MORVEN, THE MERCER HOUSE, AND WASHINGTON’S ROCKY HILL HEADQUARTERS
“Sollemnity & Distress appeared almost on every countenance, several students that had come 5 & 600 miles & just got letters in college were now obliged under every disadvantage to retire with their effects, or leave them behind, which several through the impossibility of getting a carriage at so Confused a time were glad to do, & lose them all, as all hopes of continuing longer in peace at Nassau were now taken away I began to look out for some place where I might pursue my studies & as Mr. G. Johnson had spoke to me to teach his son I accordingly went there & agreed to stay with him till spring.”
So wrote John Clark, one of the students at the College of New Jersey, who, in 1776, was dismayed by the threatened approach of Cornwallis and his army. He was able to remove his effects in ample time, for he had only a ” Trunk & Desk.” But there were others in the peaceful village who were not so fortunate. One of them was Mrs. Richard Stockton of Morven, a beautiful home still standing not far from the college campus. The activity of her husband in the interests of the Colonies had angered the British, and they were not slow to take advantage of the absence of the family by pillaging the mansion and destroying many things it contained. Fortunately Mrs. Stockton, before, leaving hurriedly for Freehold, had buried the family silver, and this was not discovered, though Cornwallis and his officers occupied the house as headquarters.
Probably, while they were here, they talked gleefully of what they called the collapse of the war. They felt so sure that the war was over that Cornwallis was already planning to return to England.
Then came the surprise at Trenton, when nearly a thousand Hessians of a total force of twelve hundred were captured.
Immediately Cornwallis, who had returned to New York, hastened back to Princeton, where he left three regiments and a company of cavalry. Then he hurried on to Trenton. On the way he was harassed by Washington’s outposts, and the main force of the General delayed his entrance into the town until nightfall. He expected to renew the attack next morning, but during the night Washington stole away toward Princeton. Within two miles of Princeton the force of General Mercer encountered the reserve troops of Cornwallis, which were on their way to their commander’s assistance. Washington, hearing the sound of the conflict that followed, hastened to the field in time to rally the forces of Mercer, who had been wounded. The day was saved, but General Mercer was lost; he died in the farm-house on the battle field to which he was carried. To this day visitors are shown the stain made on the floor by the blood of the dying man. Those who express doubt as to the stain are not welcomed.
Alfred Noyes has written of this conflict. which meant more to the struggling Colonies than some historians have indicated. The reference in the first line of the second stanza is to the tigers that crouch at the entrance of Nassau Hall in Princeton
“Here Freedom stood by slaughtered friend and foe, And, ere the wrath paled or that sunset died, Looked through the ages; then, with eyes aglow, Laid them to wait that future, side by side.
“The dark bronze tigers crouch on either side Where redcoats used to pass; And round the bird-loved house where Mercer died, And violets dusk the grass, By Stony Brook that ran so red of old, But sings of friendship now, To feed the old enemy’s harvest fifty-fold The green earth takes the plow.
” Through this May night, if one great ghost should stray With deep remembering eyes, Where that old meadow of battle smiles away Its blood-stained memories, If Washington should walk, where friend and foe Sleep and forget the past, Be sure his unquenched heart would leap to know Their souls are linked at last.”
After the battle came happier days for Princeton. Morven was restored, and Washington was frequently an honored guest within the walls, as have been many of his successors in the White House.
More than six years after the memorable battle of Princeton, another house in the neighborhood received him. When Congress convened in Nassau Hall, it rented for Washington the Rocky Hill House, five miles from the village, which was occupied by John Berrian, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey. This house, which was suitably furnished for the General, was the last headquarters of the Revolution.
While at the Berrian house, Washington sat to William Dunlap for his portrait. In his ” Arts of Design ” the artist, who at the time of which he wrote was eighteen years old, said :
” My visits are now frequent to headquarters. The only military in the neighborhood were the general’s suite and a corporal’s guard whose tents were on the green before the Berrian House, and the captain’s marquee nearly in front. The soldiers were New England yeomen’s sons, none older than twenty. . . . I was quite at home in every respect at headquarters; to break-fast and dine day after day with the general and Mrs. Washington and members of Congress.”
It was Washington’s custom to ride to Princeton, mounted on a small roan horse. The saddle was ” old and crooked, with a short deep blue saddle cloth flowered, with buff cloth at the edge, buckskin seat, the cloth most below the skirt of the saddle at the side, double skirts, crupper, surcingle, and breast straps, double belted steel bridle and plated stirrup.”
The real closing scene in the Revolution was Washington’s farewell address to the army, which he wrote in the southwest room of the second story. On Sunday, November 2, from the second-story balcony, he read this to the soldiers. Two days later orders of discharge were issued to most of them.
Fortunately the Berrian House has become the property of ” The Washington Headquarters Association of Rocky Hill,” and is open to the patriotic pilgrim.