20. Battle of Princeton


This ink wash depiction of the death of General Hugh Mercer during the Revolutionary War Battle of Princeton in January 1777 is one of six drawings done in preparation for John Trumball’s historical painting of this subject in the Capitol’s rotunda in Washington D.C.   All six drawings are now held by Firestone Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections Department.  Mercer was bayoneted by British soldiers who mistakenly believed him to be George Washington but, laid beneath a white oak tree on the battlefield, continued to direct the colonial troops to an important victory, then died from his wounds nine days later.  The Mercer Oak stood as a living symbol of American patriotism and perseverance for more than 200 years until irrevocably damaged in a March 2000 windstorm. 
In this drawing, just beyond the Mercer Oak, Nassau Hall can be seen along the horizon.  At the time, Nassau Hall was the largest building in the surrounding countryside and, as such, became a prime target for the attention of both British and American troops during the Revolutionary War, suffering mightily for the attention.  Troops and horses were quartered within its walls, its organ was destroyed, the library was plundered, and much of its furniture and woodwork became fire fuel.  During the Battle of Princeton, when the British were in possession of Nassau Hall, American troops fired artillery at the building and one cannonball (shot through a prayer hall window) decapitated a portrait of King George II, which hastened a British retreat.      
Nassau Hall had not yet completely recovered from damage sustained in the war when the Continental Congress established temporary residence in the building in July 1783, trying to avoid the threats of unhappy veterans demanding back pay in Philadelphia.  It was during the delegates’ four-month stay in Princeton that Congress was notified of the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the Revolutionary War, and received the first foreign minister accredited to the independent United States, Pieter Johan Van Berckel from the Netherlands.  In recognition of the building’s service as the capital of the United States during this period, Nassau Hall was designated a National Historic Landmark in October 1960.

  • To learn more about Princeton in the nation’s history, see quotation #11 and Café Vivian picture #33, 83, 92, 95, and 113.

  • To learn more about Nassau Hall, see icon #1, quotation #1 and 35, and Café Vivian picture #4, 33, 75, 92, and 95.

  • To learn more about campus grounds and buildings, see icon #1, 5, and 8, quotation #5, 7, 9, 28, and 39, and Café Vivian picture #4, 6, 7, 8, 11, 16, 25, 30, 33, 37, 40, 46, 48, 54, 58, 61, 62, 67, 68, 71, 78, 85, 87, 95, 100, 101, 102, 104, 105, 108, 109, 111, 118, 124, 127, and 133.

  • To learn more about the University library system, see quotation #11 and 35, and Café Vivian picture #47, 121, and 123.