Battle of Trenton

Washington, after facing his foe, General Howe, at every step, was finally forced by superior numbers to cross the Delaware, on which he destroyed or secured every boat for a distance of seventy miles, to prevent the enemy from following. Howe reached Trenton on the 8th of December, just in time to see the last of the Americans safely pass the river.

Meanwhile, General Lee, who had been left in command on the Hudson, delayed his march to Washington's aid, despite the urgency of the latter, and, while carelessly passing the night at a distance from his force, was taken prisoner by some British dragoons. "No hope remained to the United States but in Washington. His retreat of ninety miles through the Jerseys, protracted for eighteen or nineteen days, in winter, often in sight and within cannon-shot of his enemies, his rear pulling down bridges and their van building them up, had for its purpose to effect delay till midwinter and impassable roads should offer their protection. The actors, looking back upon the crowded disasters which fell on them, hardly knew by what springs of animation they had been sustained."

This retreat and pursuit threw the inhabitants of the then seat of government into the greatest dismay. There were British posts in New Jersey but little above Philadelphia, and ships of war were rumored to be in the bay. The inhabitants sent their wives and children, and portable valuables, from the city. The panic affected Congress, which body hastily voted to adjourn to Baltimore, their flight seriously injuring the public credit and causing a fall in the value of the currency. Putnam held the city, which he was charged to hold to the last extremity. General Howe, satisfied that the fight was thoroughly taken out of the American army, returned to his winter-quarters in New York, leaving Donop with two Hessian brigades and the Forty-Second Highlanders to hold the line from Trenton to Burlington.

European confidence in the success of the British was at its height. "Franklin's troops have been beaten by those of the King of England," wrote Voltaire: "alas! reason and liberty are ill received in this world." Rockingham, Lord North, Burke, and other statesmen of England considered the resistance of the colonists nearly at an end. In New York the young officers were preparing to amuse themselves with dramatic performances, while gambling served to fill the intervals between the frequent balls and parties. Cornwallis left Grant in command in New Jersey, and was about to embark for England, as he considered the fighting at an end. All was confidence on the part of the invaders, gloom and depression on that of the Americans.

Donop declared that Trenton should be protected by redoubts, but Rahl, who commanded that post, disdained the idea. There were rumors, indeed, that Washington was threatening Trenton, but no one believed them. "Let them come," said Rahl, valiantly: "what need of intrenchments? We will at them with the bayonet." He neglected all proper measures of security, and spent his time in carousing, while the men under his command made the most of their opportunities for plundering.

Yet he was not so secure as he imagined. Washington was less discouraged and less powerless than his enemies supposed. Perceiving that the forces of the enemy were scattered and careless, he resolved, on the 16th of December, to take advantage of the opportunity offered for a surprise. All the boats available were secured, and his forces, increased by fifteen hundred volunteers from Philadelphia, guarded all the crossing-places on the Delaware. While waiting for the proper time to put his scheme in execution, some reinforcements under Greene and Sullivan joined him. At length the chosen period arrived.

ON the twenty-fifth day of December, 1776, the regiments of Anspach, Knyphausen, and Rahl, with fifty chasseurs and twenty light dragoons, making a total effective force of not quite fifteen hundred and fifty men, constituted the garrison at Trenton. The command had six pieces of artillery, including two in front of Colonel Rahl's quarters; but, contrary to the previous advice of Colonel Donop, there were neither field-works nor defence of any kind before the ferry or at any of the approaches to the town. One such work on the summit, at the fork of King and Queen's Streets, and one on Front Street, would have seriously endangered the American movement, especially under the circumstances of severe weather, which almost disarmed the assailants. It is well known that rumors of an impending offensive return by Washington had reached Colonel Rahl, and that a small picket-guard had been stationed on the old Pennington road, half a mile beyond the head of King Street, and another was in position, equally advanced, upon the river road leading to the next upper, or McConkey's Ferry, past the houses of Rutherford and General Dickinson.

It was Christmas day, a holiday in great favor with the troops which composed the garrison. It is profitless for the author's purpose to enter into details of the manner in which that garrison observed that holiday and spent the night which closed its enjoyment. It is enough to state that military negligence was absolute, and that it cost the commander his life. That negligence lasted through the night, and prevailed up to eight o'clock in the morning. It appears that the usual morning parade routine had been observed, and the men had returned to their barracks. These barracks, now cleft by a street, were still standing in 1875, and showed that they afforded a good defensive position, if promptly occupied and firmly held. The disposition of the American army for the attack was eminently bold and judicious. Griffin was expected still to occupy the attention of Donop, as if the demonstrations across the river were but the faverish action of local militia. A small centre column, under General James Ewing, of Pennsylvania, whose brigade reported but five hundred and forty-seven rank and file for duty, was to cross just below Trenton, to occupy the bridge across the Assanpink, and thus sever communication with Donop's corps at Bordentown. Still farther down the river, as a constraint upon the possible movement of that corps to the support of Colonel Rahl, the right wing under Colonel John Cadwallader, not yet promoted, was ordered to cross at Bristol, below Bordentown, with view to a direct attack upon Donop from the south, and thus co-operate with the militia in that quarter. General Washington reserved for himself the conduct of the left wing, consisting of twentyfour hundred men, which was to cross nine miles above Trenton, at McConkey's Ferry. Learning that Maidenhead was almost without garrison, except a troop of dragoons, it was the purpose of the American commander also to include that sub-post within his raid.

It was also expected that General Putnam would cross from Philadelphia early on the twenty-sixth, with at least a thousand men. The plan embraced the entire deliverance of the left bank of the Delaware.

The right wing landed a portion of its troops, but, on account of the ice, could not land the artillery, and returned to Bristol. Cadwallader expressed his great regret in his report to Washington, remarking, "I imagine the badness of the night must have prevented you from passing over as you intended."

It was not until four o'clock that Cadwallader succeeded in regaining Bristol; and Moylan, who then started to join Washington, found the storm so violent that he abandoned his purpose, believing that that officer could not possibly effect a crossing. The centre column failed to effect a landing for the same reason.

The left wing of the army under Washington, accompanied by Greene and Sullivan as division commanders, formed evening parade under cover of the high ground just back of McConkey's Ferry, now known as Taylorville. It was designed to move as soon as darkness set in, so as to complete the crossing at midnight, and enter Trenton as early as five o'clock on the morning of the twenty-sixth.

It was such a night as cost Montgomery and Arnold their fearful experience under the rock of Quebec. It was cold, snowy, and tempestuous. A few days of milder weather had opened the ice; now it was again rapidly freezing, checking the current and skirting the shore.

The scanty protection of blankets was as nothing to protect men in such a conflict. There were young volunteers from Philadelphia in that command, going forth for the first time to study war. There were nearly ragged and shoeless veterans there, who had faced such storms, and the fiercer storms of war, before. Stark, of Breed's Hill, was there. Glover, the man of Marblehead, a hero of the Long Island retreat, and Webb and Scott, and William Washington and James Monroe, were there. Brain and courage, nerve and faith, were there. Washington's countersign of the twenty-third, "Victory or death," was in the inner chambers of many souls, guarding manhood, quickening conscience, and defying nature. This was all because the path of duty was so well defined. The order to embark and cross over had been given. It was short, and made no allusion to the swift current, the cold or snow. These were almost negative facts, circumstances of delay and discomfort, but could not set aside duty. Those men had been retreating, and had rested on the bank of the Delaware, almost hopeless of better times. They were now faced upon their late pursuers. The "man of retreats" and temporary positions was in his fighting mood, and men went with him, counting no impediments and sternly in earnest.

"As severe a night as I ever saw," wrote Thomas Rodney; "the frost was sharp, the current difficult to stem, the ice increasing, the wind high, and at eleven it began to snow."

The landing of the artillery was not effected until three o'clock, but the army did not march until four. Retreat could not be made without discovery, annoyance, and consequent disheartening of his troops, and, late as it was, the advance was ordered. The snow ceased, but sleet and hail came fiercely from the northeast, as the march began.

A mile and a quarter from the landing brought them to Bear Tavern, where they reached the direct river road to Trenton. Three miles and a half more brought them to Birmingham. Sullivan here notified Washington by a messenger that the men reported their "arms to be wet." "Tell your general," said Washington, "to use the bayonet and penetrate into the town. The town must be taken. I am resolved to take it."

Here the army divided. Sullivan's division moved at once, by the river road, towards Trenton, then only four and a half miles distant. Washington, with Greene, took direction to the left, crossed over to the old Scotch road, and entered the Pennington road one mile from town. This route was about equally distant with the other from the points aimed at by the respective divisions. Washington's division, as he says, "arrived at the enemy's advanced post exactly at eight o'clock; and three minutes after, I found from the fire on the lower road that that division had also got up." The pickets on both sides behaved well, but were quickly swept away by the force which already hastened to its achievement.

Washington moved directly to the junction of King and Queen Streets. The flying pickets had already given the alarm, and the Hessians were beginning to rally within sight, as he rode in advance.

Under his direction Colonel Knox placed Forrest's battery of six guns in position so as to command both streets, which there diverged at a very acute angle,--Queen Street running southward to the Assanpink, and King Street inclining east of south, to the crossing of Second and Front Streets, by which Sullivan must approach. Colonel Rahl occupied the large frame house of Stacy Potts, near where Perry Street joins King Street. He promptly put himself at the head of a hastily-gathered detachment for the purpose of advancing up King Street to its summit, but Captain Forrest's battery of six guns had already opened fire. The regiment of Knyphausen attempted to form in open ground between Queen Street and the Assanpink, while a third detachment, completely demoralized, moved rapidly towards the Princeton road to escape in that direction. This last detachment was met by Colonel Hand's rifle battalion, which had been deployed to Washington's left, as a guard upon that possible line of retreat, as well as to watch the approaches from Princeton. Scott's and Lawson's Virginia battalions had been thrown still farther to the left, thus completely closing the gap between Hand and the Assanpink River.

While Rahl was gathering his own companies as rapidly as possible, the two guns at his head-quarters had been partially manned and were ready to deliver fire; when Captain Washington, with Lieutenant James Monroe and an active party, rushed upon the gunners and brought away the pieces before a sufficiently strong infantry support could be brought up for their protection. Rahl moved his companies as soon as formed, and joined Knyphausen's regiment, but almost immediately moved back for the cover which the buildings afforded.

Galloway, Stedman, and some other early writers have alleged that the Hessians returned to load wagons and carry off their accumulated plunder. It is difficult to regard such statements as other than traditional fables. Individuals may have tried to save their effects, but there was very little time to spare for that business, and Colonel Rahl was too strict a soldier to have permitted it at such a moment.

Captain Forrest's guns swept the open ground as well as the streets, and the adjoining orchard was equally untenable, hopelessly exposing the men to a fire which could not be returned. Two of the guns which were afterwards taken seem to have been cut off from the reach of the Hessians when they were themselves drifted eastward from their magazine and barracks by the American control of both King and Queen Streets; and two guns with the Knyphausen regiment were of little service. General Sullivan's division entered the town through Front and Second Streets. Colonel Stark, who led the column, moved directly to the Assanpink bridge, to cut off retreat towards Bordentown, but the chasseurs, the light horse, and a considerable infantry force, at least two hundred men, had already crossed the bridge in retreat upon that post. St. Clair took possession of the foot of Queen Street, and as Stark swung round and moved up the Assanpink the Hessians were literally between two fires, while the additional enfilading fire upon the streets closed their left, and the Assanpink closed their right.

For a short time small parties of Hessians who had been unable to join their companies kept up a fruitless scattering fire from houses where they had taken refuge; but the fall of Colonel Rahl while urging his men to assault the summit where Washington controlled the action, and the advance of Sullivan's division, which shut up all avenues of escape to Bordentown, forced the Hessians out of the town to the open field and orchard, where the whole command surrendered.

The American casualties were two killed and three wounded, Captain Washington and Monroe being among the latter. Several were badly frozen,--in two instances resulting fatally. The Hessian casualties were given by General Howe as forty men killed and wounded, besides officers; and nine hundred and eighteen prisoners were taken, of whom thirty were officers. Subsequently, a lieutenant-colonel, a deputy adjutant-general, and scattering members of the Hessian corps were taken, making the total number of prisoners, as reported by Washington on the twenty-eighth of December, about one thousand. The trophies of war were six bronze guns, four sets of colors, over a thousand stand of arms, twelve drums, many blankets, and other garrison supplies. General Howe says, "This misfortune seems to have proceeded from Colonel Rahl's quitting the post and advancing to the attack, instead of defending the village." The fact is overlooked that Washington's position at the head of King and Queen Streets with artillery, which commanded both streets, afforded a very poor opportunity for the surprised Hessians. The more men they gathered in those narrow streets, the better it was for American artillery practice. Rahl followed the instincts of a soldier, and, as he had not the force to assault the enemy and dispossess them of their commanding positions, he sought ground where he could form his command and fight as he could get opportunity. The movement of Washington which threw Hand, Scott, and Lawson to the left, together with his superiority in artillery, and the pressure of Sullivan's division from the rear through Second Street, forced Colonel Rahl to his fate. His mistakes had been made before the alarm of battle recalled him to duty; and then he did all that time and Washington permitted. The disparity in casualties is accounted for by the facts stated. The American artillery had its play at will beyond musket-range and upon higher ground, with little chance for the Hessians to render fire in return. A few skilfully-handled guns determined the action. Washington on this occasion evinced the force of individual will applied, under extreme necessity, to a determining issue. The battle occupied less than one hour. Its fruit was like the grain of mustard-seed which developed a tree under whose branches a thousand might take shelter. He marched back to Newtown with prisoners of war, reaching head-quarters the same night; a new experience for the American army. This countermarch was attended with great hardships and suffering. The entire distance marched by the troops which left Newtown with Washington was nearly thirty miles, before they again reached their camp, and more than a thousand men were practically disabled for duty through frozen limbs and broken-down energies.

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 2)