The Battle of Trenton, New Jersey was one of the turning points of the American Revolutionary War. Having lost New York to the British at the Battle of Long Island in the summer of August 1776. British forces under General William Howe had been driving the Continental Army south out of New York. On November 16 the British overran Fort Washington in Manhattan, taking 2,837 Americans prisoner. George Washington was desperate to turn things around.
The British then pursued the Americans across New Jersey. In mid-December Washington led his army south across the Delaware River. They camped on the Pennsylvania side, short of food, ammunition and supplies.
Washington realized that without a decisive action, the Continental Army was likely doomed, so he planned a daring assault on the Hessian garrison at Trenton. He envisioned a three-pronged attack, with his army of 2,400 flanked by a 1,900-man diversionary force under Colonel John Cadwalader and a blocking move by General James Ewing’s 700 men.
Washington’s men and cannons crossed the icy river in boats and began the 19-mile march towards Trenton in a freezing storm. In the end, neither Cadwalader nor Ewing were able to carry out their parts of the plan.
The Hessian force at Trenton numbered 1,400 under the leadership of Colonel Johann Rall. Although Rall had received warnings of colonial movements, his men were exhausted and unprepared for Washington’s attack—though rumors that they were drunk from Christmas celebrations are unfounded.
As he approached the town, Washington divided his men, sending flanking columns under General Nathaniel Greene and General John Sullivan. Meanwhile, Colonel Henry Knox’s cannons fired on the garrison. Rall attempted to rally his troops but was never able to establish a defensive perimeter, and was shot from his horse and fatally wounded. The Hessians quickly surrendered. All told, 22 were killed, 92 wounded, 918 captured and 400 escaped. The Americans suffered two frozen to death and five wounded.
Realizing his men could not hold Trenton against British reinforcements, Washington withdrew across the Delaware. However, on December 30 he crossed back into New Jersey with an army of 2,000. Informed that 8,000 British troops under Generals Charles Cornwallis and James Grant were marching south from Princeton, Washington worked quickly to supplement his numbers, urging militiamen whose terms had expired to stay on for six weeks.
On New Year’s Day, Washington’s force of 5,000 poorly trained men massed in Trenton. The next day Cornwallis arrived with an army 5,500. After skirmishes at the American lines and three attempts to cross the bridge at Assunpink Creek, Cornwallis relented for the day, assuming he had Washington trapped.
That night, Washington deployed 500 men to keep the campfires going while the rest of his troops made a nighttime march north to Princeton. To keep their movement secret, torches were extinguished and wagon wheels muffled in heavy cloth.
At dawn on January 3, 1777, Cornwallis woke to find that his opponent had disappeared, as Washington’s men were nearing the end of their 12-mile march to Princeton.
Washington sent a small force under General Hugh Mercer to destroy a bridge. Mercer’s men encountered Redcoats under Lt. Col. Charles Mawhood and Mercer was killed in the fighting. Arriving militiamen under Col. Cadwalader had little effect. Then Washington arrived, riding between the firing lines until his terrified horse refused to go on. The Americans rallied and broke through Mawhood’s lines.
As at Trenton, the Americans took prisoners, arms and supplies but quickly withdrew after winning the Battle of Princeton. Washington had wanted to advance to New Brunswick, but was fortuitously overruled by his officers (at the time, Cornwallis’ men were en route to New Brunswick).
Washington’s men marched to Morristown, in northern New Jersey, where they established winter quarters, safe from British incursions. The Continental Army basked in its achievements—at Princeton they had defeated a regular British army in the field. Moreover, Washington had shown that he could unite soldiers from all the colonies into an effective national force.
Did You Know?
During the Battle of Princeton, Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury, fired cannons at British troops blockaded in Nassau Hall, the main building of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Three years earlier, Hamilton had applied to the college but was rejected when he asked for permission to take courses at his own pace.
• Brooks, Victor (1999). How America Fought Its Wars. New York: De Capo Press.
• Burt, Daniel S. (2001). The Biography Book. New York: Oryx Press.
• Elson, William Henry (1908). History of the United States of America. Macmillan.
• Ketchum, Richard (1999). The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton (1st Owl books ed.).
• Lengel, Edward (2005). General George Washington. New York: Random House Paperbacks.
• McCullough, David (2006). 1776. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperback.
• Mitchell, Craig (2003). George Washington’s New Jersey. Middle Atlantic Press.
• Rosenfeld, Lucy (2007). George Washington’s New Jersey. Rutgers.
• Savas, Theodore (2003). Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution. Savas
• Tucker, Philip Thomas (2014), George Washington’s Surprise Attack. Skyhorse