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.