In the dark of night on 25 April 1875
a group of ten sophomores
from Rutgers College
(now Rutgers University) in New Brunswick
, New Jersey
travelled sixteen miles south to the campus of the College of New Jersey
(now Princeton University) in Princeton
, New Jersey
and stole a cannon
in what became known as the Rutgers-Princeton Cannon War
(or Princeton-Rutgers Cannon War
). For the months following the theft of the cannon, until its return, the story and ensuing debate of the two college presidents to attempt to quell the rivalry and secure the return of stolen items was reported in newspapers across the United States.
Before the theft
Origins of the Rutgers-Princeton Rivalry
Rutgers and Princeton happened to be near one another, and a rivalry was perhaps inevitable. Prior to 1947, both Rutgers and Princeton were regular competitors on the athletic fields as both were members of the Ivy League. In addition to a storied crew rivalry, Rutgers and Princeton played the first ever game of college football on Nov. 6, 1869 where the Rutgers College Ave Gymnasium now stands. Rutgers won 6-4. Additionally, with Rutgers assuming the mantle as the State of New Jersey's land grant university, a natural enmity formed between the blue-collar public school students of Rutgers and the more gentrified private school students of Princeton.
The cannon involved was a Revolutionary War cannon, which had been used in the Battle of Princeton during the Revolutionary War. The cannon had further been used by the Rutger's Corps of Cadets for training during and after the Civil War. On occasion, those few Princeton men engaging in military training would remove the cannon to Princeton, and it is perhaps within this context that the exact ownership of the cannon became confused.
In 1875, under cover of darkness, nine men of the Class of 1877 of Rutgers set out to steal back the Revolutionary War-era cannon Princeton had purportedly stolen from Rutgers some years before. It takes the men two hours to drag the 1,088-pound cannon 200 yards to their horse-drawn wagon and seven hours to cart it back to New Brunswick, where it is triumphantly unloaded in front of Old Queen's. Their heroism is short-lived: They nabbed the wrong cannon.
In October 1946, a contingent of Rutgers men slip onto the Princeton campus and again try to steal the famed cannon. This attempt is even more disastrous than the first. They attach one end of a length of heavy chain to the cannon and the other to their Ford. Surprised by Princeton men and the constabulatory, they gun the engine of the Ford so viciously that the car is torn in half. The Rutgers army manages to escape, but with neither car nor cannon.
The primary source of debate was whether the cannon ever belonged to Rutgers in the first place. According to the New Brunswick police chief Oliver, the cannon had always been Princeton's but a group of Princeton men of the time had tried to impress a group of college co-eds by claiming that they had stolen it from Rutgers. Upon learning of the boast, the cannon was stolen by Rutgers in an attempt to force the lads to retract the statement.
Continued rivalry and vandalism
The cannon at Princeton is routinely painted red by Rutgers students, particularly in the week leading to Rutgers commencement as well as on other notable Rutgers dates. The most recent occurrence was on Wednesday, April 16th, 2008.
References and background resources
Books and printed materials
- Demarest, William Henry Steele. History of Rutgers College: 1776-1924. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers College, 1924). (No ISBN)
- Leitch, A Princeton Companion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978).
- Lukac, George J. (ed.), Aloud to Alma Mater. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1966), 70-73. (No ISBN)
- McCormick, Richard P. Rutgers: a Bicentennial History. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1966). ISBN 0-8135-0521-6
- Schmidt, George P. Princeton and Rutgers: The Two Colonial Colleges of New Jersey. (Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1964). (No ISBN)