5. Washington needed a victory to restore morale among his troops
In December 1776, George Washington was aware he badly needed a victory if he was to have any chance of keeping his army together following the end of the year. New levies for recruits in several states would provide additional help, but he needed to retain a veteran core for at least a month into the New Year. Nothing would boost his chances of succeeding in retaining men than a victory. That is, nothing other than money. In yet another letter to Congress, Washington stressed the need to pay his troops, if not all they were owed, at least some of it. Unable to do anything further in the way of money, he turned his attention to obtaining a victory. Despite the tattered, defeated air about his army he had some advantages. For one thing, the British and Hessians couldn’t believe him capable of launching an attack.
In their minds, the same flooded and ice-clogged Delaware River which protected the Americans from attack offered similar protection to the New Jersey garrisons. The wintry weather was atrocious and getting colder by the day. Loyalist spies in the region kept General Grant apprised of the condition of Washington’s army. Yet they failed to inform the British of the concentration of large boats, called Durham boats, gathered on the banks of the river near Washington’s encampments. Or if they did the British failed to understand their significance. They learned soon enough. On Christmas Day, 1776, Washington mustered 3,000 of his most reliable troops and marched them to the riverbank. There awaited Glover’s Marblehead regiment, ready to load the troops, horses, and artillery aboard and convey them across to New Jersey. The password that night was “Victory or Death”.
In the famous painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted in 1851, the General stands near the prow of the boat, a cloak around him, gazing determinedly ahead. The painting is certainly a romanticized image of the event. Washington undoubtedly sat, head bent to the wind-driven sleet, as the Marblehead seamen dealt with the dangerous ice floes in the racing river current. Many of the men took with them new blankets which had providentially arrived on Christmas Eve. Old blankets were cut up and wrapped around the tatters of their footwear. The boats in which they rode were large, flatbottomed freight boats, some as much as sixty feet in length, and about eight feet in beam. They were propelled by pushing poles against the river bottom and walking the length of the boat. Typically three or four men served that purpose. Others fended off the dangerous ice floes.
The temperature dropped as the operation ran on, the wind-driven sleet creating ice-slicked wooden decks. The Marblehead men weren’t the only men operating the boats. Other men who made their living on the Delaware River joined them. There were three crossing points and the entire command failed to cross the river, including a detachment commanded by Colonel John Cadwalader. General James Ewing was to ferry across and hold the bridge across Assunpink Creek, denying it to the enemy as an escape group. His crossing also failed. John Sullivan commanded the detachment accompanied by Washington and his staff. Although several men received a dunking in the frigid Delaware, none were lost during the crossing, which included 18 pieces of artillery and the horses to drag them. By the time the army was assembled and ready to march on Trenton, the sleet had changed to snow.
In the dark, Washington divided his men into two columns. One, under John Sullivan, was assigned a route to Trenton which followed along the river. The other, under Nathaniel Greene, took another road, further inland. Washington traveled with the latter group. The temperature was by then well below freezing and jagged ice ripped at the legs and feet of the men as they marched. The columns frequently stopped, unable to see ahead. Both columns sent detachments ahead to block anyone leaving Trenton. While on the march Washington learned that neither Ewing nor Cadwalader had been able to get their men across the river. He also received a message from John Sullivan that his men’s gunpowder was wet from the rain, sleet, and snow. “Tell General Sullivan to use the bayonet”, Washington said to the messenger. “I am resolved to take Trenton”.
It was obvious the planned pre-dawn attack was impossible, but the troops plodded on as the winter storm continued to worsen. Just as the column neared Trenton Washington learned a detachment of New Jersey militia, about 50 men led by Adam Stephen, had attacked a Hessian picket outpost. Washington raged at Stephen, who had had no knowledge of the pending American attack on Trenton. Washington’s concern was that Stephen’s freelance attack had alerted the Hessian garrison. He need not have worried. The Hessian commander viewed the attack as a nuisance raid, which in fact was what it was. The Hessian garrison was not alerted and prepared for an assault when Washington and Sullivan arrived at the town by their separate routes. Washington led the attack himself, riding at the head of his column. Despite being several hours behind schedule, the attack achieved complete surprise.
8. Trenton was a small battle which provided the Americans a major victory
Ewing’s failure to cross the Delaware left open the possibility for the Hessians to retreat from the attack via the bridge over Assunpink Creek. When Washington attacked Hessian units blocking the River Road moved to assist the units in making a fighting withdrawal before the Americans. Sullivan’s column arrived on the River Road and used it to fight through the town to seize the bridge, trapping the Hessians between two American columns. Washington sent some units to block the Princeton Turnpike and the last escape route was closed. The fighting was sharp, some of it house-to-house, but after American artillery was set up and in action on Trenton’s streets the Hessians were forced to attempt to reform in the fields outside of town. Colonel Rall fell, mortally wounded, though he survived long enough to surrender. He passed later that night.
The Hessians lost 22 dead, 83 wounded, and 896 taken prisoner. The Americans had two dead and five wounded, among them future President James Monroe. American troops captured all of the Hessian’s stores, including over 1,000 muskets, bayonets, cannon, and badly needed gunpowder. They also captured the Hessian’s food stores, tents, shoes and boots, uniform coats and other clothing, and a large supply of rum and beer. Unfortunately, some of the celebrating Americans broke into the latter before Washington had it under guard, leading to several more men falling into the Delaware on the return trip. By midday on December 28, all of the Americans, their prisoners, and the captured supplies were back on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, ferried there by the Marblehead men and their supporters. Washington immediately began planning further operations, while the British reacted in shock.
9. The victory at Trenton saved the Continental Army
Earl Cornwallis had energetically pursued George Washington across New Jersey in the fall of 1776. After seeing his defeated enemy enter Pennsylvania had returned to New York, where he planned to depart for leave in England. After learning of Trenton Sir William Howe ordered Cornwallis back in the field, his leave canceled. Meanwhile, Washington saw an opportunity to use the plunder from Trenton to create further havoc among the garrisons in New Jersey. But he still needed an Army. New Year’s Day loomed as the day when most of his command’s enlistments would come to an end. On December 30, Washington again mustered his forces and asked them to extend their enlistments for another month. He promised a ten-dollar bonus for any man who agreed to stay. Washington had long experience as a military recruiter, dating to his days in the Virginia militia two decades earlier.
Gradually, under his cajoling and no doubt heartened when other men of their units stepped forward, most of the men agreed to stay. That same day Washington moved the army back to Trenton. Two days later, on New Year’s Day 1777, Washington received a sum of money from Congress, and the troops received some of what they were owed. The supplies captured from the Hessians made life in the encampments more bearable, shattered footwear was replaced, and the troops were well supplied with gunpowder and lead. By then Washington’s spies had informed him that Cornwallis was back in New Jersey, in command of about 6,000 veteran troops, with orders to destroy the Continental Army. The American Revolution was still very much alive. But it still badly needed another audacious move by George Washington if it was to survive.
10. Washington prepared for another battle in Trenton in January, 1777
In Trenton, supported by Cadwalader, who had finally moved his troops across the Delaware River, Washington fortified a line along Assunpink Creek. There he contemplated his next move, either against the Hessians under Donop or against Cornwallis. The fortifications were mostly busy work for the troops. Washington had already learned from his spies that Cornwallis intended to trap the Continentals in Trenton, leading to their surrender or destruction. He also knew from his farmer’s instincts that the weather, which had warmed since Christmas, was about to get colder again. Lastly, he learned of a little-used road, behind his fortifications, which followed a winding course to the Princeton Turnpike just outside of that town. On January 1, Cornwallis left Princeton after detaching a garrison there and moved towards Trenton. Washington dispatched a detachment of troops, mostly riflemen, to harass their advance.
The Americans, under Alexis de Fermoy, had established a blocking position about halfway between Princeton and Trenton. On January 2 de Fermoy abandoned his post, drunk, and fled to Trenton. Colonel Edward Hand assumed command of the American advanced position. It was another example of providential luck in the military career of George Washington. De Fermoy was largely incompetent, Hand very much the opposite. Washington told Hand to delay the British arrival at Trenton until dark if at all possible. The American general was confident the British would not assault his fortified positions in the dark. He had already formed his plans for what he would do once the British were before Trenton. The detachment at Princeton had caught his eye. The further he could lure Cornwallis from Princeton the better for his plans.
11. The second battle of Trenton began with a skilled delaying action
When Cornwallis encountered Hand’s advanced units he attacked with British light infantry, supported by Hessian jagers. The Americans took cover behind trees, stone walls, and in ravines. Their hot fire forced the British main columns to stop their advance and shift formations into battle lines. When they advanced upon the positions they found the Americans gone. Returning to columns they resumed the advance, only to again encounter the rifle fire of the Americans. As they grudgingly gave ground to the British the riflemen wore down the enemy troops with their pestering fire which the British for the most part could not return. The American rifles had a longer range than the British muskets, and the latter could not fire in column. By mid-afternoon, the British troops were exhausted, but they had arrived within a half-mile of Trenton.
The American delaying forces stopped the British advance at a hollow outside the town until the British unlimbered artillery and began bombarding the position. They then withdrew through the town, using houses and other buildings as cover, until they reached the bridge over Assunpink Creek. There they were charged by Hessian jagers, and a confused melee erupted, with hand-to-hand combat on the bridge and nearby. Washington rode into mass of struggling men, calling for the Americans to withdraw to his fortified positions. As Hand’s men withdrew into the trenches, American artillery opened up on the Hessians and British troops, which had by then been under fire for most of the long day. Cornwallis arrived with the main body of British troops, surveyed the American lines, and despite it being nearly twilight decided to assault the American positions.
12. The British assaulted the American lines three times at Trenton
The Battle of Second Trenton, also known as the Battle of Assunpink Creek, was, for the British anyway, the culmination of the long day of January 2, 1777. Having advanced from Princeton under near constant rifle fire, then forcing their way through a house-to-house battle through the town, the British prepared to assault the American positions south of Assunpink Creek. The first assault was in column, across the bridge and up the slope toward the entrenched Americans. A massed volley by the American defenders drove the British back. A second assault made it about as far as the bridge, but musket and cannon fire again proved too much for the British and the troops fell back again. A third attempt formed and moved toward the bridge in the gathering darkness, but American artillery broke it up before they could cross over the creek.
Cornwallis called his officers, including General James Grant, to a council of war. By then it was full dark. One officer, his Quartermaster General William Erskine, advised Cornwallis to continue his attacks in the night. General Grant, argued the opposite, always contemptuous of American troops and Washington’s generalship. Grant pointed out their troops were exhausted, Washington had no route of retreat, and they could use the night hours to position their artillery. Cornwallis agreed with Grant, telling Erskine that “We’ve got the old fox safe now. We’ll go over and bag him in the morning”. Unknown to Cornwallis was the “old fox” was at that moment holding a council of war of his own, explaining the next improbable step they were to take against the British in New Jersey.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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