The battles of TRENTON and PRINCETON are connected, and part of a campaign against the British forces in NJ, during the American Revolution during the 1776-1777 winter. Here is a general account of that campaign.

In the fall of 1776, Washington was in desperate straits, having been defeated in Long Island, and having to retreat from New York City, which being surrounded by water, was found to be indefensible from the British with their naval mobility and larger force. Leaving most of the army under Major General Charles Lee, in Westchester, he crossed into New Jersey.  Fort Washington on Manhattan Island was captured by the Hessians (mercenary troops from Germany employed by the British), and Fort Lee, opposite the Hudson on the Jersey shore, was about to be attacked. Washington ordered the stores removed and the troops to prepare for evacuation. 

General Howe, the British commander, for once moved quickly, and the troops had to rush out of the fort barely ahead of the British, who found stew still cooking on their fires in the fort when they arrived. The British failed to move on New Bridge over the Hackensack River, and the American force escaped. The British might have trapped the army on the peninsula between the Hackensack River and the Hudson, but moved only to capture Fort Lee.  Before the war, Howe had supported the American efforts in reducing their grievances, and hoped to have victory without a great deal of bloodshed.

November 21st 1776, Washington moved south with the troops from Fort Lee, desperately ordering the rest of the troops, under General Lee in Westchester, NY, to join him. Lee, probably seeing a chance to make himself look good in comparison to Washington (it was a continuing problem to get people to act for the good of the country and not for themselves in all areas of government during the war) and also wanting an independent command, acted very lackadaisically, and moved very slowly to join him. Lee wanted to show he could succeed against the British where Washington could not, by attacking their flank and rear, and leaving Washington out on a limb.

Washington moved south first to Newark, and waited for the NJ militia to rally. Few showed up. For the past several months the men of NJ were supposed to alternate serving a month on duty in the militia, and now they were fed up with it, and stayed with their families. Many states had a hard time getting anyone new to serve in the army, as the British seemed to be unbeatable. The revolution seemed to be failing, and most people wanted to not get involved, faced with invasion by the famed British regulars. Every kind of support for the war was failing, and all over, troops even had a hard time getting permission to sleep in barns or buying food and clothing.

Washington moved to New Brunswick, leaving Newark on the 28th with the British entering the town as the Americans left. While in New Brunswick, two Brigades of the "Flying Camp" a unit set up to respond quickly to attacks from Staten Island by the British, had their terms of enlistment expire, and 2026 demoralized men refused to reenlist, even with the enemy just a short march away. Many more deserted. Washington has 3000 men left to him, not all fit or able.

On the 1st of December, the British forces moved to New Brunswick, and Washington orders the troops to begin moving to Princeton. While a few units hold the bridge, the rest escape, finally followed by the rear guard. Washington himself leads the pioneers at the rear of the march, destroying bridges and cutting down trees, to delay any pursuit.

Once at Princeton,Washington, with less than 400 men with him, fell back to Trenton (see MAP) along the Delaware River, the border with Pennsylvania, on December. 2nd. Lee was very slowly moving across the state, General. Greene had a force covering Washington at Princeton, and other units were scattered around the state.

Two thousand Pennsylvania militia men joined Washington at Trenton. Washington had all the boats available along the river taken and held on the Pa. side of the river, with his supplies, then moved back to Princeton on the 7th. Repeatedly he called for Lee to come to his support, and called for the NJ militia to rally to him.

The militia showed up in disgustingly small numbers. Most men stayed home to protect their families from the advancing invaders, moving possessions out of the way of the British and Hessians. The British and Hessians destroyed Jersey homes, farms and possessions wantonly, and saw little difference between loyalist and rebel, treating most the same.

As Washington moved to Princeton. General Greene was faced with the advancing British and forced to retreat. Joining Washington, the combined army now moved back to Trenton and then across the river. Washington had every boat that could be found moved to safety across to the Pennsylvania side.

The scene was set for the Battle of Trenton.

Lee continued to refuse to come to Washington, until he was captured in Basking Ridge, NJ, by Lt. Col. Harcourt leading British dragoons, on Dec 13 th. Under the leadership now of Sullivan, the troops then quickly made their way to Washington. At the same time, General Gates, had moved down from Fort Ticonderoga with 800 men to Washington's aid. Both units crossed the Delaware around Phillipsburg and reached Washington on the 20 th of December.

Reaching the Delaware on the 8 th, Howe is cannonaded from across the river. After a fruitless search for boats up and down the river, Howe decides to stop for the winter. The American army was virtually helpless at this point, ragged, demoralized, greatly outnumbered, undertrained and badly equipped. Howe lost a major chance to end the war by stopping for the winter instead of "foreclosing the mortgage" as one of his officers called it.

General Howe placed his troops across the state, with major commands at Trenton, Burlington, Princeton, Perth Amboy and New Brunswick. The Hessians, who had borne the brunt of the assault on Fort Washington in NY, showing courage and discipline, had the honor of being to the front in Trenton and Burlington. Howe recognized that his men were too spread out, but the American army was in such poor shape, and so demoralized, they were not considered a threat.

The British forces had crossed the state almost unopposed. The militia had refused to join Washington, many of his troops on hand were under short enlistment due to expire at the end to the month, desertion was rampant, everyone was discouraged. Half the people had never really supported the rebellion, and now they infected the rest. The new republic looked to be on its last legs, and Washington perhaps wondered if he would be hung, drawn and quartered as a traitor under British law.

Still everything was not going all the right way for the British. The Jersey men, while not joining Washington, had not reacted passively to being invaded, and the poor behavior of the British and Hessian troops enraged many. Ambushes of British patrols became a standard tactic. Morris county had several units of militia assembled, with some Continental troops, and more troops were around Paramus in the Northeast.

New Jersey irregular troops, acting in small groups, uncoordinated, and fueled by anger at the horrible plundering by both the Hessians and British, raided the enemy to capture supplies, ambushed patrols, harassed communications and movement. On Dec. 18 th, General Grant, under Cornwallis in New Brunswick, ordered that nothing belonging to the army, even officers, leave New Brunswick with out an escort. The local men of New Jersey couldn't seriously hurt the British, but they could make them cautious, and reduce their ability to get information by patrolling.

Along the river, von Donop was placed in charge of the Hessians, stationed at Burlington, Trenton and with posts at Mansfield Square and Black Horse Tavern. In Trenton, 3 regiments of Hessians, about 1 thousand men, were under the command of Colonel Rall ( sometimes spelled Rahl). Rall was ordered to build field works needed to defend the town, but did not. Rall told one of his officers who wanted to build redoubts-"Let them come! We want no trenches! We'll use the bayonet!" Small raids worried his troops, and ambushes distressed his dragoons. He was forced to increase the size of his picket posts, which created a lack of rest for his troops. Still Rall had no fear of the American army, which seemed ready to dissolve in the face of winter.

Indeed, everyone in the American camp felt the situation to be desperate. Col. Joseph Reed wrote Washington "that something must be attempted to revive our expiring credit, give our cause some degree of reputation, and prevent a total depreciation of the Continental money, which is coming in very fast- that even a failure cannot be more total than to remain in our present situation." Washington admitted in a letter that "the game was about up."

On December 22 nd 1776, Washington had 4707 rank and file troops fit for duty.

Washington had a staff meeting and decided to attack. At first he wanted to attack von Donop at Bordentown, but the militia in the area, under Col Griffin were too weak. The Hessians in Trenton were in an exposed position, and it was known that they would heartily celebrate Christmas on the night of Dec. 25 th. Washington decided on a predawn attack on the 26 th, while the troops and officers were tired, and hopefully some suffering hangovers. It is a misconception that the Hessians were expected to be drunk. Some of the officers might have been expected to party late into the night, not the troops.

Washington ordered the troops ferried across just after dark, but a storm arose, first snow, then freezing rain, snow and hail.Washington's aide, Col. John Fitzgerald wrote at 6 PM as the troops started across: " It is fearfully cold and raw and a snowstorm is setting in. The wind northeast and 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." Col. Glover's reg't from Marblehead, Mass, who were primarily sailors, manned the boats at McKonkeys Ferry. They managed to get 2400 men, their horses and 18 cannon across the icy river. Two other units, one to cross to the south of Trenton at the Trenton Ferry, and one farther south at Bristol, were unable to cross, or unable to land on the other side, due to the storm and ice.

These southern crossings were to prevent the escape of the Hessians and to prevent von Donop from supporting Trenton. Fortunately, von Donop at Burlington, had moved south in response to the group of Jersey Militia troops under Col Griffin raiding towards him a few days earlier, and was out of position to support Rall in Trenton.

Delayed by the storm, Washington's troops did not get across until 4 am, well behind schedule for a predawn attack. They marched south to Trenton in two columns, one along the river, the other along the Pennington road, with Generals Sullivan and Greene commanding, Washington commanding overall, and riding with Greene.

In a severe winter storm, the troops advanced south. By 6 am they must have been complaining, in fact it is reported that two men froze to death, but Washington is determined. Gen. Sullivan sends word that the men's muskets will not fire due to being exposed to the storm all night. Washington sends word back to rely on the bayonet-"I am resolved to take Trenton."

In Trenton, Hessian Major Dechow decided because of the severe storm not to send out the normal predawn patrol, including 2 cannon, to sweep the area for signs of the enemy. Though the storm cause extreme misery for the troops, it allowed them to approach undetected.

At 8 AM Washington's party inquires of a man chopping wood where the Hessian sentries are, just outside of Trenton. He points to a nearby house, and the Hessians pore out and begin to open fire. The battle of Trenton is on.

Moving quickly and driving in the pickets, both columns move in on the small town of Trenton. The Hessians are caught completely unprepared. Col. Rall, who was up late at night, is slow to awaken and dress.

The Hessian officers tried to rally and form their troops, but the Americans moved too quickly for them. The Hessians are constantly disrupted by fast moving American units, charging in and moving to cover all routes in or out of the town. American cannon are placed on a rise that controls the two main streets of the town, and the Hessian formations are unable to form properly. They try to get some of their own cannon into action but these are captured before they can do any damage. The Americans moved rapidly and aggressively, closing in on the Hessians, breaking up their formations, blocking all exits from town, seeming to be everywhere to the Hessians. The Hessians move around in town trying to make a front, but some orders are misunderstood, and the von Knyphausen regiment is separated from the Rall and von Lossberg regiments.

The Rall and von Lossberg Hessian regiments are forced out of town and form in an apple orchard. Rall orders them to attack back into town,trying to force a hole to the road to Princeton. Now the Hessians have wet guns from the storm, and have a hard time firing. When they get again into the streets of the town, the American troops, joined by some civilians from the town fire at them from buildings and from behind trees and fences, causing confusion, while the American cannon break up any formations. Rall is badly wounded, and resistance falters. They retreat back to the orchard, but are surrounded by the fast moving Americans.The Hessians surrender.

The third regiment of Hessians, on the south end of town, trying to get across the Creek to head towards Bordentown are delayed by trying to bring their cannon through a boggy area and suddenly find themselves surrounded and surrender as well. Many Hessians escape in small groups, but 868 are captured. 106 are killed or wounded. The American army lost perhaps 4 men wounded and 2 or 3 frozen to death, captured 1000 arms, several cannon and ammunition and stores.The fighting lasted only 90 minutes. About 600 Hessians, most of which had been stationed on the south side of the Creek, escaped.

After the battle, Washington had the captured men and stores shipped across the river, then followed with the army across to Pennsylvania. The next day a thousand men reported ill.

von Donop, commanding at Burlington, learned of the battle from fleeing Hessians who had escaped. Their estimates of the size of the force with Washington were exaggerated. Rumors of attacks pending on them flew thick, based on partial spy reports of various plans of Washington, and the British forces all across the state were worried. von Donop moved first to Allentown, NJ, then to Princeton, to resist attacks that were just rumors.

Washington had turned the tide, from desperate waiting for the axe to fall, to aggressive victor, chasing the British forces from the Delaware river and putting them on the defensive- for a few days.

Washington wrote a letter describing the action, which was put on the web at-The First American Christmas.

After gathering information and their wits, Lord Cornwallis moved to attack, leading to the 2 nd battle of Trenton and the victory at the BATTLE OF PRINCETON.


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