Rutgers–Princeton Cannon War

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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[edit]

Origins of the Rutgers-Princeton Rivalry[edit]

Rutgers and Princeton are both located in Central New Jersey, about 17 miles from each other. Princeton was founded in Elizabeth, NJ in 1746 and relocated to Princeton 10 years later; Rutgers was founded in New Brunswick in 1766. In 1864, Rutgers educators George Cook and David Murray led a successful campaign to designate Rutgers as New Jersey's designated land-grant university, overcoming competition from other colleges in the state, notably Princeton. On Nov. 6, 1869, Rutgers defeated Princeton in New Brunswick the first intercollegiate football game on a field where Rutgers' College Ave Gymnasium now stands. The first intercollegiate football game was merely symptomatic of the growing collegiate consciousness in post-Civil War America, a consciousness that was characterized by school spirit, class spirit, the increasing popularity of fraternities and anti-intellectualism.

The Cannons[edit]

The cannon involved was a Revolutionary War cannon, which had been used in the Battle of Princeton during the American Revolutionary War. The cannon had further been used by the Rutgers Corps of Cadets for training during and after the Civil War. On occasion, 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.

The theft[edit]

In 1875, under cover of darkness, ten men of the Class of 1877 of Rutgers set out to steal back the Revolutionary War-era cannon that Princeton had purportedly stolen from Rutgers some years before. It took 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 was 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 slipped onto the Princeton campus and again tried to steal the famed cannon. This attempt was even more disastrous than the first. They attached one end of a heavy chain to the cannon and the other to their Ford. Surprised by Princeton men and the constabulary, they gunned the engine of the Ford so viciously that the car was torn in half. The Rutgers men managed to escape, but with neither car nor cannon.

The debate[edit]

The primary source of debate was whether the cannon ever belonged to Rutgers in the first place. According to the New Brunswick police chief, the cannon had always belonged to Princeton, 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 retrieve what they believed rightly belonged to Rutgers.

The return[edit]

Upon its return, the cannon was buried muzzle-down and encased in concrete, with about two feet of the (capped) breech end above the ground, as can be seen in the accompanying photograph, in the center of "Cannon Green," a small field behind Nassau Hall.

Continued rivalry and claims of ownership[edit]

A few Rutgers students spiritedly painting the cannon on the Princeton University campus

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 painting occurred in July 2013[citation needed]. In February 2010, The war between loyal Rutgers and Princeton students became more than just "the painting of a cannon". In the depths of 2 feet of snow, students not only painted the cannon and its surrounding concrete, but used spray paint to "tag" Princeton classroom buildings, dormitories, and libraries. Many Rutgers bumper stickers reading "Rutgers, Jersey Roots Global Reach" were placed all over campus. During one of the more recent paintings a group of Rutgers students just simply walked in and walked out, painting both the big and little cannons at the cannon green along with posting a sign on Princeton's campus reading, "We own jeRsey."

In November 2011, a group of Rutgers students who went to paint the cannon in Princeton brought a video camera with them and made a documentary about the tradition. The footage became part of a larger project about the history of the Cannon War and its perception in the minds of current students today. The film, Knights, Tigers, and Cannons. Oh My! premiered at the New Jersey Film Festival in Fall 2012, and won the award for Best Student Film.

See also[edit]

References and background resources[edit]


Books and printed materials[edit]

  • 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)
  • "Again, War Over A Cannon: Rivals Besmirch Princeton Gun," in Life Magazine. Vol. 35, No. 17. October 26, 1953. p. 147

Internet resources[edit]

External links[edit]