Battle of Princeton - Its place in History


Read about the history below, pens made from trees at the site can be found here .   

July 1776 Independence in America was declared and by December the revolution was largely thought lost and almost over.

The British thought so and most American colonists including General Washington believed the cause was very likely lost. The difficulties seemed insurmountable for the Americans.

First - General Washington’s army was neither an army, as we now or the British then would think of one, nor his. The men he commanded were a wholly unorganized conglomeration of groups recruited by the various separate colonies or regions for various amounts of time and under various terms and supplied little or not at all. These mostly untrained groups neither trusted nor liked each other much.

Second - most colonists did not support the idea of separation from the crown. Most were interested in being left alone as they had been, rather than being separated. Even those in favor of separation had little faith in the rebel fighters ability against a well-trained and supplied British army.

Third - The paper monies issued in the colonies was expected to become worthless when the British soon won the conflict, and so it became worthless. Merchants and farmers would not trade for it. Re-supply for Washington’s men was desperately difficult.

Forth - France a long time rival of England and possible financial ally of the American revolution was having trouble seeing the current conflict amounting to more than an inconvenient irritation to its powerful adversary.

Fifth - Though Washington’s siege in Boston had forced the British to depart from that city, the American forces had lost battle after battle in New York when facing the British main forces head on. The last couple of months had seen crushing losses of men and material, and morale was excruciatingly low.

Retreating across the New Jerseys, Washington and what was left of his men, came to the eastern shore of the Delaware River in December. Hoping to use the river as a shield between his troops and the advancing British army and to delay as long as possible the expected British advance to Philadelphia, Washington ordered all of his men to cross the river and to take or destroy all boats on the New Jersey shore. Though safe for the moment, without a miracle, the end still seemed at hand for the revolutionary cause. Washington and his war counsel had to come up with a daring if desperate plan. Another defeat would most likely end all chance of success of independence. A battle won however, might rekindle the spark of hope. The plan they devised was to surprise and attack a small British outpost of Hessian solders garrisoned at Trenton. They believed that if three separate forces secretly crossed the river above and below the outpost that the enemy could be caught unprepared in a pincer movement, and defeated. Allowing the Americans to capture much needed supplies and rekindle some faith in the cause. The attack had to happen soon, for Washington was about to lose “the better part” of his troops at the end of their enlistment on January 1st. Christmas night was decided upon for the crossing. The troops were readied to move to the shores after dark and make the crossing by cover of night. The ice in the river was treacherous that night and it delayed Washington’s crossing seriously, but unbeknownst to him, his was the only force that was able to make the crossing at all. The advance on Trenton was difficult and delayed, but advance they did, and though they arrived at Trenton much later than Washington had hoped they still found the Hessians unprepared. Though unsupported by the arrival of the other two expected forces, Washington’s men were not only victorious but won the victory without the loss of life of a single American soldier in the battle. The Hessians did not fair so well and most were captured along with their supplies. However fearing an attack by the Main British army, Washington moved his men and captured supplies back over the river to Pennsylvania.

On December 27th General Cadwalader, who had been unable to land on the Jersey shore on the 26th due to the ice on that shore, reported that he was crossing near Burlington, as he was being reinforced by militia who had been encouraged by news of the victory at Trenton. He thought that Washington’s troops were still in Trenton. He moved in to the now empty Burlington and then to Bordentown, reporting that the citizens were hastily removing the red rags nailed to their doors as symbols of loyalty to the crown. He entreated Washington to join him in advancing on the British who had left their posts in a panic.

When general Washington arrived at the Pennsylvania camp he received word that General Cadwalader had crossed the Delaware and was in Trenton. Washington realized that ordering Cadwalader to retreat from Trenton would deflate the recent victory, but his men at the moment, were in no condition to advance again. By the 30th his men were rested enough to re-cross the river and join Cadwalader in Trenton. By this time the British under Cornwallis had arrived at Princeton with 8,000 troops. Washington knew he could expect an attack by Cornwallis very shortly and was determined to make a fight of it. But instead of fortifying Trenton he put his lines just south of the town on the south bank of the Assunpink Creek.

General Washington than made an impassioned plea to a regiment whose enlistments were about to expire. No one stepped forward to stay. Once again Washington spoke

“My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do and more than could reasonably be expected. But your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay only one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country which you probably never can do under any other circumstances. The present is emphatically the crisis which is to decide our destiny.”

Again the drums rolled, calling for men to step forwarded, and finally about half of the men stepped out to reenlist. Other officers spoke to other regiments with the same success. If Washington could maintain the initiative, he might save the Revolution, but a loss in battle would have the opposite effect.

On January 2nd Cornwallis marches toward Trenton with about 6000 men, leaving 3 regiments of the 4th Brigade at Princeton as rear guard under Lt. Col. Charles Mawhood. At Maidenhead (now Lawrenceville) the British clash with American units who began a fighting withdrawal, ambushing and delaying the British. It was 4 P.M. when the British finally get to Trenton. They found Washington entrenched, though outnumbered and outclassed. Washington had but 5,200 men, many unreliable militia. But Washington has deployed his troops on the south side of the Assunpink creek, a strong position, and repels several attempts of the British to take the bridge. As night falls, his troops tired, Cornwallis decides to wait for morning to continue the attack, when he can “bag the fox” as he says. His officers want to attack now, fearful of Washington’s known ability to retreat and escape. Washington does not disappoint them. Leaving a few men to loudly attend the fires and make battle preparation noises, the main body of his forces crept silently away. First south than east and finely back north his army trudges through the darkness on back roads, tracks and overgrown trails around the British main force. Luckily the days mud has frozen in the night and could be traveled by man, beast, and heavy cannon.


In Princeton, at dawn the next morning, Lt. Col. Charles Mawhood with a mounted unit and two British regiments, began to follow in the wake of Cornwallis to Trenton. . The 40th regiment remain in Princeton. At the same time Washington’s army approached the town on a different back road. About a mile out of Princeton, the British spot what looks to be a small American patrol, the only visible portion of the much larger army moving in on Princeton. Washington is also alerted to what looks like a small British patrol. He dispatches Brigadier General Hugh Mercer and 320 men to investigate and stop them. Mercer and Mawhood see each other and still think they have encountered a small apposing force. They both run for the high ground about mid-way between the two roads. Mercer is surprised to run into Mawhood’s men deployed in line. Both sides exchange fire, and Mercer’s horse is shot from under him. Mawhood’s regiment charges with bayonet. Only 20 or so of Mercer’s men have muskets and bayonets, most being slow reloading riflemen whose guns cannot use bayonets. Getting to his feet, Mercer was quickly surrounded by British troops who mistook him for George Washington and ordered him to surrender. Outnumbered, the Scots born Mercer drew his saber and began an unequal contest. He was finally beaten to the ground, then bayoneted repeatedly and left for dead. His troops fallback, but Cadwalader’s 600 men of Pennsylvania militia arrive. They fire and then start to fall back, even though they greatly outnumber the 17th. Mawhood and the 17th regiment put up a terrific defense, still remembered and honored in Great Britain. Legend has it that a beaten Mercer, did not want to leave his men and the battle, so Mercer, and a few of his men moved about 500 feet to an oak tree and he was given a place to rest against the oak’s trunk, while those who remained with him stood their ground. The tree became known as “The Mercer Oak.” Washington and his officers rally the newly arriving troops and Washington himself leads them towards the British. Washington is only 30 yards from the British lines when he orders his men to fire. Both sides do fire, and Washington disappears in a cloud of smoke and his officers fear the worst. When the smoke clears, Washington is unharmed but Mawhood’s regulars have broken. Washington orders a charge. The British Troops retreat, some scattering into the woods, others turning for Cornwallis or New Brunswick. Washington leads the pursuit, calling “It’s a fine fox hunt, boys!” When the British dragoons make a stand to defend the fleeing troops, Washington calls off the pursuit. He is mindful that Cornwallis could move on his rear soon, and he had to keep his army together.

In Princeton the 40th and 55th regiments prepared to defend the town. General Sullivan had his wing of the army moving to sweep into town from the other end, and the British sent out a platoon to outflank them. Sullivan in turn sent out 2 regiments to counter this flanking maneuver, forcing the British back. Now Sullivan’s men met an equal number of British deployed behind a dike in the area of Frog Hollow. Sullivan has his cannon brought up, which sends shot into the dike and drives the British into the area of Nassau Hall, the main college building at the time. The British take shelter in and around Nassau Hall. The Americans bring up their cannon, and take two shots at the building. The first bounces off, but the second enters the main room where the troops are holding, and allegedly decapitates a picture of King George 2nd on the wall. The British in Nassau Hall surrender.

Washington puts a militia unit to work destroying a bridge over the Stony Brook, just south of the battlefield to delay Cornwallis. He orders others to load as many captured supplies as can be quickly done, then orders his troops to Kingston, a small town north of Princeton. There had been a hopeful possibility that the Americans could, with the main body of the British force to the south, march quickly to now lightly guarded New Brunswick and maybe even capture the 70,000 pound sterling British war treasury, but it is realized that the troops are too exhausted to do so safely. The American army moves north along the Millstone River to Somerset Court House (now Millstone) where the troops rest.

Cornwallis is awakened to the news that the Americans are gone, and thought to have retreated south to Bordentown, but soon reports of the fighting at Princeton are received. Cornwallis marches on Princeton. His vanguard arrives as the militia at the bridge are finishing their work. The militia make a short stand, forcing the British to stop and form for battle and giving Washington and his troops more time to get away. Cornwallis rests his troops for a few hours, then marches to defend New Brunswick.

On the 4th after deciding not to attack New Brunswick, Washington continued north, and later that day arrived in Pluckemin. Protected by the Watchung Mountains to his east and with Morristown units behind him, Washington was now safe. He would soon move the army into winter quarters at Morristown.

The British, who lost 86 killed and wounded at Princeton and 200 captured, were now ordered by Howe to abandon NJ, except for a line from Perth Amboy to New Brunswick. Washington, who had about 40 killed and wounded at Princeton, had now driven the British from most of New Jersey, in what is called the Ten Crucial Days, December 25th to January 3rd 1776. More importantly, the Revolution now had a chance, morale was improved, and the people once again believed they could stand and face the enemy troops. The British outrages in the invasion of New Jersey had turned many previously on the fence, to the side of the rebels, Paper money was acceptable once more, and the rebel government and army found support again. Washington had learned to fight not the main British army, but its outposts, forcing the British to give up any effort to control the hinterlands of America. The French Government, encouraged by the British defeats, released supplies to the American war effort. In England, the royal government started losing more support for the war. The immediate crisis was past, even if severe hardship and fighting were yet ahead, in a long and bitter struggle for freedom and independence.