By Jack D. Warren Jr.

At this moment, we have an opportunity that will never come again: to save and interpret for the American people one of the most important battlefields of the Revolutionary War.

Imagine a frozen morning 240 years ago - a Jan. 3 so cold that the blood of wounded soldiers pooled on the surface instead of soaking into the ground. Two visions of America collided in Princeton.

The first was monarchical and imperial - America as a possession of the British crown, with Americans as subjects in a criminal insurrection against the king's authority.

The other was republican and autonomous - America as an independent nation with Americans as citizens, committed to liberty, the rule of law, and the peculiar idea articulated six months earlier that "all men are created equal."

The Americans prevailed, in a battle that shocked the British and opened the possibility that the rebels might win the war and create the first great republic in modern history.

Until recently, the land over which George Washington led the dramatic charge that achieved victory at Princeton was under threat of development. In December, the Institute for Advanced Study, an independent scholarly organization that owns the land, and the Civil War Trust, leading a coalition of preservation groups, announced a historic agreement. The Institute will sell most of the land to the Trust for $4 million, provided the Trust can raise the necessary funds.

This is no ordinary preservation opportunity. Our response is a test of the continuing importance of the Revolution and its ideals in our culture. Do we still cherish our nation's history enough to honor the soldiers who won our independence? Only a few great battlefields of the Revolution remain; most were lost to urban sprawl long ago. Isn't the Princeton Battlefield, where Washington and his army won their first victory in battle over the British, worth saving?

By the winter of 1776, Washington knew the Patriot cause was on the edge of failure. Huddled behind the half-frozen Delaware, Washington was short of nearly everything - men, muskets, gunpowder, food, and above all, time. His army, mainly hastily trained boys, had been cut by disease, capture, desertion, and death, to a few thousand soldiers.

Though outnumbered, he crossed the Delaware a second time, gave the British under Cornwallis the slip and headed for Princeton, gambling that his little army could disrupt enemy communications and force the British back to New York. He left Cornwallis with a superior force behind him. There could be no retreat. Washington knew the risk he was taking. The United States would only survive if he won.

Nearing Princeton, Washington encountered British troops on the march. After a bayonet charge that sent the Americans running, Washington conspicuously rode within range of British guns and organized a counterattack. He led the charge personally, delivering what Washington called "a heavy platoon fire on the march." Among the soldiers with Washington was a contingent of Marines, fighting on land for the first time in their long history. Stunned, the British line broke. The Revolution would continue.

If Washington had lost at Princeton, our modern world of empowered individuals, who demand and defend their liberties, would have died, stillborn. Every great moment in our national history, the progress we have made in extending the blessings of liberty to all Americans, our struggles to extend freedom around the world, were made possible by the improbable victory at Princeton.

The challenge we face is simple: We must raise the funds to pay for the land we now seek to preserve. We are counting on patriotic Americans - who cherish their republic and honor its founders - to support this effort.

The Princeton battlefield should be a place of national pilgrimage, an open-air monument to all that America has come to mean since that cold morning when George Washington inspired his men and led them to victory.

Jack D. Warren Jr. is executive director of the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati, America's oldest patriotic-hereditary organization, founded in 1783 by officers of the Continental Army. jwarren@societyofthecincinnati.org

For information on the preservation efforts, visit Civilwar.org/princeton16.