The following speech delivered at the Spirit of Princeton Veterans Day Ceremony 11:00am, November 11, 2016
- Belleau Wood
- Meuse Argonne
- Ia Drang
- Dak To
- Chosin Reservoir
- Tora Bora
38,111,557 men and women have served in America’s wars since the “War to End All Wars” ended on the 11th hour, of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. 625,148 have died in 32 conflicts in the last 98 years – 1,173,528 returned with some physical wound, countless others have been challenged by psychological wounds, and 40,917 never returned at all.
But, as witness to the few battles I’ve just highlighted, in which our neighbors, our brothers, our sisters, our fathers, mothers, uncles, grandfathers, and other ancestors have fought and died, our collective conscience to this nation’s military actions have always been….. Over There.
Even our own Civil War, in which 3,225,000 men from North and South served, we here in New Jersey have to look away to Gettysburg and way down south to Dixie to experience the hallowed ground where our countrymen and women fought for what both sides called liberty, and justice for all.
But I ask you, why are we Americans?
When most Americans today think of the American Revolution, they think of Lexington, Valley Forge, or Yorktown. Those sites may be the headlines in textbooks of elementary school, but the times that tried men’s souls took place right here.
To understand America’s struggle to become America, we only need to look out our own windows – where we live, where we shop. Whether we go to church, or the movies… or to sporting events, or to school… 240 years ago men fought right here. Women endured hardships and were assaulted in farmhouses and buildings that you drive by… every day. The men and women who were to become America’s first veterans came from New Hampshire, and Virginia, Connecticut, Maryland, nine other colonies, and even other countries but the fought right here, on the soil we call New Jersey. New Jersey was the ground on which over 296 battles, engagements, and skirmishes were fought – all within a fifty- mile radius of where you are standing – and more than any other colony.
By the end of November, 1776, John Witherspoon had called his students together at Nassau Hall to beseech that they evacuate Princeton. The college would be disbanded for their own safety. On December 2nd, as Washington, and his defeated army retreated, right here…behind you – marching forty feet away from this spot, through the village of Princeton – The sixty or so houses in town were mostly deserted with the knowledge that the British and Hessians were only a few hours behind. Washington needed to cross the Province Line into West Jersey and the relative safety on the west bank of the Delaware to regroup.
Then, with little else but daring and the dark, and the help of men from the First Hunterdon militia to guide his troops through the farmland, the ravines, and the swamps of Hopewell, Trenton, Nottingham, Maidenhead, the Stony Brook settlement, and into Princeton, Washington led these same men to victory, not once, but three times during the Ten Crucial Days from December 25, 1776 to January 3, 1777.
- Assumpink Creek
- And…yes, Princeton
On that field – the Princeton Battlefield, 1.3 miles from here – Military historians know what happened on Maxwell’s Field, at Frog Hollow on the Springdale Golf Course, and at Nassau Hall. Princeton was the ultimate battle of the Ten Crucial Days that was the beginning of the end of British America, and the dawn of the United States of America. Where you live and work, where we educate our children and go to church is the land on which farmers from Massachusetts, blacksmiths from New York, merchants from Pennsylvania, sailors from Rhode Island, became veterans. And this is why we are Americans.
On this day, when we remember all veterans. This week, we also celebrate the United States Marine Corps – when only 55 days after its founding, Capt. William Shippin became the first Marine to die in a land battle. That happened on the Princeton Battlefield. So as we honor the 38 plus million that have served our nation since the beginning of the 20th Century, let us also honor the 217,000 that served at our founding, and another million who served cause and country in the 19th Century. Remembrance is more than just thanking them for their service. While that is a respectful sentiment, our veterans are a small percentage of our population that serve and sacrifice so that the rest of us can maintain a principled and democratic life.
Our veterans are everyday men and women from Anytown, USA. They come from wealthy and poor families alike. Their mothers and fathers are doctors, lawyers, professors, day laborers housekeepers and clerks. They have PhDs and GEDs. They are black, white, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, Samoan and Latino. They are Catholic and Protestant, Jewish and Muslim, Hindu and agnostic, and they are all extraordinary Americans. However, over 300,000 of our veterans since the Korean War are living with non-mortal wounds, and statistics suggest that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. John Fitzgerald Kennedy asked what will you do for your country. For those of you who served, we honor you for what you have done for your country. For the rest of us, Veterans Day should be the day that we begin to reach out.
And, as you drive to work, or to the movies, or to school, or out to dinner, I hope you will look around you and ask the question – what happened here? Learn about our history. Because our history, is your history. We are the stewards of the land in what happened here – in Princeton. Honor these men and women in uniform by teaching others what happened on your streets, and in your backyard.
Thank you. – Roger S. Williams, Princeton Battlefield Society