The British had put together an impressive stream of victories in the New York campaign. They had successfully defeated the Continental Army at the Battle of Long Island, Battle of White Plains and Battle of Fort Washington. After a skilful assault on Fort Washington the Continental Army’s morale was at an all-time low and confidence in General George Washington was shaky. The Americans were on the run.
General William Howe began to prepare his men for winter but sent out Lieutenant General Cornwallis to pursue Washington. Cornwallis pursued the American Army across New Jersey, but failed to capture him when they crossed the Delaware. Once it was decided that the British would no longer pursue Washington due to winter, Cornwallis began to prepare for winter quarters. He positioned his men in strategic locations across New Jersey. This would place Colonel Johann Rahl, commander of the Hessians, in control of Trenton. While stationed here Commander Cornwallis ordered his subordinate commanders to keep an eye out for Washington and the Continental Army. Unfortunately Colonel Rahl would ignore many of the reports not only from his own messengers but from deserters in the Continental Army.
General George Washington and the Americans had been soundly defeated in New York and now were retreating through New Jersey. The state of the Army was bleak. Morale was at an all-time low, men were deserting or dying of sickness, the army was not well-funded and there was a movement in the Congress to replace Washington with General Charles Lee.
Regardless, Washington did not have time for self-pity, instead he pressed forward. He was able to successfully retreat his army across the Delaware and destroy any and all ways of crossing. This allowed the reeling Americans to catch their breath while the British began to prepare for winter. Washington was losing men by the hundreds and many of the enlistments were running up at the end of the year. With morale low and confidence in him gone he decided to go on the offensive which resulted in the Battle of Trenton.
A much-needed boost to morale came in the form of Thomas Paine. A man who was now notorious for his pamphlet,
Common Sense now picked up his pen and wrote
The American Crisis. The pamphlet could not come at a better time as the Battle of Trenton was growing near and many were reluctant to fight. The pamphlet was published and read to the army on December 19, 1776.
The American plan hinged on the ability to make three simultaneous strikes. General John Cadwalader would launch an attack against the British garrison at Bordentown, New Jersey, to block off reinforcements from the south. This attack was nothing more than a Red Herring. General James Ewing would take 700 militia across the river at Trenton Ferry, control the bridge over the Assunpink Creek. This would hold the British at bay and not allow them to escape. The primary assault force of about 2,400 men would cross the river north of Trenton and split into two groups. This first was under General Nathanael Greene and the second was under General Sullivan. They would launch an attack before dawn. Greene would attack the Hessians from the north while Sullivan would attack Colonel Rahl from the south. Once the attack was successful then the Americans would advance to Princeton.
The Crossing and March towards Trenton
Benjamin Rush came to liven the spirits of General Washington. While he was there, he saw a note Washington had written, saying, “Victory or Death”. What he did not realize is that those words were the secret missions password. Each soldier was given 60 rounds of ammunition, and three days of food rations. By the time the army reached the shores of the Delaware they were already behind schedule. The weather began to become an issue as rain turned to snow and snow turned to sleet. Each change in temperature slowed the army even more. Still, John Glover pushed forward and began the crossing of the Delaware. The men went across in Durham boats, while the horses and artillery went across on large ferries.
The 14th Continental Regiment of John Glover occupied the boats. While none of the men died nor did they lose any artillery in the crossing, there were multiple incidents where the men and artillery fell overboard. Due to multiple setbacks the march would not begin until 4:00 am.
As the men marched towards Trenton, Washington could be seen on his horse encouraging the men. They continued to move towards Trenton until they were met by 50 armed men. This alarmed the men until it was learned that the men in front of them were in fact American guerilla fighters. They had just raided a Hessian outpost and had no idea of the Battle of Trenton. When General Washington saw this he shouted at Adam Stephen, the leader of the fighters,
You sir! You Sir, may have ruined all my plans by having them put on their guard. In reality Colonel Rahl believed that was the attack that he had heard about and retired for the night after hearing the news. Adam Stephens and his men may have actually helped Washington’s cause.
The Battle Begins
Once upon Trenton the battle began quickly. Washington rode ahead of his men and led an assault on a Hessian outpost on the north-end of the city. The Hessians organized quickly, but not quickly enough. The Americans lined up and fired three volleys to the Hessians one volley. Washington ordered Edward Hand’s Pennsylvania Riflemen to guard the road that led to Princeton. The Hessians manning the outpost quickly realized that this was much more than a raiding party and begun an organized retreat. The Hessians retreated successfully, but the Battle of Trenton had finally begun.
The southern column and General Sullivan entered Trenton by the abandoned river road and blocked the only crossing over the Assunpink Creek and effectively blocked a possible Hessian exit. Sullivan patiently waited for Greene’s men to drive the Hessians out of the north post. Once that was accomplished he moved forward with his part of the Battle of Trenton. The pushed forward and came into contact with 50 Jagers. The Hessian Jagers tried to mount an attack but were quickly overwhelmed by the incoming Americans. The lined up and exchanged one volley and quickly retreated to the garrison. 20 British Dragoons would also flee the scene. As Greene and Sullivan’s columns pushed into the town, Washington moved to high ground north of King and Queens streets to see the action. At this point the American artillery from the other side of the Delaware River began to thunder and would devastate the Hessian positions.
The alarm was sounded and three hessian regiments formed lines to repel the attack. The Rahl regiment would form on lower King Street along with another regiment, while another regiment formed at the lower end of Queen Street. Rahl was awoke and quickly learned the Americans were on the offensive and the Hessians were disorganized. Rahl ordered his regiment to form up at the lower end of King Street, another regiment to prepare for an advance up Queen Street, and another regiment to stand by as a reserve for his advance up King Street.
While the Hessians would try to muster a comeback the Battle of Trenton was already decided. The American cannons stationed on two main streets began to fire.tried to quickly from up his regiment and move forward, but they were quickly blown away by Americans that were firing from houses. Rahl was able to get a three-pound gun into action, but was again devastated by American cannons which killed many of the Hessians manning the gun. By the time the Americans had captured the cannon on King Street, the Ralls unit was obliterated. The Hessians continued to try to fight on Queen Street but were overwhelmed. The fight was quick, lethal and now over.
The Hessians would suffer 22 fatalities, 83 serious injuries and 896 captured.
While there are many opinions of the effects of the Battle of Trenton, most believe that it was one of the turning points in the American Revolutionary War. Washington had managed to defeat the Hessians and give legitimacy to the American cause. Also, Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis began to ignite the population again.
Some say that the Battle of Trenton had minimal effect and that tactically it meant little. Most notably historian David Hackett Fischer argues in his book Washington’s Crossing that Trenton’s impact was little and that Thomas Paine and other small victories across New Jersey is what raised morale across the colonies.