Larry Kidder knows how to raise ghosts. As an historian and author of numerous books about the Hopewell Valley around the time of the Revolutionary War, Kidder has intimate knowledge of this time and place. And when he and some of his fellow historians get together to describe the past, you can visualize the soldiers trudging through the blizzard, hear the distant sounds of battle, smell the acrid odor of woodfires and gunsmoke, and taste the fear of soldiers and residents alike, all surprised by the unexpected visit of armies on Christmas Day.
On a recent bus tour of the places General Washington and his troops fought at during “Ten Crucial Days” of the Revolutionary War period, Kidder was in his element. The tour, sponsored by Washington Crossing Historic Park, was an eight-hour odyssey from the park in Pennsylvania, across the river to our side of the Washington Crossing Park, “make a right at the Bear Tavern,” down to Trenton, and then up through Mercerville to the Princeton Battlefield. Along the way, myths were busted and just what was going on in the minds of the battle leaders was dissected.
The first myth Kidder and his cohort Roger Williams, a historical book publisher, busted was that the Hessians quartered in Trenton on Christmas Day 1776 were so drunk from holiday festivities they were quickly taken by surprise and overcome. Williams explained that the Hessians, who were German mercenaries hired by the British, had been standouts in the recent British victory at Fort Washington in Manhattan and that assigning them to Trenton was a reward, “a position of honor.” However, he said the Hessians were completely surprised at the audacity and size of Washington’s army.
The tour followed the path outlined in Kidder’s book published earlier this year. (For details, please see this link www.tencrucialdays.org/read/) The first stop was the NJ Washington Crossing Park’s Johnson Ferry House where docent Nancy Ceperley set the stage. She told the story of a patriot Trenton minister whose daughter lived in Princeton and the wild riding he did to get his family to safety, out of New Jersey, by way of the Johnson Ferry during the battles that Christmas week. She said, “At that time, everyone here was a refugee.”
The bus then took the group to Trenton. Kidder noted that Washington’s troops were split at that point because they were far behind schedule, with half going down what is now Pennington Road and the other half down what is now Sullivan Way. They regrouped at what was then an outpost of the Hessians and is now the Battle Monument in Trenton. The battle at Trenton was so successful that the patriots saw only two casualties, Kidder said, one of whom had been shot in the neck and was treated by a local doctor who saved his life. That casualty was James Monroe, who later became the fifth president of the United States.
The next stop was by the Assunpink Creek across the pedestrian bridge from what is now Mill Hill. Here, Williams took over the storytelling, explaining that General Washington and his troops had retreated to their camp in Pennsylvania after their victory on December 26, but returned to Trenton on January 2 to face General Cornwallis in their effort to drive the British out of New Jersey all together. Washington was buoyed by the Christmas victory at Trenton and by the fact that although his troops’ enlistments had expired on December 31, on the promise of double pay, most had agreed to fight for one extra month.
Along the way, Kidder pointed out twelve obelisks – stone monuments – that mark the trail Washington’s army took during those ten crucial days. Kidder explained that the obelisks were installed by the Sons of the American Revolution in 1914. Since that time, Mercer County has grown around them. One obelisk is now partially hidden behind a VFW in Hamilton; another is on the median when you take Quakerbridge Road towards Lawrence from Route 1. Kidder explained that that one is apparently misplaced. “If it was in the correct place,” he said, “it would be in the middle of Dick’s Sporting Goods”.
The final stop was at the Princeton Battlefield. Unlike other stops on the tour, which came to life during the tour under the descriptions of Kidder and Williams, the Princeton Battlefield State Park at 500 Mercer Road in Princeton, is an active historic site open every week, Wednesday through Sunday. (For details, please see this link: www.visitprincetonbattlefield.org/)
At the Princeton Battlefield, re-enactors are available to answer questions and the historic Clarke House Museum on its grounds contains many exemplars of 18th century life. Those with any interest in Revolutionary War history at all should visit the Clarke House to hear educator Will Krakauer tell the blow-by-blow story of the battle. Standing on that chilly hill with Krakauer’s resonant voice describing how General Washington rode his horse in front of his men to urge them on to victory, and of the sad fate of Hugh Mercer, who was wounded at the battle and died there nine days later, makes you feel as though you are there watching it happen.
Kidder emphasized that he does not call this time period THE ten crucial days, just ten crucial days. He said that, while there were arguably many other crucial days during the Revolutionary War, these battles that occurred in Hopewell Valley 243 years ago marked a point at which the patriots truly made it clear to King George that they were willing to die for this Country and that the British were going to have to fight very hard to retain control.
For more information, Kidder and Williams’ website, tencrucialdays.org is a great clearinghouse for local historic venues featuring an events calendar, maps, tour information, and suggested further reading.