What cosmic plan placed a family of Quaker pacifists in the middle of the Battle of Princeton?
This was the fate of Thomas Clarke and his kin, a third-generation Quaker family at Stony Brook Quaker Settlement, living in a white clapboard farmhouse (circa 1772), situated in the middle of a 200-acre farm off what is now Mercer Road.
This sturdy house was central to the Battle of Princeton, fought on January 3, 1777, between the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington and British Crown Forces. The Clarkes turned the house into a hospital after the battle, taking in both British and American wounded, most famously American General Hugh Mercer.
In fact, as General Mercer was being treated for critical injuries he incurred during the battle, a British officer, Captain McPherson of the 17th Regiment, was being cared for in the room next door.
And despite being seen by the famed Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence as well as a renowned doctor and figure in medicine, Mercer died at the Clarke House nine days after the battle. Mercer County — and many towns, streets and roads, buildings, etc. — are named in his honor.
As seasonal historic educator at the Clarke House Will Krakower has immersed himself in the battle and its main characters and seems to know General Mercer intimately. He muses that, had Mercer lived, there would be even more things named after him: he was that great of a battlefield general.
His descendants would also prove to be noted military men, Krakower says.
“Hugh Mercer had many descendants, including a couple who fought for the Confederacy — Waller T. Patton and George Smith Patton, the latter of whom was the grandfather of George Patton” of World Wars I and II fame Krakower says.
Songwriter Johnny Mercer is apparently also a direct descendant of Hugh Mercer.
These are just a few of the curious details a visitor might gather in a visit to the Clarke House. Some might come to reflect on the house’s place in the battle, some for the “Arms of the Revolution” exhibit there, others to peruse the old farm building and its surroundings.
Yet others might be interested in the subterranean history of the home and its surroundings.
There is in fact, an ongoing archaeological dig by Princeton University students at the Battlefield. The dig site was right in front of the Clarke House when we were there, and Krakower says they have found nails and slate, a shoe buckle, some buttons, and shards of Chinese porcelain so far, which await further investigation to pinpoint their provenance.
Led by Nathan Arrington, associate professor of art and archaeology, and Rachael DeLue, professor of art and archaeology, the dig is part of a hands-on course within the university’s Department of Art and Archaeology titled “Battle Lab: The Battle of Princeton,” a new course introduced this fall.
The students involved in the dig will present their findings at a free Public Archaeology Day on Saturday, November 10, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Princeton Battlefield on Mercer Road.
In warmer weather, there are also tours of the Princeton Battlefield every other Sunday, which will resume in the spring. Check the Battlefield Society’s events page for future activities: www.theprincetonbattlefieldsociety.org/events.html.
Haddonfield resident Krakower explains that, though it was utilized as such, “The Clarke House was never meant to be a field hospital. It was just a farm house, and these people were Quakers, who had an aversion to war,” he says. “So it was very ironic that one of the crucial battles of the Revolutionary War took place all around them.”
“Remember, this is one of those places where history hung in the balance,” he continues. “In the grand scheme of things, people view (the Battle of Princeton) as a small battle, lasting only two hours. But if Washington had lost here who knows what would have happened? When you think about the battles of Trenton and Princeton, these are not ‘war-changing’ battles, but they were ‘war-saving.’”
Krakower adds that before the Ten Crucial Days campaign, the only deadly encounters the British had had with the colonial army had been in Boston in 1775 and 1776, and now they were intimidated by the Trenton and Princeton victories.
“The British evacuated from Boston, then they steamrolled over our troops, probably thinking, ‘aha, we can run right over them, they’re not trained,’” Krakower says. “So the victories in Trenton and Princeton help Washington because there’s a change in the British mindset. In 1777 there was a different appreciation for the Continental army, and the British realized this was not just an army that could be beaten.”
Krakower believes the dying Mercer knew that the tide was turning with the Battle of Princeton, and that the victory would be a morale booster for the troops.
“He was a veteran of three wars, so he understood the value of the strategic movements, and he was one of the more experienced battlefield commanders,” Krakower says. “He was a very smart guy. He marches to the place and holds the ground out there in the field with the troops.”
Though it wasn’t considered gentlemanly for either side to kill an officer, the British attacked General Mercer with bayonets numerous times once the general was on the ground. Krakower thinks he was shot off his horse, or else the horse was shot out from under him.
As he was surrounded, the Scotland-born Mercer drew his saber and fought back, which infuriated his opponents. One struck him on the head with the butt of a musket, causing a concussion.
Although Dr. Rush gave Mercer a good prognosis and thought he would recover, Mercer, himself trained as a surgeon and apothecary, knew intuitively that his wounds were mortal.
Krakower notes that during the Revolutionary War most soldiers on both sides were not killed instantly, but died when their wounds became infected. So it was for General Mercer, who probably died from sepsis and/or a punctured lung, both aggravated by the concussion.
The Clarke House pays tribute to Mercer’s heroism and death with an upright cannon barrel on the porch just outside the front entry.
Inside is the actual room where Mercer lay for nine days, a modest space with a small fireplace, corner cabinet, and bed — which may not be 100 percent accurate.
Krakower says his predecessor put the bed in there, but the room was probably a parlor originally. It would not have had a bed, but the wounded Mercer would certainly not have been on the floor, and at the very least the general would have rested on a cot.
One cannot help but notice the heft and very good condition of the doors, antique locks, and doorknobs, and the resilient quality of the glass. If not original it is very old and has that imperfect look of hand-crafted glass from a certain era.
One door sustained a bullet graze or ricochet during the Battle of Princeton, and though it has been painted over many, many times, you can still see the dent.
There is also an accompanying bullet hole in the wall adjacent to the door: Krakower says in years past the hole was dug out to make it easier to see (and perhaps more dramatic) but even in its original state, the damage was nothing to be dismissed.
He says the high ceilings and wide doors of the structure are less Colonial in style, closer to late-18th century Federal architecture. Thomas Clarke himself may have visited the United Kingdom and liked this newer design.
The Clarke House also hosts an “Arms of the Revolution” exhibit, which is actually one of the largest collections of period firearms and paraphernalia on display anywhere.
The exhibit encompasses a good cross section of the weapons and accessories used by the soldiers and militia men who fought on both sides during the American Revolution.
In addition to military shoulder arms and pistols, one can also view military swords, canteens, powder horns, cannons, cannonballs, an artillery caisson, a cartridge box and hunting pouch, artifacts from the battle, maps, and other images of the Battle of Princeton.
One cannonball on display had to be moved and, interestingly, it cracked open to reveal a center filled with pebbles, oyster, and other shells. This could have two implications: the ball could be some kind of projectile weapon, which would scatter shrapnel upon explosion. Or, the cannonball had been under water for so long that creatures and things found their way inside.
Born in Mount Holly and raised in Burlington County, Krakower says his father, now retired, taught history before becoming a guidance counselor in the Bordentown school system. His mom, who also has a profound interest in history, teaches English as a Second Language in the Lumberton Township School District.
So it didn’t take much for Will to become passionate about the subject at a young age.
“My dad, brother, and I watched the movie ‘Gettysburg’ (the 1993 film starring Martin Sheen and Jeff Daniels), then we went to Gettysburg, and from that moment on, it was history, history, history,” Krakower says.
He kept his childhood passion alive and in 2016 graduated from Rutgers with a BA in history and a minor in classics. Krakower expects to earn his master’s degree with a focus on public history from Rutgers-Camden in 2019.
In 2015 he became the senior historic educator at Washington Crossing State Park, working primarily in the Visitor’s Center and the Johnson Ferry House as an interpreter and living historian. He was also involved in researching historic figures and parties involved with General Washington’s Crossing and the Ten Crucial Days campaign.
“I had been at Washington Crossing, and Princeton is a satellite campus, so we’re all under the same umbrella,” he says. “When John Mills (the longtime historic educator) said he was going to retire, they sent me over to Princeton to learn. Since then it’s just been me.”
His position at the Princeton Battlefield and Clarke House is currently part-time, but Krakower is hoping it will become full-time. He has quite a few ideas about what might be done at the historic site.
“I’d like to bring living history back to this site, make it look as though it’s still the 18th century, with soldiers on the ground camping, for example,” Krakower says. “I’d like to have (living history) interpreters on the site, dressed for the time period. But not just soldiers; I’d also like to have Quaker farmers to bring the time period to life.”
“We’re a very immersive society today, and you don’t just show (young people), you immerse them. It’s one thing to look at a map, another to reach out and touch history,” he adds, noting his admiration for the living history personnel at the Old Barracks in Trenton. “Those guys have it down to a science.”
Krakower has researched and written about the French Revolution, the American Civil War, and World War I. However, having lived in Mount Holly, then Burlington, then Haddonfield, and working at critical locations within the Revolutionary War, 18th-century American history has really taken hold of him.
“I’m New Jersey born and bred, so I knew about the story (of our state’s role in the Revolution), but once I got into it as my job, it became more and more interesting to me,” he adds. “I always say to folks, you can’t walk five miles in New Jersey without finding a historic plaque of some kind. We are at the crossroads of the Revolution, and I’ve been fortunate to live here.”
Thomas Clarke House, 500 Mercer Road, Princeton, open Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. 609-921-0074 or www.visitprincetonbattlefield.org
Public Archaeology Day, Saturday, November 10, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Free. sf.princeton.edu/events/princeton-battlefield-public-archaeology-day
Princeton Battlefield Society: For information visit www.theprincetonbattlefieldsociety.org