George Washington - Battle of Trenton



General George Washington was with his little army near Fort Lee on the Jersey shore. He was soon disturbed by Lord Cornwallis, who, early on the morning of the 20th of November, 1776 crossed the Hudson from Dobb's Ferry to Closter's Landing, five miles above Fort Lee, and with artillery climbed a steep, rocky road to the top of the Palisades, unobserved by Greene. That officer was told of his danger by a farmer, who awoke him from slumber. Greene gave warning to Washington, who ordered Lee to cross the Hudson immediately and join him. Greene fled in haste from Fort Lee, with two thousand men, leaving behind cannon, tents, stores and camp equipage, and barely escaping capture. Washington covered the retreat of the garrison so effectually, that less than one hundred stragglers were made prisoners.

It was now suspected that the British would move on Philadelphia. Washington, with his army led by himself and reduced to less than four thousand men, marched toward the Delaware to impede the progress of the invader as much as possible. His force decreased at almost every step. The patriotism of New Jersey seemed to be paralyzed by the presence of a British army on the soil. Hundreds of republicans--even men who had been active in the patriot cause--signed a pledge of fidelity to the British crown. During the twelve days that Washington was making his way to the Delaware, so closely pursued by Cornwallis that the rear-guard of the Americans often heard the music of the van-guard of the royal troops, he was chilled by the seeming indifference of the people. He halted at points as long as possible, for Lee to join him and so give him strength to make a stand against his pursuers; but that officer, assuming that his was an independent command, paid no attention to the order of his superior. He was then evidently playing a desperate game of treason. Daily messages to him, urging him to push forward with his troops, did not affect him. He lingered long on the Hudson, until many of his soldiers had left him and gone home; and he tried to induce Heath to weaken his force in the Highlands by assigning for duty under Lee, two thousand of his men. Failing in this, he moved slowly as far in the rear of Washington as possible; and finally (eleven days after the chief had reached the Delaware), he took lodgings at Baskingridge in East Jersey, three miles from his camp, and nearer the enemy. There, on the morning of the 13th of December, he suffered himself to be captured by a small British scout.

Lee had habitually treated Washington with superciliousness; and in letters to Gates and others, who would applaud his utterances, he would speak with contempt of the commander-in-chief as "not a heaven-born genius," and words of like import. He had just finished a letter to Gates when the scout appeared, in which he wrote most falsely: "A certain great man is most damnably deficient He has thrown me into a situation where I have my choice of difficulties; if I stay in this province, I risk myself and army; and if I do not stay, the province is lost forever," and so on. This letter was not folded when the scout came and summoned Lee to surrender. He went out unarmed, bareheaded, in slippers, without a coat, in a blanket cloak, his shirt-collar open and his linen much soiled, and gave himself up. In this plight he was hurried on horseback to the camp of Cornwallis, and was afterward sent to New York. Sullivan, who was next in command, took charge of the troops and pushed on to the Delaware. Had Lee obeyed the orders of Washington, Cornwallis could not have penetrated New Jersey further than Newark, for the disobedient officer had four thousand troops under his command when he crossed the Hudson, and might have joined Washington with them in less than three days.

On the evening of the 1st of December, Washington fled from New Brunswick after destroying a part of the bridge over the Raritan there, and engaging in a contest with cannon with his pursuers. It was understood that Howe, who was about to send a part of his army to take possession of Rhode Island, had instructed Cornwallis not to pursue further than the Raritan. So Washington left Lord Stirling at Princeton with twelve hundred men, and with the remainder of his little army (the New Jersey and Maryland brigades had just left him), pushed on to the Delaware, at Trenton. Having sent his baggage, stores, and sick across the river into Pennsylvania, he turned back to oppose the further progress of Cornwallis, when, on the morning of the 6th, he met Stirling flying before a greatly superior force. Howe had sent troops under General Clinton to Rhode Island, borne by the ships of Sir Peter Parker, and with a considerable force had now joined Cornwallis; making an army four thousand strong. With these they were pressing on toward the Delaware. Washington was compelled to turn back and seek safety, with his little army, beyond the river. He crossed that stream on the 8th, and before the arrival of the British on its banks, he had seized or destroyed every boat on its waters and those of its tributaries, along a line of seventy miles.

Philadelphia was now trembling for its own safety. The Congress, in whom there was a growing distrust in the public mind, were uneasy. Leading republicans hesitated to go further. Only Washington, who, at the middle of December, when frost was rapidly creating a bridge across the Delaware over which his pursuers might pass, had not more than a thousand soldiers on whom he could rely, seemed hopeful. When asked what he would do if Philadelphia should be taken, he replied: "We will retreat beyond the Susquehanna River, and thence, if necessary, to the Alleghany mountains." He had already conceived the masterly stroke which sent a thrill of joy and hope through the desponding heart of America, and toward that end he worked. He sent Putnam to cast up defences around Philadelphia, and stimulated the Congress to vigorous action. They sent forth a strong appeal to the people. A thorough reorganization of the army was begun according to the plan adopted by the Congress. There was to be one grand army, composed of eighty battalions of seven hundred and fifty men each, to be raised in the several States. Liberal bounties were offered to soldiers who should re-enlist, and a loan of ten million dollars from France was authorized. Placing almost unlimited control of Philadelphia in the hands of Putnam, Congress, on the 12th (December, 1776), resolved to leave that city and retire to Baltimore, at the same time delegating their powers to a committee composed of Robert Morris, George Clymer, and George Walton to act in their behalf during their absence. On their departure the loyalists became bold, and there was much danger of a counter revolution in favor of the crown.

Informed that nearly all the Pennsylvanians were loyalists, and looking with contempt upon the scattered forces of Washington in that State, Cornwallis had cantoned his troops in a careless manner in the vicinity of the Delaware, left them in charge of General Grant, and returned to New York. So confident were the British leaders of their ability to capture Philadelphia at any time, and end the rebellion by that single blow, that Cornwallis was preparing to go to England, when events called him back to New Jersey.

Lee's division under Sullivan, and some regiments from Ticonderoga under Gates, joined Washington on the 21st of December. Inducements offered for re-enlistments had retained nearly one-half of the veterans. The Pennsylvania militia cheerfully responded to the call for help, and on the day before Christmas, Washington found himself at the head of an army between five and six thousand in number. He now felt strong enough to execute a plan which he had conceived, for surprising and capturing a force of the enemy stationed at Trenton, fifteen hundred in number, composed chiefly of Hessian troops under Colonel Rall. Washington expected the Germans, as was their custom, would have a carousal on Christmas day, and he fixed upon the succeeding night as a favorable time for crossing the Delaware, and falling upon them during their heavy slumbers before the dawn. Rall, in his pride, had said: "What need of intrenchments? Let the rebels come; we will at them with the bayonet;" and he made the fatal mistake of not placing a single cannon in battery.

At twilight on the appointed evening, Washington had two thousand men at McConkey's Ferry (now Taylorsville), a few miles above Trenton, with boats of every kind to transport them across the river, then filled with masses of thickening ice, for the weather was very cold. With him were Generals Sterling, Sullivan, Greene, Mercer, Stephen, and Knox, the latter (commissioned brigadier-general two days afterward) in command of artillerists, and about twenty pieces of cannon. Arrangements had been made for simultaneous movements against other British cantonments, especially one from Bristol, with about ten thousand men, which Gates was directed to lead. With wilful disobedience, in imitation of Lee, Gates refused the duty, turned his back on Washington on Christmas eve, and rode on toward Baltimore to intrigue in Congress for Schuyler's place in the Northern Department.

The perilous voyage across the Delaware amid the floating ice was begun early in the evening, and it was four o'clock in the morning before the troops stood in marching order, with all their cannon, on the New Jersey shore. The current was swift, the ice was thickly strewn in it, and the night was dark, for toward midnight a storm of snow and sleet set in. The army moved in two columns--one led by Sullivan along the road nearest the river, and the other commanded by Washington, accompanied by Generals Stirling, Greene, Mercer, and Stephen. It was broad daylight when they approached Trenton, but they were undiscovered until they reached the picket lines on the outskirts of the village. The firing that followed awakened Rall and his troops, who were hardly recovered from their night's debauch. The colonel was soon at the head of his men in battle order, but reeled like a man half asleep. A sharp conflict ensued, lasting only thirty-five minutes, when the Hessians were defeated and dispersed, and Colonel Rall was mortally wounded. The main body of his troops attempted to escape by the Princeton road, when they were intercepted by Colonel Hand. The affrighted Germans threw down their arms and begged for mercy. Some British light-horse and infantry at Trenton escaped to Bordentown.

The victory for the Americans was complete. It would have been more decisive had the co-operating parties been able to perform their duties. They could not; and Washington won all the glory of the victory which greatly inspirited the patriots. In the engagements the Americans did not lose a single man, and had only two--William Washington (afterward distinguished in the South) and James Monroe (afterward President of the United States)--who were slightly wounded. The spoils of victory were almost a thousand prisoners, twelve hundred small arms, six brass field-pieces, and all the German standards. The triumphant army re-crossed the Delaware at McConkey's Ferry, and before midnight of the day of victory were back to their encampment.

This bold stroke of the American general puzzled and amazed the British leaders, alarmed the Tories, and dissipated the terror which had been felt in the presence of the Hessians, as invincible troops. The faltering militia soon flocked to the standard of Washington, and many of the soldiers, who were about to leave the American camp, re-enlisted. Cornwallis was sent back to New Brunswick, where General Grant was in command of the main British army in New Jersey, and the other cantonments in that province were broken up and the troops concentrated toward Trenton. Grant moved forward to Princeton, and Washington, who had resolved to attempt to drive the British out of New Jersey, boldly recrossed the river to the eastern side, and took post with his army at Trenton, on the 30th of December, 1776. The Congress, sitting at Baltimore, had invested him with powers almost equal to those of a Roman Dictator, for six months, authorizing him to reorganize his army; appoint all officers below brigadier-general; to make requisitions for subsistence and enforce them with arms, and to arrest the disaffected. Intending to remain on the eastern side of the Delaware, he announced to the Congress, while his army was crossing that stream, his intention "to pursue the enemy and try to beat up their quarters;" and he directed McDougall and Maxwell to collect troops at Morristown, as a place of refuge in case he should need one.

The low condition of the military chest would not allow Washington to pay the bounties agreed to be given, at the appointed time, and the commander-in-chief wrote to Robert Morris, the great financier of the Revolutionary period, for an immediate supply of hard money. The Congress had just resolved to issue bills to the amount of five million dollars immediately, but the credit of that body was then very low, even John Dickenson refusing to take the Continental money. The credit of Robert Morris was high, and confidence in him was unbounded. The sum asked for was large, and the financier was perplexed with doubts of his ability to obtain it. In a despondent mood he left his counting-room at a late hour, musing, as he walked in the street, on the subject of the requisition, when he met a wealthy member of the Society of Friends, who, at that time, were generally of the Tory faith in politics. To this Friend, Morris made known his wants. "Robert, what security canst thou give?" asked the Quaker. "My note and my honor," Morris replied. "Thou shalt have it," the Friend answered, and the next day Morris wrote to Washington: "I was up early this morning to dispatch a supply of fifty thousand dollars to your Excellency." Washington, in acknowledging its receipt, wrote that he had engaged a number of the eastern troops to stay six weeks beyond their term of enlistment, upon giving a bounty of ten dollars. "This, I know," wrote Washington, "is a most extravagant price when compared with the time of service;" but he thought it "no time to stand upon trifles."

The main army of Americans, about five thousand strong, were encamped on the south side of the Assanpink Creek at Trenton, when, toward evening on the 2nd of January (1777), Cornwallis approached from Princeton with a superior force of British regulars. They had engaged in a series of skirmishes on the way, and followed the Americans, who had attacked them, to the margin of the Assanpink. After trying to pass the guarded fords of that stream, they halted and lighted fires; and Cornwallis rested that night with the full assurance that he would make an easy conquest of the republican army the next day. "I will catch the fox in the morning," said the Earl to Sir William Erskine, who urged him to make an attack that night.

Washington's army were now in a very critical situation. A council of war was held, when it was decided to withdraw stealthily, at midnight, take a circuitous route to Princeton, gain the rear of the British and beat up their quarters there, and then fall upon their stores at New Brunswick. But the ground, on account of a thaw, was too soft to allow an easy transit for their forty pieces of cannon. This gave Washington much anxiety. While the council was in session, the wind turned to the northwest, the temperature suddenly fell, and by midnight the ground was frozen as hard as a pavement. Along the front of the American camp, fires had been lighted, and the British supposed the republicans were slumbering. Great was their surprise, multiplication and alarm, when, at dawn, they discovered that the American camp-fires were still burning but the army had departed, none knew whither. All was silent and dreary on the south side of the Assanpink, when suddenly there came upon the keen wintry air, from the direction of Princeton, the low booming of cannon. Although it was a cold winter's morning, Cornwallis thought the sound was the rumbling of distant thunder. The quicker all of Erskine decided that it was the noise of artillery, and exclaimed: "To arms, general! Washington has outgeneralled us. Let us fly to the rescue at Princeton!"

The American army, after sending their baggage to Burlington, had marched from Trenton at one o'clock in the morning of the 3d, leaving patrols to make their accustomed rounds and men to keep the camp-fires blazing until near the dawn, when they hurried after the retreating army. By a circuitous march the troops reached the neighborhood of Princeton below sunrise. Crossing Stony Brook, the main army wheeled to the right to have a back road to Princeton, while General Mercer, with about three hundred and fifty men, was sent to break down another bridge that spanned the stream. Two regiments of Colonel Mawhood's brigade had just started to join Cornwallis at Trenton, and the one in advance, led by the colonel in person, accompanied by three companies of dragoons, first discovered Mercer. The two parties, whose numbers were about equal, tried to gain a vantage ground upon an eminence near. Each had two field-pieces; and a sharp engagement was begun by Mawhood by attacking Mercer with his cannon. The firing was returned with spirit by Captain Neal with his two pieces, while Mercer's riflemen sent deadly volleys from behind a hedge fence. They were soon furiously attacked with British bayonets, and fled in disorder, the enemy pursuing, until, on the brow of a hill, they discovered the American regulars and Pennsylvania militia, under Washington, marching to the support of Mercer. In trying to rally the troops, Colonel Haslet of Delaware, and Captains Neal and Fleming, were killed, and General Mercer, whose horse had been disabled under him, was knocked down by a British clubbed musket, mortally wounded and left for dead.

Just at that moment Washington appeared, checked the flight of the fugitives, and intercepted the march of the other British regiment. He was assisted by the fire of Moulder's artillery placed in battery. When Mawhood saw Washington riding from column to column and bringing order out of confusion, he halted, and, drawing up his artillery, charged and attempted in vain to seize Moulder's guns. The Pennsylvania militia, who were first in line, began to waver at this onset, when Washington, to encourage them and set an example for all his troops, rode to the forefront of danger. For a moment he was hidden by the smoke of the musketry on both sides, and a shiver of dread lest he was slain, ran through the army; when he appeared, unhurt, a shout of joy rent the air. At that moment Colonel Hitchcock came up with a fresh force, and Hand's riflemen were turning the British left, when Mawhood ordered a retreat. His troops (the Seventieth regiment) field across the snow-covered fields and over the fences, up Stony Brook, leaving two brass field-pieces behind them. The Fifty-fifth regiment, which had attempted to reinforce them, were pressed back by the New England troops under Stark, Poor, Patterson, Reed and others, and were joined in their flight toward New Brunswick by the Fortieth, who had not taken much part in the action. A portion of a British regiment remained in the strong, stone-built Nassau Hall of the College at Princeton, which had been used for barracks. Washington brought cannon to bear upon the building, and the troops within soon surrendered. One of the cannon-balls entered a window and passed through the head of a portrait of George the Second in a frame that hung on the wall of the Prayer-room. A full-length portrait of Washington by Peale, now occupies that frame.

In this short but sharp battle, the British loss in killed, wounded and prisoners, was about four hundred and thirty. That of the Americans was light, excepting in officers. Colonels Haslet and Potter, Major Morris and Captains Shippen, Fleming and Neal, were slain. General Mercer was taken to a house near by, where he was tenderly nursed by a Quaker maiden and a colored woman at the house of Thomas Clarke. There he died nine days afterward in the arms of Major George Lewis, a nephew of Washington.





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