First and Second Battle of Trenton – History


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

The Mood

Things were bad, very bad indeed! The Declaration of Independence was only 6 months old and no one had the privilege that we have today, of knowing where its ideals would lead. Some colonists were stalwart Patriots, some were stalwart Loyalists, but most, being more practical, would prefer to be on the side that won.

The last several months did not bode well for General George Washington’s Continental Army. They had lost several battles at Long Island, New York, and Fort Washington. They had also lost thousands of men, and tons of supplies that the remaining troops desperately needed. They were being pursued by a better trained, better equipped, and better fed force of 12,000 across New Jersey. If the morale of the citizen was low, that of the solders was desperate. Hourly desertions, and men leaving camp as soon as their enlistments were up. As was the case, on December 1st while in retreat. The militia of the flying Camps of Maryland and New Jersey demanded their discharge as their enlistments were up, and despite the pleas of their officers, refused to extend their enlistments and left for home. Even in the Continental Congress, some were losing faith in the abilities of General Washington.

December 11th, General Washington and his remaining men retreated across the Delaware River taking every boat they could find with them or destroying those they could not, and were using this body of water and the winter weather to shield them from British and Hessian forces.

Not only was the morale among his men desperately low, but the citizen farmer and merchant no longer had faith in the continental monies and credit. They were refusing to re-supply the Army. It was looking like a lost cause. Washington admitted in a letter to his brother that “the game was about up.”

The British certainly thought so as they settled in to their winter encampments throughout New Jersey. Yet even worse for Washington, was that enlistments “of the better part of our Armey” would be finished at the end of the month. As a sergeant in Washington’s camp wrote “the soldiers worn down from fatigue and privations, had their hearts fixed on home and the comforts of the domestic circle, and it was hard to forgo the anticipated pleasures of the society of our dearest friends”. These were indeed desperate times.

The Plan

Desperate times require desperate action. A plan for just such an action was being devised and prepared for.

On December 22nd 1776, Washington had 4,707 rank and file troops fit for duty. He had a staff meeting and decided to attack. The Hessians in Trenton were in an exposed position, and it was hoped that officers might heartily celebrate Christmas on the night of December 25th. Washington decided on a predawn attack on the 26th, while the troops and officers were tired and hopefully some suffering from hangovers. It is, however, a misconception that the Hessians were expected to be drunk.

Washington’s plan was to cross the Delaware at three points above and below Trenton. The first force commanded by Lt Col Cadwallader, with a Rhode Island regiment, some Pennsylvanians, Delaware militia, and two cannon, would cross several miles south of Trenton. A second force of militia, under Brigadier General James Ewing,would cross just south of the town at the Trenton ferry. The third force commanded by General Washington with Majors General Nathaniel Green and John Sullivan, would cross the river above Trenton and attack the Hessian Garrison in the town.

The Crossing

Washington ordered the troops ferried across just after dark, but a storm arose. First snow, then freezing rain, then more snow with hail. Washington’s aid Col John Fitzgerald wrote at 6 P.M. as the troops started to cross “It is fearfully cold and raw and a snow storm is setting in. The wind northeast and beats into the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for those who have no shoes. Some of them have tied only rags about their feet, others are barefoot, but I have not heard a man complain.”

Col Glover’s regiment from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who were primarily sailors, manned the boats at McKonkey’s Ferry. Despite the storm and the ice flows in the river, they managed to get 2400 men, from Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, their horses, and 18 cannon across. Unbeknownst to Washington the two other units were unable to cross, or unable to land on the other shore, due to the storm and ice.

Washington’s troops, delayed by the storm, did not complete the crossing until 4 A.M., well behind schedule for a predawn attack. Still determined they marched south to Trenton in two columns, General Sullivan along the river, General Greene along the Pennington road. Washington commanding overall traveled with Greene. In the dark predawn hours and severe winter storm, the troops advanced south, some leaving blood on the trail from unshod feet. By 6 A.M. Gen. Sullivan sent word that the men’s muskets will not fire due to exposure to the storm all night. Washington sent word back, - rely on the bayonet “I am resolved to take Trenton.”

The Opposition

Trenton was occupied by three regiments of Hessian soldiers commanded by Colonel Johann Rall for a total of, about 1400 men and a troop of the British 16th Light Dragoons.

Some Good Luck

Trenton had two main and nearly parallel streets, King street (now Warren) and Queen Street (now Broad). Rall was ordered to build a redoubt at the head of these two streets on a rise overlooking the town, (where the Battle Monument stands today) by his superior, Count Carl von Donop, whose own brigade was stationed in Bordentown to the south. An officer of the Hessian engineers, Captain Pauli, was sent to Trenton with those orders, but was sent back by Rall, without building the redoubt. When Rall was warned that the Patriots might attack, he replied, “Let them come. We need no trenches. We will go at them with the bayonet”

Von Donop had marched south to Mount Holly on the 22nd to deal with the South Jersey Rising, and clashed with the New Jersey militia there on the 23rd. At the time of the attack he was not in Bordentown, so could not send reinforcements.

On the night before the attack, Rall was at dinner when he was brought information that the Americans were approaching. He ignored the message, which was found in his pocket after his death. In Trenton, Hessian Major Dechow decided not to send out the normal predawn patrol, including 2 cannon, to sweep the area for signs of the enemy, because of the severe storm. Though the storm caused extreme misery for the colonial troops, it allowed them to approach mostly undetected.

The Battle

A small guard post was set up by the Hessians in Pennington, about nine miles north of Trenton. When the squad guarding this post saw a large American force on the march, Lieutenant Wiederhold, in command of this Pennington picket made an organized retreat. At 8 A.M., just outside of Trenton, Washington’s party inquires of a man chopping wood, as to, where the Hessians are. He points to a nearby house, and the Hessians pore out and begin to open fire. The Battle of Trenton is on.

Once in Trenton the picket began to receive support from other Hessian guard companies on the outskirts of the town. The British Light Dragoons left the town at the onset of the fighting to bring word of the battle to the British forces. Another guard company nearer to the river rushed east to aid, leaving the River road into Trenton open.

General John Sullivan, leading the other American column entered Trenton by this now unguarded rout and moved quickly to the crossing over the Assunpink Creek, which was the only way out of Trenton to the south, in hopes of cutting off the Hessian escape.

There were 35 Hessian Jaegers under the command of Lieutenant Grothausen, stationed at the barracks (now The Old Barracks History Museum) on the northern river edge of the town. When they saw the vanguard of Sullivan’s force charging into Trenton, they ran over the Assunpink Bridge and left Trenton.

By the time Lieutenant Biel, Rall’s brigade adjutant, finally awakened his commander, Washington’s men had taken the high ground at the “V” of King and Queen Streets overlooking the town at the site where Rall was supposed to have built his redoubt. The northern American column had quickly taken this position, placed cannon on the rise that controls the two main streets, and with these denied the Hessians a chance to form for battle in the streets. The remaining men in the column and the other column near the river, moved to surround the Hessians.

Fast moving American units, charging in and moving to cover, constantly disrupted the Hessians. The Hessian officers tried to rally and form their troops, but the Americans continued to prevent their formations. All routs in or out of the town were blocked.

The Hessians try to get some of their own cannon into action but these are captured before they can do any damage. It is here that Captain William Washington and (future President) Lieutenant James Monroe, were wounded in the battle, the only American officer casualties in the battle. The Americans moved rapidly and aggressively, closing in on the Hessians, breaking up their formations, and blocking all exits.

Rall led his men and the men of the Lossberg regiment, under Lt Col Scheffer, out to a field beside the town and attempts to reorganize and retake the town. The Americans, by this time, occupied the majority of the buildings and, from cover, fired into the ranks of Rall’s regiment. The regiment broke and routed back through the ranks of the Lossberg regiment, causing more chaos. When they try to get into the streets of the town again, the American troops, joined by some civilians form the town fire at them from buildings, from behind trees and fences, causing confusion, while the American cannon continue to break up any attempted formations.

The two regiments were surrounded in an orchard south of the town (near the Friends Meeting House). From the smoke came the drums and standards playing the parley. Rall was slumped over in his saddle, he was mortally wounded.

The third regiment of Hessians, under the command of Lt Col von Dechow south of the town, trying to get across the creek to head towards Bordentown are delayed by trying to bring their cannon through a boggy area and suddenly find themselves surrounded. This regiment surrenders just minutes before the rest of the brigades. The fighting lasted only 90 minutes.

The Immediate Result

Although two men died of exposure on the march in and more the next night, the American forces had suffered only a handful of wounded, while the Hessians suffered 114 causalities with at least 23 dead, as well as 913 captured. Rall was mortally wounded and died the same day. All four Hessian Colonels in Trenton were killed in the battle. The Lossberg regiment was effectively removed from the British forces. About 600 Hessians, most of which had been stationed on the south side of the creek, escaped, but the American Army captured 1000 arms, several cannon, ammunition, and stores.

After the battle, Washington had the captured men and stores shipped across the river, than followed with the army across to Pennsylvania. The next day 1000 men reported ill.

Von Donop, commanding at Burlington, learned of the battle from fleeing Hessians. Their estimates of the size of the force with Washington were exaggerated. Rumors of attacks pending on them flew thick, based on partial spy reports of various plans of Washington. The British forces all across the colony were worried. Von Donop moved first to Allentown NJ then to Princeton, to resist attacks that turned out to be just rumors.

The larger Result

This battle gave the Continental Congress a new confidence because it proved American forces could defeat regulars. It also increased the re-enlistment in the Continental Army. The Americans had now proven themselves against a disciplined European army and the fear the Hessians and British inspired earlier that year in New York was broken. The American effort across the colonies was now re-galvanized. Howe was stunned that a strong German contingent could be surprised in such a manner and put up so little resistance. Washington’s constant problem had been to maintain the enthusiasm of his army for the war, particularly with the system of one-year recruitment and Trenton provided a much needed encouragement. Washington had turned the tide from desperate waiting for the ax to fall, to aggressive victor, chasing the British forces from the Delaware River and putting them on the defensive for a few days. After gathering information and their wits, Lord Cornwallis moved to attack, leading to the 2nd Battle of Trenton and the Decisive American victory at the Battle of Princeton.


The Second Battle of Trenton


The Situation

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 fare so well and most were captured along with their supplies. However, fearing an attack by the Main British army, Washington moved his men and the much needed 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, reported that he was crossing near Burlington. 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 through 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. Washington, at the Pennsylvania camp, received word that General Cadwalader had crossed the Delaware and was in Trenton. Cadwalader entreated Washington to join him in advancing on the British who were in a panic.

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 they join Cadwalader in Trenton.

Getting Ready

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. However, instead of fortifying Trenton he put his lines just south of the town on the south bank of the Assunpink Creek. That put his men on a steep bluff over a rapidly running “little river” of icy cold water, with only one bridge to defend in the area.

The Most Important Reenlistment of the War

However, there was still the problem of the expiring enlistments. No matter how strong the fortification you still have to have men to hold it. A $10.00 bonus was offered to anyone who would reenlist, and it was here, that General Washington made an impassioned plea to a regiment whose enlistments were about to expire. But no one stepped forward to stay. As a sergeant in Washington’s camp wrote “the soldiers worn down from fatigue and privations, had their hearts fixed on home and comforts of the domestic circle, and it is hard to forego the anticipated pleasures of the society of our dearest friends.” 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 would end the fight.

The Delaying Tactic

Washington had troops place an outer defensive line halfway between Trenton and Princeton, with the goal of delaying the British advance. On January 2nd Cornwallis marched toward Trenton with about 6000 men. Out in front of his army, he placed a skirmish line of Hessian Jaegers and British light infantry.

As the British came within range, the American riflemen opened fire under the command of Colonel Edward Hand. The American riflemen took cover in the woods, ravines and even in bends in the road. Each time the British would line up in a battle line, the riflemen would fall back and fire from cover. After Hand was forced to abandon the American position along Five Mile Run, he took up a new position, a heavily wooded area on the south bank of Shabbakonk Creek. Hand deployed his men in the trees so well protected from view, that the British could not see them as they crossed the bridge over the stream. The riflemen fired at them from point- blank range. The intense fire confused the British into thinking that the entire American army was there and they formed into battle lines, bringing up their cannon. The British searched the woods for a half an hour looking for the Americans, but Hand had already withdrawn to a new position.

The Battle Begins

By three in the afternoon, the first British had reached a ravine known as Stockton Hollow, about a half a mile from Trenton, where the Americans were forming another line of defense. Washington wanted to hold the British off until nightfall, when darkness would prevent the British from attacking his defenses on the south side of the Assunpink Creek. The British, with artillery in position, attacked Hand's new position, and he gave way, slowly falling back into Trenton. Along the way, Hand had his troops fire from behind houses. As Hand's troops came to the Assunpink creek, the Hessians charged at them with bayonets fixed, causing chaos among the Americans. Washington, seeing the chaos, rode out through the crowd of men crossing the bridge, and shouted that Hand's rear guard pull back and regroup under the cover of the American artillery. As the British prepared to attack the American defenses, cannon and musket fire was exchanged between the opposing sides.

The British moved across the bridge, advancing in solid columns, and the Americans all fired together. The British fell back, but only for a moment. The British charged the bridge again, but were driven back by cannon fire. The British charged one final time, but the Americans fired canister shot this time, and the British lines were raked with fire. One soldier said, "The bridge looked red as blood, with their killed and wounded and their red coats.” Some of the British tried to wade across the creek, but in their heavy gear, they were “fish in a barrel” in the rushing cold water.

The Light Fades and the Battle So

When Cornwallis arrived with the main army, dusk was falling in Trenton. He called a council of war as to whether or not he should continue to attack. Cornwallis' quartermaster general, William Erskine, urged Cornwallis to strike right away, saying "If Washington is the General I take him to be, his army will not be found there in the morning." However, James Grant disagreed, and argued that there was no way for the Americans to retreat, and that the British troops were worn out, it would be better for them to attack in the morning after they had rested. Cornwallis did not want to wait until morning, but he decided that it would be better than sending his troops out to attack in the dark. Cornwallis said, "We've got the old fox safe now. We'll go over and bag him in the morning."

Cornwallis then moved his army to a hill north of Trenton for the night. During the night, the American artillery, under the command of Henry Knox, occasionally fired shells into Trenton to keep the British on edge. Washington also called for a council of war. His men knew that there was a back road that would lead to Princeton, and his council of war agreed to make an attempt against the British garrison there . By 2 A.M. with wagon wheels covered in rags for silence, the army was on its way to Princeton.

Washington left behind 500 men and 2 cannon to keep the fires burning and to make noise with picks and shovels to make the British think they were digging in. By morning, these men too had evacuated, and when the British came to attack, all of the American troops were gone, and about to engage in the third victory in a row, at the Battle of Princeton. The strategy was a success. These three victories not only convinced the British commanders to abandon most of New Jersey, but also greatly revived faith in the cause, and saved the War for Independence, for the time being.