View Full Version : Marines left their ships for 1777 Princeton battle

03-13-05, 06:58 AM
March 14, 2005

The Lore of the Corps
Marines left their ships for 1777 Princeton battle

By Don Burzynski
Special to the Times

After his victory at Trenton, N.J., on Dec. 25, 1776, Gen. George Washington enticed Lord Cornwallis to pursue him from his base at Princeton.
This presented an opportunity. While Cornwallis was moving on the Americans, the British base at Princeton with stores of munitions was vulnerable to attack. With rail campfires burning brightly, the U.S. force took a southern road east while the British marched west.

The American army formed two attacking columns. Gen. Hugh Mercer and Brig. Gen. John Calwalader’s brigade with 131 Marines pulled from three frigates in Philadelphia marched up Quaker Road and was to secure the left flank. Gen. John Sullivan took Saw Mill Road and was to attack Princeton from the east.

Col. Charles Mawhood and the 17th Regiment of Foot caught sight of Mercer’s troops Jan. 3. Mercer, thinking them a small scouting party, attacked Mawhood’s British soldiers. Hidden behind a bank, the Brits rose and fired at the Americans. Their shots were too high because the British troops were trained to close their eyes when pulling the trigger to protect against the gunpowder flashes. While the Americans started their volley, the British came at them with cold steel and overpowered them. Mercer was bayoneted to death, and the American force fled in disorder.

Calwalader and the Marines heard firing in the distance and marched to the guns. When the Marines came within 50 yards, the British let them have it.

The Marines were driven back 40 yards and failed to regroup. Then, Washington appeared and rallied the troops. Two American artillery pieces pounded the 17th, and with the arrival of Sullivan’s division, the situation was resolved.

With the renewed attack, the British line gave way and the 17th scattered. The 55th Regiment of Foot came up from Princeton but was routed by Sullivan’s troops. As the Americans took the city, the 55th took up defensive positions in Nassau Hall. As legend has it, a lucky American cannonball beheaded the portrait of King George III hanging in the hall. The British, seeing this as an omen, quickly surrendered. Two British regiments were destroyed.

The Brits lost 500 troops. American losses were seven officers and 30 privates.

Levying three Marine companies into the Army against the invasion of Pennsylvania crushed the idea of an independent Corps of Marines. Centralized control by the Marine Committee ended, and Marines eventually were relegated to ship detachments.

This was the beginning of the demise of the Corps’ original “Resolve of Nov. 10, 1775;”; it would take almost 170 years of continuing battle with the Army and Congress to resolve how Marines should be used. That came in 1944, when the 1st Marine Division was pulled from Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s control and given to Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz at Pacific Fleet.

The writer is a War of 1812 Marine re-enactor. He can be reached at dburzynski2003@yahoo.com.