As we approached the Old Barracks of Trenton there was an eerie silence. Picture an old wooden two story building wrapped in a fort-like fence barely lit by faint street lights in the middle of a post-industrial city. There was no trace of life, let alone preparations for a battle.
Our rag-tag group of six FreeWalkers were here as volunteers to experience what it might have been like to be part of a crucial Revolutionary War battle by following enactors “To Princeton with Peale!.” To be accurate these were Charles Wilson Peale’s Company of Philadelphia Associators who would march through the night to surprise the British at the Battle of Princeton.
We were experienced long distance walkers but not battle tested, as they were. We were used to marching long distances and even cold temperatures. Our march on Princeton event provided new challenges for both pedestrian civilians and enacting soldiers.
Our first problem appeared at the stroke of midnight on January 8, 2017. We learned the troops were actually still sleeping in the barracks and would start this year at 1:00 a.m. Where would the Continentals go if they had to wait? “To a pub!” someone replied. As we started walking away, a faint bar light of the Smoke House (aka 1911BBQ) on Front Street appeared. Naturally, we took shelter in preparation of the upcoming battle walk.
The Smoke House stayed open for us as we imbibed grog to steel ourselves for the work ahead. It was here we met Scott Miller, a local city resident, owner of Exit 7A Creative Services media studio and art promoter of all things “Trenton.” In fact, Scott produces the annual “Trenton Pork Roll Festival” each year. Much to our surprise, we learned Trenton now has a vibrant artistic community within the city.
We spilled out of the Smoke House toward our Continental troops mustering outside the barracks. Orders were given. We were headed to Princeton. Soon we headed down the old streets of Trenton. There was a positive energy in the air, in spite of the hour, five inches of snow and bitterly cold temperatures.
This was our first experience interacting with enactors. Enactors take their roles seriously. We managed to chat briefly with couple soldiers but most kept quiet on the march or talked quietly – just as it was ordered by Washington. We learned that historical re-enactments are more than just dressing up and marching to this event. There is a sincere attempt to mirror history as best they can.
In 1777, history recorded that the temperatures were probably in the 20s and snow had fallen a week before. It had thawed and refroze leaving a crusty snow to walk on. That was an important fact in deciding to attack, as too much mud or deep snow would have made a successful attack impossible. This day we had to face the cold temperature and five fresh inches, enhancing the experience.
We continued past the old colonial homes and townhouses of Trenton into the Chambersburg section. Then continued on a broad Hamilton Avenue into Mercerville, Hamilton and eventually turned on the old Quaker Bridge Road toward Princeton. This was a roundabout route around Cornwallis’s troops, but now these were well travelled commercial roads. Today, this journey is marked by granite obelisks and related signs trail signs to follow.
The FreeWalkers regiment eventually branched off from the troops on the last half of the 15-mile journey as we started seeking shelter and a restroom for a break. We learned earlier that any break more than 5 minutes with these temps caused a chill. As we walked in the middle of the quiet night in these suburbs the only sign of life was a single Wawa convenience store where we could take shelter for a 15-minute break. The troops were not so lucky. They kept going, presumably because convenience stores are a post-revolution concept.
Our objective was finally reached about 6 a.m. when we approached the Thomas Clarke House on the Princeton Battlefield. This was where the soldiers would come together for the battle re-enactment. The only problem with this was that we still had a couple hours before the re-enactment began. There was one campfire and one house for all to share and the temperature was said to be in the single digits.
Our history lesson organized by the Princeton Battlefield Society started at 6:45 a.m. It was fascinating and helped put the actual event in perspective. The British Army historian William P. Tatum III, Ph.D. told the story of the battle.
We all recognize Washington’s crossing of the Delaware which occurred on December 26, 1776 where he attacked the Hessian troops in the Battle of Trenton. With that success he moved into Trenton and held back the British who attacked him at the Battle of Assunpink Creek on January 2, 1777. Then, in a surprise move, Washington’s troops led by General Mercer continued marching that night toward Princeton to capture the British garrison before heading to Morristown for winter quarters.
Mercer was mortally wounded. Reinforcements under General Cadwalader turned back after seeing Mercer under fire (Peale’s unit was under Cadwalder). But, eventually Washington sent troops who overcame the British and took over Nassau Hall, a strategic British garrison. The victory helped drive the British out of New Jersey and helped turn the tide of the war. It gave new confidence to the Colonials and helped enlist more soldiers.
On the battlefield where we watched, soldiers fired cannon at costumed British troops on the snow covered fields. We watched, amazed at the difficulties of war. Moving heavy cannon in the snow, wadding bullets and gunpowder, meanwhile being shot at in the open. If nothing else this had to be a nerve-wracking experience for both sides. Then, if you consider that most of these men had just been through several major battles in recent days, were lacking sleep and were at the end of their supplies, the effort and outcome seems all the more amazing.
The combination of bitter cold, warmth of a fire, shelter in historical homes and the presence of colonial soldiers had created a new, yet old, reality show. After a long 10-hour bitter cold night, most of us did not stay for the entire series of programs planned for the day as we had learned enough. For one sleepless night, we became immersed in history and energized by the spirit of 1776. Huzzah!