Revolutionary War Historical Article

The Trenton - Princeton Campaign

By B. Rice Aston

CHRISTMAS DAY 2003 - - As we enjoy ourselves this the fourth Christmas season of the new century, our thoughts turn to another Christmas season, 227 years ago, a dark period when the American Revolution hung in the balance.

CHRISTMAS DAY, 1776 - - Victory at Trenton - - Independence had been declared on July 4th, 1776, but the last half of 1776 had been one disaster after another. A sobering sight appeared on Staten Island as General Howe landed a force of 10,000 men unopposed; reinforcements kept arriving until Howe commanded an enormous force of 32,000, - - 9,000 of which were Hessian mercenaries.

On August 27th - 29th General William Howe inflicted a crushing defeat on Major General Israel Putnam in the Battle of Long Island. On October 11th Benedict Arnold's fleet was defeated on Lake Champlain and all American ships were destroyed. Ten days later General Howe inflicted heavy casualties on Washington's army at White Plains. On November 13th Howe, using Hessian. troops, captured the American garrison at Ft. Washington at Manhattan on the Hudson, taking 2,818 prisoners and its precious stores of 100 cannon and of muskets and cartridges. On November 19th General Lord Charles Cornwallis forced Major General Nathaniel Green's army to evacuate Fort Lee, New Jersey, on the Hudson River, leaving behind sorely needed munitions and stores. A British force occupied the naval base at Newport, Rhode Island on December 6th and Major General Charles Lee was captured by the British on December 12th.

Within four months, Washington had been swept off Long Island, chased the length of Manhattan and the forts on the Hudson had fallen. Washington now retreated across the Delaware to Pennsylvania. Raw recruits had been no match for the well trained British army. These disasters undermined French support and the French Foreign Minister ordered a halt to the sale of munitions to America and suspended the sailing of French middleman, Pierre Caron, alias Beaumarchais, ships which covertly supplied America with munitions. If the British had been able to capture the capitol at Philadelphia the war might have ended quickly, but General Howe went into winter quarters in New York City and was sure Washington would do the same - - Philadelphia was spared for the winter.

The 6,000 man Continental army, war weary, footsore, and hungry, with more than one-half of its enlistments up by the New Year, limped through New Jersey. Howe now dismissed Washington's army as a military skeleton. It seemed that Howe might have been right, as the forts along the Hudson River fell and Washington silently watched as his dispirited army withered away. Washington spoke his innermost fears: "I think the game is about up."

During the day, Thomas Paine served as a volunteer Aide-de­Camp, and at night by the light of the campfire he began to write a pamphlet which he called "The Crisis". It so impressed Washington that he ordered his bands of downcast soldiers called together, and Paine's essay was read to them. Words do not normally inspire beaten, threadbare, hungry, and shivering men, but Paine's words bolstered up their courage, it made some ashamed, some bolder, and caused others to return and fight. Paine's words have endured ever since as an inspiration to soldiers facing long odds:

"These are the times that try men's souls, the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. 'tis dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price on goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as Freedom would not be highly rated. "

Washington took his troops across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. The Continental Congress, fearing a British attack, then abandoned Philadelphia for Baltimore. A victory was urgently needed if the army was to hold together, and there was but short time to achieve it. Washington planned a surprise move on Christmas Day, a bold attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey. The Hessians were an attractive target. The British had made a mistake in loosing the Hessians on American civilians in New Jersey. British Lord Francis Rawdon claimed it was necessary for the Redcoats to ravage the countryside and the women to teach a lesson to these infatuated wretches. In New Jersey, Redcoats consumed all available fire wood and burned fences, fruit trees, the sidings and roofs of homes, mills, and farmhouses for fuel or to intimidate the populace. Hats and coats were snatched from heads and backs, and horses, sheep, cows, hogs, and dogs were stolen. The Hessians were guided by the European mercenary's manners: whatever is portable is stolen, what ever is fixed is burned down or blown up, and if a woman was not willing, rape was acceptable. For their amusement, the Hessians sent their women camp followers into town dressed in finery stolen from American women. This did not sit well with either Loyalist or Patriot colonists.

There were two approaches to Trenton, a northern road ending at the east end of town and a southern road ending at the west end of town. A Continental force of 2,400 men under Washington's personal command was to cross the Delaware above Trenton and then divide; Greene's force would take the northern approach and Major General John Sullivan's force the southern approach. Both were to arrive at the opposite ends of the main street of Trenton in the early morning of December 26th and control it with cannon. A second force, mainly militia, under Colonel John Cadwalader was to cross below Trenton and attack the Hessian garrison under Colonel Carl Von Donop at Bordentown to prevent it from supporting the Hessians at Trenton. A third force, also militia, under Brigadier General James Ewing, was to take the bridge over Assunpink Creek on the Bordentown road, and block the Hessian's escape from Trenton.

Hessian Colonel Johann Rall awoke Christmas morning with his usual hangover. He dressed and prepared to celebrate the Nativity in a hearty German manner, winter quarters were for wine, women, and cards. On Christmas evening, Rall attended a party at the home of a wealthy Trenton merchant and enjoyed wine and cards. In the middle of the stormy night there was a knock on the door and a Tory brought important news for the Colonel, but Rall would not see him. The Tory then wrote a note telling Rall that the American army was on the march. A servant delivered the note to Rall. Rall believed he could control all New Jersey with just a corporal's guard and had railed at a junior officer who suggested the Trenton ferry be fortified: "Let them come! We want no trenches. We'll go after them with the bayonet". Rall stuck the note in his pocket and went to bed without reading it. Washington had chosen his opponent well.

Washington ordered the troops ferried across just after dark, but a storm arose, first snow, then freezing rain, snow, and hail. Colonel John Fitzgerald, Washington's Aide-de-Camp wrote: "It is fearfully cold and raw and as snowstorm is coming. The wind northeast beats into the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for those who have no shoes. Some of them have tied only rags about their feet - - others are bare­foot, but I have not heard a man complain."

The Delaware River was filled with blocks of ice. Total silence was required and no one was to break ranks under pain of death. On the crossing jagged floating ice flows struck the boats so hard that it was difficult to keep them afloat. Colonel John Glover's regiment, mostly made up of sailors and fishermen, manned the boats and managed to get 2,400 men, their horses and 18 cannon across the icy river. The crossing was to have been completed by midnight, but the storm was so severe it was not completed until nearly 4 a.m. After crossing, they marched down icy roads on unprotected feet to Trenton, leaving a trail of blood anyone could follow. General Sullivan sent back word that the men's muskets would not fire due to being exposed to the storm all night. Washington replied: "Rely on the bayonet. I am resolved to take Trenton."


Hessian Major Friedrich Dechow did not send out the usual predawn patrol because of the severe storm. Greene and Sullivan converged on Trenton just before eight o'clock on the morning of December 26th. The Hessian pickets cried: "Der Feind! Heraus! Heraus! (The enemy! Turn out! Turn out!")

Colonel RaIl formed his blue coated regiment on King Street and scarlet-coated Lossbergs marched to take over parallel Queen Street. At the top of King Street and Queen Street stood two American cannons, but would they fire after all the rain and sleet? Captain Alexander Hamilton's gunners struck their matches in the touch holes and the cannons roared with grape shot. Ralls' regiment disintegrated and fell back. Two other cannon quickly cleared Queen Street.The Lossbergs fired back with cannon of their own, but Captain William Washington (General Washington's cousin) and Lieutentant James Monroe led their men into the cannon's mouths and captured them, both officers were wounded in the action.

Brigadier General James Ewing approached over the Bordentown road but was not able to the cross the bridge over Assunpink Creek and four hundred Hessians dashed over it. RaIl tried to reform his troops and counterattack, but was mortally wounded with two bullets in his body, the fateful note unread in his pocket. Sullivan was able to take the Assunpink bridge and close the escape gap, and one by one the Hessians surrendered. In all about 920 were captured, 22 were killed, and 78 were wounded. American losses were small: two Americans had frozen to death on the march, and two officers and two privates had been wounded in the battle. When Washington learned that the Hessians had surrendered, he turned and said: "Wilkinson, this is a glorious day for our country. "


In twenty four hours the little American Army had gone from the depths of despair to the heights of exaltation.

Howe was stunned. He could not believe that three old established regiments of people who made war as a profession should lay down their arms to a ragged and undisciplined militia. British General Grant, no longer sneering at the rabble in arms, remarked: "I did not think that all the Rebels in America would have taken that Brigade prisoners." Cornwallis, was perhaps the most crestfallen, he was preparing to leave for England to visit his sick wife, but Howe cancelled his leave and ordered him to New Jersey to take command.


Washington was determined to strike again and he was desperate to prevent the loss of the troops, mostly men from New England, whose enlistments were to expire in two days. If he could just hold them together for another six weeks, he could combine them with men who had enlisted for several years or for the duration of the war and have a respectable force. New Englanders were all too ready to leave, the fighting had been hard and they had endured enough insults from the Southern troops about their fighting ability. Washington, a Southerner himself, addressed them: "You have done all I asked you to do and more than could be reasonably expected. But your country is at stake. Your wives, your houses and all that you hold dear."

If they agreed to serve another six weeks he Washington then asked for volunteers and the drums rolled, but none stepped forward. Washington then rode down the line again pleading "in the most affectionate manner." His words were not eloquent, he was but a mediocre speaker, but somehow Washington's honesty touched their hearts. No one could describe it other than the mystical, magical quality of leadership which pled not for personal gain, but for a cause bigger than all of them. One soldier said to his friend, "I will stay if you will", and both stepped forward. The drums resumed and eventually the entire regiment volunteered. Washington now had 5,000 soldiers, about 1,400 regulars, and the rest untried militia. It was a spectacular feat accomplished while Cornwallis was rushing to destroy them.

Washington asked Robert Morris of Philadelphia to provide money for the bounties he had promised. The hardened New Englanders might have been moved by his sincerity, but he had promised cash, and promissory notes would undermine his credibility. He urged Morris to "Borrow money where it can be done. . . . . upon our private credit. Every man of interest and every lover of his country must strain his credit upon such an occasion."

He also asked for "150 pounds in hard money to pay a certain set of people who are of particular use to us", i.e. spies. Morris quickly rushed $50,000 paper dollars to Washing plus 124/76 in British pounds for "those particular people."

Cornwallis left three companies of light dragoons and three regiments of infantry at Princeton and came after Washington with 7,000 soldiers and artillery, planning to pin him against the Delaware River and destroy him. Washington was surprised at the speed with which Cornwallis pursued him.

General Washington crossed the Delaware to the Trenton side again on the night of December 30th-31th with a force of about 5,000. He deployed his main body ,just below Trenton, near the Bordentown road, on the east bank of Assunpink Creek. It was not a good position. Washington knew that Cornwallis would come down the Princeton road to Trenton and try to trap him against the Delaware River and he posted a rear guard on the Princeton Road, under Colonel Edward Hand, to delay the approach. The rear guard fought so well Cornwallis believed he faced Washington's entire army, and it was almost dark on January 2nd when he reached Trenton and faced Washington across the Assunpink. British skirmishers reported that the Americans held a strong position. The British troops were exhausted, and Cornwallis believing he now had Americans in a trap, and could destroy them at his leisure, decided to put off battle until the next day. It was a costly mistake.

There were only glum faces at the American council of war on January 2nd. Cornwallis had them outnumbered and they were almost trapped against the Delaware River. Washington did not ask for his General's advice, instead he set them on fire with his proposal to slip away in the night and overwhelm the outnumbered garrison at Princeton and then turn and fall upon New Brunswick, Cornwallis' supply depot and his war chest of seventy thousand pounds. Such was the enthusiasm that when some one complained that muddy roads might make it impossible to move even light cannon, the warning was brushed aside.


Leaving their campfires burning to deceive the British, Washington's army slipped away in the night, and the next morning they struck a surprise blow at Princeton, inflicting heavy losses on two British regiments leaving to join Cornwallis. Washington then marched on to New Brunswick, but when he reached Kingston, a few miles above Princeton, his battle weary soldiers began to slip off and fall asleep in barns and silos. They had reached their limits of endurance, and if Washington had gone on to New Brunswick he would arrive with few men. So Washington went into winter quarters in the hills around Morristown, New Jersey. Cornwallis did not pursue, he had had enough of winter warfare.

Washington later wrote Congress of his disappointment: "Six or seven hundred fresh troops, upon a forced march would have destroyed all their stores and magazines [at New Brunswick] and [we could have] taken their military chest and put an end to the war."

The results of the victories at Trenton and Princeton were far reaching. There was a drastic warming in America's relations with France; France's Foreign Minister cancelled his prohibition against selling munitions to America and permitted Beauchmarchais' ships to sail. Spain, having paused in rearmament, renewed it, much to the chagrin of George III and for England the storm flags began flying.


Many Tories, heartened by the victories at Trenton and Princeton, and repulsed by the barbarism of the Hessians and Redcoats, crossed over to the patriot side. Lack of Tory support forced Howe to withdraw from most of New Jersey and his dream of break away States submitting to the Crown began to fade. He now wrote: "I do not see a prospect of terminating the war, except by a general action."

Fortuitous events followed: In March, 1977, the Continental Congress was able to return to Philadelphia. Lafayette arrived four months later and was commissioned a major general. In September, Major General John Burgoyne was badly defeated at Saratoga and when the news reached Paris, Saratoga was celebrated as if it had been a French victory. France recognized America as a sovereign nation and Ben Franklin was received at the Royal Court at Versailles. Burgoyne went home in disgrace and never received another command. The victories at Trenton and Princeton had a far reach.

Washington's military genus at Trenton and Princeton had heartened his countrymen and earned him the admiration of Europe and of the leading soldier of the day, Frederick the Great of Prussia, who observed: "The achievements of Washington and his little band of Compatriots between the 25th of December 1776 and the 4th of January 1777 in a space of 10 days, were the most brilliant of any recorded in the history of military achievements."

B. Rice Aston, Esq.
President General of SAR 2002-2003

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