining forces with the Civil War Trust, this time to advocate for the preservation of a Revolutionary War battlefield: the site of the Battle of Princeton, which took place on January 3, 1777. Along with many other historical, preservation, and environmental groups, NCH is opposing construction on private property where George Washington charged the British Army, leading to victory. The attack came on the heels of Washington’s victory against the Hessians a few days before. Historians consider the two battles a turning point in the Revolution. Aside from the pivotal role it played in the Revolution, the Battle of Princeton was also the first land battle where the Continental Marines fought.
The land in question, known as the Maxwell’s Field tract, is owned by the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). The institute is a private, independent academic body located in Princeton; it is not associated with Princeton University. According to the Save Princeton Coalition, “Although a portion of the battlefield is preserved within Princeton Battlefield State Park, 22 acres of adjacent land owned by the Institute remains unprotected and subject to development.”
The contentious battle over this historical property has gone on longer than the American Revolution itself. In 2003, the IAS announced plans to build faculty housing there. Since then, the institute has sought to quell opposition by downsizing the project: building townhouses and homes on seven acres and constructing a 200-foot buffer zone between its development and the state park. The Civil War Trust has repeatedly offered to acquire the Maxwell’s Field tract for $4.5 million (more than $1 million above the appraised value of the property).
The nonprofit Princeton Battlefield Society, founded in 1971, has been fighting the IAS since the early 1990s to forestall development in the area.1 Unfortunately, despite these lengthy efforts by preservationists and historians, the institute has received the permitting authority it needs to proceed. It began bulldozing the property and started preliminary construction this past fall. Opponents are now trying to question whether the development is violating the federal Clean Water Act due to the destruction of wetlands at the site.2
In a 2007 report to Congress, the National Park Service (NPS) undertook a comprehensive review of Revolutionary War battlefields. The NPS has labeled the battlefield a Priority I site, its highest designation, given only to the most historically significant and most endangered sites.3 In addition, in 1961 the Princeton Battlefield was designated by the secretary of the interior as a National Historic Landmark and listed as threatened by the Park Service in 2002.4 In its report, the Park Service urged all levels of government and national organizations to focus their preservation efforts on Priority I sites, such as Princeton. A 2010 mapping study funded by the NPS confirms that the battle occurred on the property.
The contentious battle over the Maxwell’s Field tract in Princeton has gone on longer than the American Revolution itself.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation included Princeton Battlefield in its 2012 list of the nation’s “11 Most Endangered Historic Places.”5 Historian David Hackett Fischer, in a letter to the National Trust, said, “This land is as central to the battle of Princeton as the field of Pickett’s Charge is to Gettysburg and as Omaha Beach is to D-Day.”
The Save Princeton Coalition (#SavePrinceton) is composed of the American Association for State and Local History, the American Revolution Institute of the Society of Cincinnati, the Civil War Trust (through its Campaign 1776 initiative), the Cultural Landscape Foundation, the National Coalition for History, the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Princeton Battlefield Society, and the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club.
For updated information about the continuing fight to save the Princeton Battlefield, visit the Civil War Trust’s Campaign 1776 at http://www.campaign1776.org/take-action/speak-out/princeton/.
Lee White is executive director of the National Coalition for History.
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