How George Washington Saved the American Revolution
How George Washington Saved the American Revolution

How George Washington Saved the American Revolution

Larry Holzwarth - June 15, 2022

How George Washington Saved the American Revolution
Henry Knox served as the Continental Army’s Chief of Artillery for most of the Revolutionary War. Wikimedia

13. Washington deceived the British into believing he remained in his lines all night

During the council of war held by Washington, American artillery continued to fire into the British lines. Washington told Chief of Artillery Henry Knox to detach two guns to remain in the fortifications, firing through the night, while the rest of his guns had their axles muffled with rags. Before midnight the guns were on the disused road to Princeton. One by one American unit pulled out of their positions, formed up, and headed along the road. Wagons and baggage trains followed, bound for Burlington. By two in the morning, the entire Army was on the road. Washington left behind five hundred men, to keep the two guns firing while the army disengaged, to keep the fires burning and to generate the normal noises of a military encampment. Throughout the night, the men did their duty, before they too pulled up stakes and headed off.

In many ways, Washington’s Princeton movement was even more audacious than his attack on Trenton a week earlier. He was taking his entire army deeper into enemy-controlled territory, with little possibility of retreat to safety in Pennsylvania. The British in New York and New Jersey outnumbered him by a large factor. New Jersey was also a deeply divided state, with about equal numbers of supporters of the Patriots and the Loyalists. Washington saw an opportunity for another victory, one which would also expose New Brunswick to threats from the Continentals. New Brunswick held the pay chests for the British troops in New Jersey, another bit of information Washington gleaned from his extensive spy networks. When Cornwallis dispatched light infantry to probe the American fortifications on the morning of January 3, they found the “old fox” of which Cornwallis had casually boasted was gone.

How George Washington Saved the American Revolution
The Battle of Princeton was the third battle fought by the Continental Army in just three days. Princeton University

14. The British encountered American troops outside of Princeton

Cornwallis had sent messages to Princeton on the night of January 2, asking for additional units to come to his support at Trenton. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood, commanding at Princeton, ordered two British regiments to march to Trenton early in the morning of January 3, which dawned clear and bright. Mawhood took command of the detachment. A few miles out of Princeton, near a stream called Stony Brook, Mawhood’s advance scouts spotted the American army on the move. Terrain hid the full size of the American columns, but it was clear it was a large formation of both regulars and militia. Mawhood decided to ignore his orders and return to Princeton, and sent a messenger ahead to warn the remaining British units in the town. Pursuing American troops forced Mawhood to establish a battle line outside of town, in a small orchard.

After exchanges of volleys between the Americans and British, the latter made a bayonet charge, which drove the outnumbered Americans back, overrunning them. The American commander, Hugh Mercer, was bayoneted by British troops repeatedly, he passed in agony nine days later. The American second in command, Colonel John Haslet of Delaware, was also taken out in the assault. As the Americans were overrun militia under Cadwalader arrived on the battlefield. They saw American troops retreating before advancing British bayonets. Being inexperienced troops, they began to withdraw and the withdrawal quickly took on the aspect of panicked men running for their lives. Mawhood meanwhile recalled his men and formed them into line, preparatory to advancing on the rest of the American force. Such was the chaos before Princeton when Washington arrived on the battlefield.

How George Washington Saved the American Revolution
A preliminary sketch by Jonathan Trumbullat the Battle of Princeton. Princeton University

15. Washington’s rallying the troops became the stuff of legend

After positioning the troops he arrived with, Washington rode straight across the battlefield, in plain view of the British, to Cadwalader’s fleeing militia. He called to the men to “…parade with us” using his hat to wave the militia to the side of the Continental regulars then forming. Some of the militiamen hesitated. Cadwalader joined his commander in exhorting the men forward. Washington, mounted as per usual on a white horse, rode among the men, forming them into line, while newly arrived American artillery held the British back. Once the militia were formed, and additional Continental troops had formed on their right, Washington rode to their front, still waving with his hat, urging the men forward. In front of them, the British fired a full musket volley, and Washington’s aide John Fitzgerald later wrote he covered his eyes to avoid seeing his commander end.

When the smoke cleared Washington was there, still urging the men forward, almost miraculously unharmed. This time it was the British who withdrew, at first grudgingly, then in a rout. In Princeton itself, some British troops took refuge in Nassau Hall. Others took refuge in prepared defensive positions which were soon neutralized by the Americans. The casualties on January 3 remain debated, the British claiming they were light and the battle a minor affair. The Americans took another 200 or so prisoners, and additional weapons, gunpowder, clothing, and food from the British stores. Moreover, another of the British garrisons in New Jersey had fallen to the supposedly defeated Washington. It was the third American victory in just ten days, inflicted at a time of year when most European armies did not conduct offensive operations.

How George Washington Saved the American Revolution
Washington led from the front at Princeton, exposing himself to enemy musketry, but escaped unharmed. Wikimedia

16. Washington wanted to make one more attack during the campaign

In Trenton, Cornwallis easily heard the sound of the guns and was soon on the road to Princeton hoping to yet catch Washington. The latter knew he had to evacuate Princeton, and he wanted to continue the campaign by capturing the garrison at New Brunswick. But he found little support for the idea among his senior officers. They argued the troops were exhausted, having fought on two consecutive days, with no sleep, and a forced march throughout another frigid night. Washington gave in to their counsel, and the Continental army gathered their prisoners and captured supplies and departed Princeton, bound for Somerset Court House. They rested there for one day, and on January 5 moved to Pluckemin, New Jersey. The following day they arrived at Morristown, New Jersey where they established their winter encampment, the first of several winters spent at Morristown over the course of the war.

Cornwallis arrived in Princeton late on January 3. There he received orders from Sir William Howe to abandon most of the New Jersey garrisons and consolidate his forces at New Brunswick and Perth Amboy. Though Howe wrote to London that the battles in New Jersey had been minor affairs, he nonetheless abandoned all of central New Jersey to the Continental Army as a result of them. In Morristown the encampment proved consequential. Washington had the remnants of his army inoculated for smallpox. Local residents were told to take an oath proclaiming their loyalty to the Continental Congress or have their property confiscated. New enlistments were changed to three years, marking the beginnings of a professional army in America. Washington established travel restrictions by civilians, a step to inhibit Loyalist spies. And both sides continued to skirmish throughout the winter, in what became known as the Forage War.

How George Washington Saved the American Revolution
A heroic portrait of George Washington rallying his troops before Princeton, painted in 1848. Princeton University

17. The Forage War made for a violent winter in New Jersey

When the Continental Army retreated across northern New Jersey in 1776, they seized as much of the local produce as they could, especially fodder for horses and oxen. British troops stationed there after the withdrawal of the garrisons were to send forage parties far from the safety of their encampments in search of food for humans and livestock. In early January Washington issued orders for his troops and local militia to forage liberally, and to harass the enemy’s foraging parties to the maximum extent possible. For protection, the British had to send out larger and larger foraging convoys, protected by ever-growing formations of British troops. Several engagements larger than Trenton, in terms of the numbers of casualties, occurred across central and northern New Jersey during the Forage War. The British suffered more casualties during the campaign than they had during the New York campaign of the preceding summer.

Some New Jersey militia used forage trains as bait to entrap British units when they were attacked by larger militia and Continental Regulars, a tactic the British adopted as well. Washington’s standing order to attack kept the winter encampments on edge well into April. It also forced Howe to reevaluate the British position in North America. John Burgoyne had arrived in Canada with a plan endorsed by the British Minister of War for the campaigning season in 1777. Burgoyne planned to march down through Canada and upstate New York. Howe was to send his main force to join him in Albany. The plan was to split the colonies, isolating New York and New England from the center and southern colonies. The presence of Washington’s army and the harassing tactics of the winter caused Howe to consider an alternative plan.

How George Washington Saved the American Revolution
A mezzotint of British commander Sir William Howe, created in November, 1777. Brown University

18. The ongoing fighting in New Jersey altered British plans for 1777

Had Washington not crossed the Delaware in December, 1776, he likely would have wintered in Pennsylvania, though most of his army would have vanished. After his lightning New Jersey campaign the presence of the Continental Army in detachments around Morristown bolstered the New Jersey militia. Units of the Continental Army frequently operated in support of the militia throughout the winter. By late winter, the aroused militia and presence of the main American army led Howe to change his plans for the upcoming campaign. He had received approval to attack Philadelphia that summer, but Washington’s presence and militia activity made an overland march across New Jersey, by then nearly empty of fodder for horses and draft animals, a dangerous proposition. Howe decided to move his army to strike at Philadelphia by sea, leaving behind a garrison in New York and New Jersey to defend the British positions there.

He did not have sufficient troops to support the thrust by Burgoyne down from Canada toward Albany. Washington moved to counter Howe’s attacks in Pennsylvania but failed to prevent the capture of Philadelphia. But the failure to support Burgoyne to the north in 1777 led to the destruction of the British Army there, which surrendered to the Americans on October 17. The impact of Washington’s New Jersey campaign continued to resonate through the rest of the war. In 1778 the British evacuated Philadelphia and marched overland across war-torn New Jersey, with Washington’s army at their heels. They fought the largest pitched battle of the war at Monmouth Court House before the British retreated into their fortifications in New York, and the outposts at New Brunswick and Perth Amboy. Vicious partisan fighting continued in New Jersey for the rest of the war.

How George Washington Saved the American Revolution
French playwright and polymath Caron de Beaumarchais, one of the early proponents of French aid to America during the Revolutionary War. Wikimedia

19. Washington’s New Jersey campaign led to increased aid from the French

By striking at the British in New Jersey, Washington demonstrated to the French the Continental Army was far from defeated in early 1777. This in turn led to increased covert support from French operatives, who purchased arms stored in French arsenals and shipped them to America via the free port of Eustatius. French support throughout 1777 increased, including guns, flints, gunpowder, clothing, medical supplies, and other vital material. Through Benjamin Franklin and other American agents, lobbying for the French to support the Revolution openly increased. The French had experienced military campaigns in North America, and were well aware of the difficulties the British and their German mercenaries would face in subduing Washington’s army.

The increased aid strengthened both Washington’s main army and the Northern Army which fought the Saratoga Campaign in 1777. Had Washington’s army withered away in December 1776, the aid would not have been forthcoming. Many of the troops who served in both American armies carried French muskets, wore French-made uniforms and shoes, and were supported by French cannons. The British Minister to France reported the steadily increasing hostility directed toward the British, even in those days of punctilious courtesy and flamboyant manners. The New Jersey campaign opened the door for the eventual French military intervention in North America, as well as in the West Indies, India, and Africa, making the American Revolution an early World War.

How George Washington Saved the American Revolution
George Washington, posed with regimental standards taken from the British at Princeton, painted in 1782. Wikimedia

20. There is little doubt Washington saved the American cause in 1776-77

As Washington’s army retreated before the British in October, 1776; as men deserted and enlistments began to run out, he contemplated retreating into the mountains and conducting a guerrilla war. That’s how desperate the situation was for the Patriots in the months following independence. In just a few months he had lost most of his army, several battles, America’s largest city, his second-in-command, and much of his reputation. But he hadn’t lost his faith in himself, nor in the men he led. His actions of December 1776 and January 1777 were bold, daring, and possibly even reckless. Had he failed the Continental Army would have been destroyed. But he didn’t fail. He succeeded at a time when success was the only option for the cause, no matter how remote the possibility for success may have been.

In recent years it has become fashionable to disparage George Washington. His generalship, his leadership, and his character have all been questioned, largely due to his ownership of enslaved people. In late 1776 his character was such that he would not succumb to impossible odds. He was enough of a leader to get defeated, demoralized men to follow him against imposing physical barriers and the guns of a numerically superior enemy, in bitterly cold and snowy weather. He brought the best out of hungry, poorly clothed, long-suffering men. And he was general enough to see and seize an opportunity no one else could see. In doing so, he and the men he led, under the password “Victory or Death” saved the American Revolution.


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