Dear Mr. Mudd,
My friend goes to Rutgers and keeps saying that the cannon in Cannon Green isn’t really Princeton’s. Whose cannon is it?
A. Today, we understand the mascot of Princeton University to be a tiger, but a nineteenth-century newspaper clipping in the Robert Judson Clark Papers (AC208) instead refers to the tiger as “a tutelary saint.” Rather, “The Princeton mascot is the huge cannon which is buried, muzzle down, in the center of the college quadrangle.” Though perhaps less so today than in years past, this Revolutionary War cannon in what is known as “Cannon Green” nonetheless still looms large in Princeton’s imagination as the source of legend, strife, and countless pranks.
Following the Battle of Princeton in 1777, two cannons were left on the campus of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), known as the “big cannon” and the “little cannon.” Both had been abandoned by the British army, but were not of practical use to the Continental troops. The larger one was later drafted into service during the War of 1812, set up on the borders of New Brunswick to protect the city against an expected British attack that never occurred. In 1835, a military company called the “Princeton Blues,” made up of the residents of the town of Princeton, brought the cannon back to the outskirts of Princeton. Students later banded together to bring it to campus in 1836. They were led in this effort by the maternal grandfather of Winston Churchill, Leonard Jerome of the Class of 1839. In 1840, the “big cannon” was set in its current position and “planted” in Cannon Green.
Records indicate that neither cannon had ever been on the campus of Rutgers University prior to the late nineteenth century, despite ongoing claims by its students to the contrary. Rumors of the “big cannon” being at Rutgers had been spread by Princeton students initially. Students at Rutgers, hearing Princeton students on the train taunting endlessly, “Why don’t you come and get your gun,” once did attempt to steal the “big cannon” in 1871. After digging it up, they found it too heavy to move, so they replanted it in its original spot.
The only time Rutgers students ever successfully stole a cannon, it was one that had previously never left Princeton. Ironically, records suggest it was also the cause of a separate, lesser-known “cannon war” between town and gown. Previously holding a prominent spot in front of Nassau Hall, as the story goes, the “little cannon” had been loaned to the owners of a Nassau Street property to protect the pavement from being damaged from passing wagons in the summer of 1858. Students returning in the fall expressed their outrage when the Class of 1859 banded together and took the gun back to campus. Angry townspeople tried to recover it, causing a major brawl. Students won this battle and kept the cannon.
Rutgers students then stole the smaller cannon in 1875, provoking angry Princeton students to rampage across the Rutgers campus in search of it. When they could not find it, they instead took 28 Revolutionary War muskets that belonged to Rutgers back to Princeton and held them hostage until the return of their property. Committees of each school’s faculty met to decide the fate of the cannon, ultimately concluding that it had always belonged to Princeton. The agreement between the two schools confirmed that prior to that time neither cannon had ever graced the Rutgers campus. According to one report, it was sent back under the guard of “New Brunswick policemen, one sitting on the cannon with a drawn revolver, facing a howling mob of New Brunswick’s townsmen, who ran after them for several miles.” Once the College of New Jersey’s president James McCosh again had the cannon, he said it had been “the greatest war since the siege of Troy.”
The cannon figured in the rivalry between Princeton and Rutgers in the twentieth century as well, when Rutgers students began covertly visiting Princeton’s campus to paint either cannon red. In 1969, twelve Princeton undergraduates pulled off a clever prank, framing Rutgers for stealing the smaller cannon again even though it had never moved. Under the cover of darkness, near 4:00AM, they dug a hole next to the cannon and piled the dirt on top of the cannon. An anonymous “Rutgers” student then alerted WPRB, the campus radio station, that Rutgers students now had Princeton’s cannon. Seeing no visible cannon, Princeton’s campus security and the local press were all convinced it had been stolen. This prank is sometimes referred to as the “Cannon Heist.”
There are ongoing signs that the “cannon war” has yet to come to an end between Princeton and Rutgers. In 2012, Zack Morrison, a student at Rutgers, made an award-winning documentary about the Princeton-Rutgers “cannon war,” which may be viewed here. The documentary includes footage of Rutgers students sneaking onto the Princeton campus under cover of darkness to paint the cannon red.
Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)
Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111)
Historical Subject Files (AC109)
Office of Communications Records (AC168)
“The Cannon Hoax of 1969.” Princeton Alumni Weekly podcast.
Robert Judson Clark Papers (AC208)