When Civil War Veterans Reenacted the Battles of Trenton and Princeton

Often around the Christmas holiday, history enthusiasts don reproduced uniforms of American, British, and Hessian soldiers and reenact the crossing of the Delaware River, the Battles of Trenton, and the Battle of Princeton. These historical reenactments are usually well attended by reenactors and visitors, and they offer an opportunity to celebrate the important military actions and give a small glimpse into the past at the sites where these historical events actually happened.

Battle reenactments are not a new phenomenon. In fact, George Washington’s army engaged in battle reenactments, or as they often described them “sham fights” or “sham battles”, at Morristown in 1780. In the early and mid-nineteenth century, many of these sham battles occurred to mark historic anniversaries of Revolutionary War battles, sometimes with veterans of the battles engaged in the sham fights themselves. Trenton would often host a sham fight in the streets of the city to mark the anniversary of that important battle in the 1840s and 1850s. But perhaps the most significant one occurred to mark the centennial of the battles of Trenton and Princeton in December of 1876 and January of 1877 when among others, veterans of the American Civil War participated in the reenactment of the battles.

Spectators watch a sham battle at the Trenton Battle Monument in the 125th anniversary sham battle in 1901. (The New York Herald)

While the nation did a major anniversary celebration in Philadelphia for the centennial of July 4th in 1876, the people of Trenton and Princeton did not forget to mark the important battles that helped to secure our independence. Despite the national importance of this campaign, it was primarily a regional affair, with most participants coming from New Jersey or Pennsylvania. On December 26, 1876, about 1,200 men reenacted the crossing of the Delaware, the march on Trenton, and the battle of Trenton. Just eleven years following the end of the American Civil War, many of the participants were veterans of that recent conflict. Many local militias and national guard units formed the groups of men portraying the Continentals and Hessians. At this time, there was little emphasis on historical accuracy with regards to the uniforms and weapons that were used in 1776. Many of the men used percussion cap rifled muskets instead of the flintlocks used in during the real battle and wore 1876 style clothing. The honor of portraying General George Washington was awarded to General William Snyder Truex, who commanded a brigade of Union soldiers during the 1864 Battle of Monocacy, which played a pivotal role in preventing the Confederates from capturing Washington, DC. The New York Herald noted that Truex was “an old soldier and whose short stumpy figure and thick set, round head and dark, fall, stubbly beard, as well as the general outline of whose face, strongly reminded one of the hero of the last war, by some considered our second Washington, General Grant.”

William Snyder Truex, who portrayed General Washington at the 1876 Trenton sham battle. (Find-a-Grave)

The volunteer “Continentals” began the day by marching from Trenton up to McConkey’s Ferry in the middle of the night. They arrived around one in the morning and enjoyed “centennial whiskey” by a fire at the ferry house inn before they crossed the river. However, it was so cold that the Delaware River was completely frozen over. Undaunted the men walked across the ice to the New Jersey side of the river. From there they marched 9 miles to Trenton, following the same path Washington’s troops took. They arrived at about 9 a.m. and engaged the “Hessians” in town. The two sides fired blank cartridges at each other through the town and fired cannons as well. The generals ordered the Continentals to charge into the Hessians and they engaged in mock hand to hand combat. The New York Herald noted that not all the fighting was fake, as two drunken “Continentals” engaged in a real fist fight and some other minor injuries occurred as the two sides fired at each other at point blank range. Finally, the “Hessians” surrendered and two sides enjoyed a large parade. Among the participants in the parade was Adam Exton, a mainstay in Trenton society (and interestingly, the inventor of the oyster cracker) and a major proponent of the Trenton sham battle. After the parade they all enjoyed a feast with toasts, addresses, and patriotic songs.

James Madison Drake, who portrayed General Washington at the 1877 sham battle at Princeton. (Wikipedia)

Not to be outdone by their neighbors in Trenton, on January 3, 1877, Princeton celebrated their history with another sham battle. Hundreds of militia men gathered to recreate the battle on the anniversary. Portraying General Washington in this battle was James Madison Drake, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroics while serving as a lieutenant in the 9th New Jersey during the Battle of Bermuda Hundred. Again, the troops largely wore their modern militia uniforms and Drake wore his Medal of Honor in the sham battle. (Drake’s ancestor was the owner of the Drake House, where Washington held a council of war in 1777 and is now a museum). Among the troops he commanded was Company C of the 3rd New Jersey National Guards (Phil Kearny Guards). General Philip Kearny had been killed during the Civil War at the Battle of Chantilly on September 1, 1862. The Sun newspaper noted that the Kearny Guards carried with them “the battle flag of the lamented General in whose honor it is named. In the center of the flag is a red Greek cross, Gen. Kearny had it with him at the battle of Chantilly, in which he yielded up his life blood on the altar of his country. It is but a remnant now; not more than half of it still clings to the staff.”

January 3 was a cold clear day, but there was more than a foot of snow on the ground. The troops paraded out of Princeton south to the site of the old battleground. The “Continentals” marched first and were followed by the “British.” On account of the snow, they didn’t make it all the way to the original battleground where the Mercer oak marked the traditional location where General Hugh Mercer was dragged to after being bayoneted. Instead, they stopped a little closer to the town and engaged each other in the sham battle. The men portraying Mercer’s brigade were driven back by the “British” and the man portraying Mercer fell to the ground “mortally wounded.” As The Sun noted, “Just then Gen. Drake, in imitation or Washington, appeared above the crest, leading the Philadelphians.” In dramatic fashion, the “Continentals” drove the “British” back onto the road and up into the town. The sham battle continued up around Nassau Hall, where the “British” finally surrendered ending the battle. The day ended with a feast for the participants.

“Hessian” soldiers throw down their arms following the 1901 sham battle in Trenton. This shows how these early reenactments were less concerned on historic clothing and weapons. (New York Herald)

The tradition of holding a reenactment or sham battle has continued off and on over the past 150 years. Usually, Washington Crossing Historic Park hosts a reenactment of Washington crossing the Delaware every Christmas and the city of Trenton and the Old Barracks Museum hosts a reenactment of the battles of Trenton on the weekend after Christmas (known as Patriots Week). While the crossing is happening this year, the 2021 battle reenactment has been canceled due to COVID. Also, this year, the Princeton Battlefield Society will be hosting a reenactment of the Battle of Princeton on the original ground on January 2. These anniversary reenactments are great ways to remember our nation’s history and a perfect time to make a pilgrimage to visit the historic sites, something we just did a few weeks ago. While it is great to see a modern reenactment and think of the sacrifice of those original patriots, it is fascinating to think of veterans of America’s bloodiest war taking part in the reenacting of America’s Revolutionary War.

Revolutionary War reenactors (including the author) march down Warren Street in the 2018 reenactment of the Battle of Trenton. (author photo)

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