Hello, and thank you for joining this special edition of the American Revolution. I had the opportunity to speak with Larry Kidder, following the release of his new book Revolutionary Princeton, 1774-1783: The Biography of an American Town in the Heart of a Civil War. His name, as it appears on the book, is William L. Kidder, but everyone knows him as Larry.Hun School of Princeton. He also served in the US Navy during the Vietnam Conflict. In addition to teaching, Mr. Kidder has served as a long time volunteer at the Howell Living History Farm in Hopewell, New Jersey. He is also involved in a variety of other volunteer activities involving the American Revolution. He sits on the board of the Princeton Battlefield Society and on the board of TenCrucialDays.org.
His most recent book about Princeton during the Revolutionary War is only one of many books he has written about New Jersey during this era. You can find a list of his books if you go to the blog articles for this episode. Go to blog.amrevpodcast.com for more details.
I spoke with Mr. Kidder over a remote call to discuss Princeton during the Revolutionary War.
Michael Troy (MJT) Larry Kidder, welcome to the American Revolution Podcast.
Larry Kidder (LK) Thank you.
MJT We're here today to talk about your book, your latest book, Revolutionary Princeton 1774 to 1783. I know you've been quite busy. I think this is your seventh book published in the last eight years.
All of your books seem to be related to New Jersey history. And most of them deal with the American Revolution. What specifically did you hope to accomplish with this most recent book?
LK In many ways, the same kind of things that I have been dealing with in my other books. As an historian, as a history teacher, when I did that, I was always interested in looking at history, from the point of view of the average person, the real person, not just the people who made it into the history textbooks. I've always felt that studying history is a way for us to learn more about what it is to be a human, not just about a bunch of events to memorize, and, you know, that kind of thing.
So what I wanted to look at for Princeton, was essentially similar to what I tried to do for Trenton in an earlier book, and look at life in a town in New Jersey during the Revolution, and how the Revolution affected individual lives, and how those individual lives contributed to the Revolution for that matter, even though those people don't make it into the history books. So it's part of that overall effort that I have to humanize a lot of history, and make it appreciative to people who can identify with people's lives being somewhat similar to theirs, and they're living through history also, and being part of history.
MJT Right, I think it makes it more relatable when we understand that wars don't just happen in a vacuum. And people don't just descend down from heavens and nobly join the armies.
LK We all have to deal with things that we have no control over. And we have to figure out how we're going to deal with it.
MJT These are all people raising kids trying to make a buck, trying to find their way through life. And all of a sudden, they've got a war thrust upon them.
LK Exactly, exactly. And also, I take a look at events like a battle, like the Battle of Princeton. And that becomes a focal point of people's understanding about a place. But yet the story is so much bigger than that, for those people.
MJT Yeah, and especially the aftermath of battle, the armies and the people are left to clean up.
LK Right, right. And in this particular case, in Princeton, also the preliminaries to the battle, British occupation and whatnot. It just wasn't January 3. It was a month-long experience for the people of Princeton.
MJT Before all that, at the outset of the actual war, what was life like living in Princeton, New Jersey?
LK Well, Princeton was probably a relatively quiet town. It wasn't too big. But it was on a main road between New York and Philadelphia, between New England and the southern colonies, for that matter.
Because it was almost halfway between New York and Philadelphia. It was a very convenient stagecoach stop, an overnight stop in some cases. And so you had a lot of people traveling through town. You had several taverns to accommodate travelers.
And then it also had the college. The college attracted visitors, as well, as students coming and going and all of that. It was nowhere near as big a university as Princeton University is today. But it was right in the center of town, and was a key point in the town. Nassau Hall was the landmark of the village of Princeton, on a hill and was very visible from a long way away.
Which is the other element of Princeton, it's farm country. The little village was surrounded by farmland. So there's a lot of cleared land. Visibility was a lot more distant than we think of today.
The people in Princeton were not all of a homogeneous background. There was diversity and religion between Presbyterians and Quakers, for example. Most of the people who had settled in Princeton were of English ancestry, but there were a few French Huguenots and Dutch and Germans, things like that. And then there's also, of course, an African American population. There was slavery in Princeton, generally, no more than one or two slaves per household. But still slavery, for sure. So, I think that is a little bit of an introduction to the town.
MJT Princeton was, I guess what we would today call central Jersey. It was somewhat close. the dividing line between East and West Jersey. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
LK Yeah, it was right on the line between East and West Jersey. There had been two colonies, East Jersey and West Jersey. There was somewhat of a land dispute between the proprietors. They were proprietary colonies, and there was some land disputes. So several attempts were made to draw a line on the map between the two, basically to settle land disputes.
|Keith Line separating East & West NJ|
Princeton was right smack in the middle, which was not bad. Because economically, it was a pretty good spot. But it did mean that there was a fair amount of diversity in the town, which, for many of the people like John Witherspoon, president of the college and things like that, made it kind of a vibrant place and a thought-provoking place. And so it was, was an intellectual place as well as a laboring place, you know, of crafts and farming and all of that.
MJT Yeah, I guess we're still suffering from that a little bit today. I mean, we don't call it east and west jersey, but we have North Jersey and South Jersey. South Jersey tends to be Philadelphia-oriented, and North Jersey tends to be New York-oriented.
LK And in Princeton, and in the area. I live near Princeton. It's both.
MJT Right on the battleground between both.
LK One neighbor will be Philadelphia-oriented, the next neighbor will be New York-oriented.
MJT Are you a Giants fan or an Eagles fan?
LK I am definitely New York oriented. But that's because I haven't always lived in Central Jersey. I used to live in North Jersey. So when I was in high school, and all that, so I really developed that viewpoint.
MJT Not only was Princeton right on the line between East Jersey and West Jersey, they had a county line running right through the middle of town. Can you talk about some of the issues related to that?
LK Yes, that really made it an interesting place to try to deal with politically, economically, and government, everything The county line between Somerset County and Middlesex County ran right down the main street of Princeton. So if you lived on the north side of the Main Street, you were in Somerset County. If you lived on the south side, you were in Middlesex County. Outside the village, it's the same thing with the farmland. You could have land on both sides.
In terms of county life, in the 18th century, counties were perhaps even more significant than they are today, in terms of their governmental influence on life. When you paid your taxes, it was my county. So you might owe two different tax bills. Instead of one state tax bill, you have maybe two different county taxes. If you wanted to be elected, representatives, that was done by county. So you had a situation where you might live for a while on one side of the road, and develop a reputation there and then move to the other side of the road. And now you can't serve the way you did before in that legislature. You have to get a whole new constituency to support you.
In terms of the Revolution, the militia system was done by counties. Princeton would have several militia companies based on where you lived in town. If you liked the captain of the company from the other side of the street, you couldn't necessarily join that company. You were stuck with where you work, unless you got special dispensation from the government. So there was just a lot of ramifications to that county split that way. Fortunately, it isn't that way anymore. There was a county reorganization.
MJT In terms of commitment to the patriot cause, how divided was Princeton? Did they have a loyalist population at the outset of the war?
LK Princeton was very strongly on the patriot side, if you will, but that doesn't mean that there weren't loyalists. There were very clearly loyalists. Talk about you know, families being split. For example, the Stockton family, Richard Stockton, who signed the Declaration of Independence, had a fairly close relative who was a loyalist and actually raised loyalist troops for the British.
You had in town, a doctor named Absalom Bainbridge who, in the early months really tried to straddle things and didn't come out strongly as a loyalist. But then when the British occupied the town in December of 1776, he actually helped the British and really came out as a loyalist. On the other hand, he warned one of his friends who was a patriot, a woman to get out of town, the night before the British Army actually arrived in Princeton, to save her situation from being molested by the British and plundered by the British.
You had several farmers, south of Princeton, who were strong loyalists, one of which really helped out the British during their occupation. And the other one who was actually of French Huguenot descent, left the area early on, couldn't be there living among his patriot friends. So there were a number of situations like that. But by and large, it was a very strongly patriot-centered place.
MJT This is a question I often get asked, and I don't always know the answer, probably it’s different in many cases. But what happened to the loyalists? Were they basically accepted back after the war, or were most of them expelled from the colony never to return?
LK Yeah, that's a great, interesting question. And it varies a lot dependent on, quite honestly, the individual's personality and how they got along with people. Could they disagree and still get along like Absalom Bainbridge did you know to help out one of his patriot neighbors? Absalom Bainbridge did not leave the United States. He left Princeton, he went to New York, once the British lost at the Battle of Princeton. But he stayed in the colonies and his son became very well known, Commodore William Bainbridge in the War of 1812. That's one story.
Then you've got people like the Cochrans and the Millets, the two farmers that I was mentioning earlier, who did not come back. There were several other people like that. What happened was that their land became confiscated, as loyalists, and resold. And they were just kind of disinherited from their own property. Loyalism was really looked down upon and really harshly in a lot of ways.
MJT Sure. New Jersey, faced almost a unique situation during the war in that, other than New York City, they became one of the very few areas that actually becomes occupied by the British in 1776. General Howe famously lends a very large shock and awe army at New York, pushes the Continentals out of New York entirely, and then across New Jersey, and we find George Washington across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania at the end of the year.
The point of all that was for the British to prove to the population at large that the British Army could not be resisted when it got serious, and that you really had to support the king, or there would be very serious consequences.
He also took that stick and gave them a carrot in that they said, Well, if said some things against the King or against London at some earlier time, if you're willing to say alright now, I support the King and am willing to be a loyal subject all will be forgiven, and we can all go back to normal. That was his hope to establish New Jersey as a once-again loyal colony to the King of England and to Parliament.
So New Jerseyans really had to make a decision when the British army came through in late 1776. Do we take advantage of this offer of forgiveness? Or do we continue our resistance and perhaps bear some very strong consequences?
LK Yeah, that British occupation was extremely significant, and how it affected New Jersey in the short term as well as the long term. And it also sheds a lot of light on why the battles of Trenton and Princeton, and the ten crucial days in general were so important.
By the first week of December 1776, the British had essentially reconquered, New Jersey. They controlled the whole central swath of New Jersey, both sides of that main road that I was talking about, you know, between New York and Philadelphia.
The New Jersey government, which had been formed at the time of the Declaration of Independence, just about six months earlier, had pretty much dissolved because of the British occupation. Literally, for a couple of weeks, nobody knew where the governor was. The members of the legislature had either gone home or had left the state to get away from the British. Patriotic New Jerseyans felt abandoned by the Continental Army when Washington went across to Pennsylvania, that was very symbolic to people in New Jersey. He's out of here. He's left us alone.
The British are here now. They're the ones in charge. If we're going to survive on a day-to-day basis, we can't be wild patriots anymore. We've got to at least go along with what the British are telling us to do.
It enlivened the loyalists. The loyalists now felt supported by the British government. Maybe they can take over the government again of the new state of New Jersey, and bring back loyalty to the king. They can get back at the patriots for any problems that they cause. Individuals earlier in the war. They can get revenge, if you will. So everybody was affected, no matter which side they were on, they were either feeling empowered or feeling abandoned.
MJT A lot of people, I think, just kind of wanted to keep their head down. And whoever was in charge, they were willing to say, okay, you're in charge. Let me continue to grow my crops and get them to market.
LK And many people, many people took advantage of that offer of amnesty that you mentioned, thousands of people did. The question was, were these people now loyalists, because they had pledged loyalty to the king again for amnesty? Or had they done it just to survive, until things went the other direction?
Most of the people who signed those amnesty notes actually disavowed them after the Battle of Princeton, after the British were kicked out of New Jersey. Some very important people actually did that.
However, if they had had any political office before that, it pretty much cut them out. Even if they put aside the loyalty oath to the king again, they weren't necessarily trusted. And a major person involved with this, I think that we don't often think about is Richard Stockton. Richard Stockton was captured by the British when they occupied the town of Princeton. He wasn't captured in Princeton. He had gone out of town. But he hadn't been smart enough to go over to Pennsylvania,
MJT He hadn't gone far enough.
LK Yes he had not gone far enough. He had left the state. And he was captured by loyalists who got him to the British, and then he was imprisoned in New York. This is all going on, while the British are occupying the state and offering amnesty.
And I think it's interesting to note that although Richard Stockton signed the Declaration of Independence, was a very strong Patriot, he also was one of those people early on, who kept hoping for reconciliation with Great Britain, that Great Britain would wake up and see what was right. So even though he signed the Declaration of Independence, he was still a little reluctant. That wasn't the direction he had hoped that things were going to go in.
So when he gets captured, and was talking with Howe in New York, and Howe was talking about this amnesty program, and Howe himself was more in line with helping the colonists politically, not militarily, but you know, politically back home, did he put into Stockton’s mind that things were going to be settled. And therefore Stockton signing a loyalty oath under that condition, was kind of moving in the direction he had been hoping for all along. He saw that the British were basically winning militarily at that point, and was hoping for the good solution that the colonists would like and all of that. But of course, he got terribly beaten up for signing that loyalty oath, and never really had the respect that he had before that.
MJT I know there was some debate about whether he actually signed the oath or not. But you're right. It essentially ended his career in politics after the British released him from imprisonment. It was a tough decision for a lot of people and it wasn't really as black and white as we may think of it today.
General Howe, in addition to being commander of the British Army in North America was a peace Commissioner. Along with his brother, Admiral Richard Howe. Both of them were considered to be fans of the colonies that they actually were strong supporters of colonial rights and basic Whig rights and the things that the Americans were fighting for.
William Howe had actually vowed to his constituents, he was also a member of Parliament, he would never go fight in America. He broke that promise. When the king says, I need you to go, you go.
So these were people that were not only trying to win a war militarily, they were trying to win back the hearts and minds of the people and actually empathized with a lot of the things that those people wanted.
So it made a convincing argument to many people of New Jersey and elsewhere. It had more of an impact in New Jersey because the soldiers were here. Wouldn't you like to be friends again? Or do we have to shoot you?
LK Yeah, yeah
MJT So the British are occupying most of New Jersey by the end of 1776, at least all the important parts, including Princeton. Do you want to talk a little about what occupied Princeton was like at that time?
LK You wouldn't have wanted to be here. The British soldiers were not nice to the people of Princeton. Farms were torn up. Fences were torn down for firewood, for both warmth and cooking. Buildings were destroyed for the same reason. Those farmers that lived around Princeton, lost their storage of crops. They had animals taken and butchered to feed the British soldiers. In many ways, they were virtually impoverished because of the British occupation. And it was going to be hard for them to reestablish afterwards.
The British found out who had been active patriots from those loyalists that I mentioned that we're helping them, people like Bainbridge and Cochran. And a lot of them suffered more because they were singled out for it. And even the Quakers who were theoretically neutral, because of their religion, the British just did very nasty things to them as individuals, taunting them, and humiliating them and that sort of thing. So it was on many different levels that the British caused the people of the town to be very, down and out.
They also pretty much plundered the university. The churches were used for barracks, and in some cases, virtually like stables for horses in the basement of Nassau Hall at the university was used as a stable for a while. So the town was just wrecked, I think is the simplest way to put it. And the people were humiliated, and very often stripped of necessities through plunder, so that surviving the winter was going to be very difficult.
MJT It's hard to remember in our modern world. If somebody comes in and steals all the food in your house today, it's an annoyance, but you can go back to the grocery store and get some more. Even if you don't have the money, you can go to a food bank and get some more.
LK They burn up all your firewood that you collected for the winter.
MJT You're not going to have food. You're not going to have heat for the winter. I mean, you have a very real risk of dying unless you can rely on the charity of others who can come in from some other location to help you.
LK If they steal the blankets from your bed. Particularly if you get sick or you have older people in the house. How are you going to keep them warm?
MJT Right, and the soldiers, the professional soldiers of the time. Well, all the soldiers of the time, were paid very poorly, and tended to see plunder as a way to supplement their their lifestyles, I guess. So if they needed food, or blankets, or a coat or firewood or whatever, the civilians were a likely target of that.
And to some extent, the army. They tried to discourage it in this case, because they were trying to win back hearts and minds. But on the other hand, when the army planters in areas kind of a message saying, This is what happens when you reject the king's peace.
LK Right, General Howe definitely put out orders not to ponder. He was very concerned about winning the hearts and minds. They knew that soldiers plundering were destroying his ability to bring a peaceful solution to the war.
But the officers under him were not necessarily that way. Particularly when you get down to the lower levels, the company level, you know, as opposed to the regimental level and that sort of thing. A lot of these soldiers were just angry at the patriots because the militia, you know, the people they were firing back, and they didn't necessarily know who was on their side and who wasn't when they were in the town.
I can somewhat identify with that. I spent a year in Saigon during the Vietnam War, walking down the street as the only white European type person and wondering if I took a cab or whatever is this guy Vietcong or is he on our side? And British were kind of that way too, except that they had the power to exert comfort or discomfort, on the people that they ran into.
MJT Well, the people did seem to be relatively cowed initially. Of course, Washington wanted one or two little things to change all that. That's, of course, the subject of the ten crucial days. Washington comes back across the river, retakes. Trenton. The British sent a very large army down to dissuade him of his new ambitions. And he turns it all around and ends up in Princeton in the very beginning of January 1777.
LK Basically, the reason he was attacking Princeton, on January 3, the morning of January 3, people look at that as an odd time for an army to be fighting in the 18th century, winter quarters. And he had just won a battle. He had just gotten some glory for himself and turned things around. And people ask, Why couldn't you just sit there, finish the winter out and then go do something? Why did he have to do something so quickly? at Princeton?
And the point that I tried to make about that month is that Washington didn't need just a military victory. He didn't just need something for people to talk about. He needed to actually get the British out of New Jersey, if he could. He needed to reverse that occupation and restore fear to the loyalists and faith to the patriots. So he had to do something.
I know Washington gets a lot of criticism for various things as a military leader. But in the case of Princeton, he really was looking for another victory, where he outnumbered the enemy significantly. He knew. He was expecting at Princeton to meet up with about 1500 regulars. And the other 8000 or so regulars in New Jersey, were down at Trenton, where they had tried to attack him the day before and he had done that made the night march around them to avoid a major onslaught where he was a little outnumbered and get to a point where he was the outnumberer.
MJT Defeat the enemy in detail.
LK Yeah. And he had kind of looked at the British, Howe had split his troops up across New Jersey into winter quarter cantonments. Any one of those cantonments, at the beginning of December, Washington would have outnumbered, even though he had a small diminished army, He outnumbered at Trenton two to one. Here he was going out number three or four to one, at Princeton. He almost looked at those cantonments across New Jersey like a row of dominoes. And if he could knock them off in succession, he could get the British out of New Jersey.
Now, of course, after Trenton, the British demolished their own line of dominoes and put everybody in Princeton. Washington got him out of Princeton by fortifying Trenton and making that look like an attractive place to finish him off. But then did his end run and wound up at Princeton.
He was trying to knock off that small encampment, possibly then go on to New Brunswick, where he knew there were a lot of British supplies that he could get ahold of. And he was really planning to go to Morristown and spend the winter there rather than Pennsylvania. That's why he was in Princeton, arrived in Princeton, the morning of January 3.
The British course didn't know about that. They hadn't been in on the planning and whatnot. And so the British Army, those 1500 men, about 1000 of them, were actually leaving Princeton at the time that Washington got there, in order to reinforce Cornwallis down at Trenton. And they left very few men behind, basically one regiment.
So when Washington makes his plan to attack Princeton from three sides, he starts that maneuver. But it's obsolete from the moment it starts because the British are moving down the main road towards Princeton. Even though I made a comment before about the visibility, the wide range of visibility, because of hills and that sort of thing. They weren't inside of each other. So the British were essentially paralleling in the opposite direction, Washington's approach to Princeton. And it was only by some luck that people from both sides spotted each other. And they had to decide whether to fight or not there.
Washington thought the British that he saw was just as a morning patrol, and that the main British were still in Princeton. The head of the British Army units moving south, when he saw Washington didn't know what he was up against, didn't know how many he was up against. He decided to check it out at least. And it was him checking out and then Washington, sending a small group under General Mercer out to intercept this morning patrol that started the whole battle at Princeton.
And one thing led to another and of course, the British, ultimately, were so outnumbered, even though they had the advantage of bayonets and training and everything else, the Americans just overpowered them. That's how it all got going there at Princeton and a little idea of how it developed. It's gonna wind up in the town of Princeton, but the main battle took place outside of Princeton.
MJT The main battle was out to the south of the city.
LK On farmland.
MJT In the end the Continentals were shooting cannonballs into Princeton University's main building. That's where the British made their last stand.
MJT After the Americans take Princeton, they still have to worry, of course, about the main British Army that is now turned around from Trenton and said, Hey, wait a minute. Now this guy's behind us. They've go to go deal with, so they're running off.
As you said, Washington's other main goal that day was Brunswick, where he hoped to capture actually a big payroll. But yeah, fortunately, his men were completely exhausted by that time. They’d been on their feet for like two or three days straight.
LK Officers said that some of them and we're asleep on their feet, you know, they were just really bad.
MJT So they move up further to the north. And Cornwallis's army follows them, but they don't engage again. The British kind of give up on holding most of New Jersey they're just holding a little bit around New York City for the rest of the year. So Princeton is kind of behind continental lines again.
LK Yes, it was almost just as bad as the British occupation. American troops. also needed firewood, also needed the same types of things that the British soldiers needed. And I think it's important to keep in mind that the Continental Army was rebuilding that winter. And there were new recruits coming from the southern colonies. And they're going to come up through Princeton, on their way to Morristown, during the winter.
I think it's important to keep in mind that the colonies were not united as Americans think of themselves today, New Jerseyans thought of themselves first as New Jerseyans, Virginians as Virginians, Massachusetts’ from their state. And there were some misunderstandings about, and stereotypes of, people from other parts of the country and that sort of thing. And some of the American soldiers were not real happy about having to be in the army anyway, traveling in the winter to from the south to the north. And so the mood of the soldiers was not always that great.
They kind of took it out on the population. There are accounts that the Americans caused more damage to the college than the British did. Whether the army plundered and that sort of thing, just their being there was an issue. They needed food. They needed quarters, goods, etc. And to supply those, the people of Princeton, we're going to have to play a major role, we're going to either have to give up their own stuff, or they're going to have to volunteer to go out and buy things in other parts of New Jersey, for the army and get them to the troops.
Princeton is going to be actively involved not only in quartering troops either for a day or two on their march north, or for a week or two on their march north, but also to have troops stationed there permanently to keep an eye on the British troops that were wintering at New Brunswick. So you had a garrison at Princeton, in addition to the mobile troops. That's going to keep the people on a day to day basis involved in the military activity.
Princeton is going to become a hospital for the military for the rest of the war. They're going to be taking wounded soldiers from the engagements, not only at Princeton, and Trenton, and from the forage wars during the winter. But then in the Philadelphia campaign, Brandywine and Germantown, wounded are going to be coming to Princeton, to the hospital there. After the Battle of Monmouth, wounded are going to be coming to Princeton. It's going to be a hospital site for the Continental Army through the rest of the war.
It's also going to become a supply depot, particularly early on, and we're talking early in the war in 1776, and 1777. The supply department was so fragmented and somewhat disorganized, that actual people in Princeton are going to volunteer to be in charge of this supply depot. And they're going to be bringing in particularly clothing, because the army always was looking for clothing, almost as much as they were always looking for gunpowder and munitions.
But that's the other thing that's going to be accumulating at Princeton. There's no military base there with buildings to house all these supplies as a depot. So guess who's going to keep them? These guys are going to keep them in their house or their barn or whatever. And so you have somebody like Kelsey, who lives right on the main street in Princeton, who's going to have gunpowder and munitions stored in his house, on their way to the Continental Army. It puts everybody in Princeton in a little bit of Jeopardy, but that's what the nature of the town is going to be. They're going to be constantly concerned about helping to supply that army.
One thing about the war in New Jersey is the Continental Army spent so much time in New Jersey. Anytime they're in New Jersey, they're affecting life in Princeton, because the supplies are going to be filtering through Princeton to get to the other parts of the state particularly in the north.
MJT Even after the war moves to the south for the fighting in ‘79, ‘80, ‘81. There's still a huge British army in New York City. The Continentals had to stand facing them to make sure they didn't move out of New York City again. So that kind of left New Jersey under a military occupation for that entire time.
LK And also, it meant the militia was active throughout the war. Men were being called up on militia duty, very frequently, almost on an every other month basis for part of the time. People in Princeton, even though they're in the central part of New Jersey, and almost to the west central part of New Jersey, were called up so that they could go to the east part of New Jersey to guard against any crossovers from Staten Island, British soldiers looking for supplies, foraging and that kind of thing, and also to prevent New Jerseyans from trading with the enemy and getting New Jersey goods to Staten Island to support the British Army rather than to support the American army. So the militia was constantly in service. And that's going to affect the people in Princeton also, because it's going to be those men and their families that are going to be called out on duty.
MJT I think another important weapon for the British Army was gold and silver, they could pay for food and supplies and whatever else you could get to them. Hard money was in short supply, and people needed it to live. They needed it for survival.
LK Am I going to give supplies to the Continental Army for an IOU? or am I going to give it to the British for hard cash? Yeah.
MJT I mean, we think about Continental paper dollars, we think about dollars today as being just as good as anything else. But essentially, at the time, they were promissory notes that you might get real money in the future someday, if we win.
LK And that affected people in Princeton very significantly, not only because of the inflation, and that sort of thing that went along with the Continental currency in the IOU's, but simply, you know, these men that I mentioned, who took on the role of supply officials. They're the ones handing out the IOU's, not for themselves, but for the Continental Congress, or the New Jersey government.
When people want to collect on their IOU, they want to get it from these officials in Princeton. These guys are saying, I don't have any money to give you. It's the guy at the bottom of the chain there who suffers the stain of the people who say, You're not worth anything. The reputations of these men who worked in the supply department just went south. And in their own communities, they had to struggle sometimes. And in some cases, were forced to resign from those positions. I don't think anybody got wealthy often by any means. But they did suffer from it. So part of their contribution to the cause was suffering their own reputation while trying to keep the army supplied.
MJT It was a horrible situation, even if you supported the patriot cause, you're essentially accepting worthless paper for everything.
One of the things I found most fascinating in reading about the American Revolution, you may understand it on an intellectual level. But life before the industrial revolution, people were so much poorer, and live so much more hand to mouth than they do today. They had so fewer extras in life that even a few dollars was a matter of life and death, in some cases. It was a matter of survival.
So for people to be deprived of an income, it's not just they were being greedy and wanted British gold. It was they wanted their children to live through the winter. And they could not do that getting worthless paper money that the Americans required them to take at face value, even though it might be worth 1/1,000th of that at some point. And so they were essentially getting nothing for all their goods and services and labor. It was a very difficult situation for the civilians to live through.
LK Mm hmm. Absolutely.
MJT Yeah, we talked a little bit about the British in New York, of course, in 1777, I'm getting my years right here. Then they move to Philadelphia, but they don't come through New Jersey, this time. They go by sea to arrive in Philadelphia. But Princeton, once again finds itself essentially surrounded by British to the north and British to the south. Did that present any unique issues for them?
LK Well, it even steps up the needs for the militia. You know, some more men more often are going to be dealing with militia duty. There's always going to be concern that the British are going to re-attack and try to re-occupy New Jersey. So there's that in people's minds all the time. For the battles that took place around Philadelphia, it's going to mean more people coming to the hospitals.
It's going to affect them. It's not going to be a battle there like there was earlier but men are going to be coming and going on military duty, as well as helping to support the men in the army as a hospital, and as a supply depot.
MJT And when the British did evacuate Philadelphia the following year, they did march across New Jersey, again, I guess Princeton was largely avoided in that, but obviously, there were more consequences from the Battle of Monmouth that took place and casualties and all the things that went along with that.
LK There was fear that the British were going to come through Trenton and Princeton on their march across. That, of course, didn't happen. They went south of that. The American Army came close to Princeton. They had gone from Valley Forge, into areas north of Princeton, into Hopewell, for example. And then came down to the Monmouth area, but they kind of went around Princeton for the most part.
People in Princeton again, this was a time of anxiety, certainly, as to what would happen. The militia did participate in the Battle of Monmouth. Some militia from Princeton itself actually stayed in Princeton, as a kind of a rearguard, a safety valve in case something happened. And there's some patriots that did go to Monmouth, and participate in the battle there.
MJT Once the British had retreated to New York, again, I guess things got a little better, at least as far as military threats. Most of the fighting, as you mentioned before, move south to Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia for the next few years. But the economic situation got even worse. Continental money became even more worthless. We have armies on the verge of mutiny, there still is a large army in northern Jersey, watching the British in New York City. And they are becoming more and more bereft of food, clothing and shelter, and not particularly happy about it.
LK Remember that the army had been formed in 1777, based on three year enlistments, or the end of the war. January 1, 1781 was the time when a lot of those men who signed on for three years would have been discharged. They hadn't been paid. Yes, the food was, yes, they hadn't gotten all the supplies. Yes, they were in a bad mood anyway.
But then when they were told, no, you can't get out. You've got to stay to the end of the war. They said, Wait a minute, that's not what I signed my contract for. And so it was a combination of these things that caused that mutiny in the Morristown-Middlebrook area. And those soldiers, they're basically Pennsylvania soldiers, that mutinied. And they wanted to go to Philadelphia to take on the Continental Congress and their own state government to get the pay. And also to settle this issue, get my discharge.
To get to Philadelphia, they came through Princeton. So here's another occupying army, if you will, coming through Princeton, and it's an army that's not in a good mood. And the people at Princeton were pretty upset about that, pretty concerned.
Actually, those Pennsylvania troops treated the people around Princeton much better than any of the other armies that had been through either American or British. As they said, Our fight is not with you. Our fight is with the Continental Congress and our government. The problem was resolved at Trenton, but they had camped at Princeton for a while.
Some people in Princeton benefited from the army camping out there, because they supplied firewood, not being plundered, but you know, they collected it and sold it to the military. Same thing with some food and that sort of thing. So there are records of people getting actually paid for helping out to supply this army rather than the army plundering. Of course, the value of the money that they got, you know, as you say, you know, was questionable, but it wasn't pure plunder by any means.
So that turned out to be not such a bad thing, although the people were terrified that this group of mutineers was coming to their town. So there was a lot of relief when they actually got there, and they found out they weren't going to tear him apart.
Another time, that the situation that you're talking about was important was at the end of the war in 1783. In June of 1783, Pennsylvania soldiers were again, not happy. The army was breaking up at this point, or at least being furloughed, going off active duty, and the men were not getting paid. Well, there were a lot of grievances that they had. So some of the men actually did get to Philadelphia, and threatened the Continental Congress, as well as their state government, to the point where the Continental Congress decided to leave town. They felt that badly threatened.
Well, they found a friend in Princeton, found a bunch of friends in Princeton. Princeton, literally invited them with the idea that we not only would like you to come here, but we promised to defend you. Three militia regiments, the colonels of three militia regiments, the two counties that the line split between, for example, both Middlesex and Somerset County, as well as Hunterdon County, which was right next to Princeton. Those three colonels sent a note saying our men will defend you against those Pennsylvanians or anybody else that threatens you. So the Continental Congress decided to come to Princeton, and were there for several months.
MJT Did they meet in Nassau Hall?
LK They did a lot of meetings in Nassau Hall. They also met in some other places, too. They had committee meetings and taverns, and different places like that. And they were quartered throughout the town. But they did a lot of their meetings at Nassau Hall. Yes.
Well, it's important to recognize that Princeton had been the headquarters for the New Jersey government on a number of occasions. It was never the state capitol. Princeton had acted as the state capitol for the meetings of the legislature on a number of occasions. So Princetonians were used to quartering politicians, and putting up with all of this, and also recognizing these guys go to taverns, and they buy a lot of stuff, they go to a lot of merchants in town and buy a lot of stuff. You know, it's economically beneficial to the town. So I don't want to sell out Princeton's patriotism and all of that. But there was a certain economic element to, an advantage to putting up the Continental Congress.
MJT Right, members of Congress were generally speaking wealthy men, comparatively. They paid rent when they stayed somewhere, and they paid their bills. Money was hard to come by at this time.
MJT That kind of brings us to the end of the war. Anything interesting in the post-war era you want to talk about?
LK Well, I think one of the key things to understand is that even at the end of the war, which is six and a half years after the Battle of Princeton, the town had not recovered. The university was not back to full tilt, yet. There was still a lot of damage that had to be repaired, private buildings, as well as the college and whatnot. Some progress had been made, but there was still a ways to go. So it's a great day, to celebrate the peace treaty and all of that. But economically and and just physically, the town still had a ways to go in order to get back to normal.
That's going to happen and Princeton. I think it's a great place today. But it did take a while and probably more than people would realize, and perhaps more time than a lot of places in the new United States took to get normalized after the war, because so much had happened in Princeton in those ten years.
And so many armies had gone through. I mean, we didn't talk about the French army going through, you know, on the way to Yorktown, and whatnot. But virtually every, almost every army unit on both sides that participated in the war went through Princeton at some point, Princetonian said, suffered and benefited at different times.
MJT So yeah, this is been a really fascinating look at the town of Princeton. I'm curious what kind of resources you use for your research.
LK In terms of repositories as resources. The Firestone Library, the special collections at Princeton University has a wide collection of manuscript type stuff that was very, very helpful. The Historical Society of Princeton has a good archives, and they were very helpful to me. The state archives in Trenton had a lot of stuff, particularly dealing with the militia, and also dealing with some of the political aspects of things that happened in, New Jersey political aspects that happened in Princeton. The David library, which I sorely missed. I was one of the last people to use it on the day that it closed.
And then just a lot of sources like diaries, memoirs, letters of people who spent time in Princeton, politically and militarily, as well as people who lived in Princeton collections of family letters and that sort of thing. So, it was a wide-ranging experience to get to know and get into the lives of some of these people.
MJT I mean, that's always great, when you can get into a lot of primary sources that haven't been covered in a thousand other books or something. This is really something that people just haven't looked at for decades or centuries. That kind of gives us a refreshing new look at the world of Princeton in the 18th century.
So having wrapped up this book, are you working on any new projects yet?
LK I am deeply into a book Yes.
MJT Oh, great!
LK When I talked about wanting to look at things from a personal level, you know, an individual level, I'm going to write a biography of a man that probably only a few deep aficionados of the revolution have ever heard of, and the general public, probably never. His name is Jacob Francis. And Jacob Francis was a free black man. Born in New Jersey - Amwell Township near Flemington. He was born to a free black woman, whom we know virtually nothing about, except that she had a baby, as a very young boy, she indentured him to a local farmer, until he was 21. So he had a long adventure, you know, from maybe nine or 10 years old to age 21.
However, that farmer didn't really need him that long a period of time. So he sold part of his time to another farmer, who then sold part of his time to another farmer, who then sold his remaining time to a man who was a merchant, who took Jacob to the West Indies. Not to be a slave or anything like that. But you know, as his manservant, and then after spending a summer in the West Indies, took him to Salem, Massachusetts, and then sold the remainder of his time through a merchant in Salem. The rest of his time at that point was six years. This was 1768 when he sold his time for the last six years.
So Jacob became a free man, January 15 1775 in Salem, Massachusetts. As a free black man in Massachusetts with no roots, other than what he had established, in those six years, Jacob decides to join the Continental Army. He joins on October 31, about nine months after he got his freedom, virtually the same day that George Washington gave out orders to his officers not to enlist any blacks. Somehow he got in, and he served 14 months, basically a one year enlistment, but then also November and December.
He fought the battles around the siege of Boston. Then he was in the New York campaign, directly involved in the Battle of Harlem Heights and White Plains. He was with General Lee, so he didn't get across New Jersey until just before the Battle of Trenton. But then he was at the Battle of Trenton. And then he was one of those men on December 31, that Washington was trying to convince to extend his enlistments for six weeks.
Well, here he is. He’d been an indentured servant. Then he'd had a taste of freedom. Then he had essentially had a second indentured servitude in the Continental Army. Now he had freedom again. And he hadn't been to New Jersey to see his mother for over ten years. He didn't write. So he hadn't been in communication at all. But he was at Trenton. He was fifteen miles from home. So he did not extend his enlistment. He went home, found his mother who was still alive, but not well.
He also found out his last name. He didn't know his name was Jacob Francis. He just was Jacob. He had used an anonymous, used a name of one of the men who owned a couple years of his time when he enlisted in the Continental Army. So we wanted to find out who he was. He took care of his mother. He was such a focused young man and a skilled young man, that he was able to establish himself on a small farm at a time when blacks were not supposed to be property owners. So he's breaking all the rules here. He got in the army. He's buying land.
He continued to serve in the New Jersey militia throughout the war. He fought at the Battle of Monmouth, for example, then some other places. He established his farm. He didn't get married until he was 35 because he didn't feel he was ready yet to support a family. As soon as he did support a family, he married a woman who was a slave woman. Her owners sold her to him on their wedding day, and he freed her. They had six or seven children and they continued to live in the area around Flemington the rest of their lives. He died in 1836. She died in 1844.
One of their youngest boys grew up to be an abolitionist, working with Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison to free African Americans. And to prevent African Americans from being colonized by being sent to Liberia and other parts of Africa to get them out of the United States. He had to fight against that. So the two generations - this is a story of freedom and liberties, you know, in all kinds of so many different depths of that, but I find it a fascinating story.
MJT It sounds like an absolutely fascinating topic. I mean, the issue of free blacks in that era, is an interesting one, because we think of blacks as all being slaves almost.
MJT And then, after the war, kind of the conventional wisdom, which is wrong, obviously, is that all the slavery was in the south and the north just ended slavery. New Jersey did pass laws to end slavery after the war, but it was a very slow phase-out of slavery.
LK It was a gradual abolition. I don't know that New Jersey ever abolished slavery, by law, there were a couple of attempts at it that were only partial, because in 1804, the first of the laws: if you were born before July 4 1804, as a slave, you were a slave for life. You're not going to get out of this. If you're a baby born on July 5 1804. You are, and the wording on this changed, but essentially, you are a slave owned by your mother's master until you reach a certain age, and it was a different age for boys and girls. It was in the 20s. It varied as to how these people were looked at. Were they looked at as slaves? Were they looked at as indentured servants until that adult age? So slavery is going to go on and on and on. In the 1850 census, in Hopewell Township, there were still two slaves. I believe there was still one in 1860.
MJT The difference between an indentured servant and a slave is essentially a matter of whether you have lifetime service, or limited service, but the actual time you're spending in that service, there's really not a whole lot of difference.
LK Exactly. And Mike, that's why I kind of compared his indentured servitude to his Continental service as being almost the same as being an indentured servant.
MJT Right. Well, it sounds like a fascinating story. I look forward to reading it.
All right. Well, Larry Kidder, I thank you very much for joining us on the American Revolution. I appreciate your time today. And we look forward to hearing from you again in the future.
LK Great. Well, thanks very much, Mike. I enjoyed talking with you.
Larry Kidder Website
Online Articles by Larry Kidder
"Guiding Washington to Trenton" Journal of the American Revolution, May 6, 2014.
"The American Revolution of Private Jacob Francis" Journal of the American Revolution, March 6, 2018.
Other Books by Larry Kidder
Ten Crucial Days: Washington's Vision for Victory Unfolds, Knox Press, 2019.
wlkidderhistorian.com, CreateSpace, 2013.
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