I am standing at the intersection of Whitehead Road and Sweet Briar Avenue in Hamilton. The Ewing-Lawrence Sewage Authority is nearby, and across the street is a ramp to Route 1 north and the brick side of a building. I know the spot is steeped in historic significance, and I’m with the man who can tell my why.
Michael Goldstein is the author of Hidden Trenton’s new “Guide to the Battles of Trenton and Princeton,” a free E-book available on hiddentrenton.com, just in time for Patriots Week, the annual celebration of the battles that took place in and around Princeton and Trenton, including Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware. The book not only tells the stories behind the battles but also provides exact, or near-exact, locations where important moments in history took place.
Goldstein tells me that in January of 1777 this spot where we’re standing in Hamilton was the location of Philip’s Mill, where Arthur St. Clair commanded about 1,200 troops of the Continental Army during the crucial nine days of the Revolutionary War from December 26, 1776, to January 3, 1777. St. Clair’s men were in charge of protecting Philip’s Ford, which was near the mill and and also patrolled the routes between the Philip’s Ford and Princeton.
Goldstein explains that General Charles Cornwallis, commander of the British troops, had planned to attack Philip’s Mill on January 3 and head east. On January 2 General George Washington met with his council at St. Clair’s headquarters at the mill to make a decision. Washington could retreat, which might not be successful and could brand his men as cowards, or stay and fight Cornwallis, and most likely be defeated.
St. Clair had knowledge of the routes to Princeton, and suggested to Washington that he make a surprise attack on the British troops stationed there. That led to the Battle of Princeton and a major victory for the Americans.
“So this spot, to me, is one of the most important places in American history,” Goldstein says, “because if Washington hadn’t marched to Princeton, he probably would have lost the battle the next day.”
Thousands of cars drive by that intersection every day without any knowledge of what happened there 235 years ago. Goldstein himself says he drove by it countless times, oblivious to its historical significance. “We would be watching cricket matches (instead of baseball) at Yankee Stadium and driving over (what might be named) the Charles Cornwallis Bridge to get there,” Goldstein says. “That’s what life would be like if not for this spot. And yet there’s nothing marking it.”
Many of those exact locations were undocumented before Goldstein put his guide together. The book’s highlights include maps Goldstein created by scanning maps from David Hackett Fischer’s book “Washington Crossing” into Google Maps, and superimposing the images to create a map that combines the historic locations featured in Fischer’s book and current-day roads.
Fischer’s book, says Goldstein, was a big influence on the project. After reading it, Goldstein wondered if there was enough information available to provide the outline for a driving tour of important Revolutionary War spots in Trenton and Princeton. “And what I discovered was that there is, though you have to work at it,” he says.
A map from Fischer’s book, for example, depicts the events that took place on January 2, 1777, during the Second Battle of Trenton. Goldstein’s version of the map includes modern-day roads, such as Route 206, and provides the exact locations of where events such as delaying actions occurred and where a Hessian Jager solider (the Jagers were a cavalry that specialized in reconnaissance) was killed by an American rifleman.
“With these maps and the descriptions that are in the book and these tools, all of a sudden you can take a map that is vaguely interesting and specifically say, ‘this is that site, and this is that site,’ and then spin narrative around it,” Goldstein says.
Goldstein grew up in several towns in northern New Jersey. His father, Edward, worked in marketing and business strategy for AT&T. His mother, Marie, was a housewife and was also a trained electrical engineer, working in the Army Air Corps as a meteorologist during World War II.
He graduated from Brown University in 1975 with a bachelor’s of science and worked in the high tech industry, including a stint as CEO of Voxware in Princeton, which he took public in 1996. He is currently an owner of HHG, a Trenton-based real estate development company.
In 1994 Goldstein and his wife, June Ballinger, moved from New York City to Princeton. Ballinger is an actress and the artistic director at Passage Theater in Trenton. Her work at the theater led to the couple loving Trenton and moving there in 2003.
Goldstein says he has always been a history buff, particularly American military history. He calls himself “nearly a pacifist,” and opposed the Vietnam war, but he was always interested in the stories of the individuals who fought in the war, and the hardships they faced. After moving to Trenton and reading Fischer’s book, he started wondering exactly where some of the events of the two Battles of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton occurred.
Goldstein himself has learned plenty from his project. One thing he wanted to figure out was the exact location of the Quaker Bridge, which is an important spot in the war. Washington’s troops came to the bridge on the march to Princeton, and discovered it wasn’t strong enough for their artillery so a second, temporary bridge was built by Washington’s engineers. When Goldstein found the location of the bridge, he realized he had driven over it thousands of times.
“If you’re local and you know back roads, the old roads are the back roads,” Goldstein says. “And when you do all of this, it’s surprising how many of these places I’ve been to with no clue as to their historic significance.”
The project was also sparked when the architect John Hatch offered a silent auction item of a guided tour focused on architectural sites of Trenton battle locations. Lots of bids were placed on it, and that got Goldstein thinking about a tour of his own. “I wanted to know the stories of the battles and the experiences of the men in the battles,” he says.
Those experiences include the events that happened during the first battle of Trenton near the War Monument, which have been well documented, but using Goldstein’s guide, one can discover locations such as a spot on what is now Warren Street in Trenton (Kings Street in the 18th century), where British troops left behind two cannons after they were fired upon by Americans, shooting from the location of the Trenton Battle Monument.
“The Hessians — once they were engaged by the artillery and taking musket fire — had six of their eight horses killed, and a bunch of their men were killed and the lieutenants just buggered out,” Goldstein says. “Their horses were all dead, they had no way of moving the pieces under fire, so they just left the two cannons in the middle of the street; now that turns out to be very important to the rest of the battle.”
A Hessian colonel named Johann Rall decided to seize high ground on what is now Montgomery Street in Trenton, and attack Washington at the location of the monument. But despite the wintry weather, Rall’s troops were exposed to American fire, and they retreated to an orchard, which offered about the only cover in the area. (A firehouse now stands in the vicinity of the orchard.)
Word about the two cannons got to Rall, and he went to retrieve them. Rall and some Hessian troops marched through what today would be called a “killing zone” to retrieve the cannons, and were under attack by Americans on three sides. And the Americans were inside, which not only gave them cover, but protected their weapons from the wet weather.
“It was a horrific thing, and it’s amazing that the Hessians actually managed to get to the cannons, loaded them, and were about to fire when [General Hugh] Mercer’s brigade charged them and drove them off,” Goldstein says. “And the Americans were aiming consciously at the officers; they killed eight of the officers in the march back.” Rall was among the men who died the next day outside St. Michael’s Church.
One of the amazing things one learns when looking at this area today is seeing how this all happened in a small area, because of the short distance cannons and muskets could fire.
Goldstein would like to see more attention given to these locations. For a while he did business in Massachusetts near Lexington and Concord and saw how those towns have used their Revolutionary War history to turn the area into a major tourist destination.
“Lexington and Concord was a significant battle, obviously,” Goldstein says, “but it was no more significant than the battles of Trenton and Princeton, arguably less so, and they have turned that into a tourist machine.”
The sites in Trenton, he says, lack a coherency that can weave a tale together, never mind the lack of museums, shops, and restaurants near those destinations that would help draw tourists. There have been some attempts, such as the Freedom Trail, but Goldstein says it’s difficult, if not impossible, to find a document that explains the stops on the trail.
“I think this stuff needs to be developed,” Goldstein says of these historic locations. “I realize there are some challenges to that but it could be done. This is my contribution to that and hopefully it will be an important one.”
Publication of the guide in book form is a possibility, Goldstein says, if he can find an affordable option — he doesn’t expect to get rich off this work. He has also given some consideration to hosting tours and will likely offer a tour as a silent auction item at a future benefit gala to support Passage Theater.
For now, people who live or visit here can download Goldstein’s guide and go on a self-guided tour. “What was exciting was being able to pull all of this together in a way that is completely accessible to someone who knows this area, who drives in this area,” he says. “To give them a tour that will tell them how the battles played out, what really happened and where it happened. It changes your perception of living here, or it has mine anyway.”
He may be right. My daughter belongs to an acting group that rehearses about a quarter-mile away from the location where Philip’s Mill used to be. I had driven by it dozens of times, completely oblivious to its significance. A few days after I met with Goldstein, I drove my daughter to a rehearsal and came to the intersection.
“You know,” I told her, “This is a very important place in America’s history.” And happily, I was able to tell her why.
Hidden Trenton’s “Guide to the Battles of Trenton and Princeton” is available for free download at www.hiddentrenton.com.