Revolutionary War Historical Article

Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall
Guilty of Tactical Negligence or Guiltless Circumstances?

by Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the November/December 2007 Edition of the The Liberty Tree Newsletter

Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall (Rahl), commanded the brigade of Hessian Soldiers that garrisoned Trenton, New Jersey. On that fateful Christmas Day, in 1776, when his command was overwhelmed by George Washington’s Continental Army. Colonel Rall was mortally wounded in the battle and died the next day. History has held him solely responsible for the defeat, stating he and many in his command were drunk from excessive celebrating on Christmas. We will raise serious doubts that he was drunk or guilty of tactical negligence, and establish that he was a guiltless victim of circumstances. His defeat was simply the result of underestimating the military genius of George Washington.

Rall was an "Army Brat", the son of Captain Joachim Rall. He was born ca. 1726 in Hesse-Cassel, Germany. He became a cadet in his father’s regiment and was made a Warrant Officer on July 25th, 1741. Four years later he was promoted to Second Lieutenant (August 28th, 1745), Captain on May 10th, 1753, then promoted to Major on May 7th, 1760, under the command of Major General Bischhausen. In January, 1763, he was transferred to the garrison at Stein, where he was appointed Lieutenant Colonel. On April 22, 1771 he took command as Colonel of an infantry regiment. Unlike the British army of the era, officers were promoted on a merit basis, and not by purchase of birth right.

He fought in the War of Austrian Succession, seeing action in Bavaria, on the Rhine, and in the Netherlands. He fought in the Seven Years War (Our French and Indian War). From September 1771 until August 1772 he fought for Russia’s Catherine the Great in the fourth Russo-Turkish war. With thirty-six years of active military service he was in every sense of the word a professional soldier.

On January 15th, 1776 Frederick II of Hesse-Cassel, signed a treaty with King George, III, providing a division of Hessian soldiers to serve in the war against the American colonies. Fifty year old Colonel Johann Rall was given command of one of the Regiments. In the tradition of the Hessian Army, the regiments were named after their commanders.

The commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Sir William Howe, arrived back in North America, after surrendering Boston to George Washington on June 25th, 1776. He waited for the Hessian reinforcements coming from Germany who arrived in mid-August, Rall requested two weeks time to get back his troops 'land legs', but Howe gave him only 6 days before starting offensive operations.

Rall was highly respected, and in fact, liked by the men he commanded. Lieutenant Jakob Piel wrote in his diary: " ….. considered as a private individual, he merited the highest respect. He was generous, magnanimous, hospitable, and polite to everyone; never groveling before his superiors, but indulgent with his subordinates. To his servants he was more a friend than master. He was an exceptional friend of music and a pleasant companion."

He was outspoken with his superiors, most of whom lacked his combat experience, which he often brought to their attention. Colonel Carl von Donop treated Rall with contempt. Captain Johann Ewald of the Jagers, who rose to the rank of Lieutenant General, noted in his diary: when it came to fighting, they were not fit to carry Rall’s sword.

Colonel William Faucitt, the British commissioner and plenipotentiary to the various German States arranged for the employment of the Hessian Army. He had become familiar with Colonel Rall and described him as " ... one of the best officers of his rank in the Landgrave’s Army."

On August 27th, Howe launched his attack. He had the Royal Navy ferry his army across the bay and went ashore on Long Island. Three days later Rall’s Regiment was landed a little southeast of Howe’s force. The combined force of 22,000 men proceeded to push the American army toward Brooklyn Heights. Rall’s Regiment participated in several skirmishes, but none serious. For the most part, the Americans fled before them. By the end of what was called the Battle of Long Island, the entire Hessian force of 10,000 had suffered two men killed, three officers and twenty-three men wounded. For some inexplicable reason, General Howe did not assault the American positions on Brooklyn Heights, choosing to wait until the following day. As a result, Washington and his American Army were able to escape across the East River to Manhattan.

The following weeks were spent in a 'cat-and-mouse' game as both sides maneuvered for positional advantage.

General Washington decided to make a stand at White Plains. On October 26th, Howe launched an attack. Although this battle resulted in some fierce fighting, Rall’s Regiment suffered only one soldier killed and the Regimental Adjutant Lieutenant Friedrich von Munchhausen wounded in the left arm. These 'easy'' victories would lead to a general underestimation of the fighting ability of the Americans.

General Howe had bypassed Fort Washington at the northern end of Manhattan. It was on high ground, heavily fortified and manned by 2,500 Americans. William Demont, Adjutant of Colonel Robert Magaw’s 5th Pennsylvania Regiment, deserted on November 2nd and was taken to British General Earl Hugh Percy. He brought with him the plans of Fort Washington and showed Percy a weak point in the fortifications. The fort was not as impregnable as first thought. With this intelligence, General Howe decided to attack.

On November 15th the Fort was attacked from multiple sides. A Hessian force of some 3,000 men attacked from the South. Colonel Rall personally led the final assault. Johann Reuber, a 5' 1" private in Rall’s Regiment, recalled the Colonel calling out to his men; "All that are my grenadiers, march forward". Rall, at the head of the charge captured their objective. They paid a terrible price for the victory, 58 killed arid 272 wounded, 72 percent of the casualties suffered by the British in the attack. Rall’s Regiment lost 177 men.

Washington had moved the majority of his army across the Hudson River. After the fall of Fort Washington, he decided not to defend Fort Lee on the west side of the Hudson, but to march his army across New Jersey to the relative safety of the west side of the Delaware River. The British army pursued, encountering numerous skirmishes and delaying tactics on the part of the Americans. Rall’s and von Donop’s Regiments were in the vanguard. General Howe put Colonel von Donop in command of the posts along the Delaware River. He moved his command to Bordentown assigning Colonel Rall to Trenton.

Contrary to the image most histories give us regarding the garrison at Trenton, New Jersey at Christmas 1776 - - it was anything but a peaceful winter encampment.

Major General of New Jersey Militia, Philemon Dickinson, (1739-1809) evacuated his home town of Trenton and moved up river to Hunterdon. When the Hessians arrived he organized local resistance. He and his Hunterdon men harassed the Hessians at every opportunity. Patrol after patrol was ambushed with casualties. Rall had lost control of the New Jersey countryside. He sent heavily escorted dispatches to British headquarters advising his men were exhausted and desperately in need of reinforcements.

Across the Delaware was American Brigadier General James Ewing (1736-1806) of Pennsylvania with five regiments assigned to keep the British on the New Jersey side. Ewing was a veteran of the French and Indian Wars and a strong leader. He had 600 men and thirty-odd pieces of artillery. He also controlled all the boats on the Delaware near and around Trenton. Patrols sent to the riverfront by Rall often found themselves being shelled by the American artillery. On December 17th, Ewing sent a detachment of 30 men across the Delaware and attacked a Hessian outpost. Rall immediately sent reinforcements. At sunrise Ewing sent an even stronger party across the river attacked the outpost again, inflicting more casualties on Rall’s men.

On the 21st Ewing raided Trenton Ferry Landing, driving the outpost back to Trenton, then burned the houses at the landing denying Rall’s men shelter from the winter weather.

Because of the frequency of the raids, Rall ordered his entire command to sleep under arms, and be prepared for an attack. Each morning Colonel Rall personally led a strong detachment, including artillery, to the Delaware and in two columns marched up and down the river in hopes of encountering the raiders.

Some of his officers suggested that they construct some redoubts on the heights above Trenton. Colonel von Donop made the same suggestions, to which Rall replied: "I have not made any redoubts or any kind of fortifications because I have the enemy in all directions." Although not recorded, Colonel Rall was probably all too aware that his men were worn out, and building redoubts would fatigue them more. Von Donop forwarded Colonel Rall’s request to British area commander General James Grant (1720-1806). Grant had utter contempt for the Americans and wrote back:

"Tell the Colonel [Rall] that he is safe. I will undertake to keep peace in Jersey with a corporal’s guard". In response to another plea from Colonel Rall, Grant wrote: "I am sorry to hear your brigade has been fatigued or alarmed. You may be assured that the rebel army in Pennsylvania which has been joined by Lee’s Corps, Gale’s and Arnold’s, does not exceed eight thousand men, who have neither shoes nor stockings, are in fact almost naked, starving for cold, without blankets, and very ill-supplied with provisions. On this side of the Delaware they have not three hundred men. These are scattered about in small parties under the command of subaltern officers, none of them above the rank of captain, and their principal object is to pick up some of our light dragoons."

On the west side of the Delaware, General George Washington was in serious trouble. The majority of his army’s enlistments were up on January 1st, the army’s morale was extremely low, and many Americans had lost faith in the cause. A counterstroke - - a victory - - was needed. In spite of severe weather, Trenton appeared to be the best target.

At Trenton, Colonel Rall continued his security measures. Early in the evening of Christmas Day, Rall was playing checkers with Stacy Potts, the owner of the house he made his headquarters.He heard musket fire from the northwest. He mounted his horse and rode to the sound of the gun fire. He found the Americans, probably General Ewing’s men, had surprised the outpost on the edge of town and inflicted six casualties, then disappeared into the surrounding woods. Rall took care of the wounded and had the outpost re-enforced.

During the night a severe snow storm struck Trenton. The duty officer, Major Friedrich von Dechow, taking advantage of the bad weather, cancelled the the next morning’s pre-dawn patrol. On the outskirts of the town, Lieutenant Andreas von Wiederholdt ordered his guard detail to take shelter in a nearby copper shop. While these orders were being issued, George Washington and the American Army were crossing the Delaware.

A little after sunrise, Wiederholdt stepped outside the copper shop and observed a large number of troops advancing toward his position and Trenton. He called out his twenty-four man guard, and exchanged fire. Being vastly outnumbered, he withdrew toward the safety of the main body of Hessian troops. The sound of musketry and artillery alarmed the garrison and their alarms were sounded. All three regiments turned out in their assigned positions. A few minutes into the battle Colonel Rall rode up to Lieutenant Wiederholdt and asked for a report. Wiederholdt told the Colonel " ... the enemy was strong, that they were not only above the town but were already around it on both the left and the right". He further reported that he had seen four or five battalions.

Wiederholdt’s report was not entirely correct, Washington had not, as yet, blocked the southern route. Had Rall not believed he was completely surrounded, he would have adopted different tactics, saving much of his brigade. Many of the civilians, camp followers, and about 500 men managed to escape via that route. Rall, using traditional Hessian military doctrine, ordered a counterattack which failed. The Americans, at the insistence of Henry Knox, brought eighteen pieces of artillery with them, which proved to be a deciding factor.

During the hour long battle, Colonel Rall was struck twice in the side by musket balls, and was taken into a nearby church. Later he was transferred to Stacy Potts house where he died later that night. Shortly thereafter, the three Hessian Regiments surrendered.

As far as it is known, the Americans suffered none killed, four wounded - - they were Captain William Washington, the General’s cousin, Lieutenant James Monroe, future President of the United States, and two privates, it is believed that two more soldiers froze to death. Certainly there were more, but were not recorded. The Hessian losses were 106 killed or wounded, 918 captured.

Prince Frederick Wilhelm, II convened a court martial to determine what had happened to his proud army. The board laid the blame on Colonel Rall, Major Dechow, Captain Ludwig Lowenstein, and Lieutenant Grothausen - - all of them conveniently dead. Colonel Rall was found "guilty" of not fortifying Trenton.

Rather than retreat back across the Delaware, Washington stayed on the offensive, fighting another battle at Princeton, driving the British from that location. He outmaneuvered the British at every turn.

Captain Ewald of the Hessian Jager’s summed it up best. He wrote in his diary: "Thus had the times changed! The Americans had constantly run before us. Four weeks ago we expected to end the war with the capture of Philadelphia, and now we had to render Washington the honor of thinking about our defense. Due to this affair at Trenton, such a fright came over the army that if Washington had used this opportunity we would have flown to our ships and let him have all of America. Since we had thus far underestimated our enemy, from this unhappy day onward we saw everything through the magnifying glass."



Where did the myth start that the Hessian troops and their commander were drunk and/or hung over?

Once a writer publishes a misinterpretation or outright falsehood it is often repeated in later works. Such is the case of the Trenton myth. In 1898 author William S. Stryker published in his book "Battles of Trenton and Princeton" excerpts from "Diary of an Officer on Washington’s Staff." The diary contains a detailed commentary on Trenton and Princeton. Parts of the diary appear to have been taken from other works in print, in some cases to a point of being plagiarized. Entries that make historians suspicious are references to " Washington" without using his title. This simply wasn’t done by Americans, particularly by a member of his staff. Some of the verbiage is also questionable.

A few historians have attributed it to Lt. Colonel John Fitzgerald, Aide-de-Camp to General Washington, but comparing it to other surviving documents he is known to have written it is obviously not his writing style. Nevertheless, George F. Sheer and Hugh F. Rankin quote the diary in their work "Rebels and Redcoats, The Revolution through the Eyes of Those Who Fought It" (pages 211-214). William Dwyer quoted from it in his book "This Day is Ours" (page 228). As a result, innumerable articles have continued the myth, assuming that the above books are historically correct.

The diary is highly critical of the Hessians at Trenton, alleging that they participated in heavy drinking to celebrate Christmas, hence were taken by surprise and were incapable of defending themselves.

Author David Hackett Fischer, in his excellent book "Washington’s Crossing", (a 'must read' for those interested in the American Revolution) believes, and we agree, that portions of the diary are authentic. Some of the entries are remarkably similar to those that George Washington Parke Curtis used in his book "Recollections and Private memoirs of Washington" wherein he relates some of the information he obtained from John Fitzgerald. The diary is probably a forgery and as stated is often quoted.



Captain William Washington and Lieutenant James Monroe, future president of the United States, were leading the American advance guard from the Delaware River to Trenton. In a letter Monroe wrote to George Coleman, January 17th, 1809 explaining that a resident came out of his residence to investigate why his dogs were barking. " …..he thought we were from the British Army and ordered us off... he was violent and determined in his manner, and very profane. When he discovered he was talking to American troops, his manner suddenly changed. He brought us food and drink and offered to join us. He explained I am a doctor and I may be of help to some poor fellow." His offer was accepted, and Doctor John Riker joined Monroe’s Infantry as a surgeon-volunteer.

Leading a charge of Virginia infantry to prevent the Hessians from bringing two 6-pounder brass cannons into action, Captain Washington was wounded in both hands. Lieutenant Monroe took over, leading the attack and capturing both cannons. In the process he was struck by a musket ball in the shoulder, severing an artery. He was carried to safety, where he would bleed to death. But, faithful to his word, Doctor Riker had advanced with the attacking Virginians and was quickly at James Monroe’s side. He clamped off the artery and saved Monroe’s life. Had the doctor not have volunteered there would have been no doctors available to help.

James Monroe was the last President to see Revolutionary War service.


Back to Index of Biographies

Back to Historical Archives


link to aboutus