Why Two Prestigious American Universities Fight Over a Cannon

Sep 27, 2022 0 comments

Most college rivalries revolve around academics or sports, but the rivalry between Princeton and Rutgers Universities is as much about sports as it is about a certain cannon.

The cannon at the center of the controversy dates back to the Revolutionary War. Actually, there are two cannons in this story, both were used during the war, and were left on the Princeton campus after the war ended. During the War of 1812, one of the cannons called the “Big Cannon”, was taken to New Brunswick to help defend the city against British attack. It remained on the campus of the Rutgers university for the next 24 years, until it was taken back to Princeton. Unfortunately, the wagon it was being transported in broke down on the outskirts of Princeton, and the cannon lay where it fell, abandoned, for the next two years.

The “Big Cannon” on Princeton’s campus

The “Big Cannon” on Princeton’s campus. Photo: NJ.com

Two years later, in 1839, Leonard Jerome—who would become the maternal grandfather of Winston Churchill—led a large group of students to rescue the cannon and brought it back to Princeton. The cannon was then buried, muzzle down near Nassau Hall in the center of the quadrangle now known as Cannon Green. Why the cannon was buried remains unclear—perhaps to discourage its removal by college authorities or others, perhaps to hide a broken muzzle (the gun is said to have burst upon being fired one last time, while lying flat in 1836).

At some point, a dispute arose over the cannon’s ownership. Apparently, Rutgers believed the cannon belonged to them and was wrongfully taken from their campus. One night in April, 1875, a group of Rutgers students arrived in Princeton with the intention of stealing the cannon and taking it back to Rutgers. But the cannon, now planted firmly in the ground, proved difficult to move. The students elected to steal another cannon, a smaller one called “Little Cannon”, which also dates back to the Revolutionary War. In response, some Princeton students raided Rutgers’s museum and made away with a couple of muskets.

The “Big Cannon”, circa 1894.

The “Big Cannon”, circa 1894. Photo: Internet Archive

For months following the theft of the cannon, the heads of the two colleges exchanged polite but demanding correspondence, and the story was reported in newspapers across the United States. Eventually, a joint committee settled the matter, and “Little Cannon” was returned to Princeton, escorted by the New Brunswick Police Chief. Following its return, to discourage future attempts of theft, “Little Cannon” was encased in a ton of concrete below ground near Whig and Clio halls.

The matter appeared settled because nothing happened for the next 70 years until 1946, when some Rutgers students slipped into the Princeton campus and again tried to steal the famed cannon. They attached one end of a heavy chain to the cannon and the other end to a Ford car, and gunned the engine. But the cannon was so well planted that the car itself tore in half. The cannon never budged an inch.

Princeton students organize a memorial concert on Cannon Green.

Princeton students organize a memorial concert on Cannon Green. Photo: Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr

Another attempt at mischief was made in 1971. This time, instead of trying to steal the cannon, the pranksters dug a hole next to the cannon and piled the dirt from the hole over the cannon hiding it from sight. At first glance it appeared as if the cannon got stolen, and campus police were baffled how the cannon was carried away given its extreme weight. Only after some photographs of the scene were taken, someone pointed out that the cannon was there all along, only hidden under a pile of dirt.

The most daring attempt was made in 1976, when a group Rutgers students tried to steal the cannon in broad daylight. On January 31, 1976, five Rutgers students and an elderly woman, who was the grandmother of one of the students, arrived at Princeton with fake papers that identified them as members of the fictitious New Jersey Citizens Bicentennial Committee (NJCBC). This committee, they explained, had secured permission from appropriate university officials to remove the cannon to be taken on a statewide bicentennial tour. Things looked legitimate enough for the guards to let them in with their trucks and heavy equipment. But a phone call to the real New Jersey State Bicentennial Commission blew the “cannon-nappers” cover. The six were initially accused of malicious mischief, but after pleading "it was only a lark" by the grandmother, all charges were dropped.

Rutgers students actively digging up the cannon after fooling Princeton security into letting them in 1976

Rutgers students actively digging up the cannon after fooling Princeton security into letting them in 1976. Photo: Nonnac 1976/Wikimedia

By then, Rutgers had learned their lesson and realized that the cannon was never going to leave the Princeton campus. Yet, they wouldn’t allow the rivalry to rest. Every now and then they would sneak into Princeton, usually in the cover of darkness, and paint the cannon red. Often, the playful feud goes out of hand when students vandalize other properties within the Princeton campus. In 2015, after students vandalized Princeton's tiger statue near Nassau Hall with graffiti and expletives directed at Princeton and Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers President Robert Barch expressed deep regret at the hooliganism.

In a letter to the Princeton president, Robert Barch wrote: “Both of us know of the long history of student mischief between our institutions... while we at Rutgers are happy to enjoy a friendly rivalry with Princeton, we do not condone the childish and lawbreaking behavior of whoever did this to your campus.”

The cannon war became the subject of documentary made by a group of Rutgers students in 2011. The documentary includes footage of Rutgers students sneaking onto the Princeton campus at night to paint the cannon red. The film “Knights, Tigers, and Cannons. Oh My!" premiered at the New Jersey Film Festival in September 2012, and won the award for Best Student Film. You can watch the movie below.

# Lina Stamato, Rutgers and Princeton: Tradition, rivalry and the cannon wars, NJ.com
# Adam Clark, RU prez decries 'childish' behavior after Princeton cannon is painted red, NJ.com
# BREAKING: Why the fuck is Rutgers vandalizing our shit?, The Tab
# W. Barksdale Maynard, The Enigma of the Cannon, Princeton Alumni Weekly
# Rutgers–Princeton Cannon War, Wikipedia


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