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Battle of Trenton
Part of the American Revolutionary War
Battle of Trenton by Charles McBarron.jpg
Battle of Trenton, H. Charles McBarron Jr.
Date December 26, 1776 (1776-12-26)
Location
Result Decisive American victory
Belligerents
 United States Hesse-Kassel
Commanders and leaders
George Washington
Nathanael Greene
John Sullivan
Johann Rall 
Strength
2,400 1,500
Casualties and losses
2 dead from exposure
5 wounded
22 killed
83 wounded
800–900 captured

The Battle of Trenton was a small but crucial American Revolutionary War battle that took place on the morning of December 26, 1776, in Trenton, New Jersey. After General George Washington crossed the Delaware River north of Trenton the previous night, Washington led the main body of the Continental Army against Hessian soldiers stationed at Trenton. After a short battle, almost two-thirds of the Hessian force was captured with few losses to the Americans.

Before the Battle of Trenton, the Continental Army had suffered several defeats in New York and had been forced to retreat through New Jersey to Pennsylvania. Morale (confidence during hard times) in the army was low. In an effort to end the year on a positive note, George Washington—Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army—designed a plan to cross the Delaware River on the night of December 25–26 and surround the Hessians' garrison.

Because the river was icy and the weather was severe, the crossing was dangerous. Two groups of soldiers were unable to cross the river, leaving Washington with only 2,400 men under his command in the attack. This was 3,000 fewer than he had planned to have. The army marched 9 miles (14.5 km) south to Trenton. The Hessians, thinking they were safe from the Americans' army, had lowered their guard and had no long-distance outposts or patrols. Washington's forces caught them off guard and after a short but fierce resistance, most of the Hessians surrendered and were captured, with just over one-third escaping across Assunpink Creek.

Even though the battle did not involve a large number of soldiers, the victory inspired patriots and sympathizers of the newly formed United States. Because so many were questioning whether or not the revolution would be successful just a week earlier, the army had seemed like it was about to collapse. The dramatic victory inspired soldiers to serve longer and attracted new recruits to the ranks.

Background

In early December 1776, American morale was extremely low. The Americans had been pushed out of New York by the British and their Hessian auxiliaries (a group of soldiers who are serving a nation at war but are not part of the regular army). The Continental Army had been forced to retreat across New Jersey. Ninety percent of the Continental Army soldiers who had served at Long Island were gone. Men had deserted, feeling that independence was no longer possible. Even Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, had expressed some doubts, writing to his cousin in Virginia, "I think the game is pretty near up."

At the time, a small town in New Jersey called Trenton was occupied by four regiments of Hessian soldiers (numbering about 1,400 men) commanded by Colonel Johann Rall. Washington's army contained 2,400 men, with infantry divisions commanded by Major Generals Nathanael Greene and John Sullivan and artillery under the direction of Brigadier General Henry Knox.

Prelude

Intelligence

George Washington had placed a spy named John Honeyman, posing as a Tory, in Trenton. Honeyman had served with Major General James Wolfe in Quebec at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham on September 13, 1759, and had no trouble being able to pose as a Tory. Honeyman was a butcher and bartender, who traded with the British and Hessians. This helped him to gather intelligence (collect facts about an opposing army) and to convince the Hessians that the Continental Army was in such a low state of morale that they would not attack Trenton. Shortly before Christmas, Honeyman arranged to be captured by the Continental Army. They, of course, had orders to bring him to Washington unharmed. After being questioned by Washington, he was imprisoned in a hut to be tried as a Tory in the morning, but a small fire broke out nearby, enabling him to "escape." This plan allowed Honeyman to give Washington any news he had without the Hessians suspecting anything.

U.S. Plan

Battle-of-Trenton
The U.S. plan of attack under Washington

The U.S. plan depended on being able to attack at the same time from three different directions. General John Cadwalader would start an attack against the British garrison at Bordentown, New Jersey, to block off reinforcements from the south and to create a diversion. General James Ewing would take 700 militia across the river at Trenton Ferry, seize the bridge over the Assunpink Creek, and prevent enemy troops from escaping. The main-attack force of 2,400 men would cross the river 9 mi (14 km) north of Trenton and split into two groups. Generals Greene and Sullivan would begin attacking before dawn. Sullivan would attack the town from the south and Greene from the north. Depending on the success of the operation, the Americans would possibly follow up with separate attacks on Princeton and New Brunswick.

During the week before the battle, U.S. advance parties began to ambush enemy cavalry patrols, capturing despatch riders, and attacking Hessian guards. The Hessian commander knew that this was a dangerous time and wanted to help his men realize this as well. He sent 100 infantry and an artillery squad to protect and deliver a letter to the British commander at Princeton.

Washington ordered Ewing and his Pennsylvania militia to try to get information on Hessian movements and technology. Ewing instead made three successful raids across the river. On December 17 and 18, 1776, they attacked an outpost of jägers, and on the 21st, they set fire to several houses. Washington put constant watches on all possible crossings near the Continental Army encampment on the Delaware River because he believed William Howe would attack from the north on Philadelphia if the river froze over.

On December 20, 1776, about 2,000 troops led by General Sullivan arrived in Washington's camp. They had been under the command of Charles Lee and had been moving slowly through northern New Jersey when Lee was captured. That same day, an additional 800 troops arrived from Fort Ticonderoga under the command of Horatio Gates.

Hessian Moves

Battle-trenton-sketch-rochambeau
The Hessian Sketch of the Battle of Trenton

On December 14, 1776, the Hessians arrived in Trenton to set up their winter quarters. At the time, Trenton was a small town with about 100 houses and two main streets: King (now Warren) Street and Queen (now Broad) Street. Carl von Donop, Rall's superior, had marched south to Mount Holly on December 22 to deal with the resistance in New Jersey, and had fought with some New Jersey militia there on December 23.

Donop, who despised Rall, did not want to give command of Trenton to him. Rall was known to be loud and unfamiliar with the English language, but he was also a 36-year soldier with a great deal of battle experience. His request for reinforcements had been turned down by British commander General James Grant, who thought the American rebels were poor soldiers. Despite Rall's experience, the Hessians at Trenton did not admire their commander.

Trenton did not have city walls or fortifications, which was normal for U.S. settlements. Some Hessian officers suggested to Rall that it would be wise to fortify the town, and two of his engineers advised that a redoubt be built at the upper end of town and fortifications be built along the river. The engineers even drew up the plans, but Rall disagreed with them. When Rall was again urged to fortify the town, he replied, "Let them come...We will go at them with the bayonet."

As Christmas approached, Loyalists came to Trenton to report the Americans were planning action. U.S. deserters told the Hessians that the Americans were preparing rations for an trip across the river. Rall publicly dismissed such talk as nonsense, but privately in letters to his superiors, he said he was worried about an imminent attack. He wrote to Donop that he was "liable to be attacked at any moment." Rall said that Trenton was "indefensible" and asked that British troops establish a garrison in Maidenhead (now Lawrenceville). Because it was close to Trenton, this garrison would have helped defend the roads from Americans. His request was denied. As the Americans disrupted Hessian supply lines, the officers started to share Rall's fears. One wrote, "We have not slept one night in peace since we came to this place." On December 22, 1776, a spy reported to Grant that Washington had called a council of war; Grant told Rall to "be on your guard."

The main Hessian force of 1,500 men was divided into three regiments led by Knyphausen, Lossberg, and Rall. That night, they did not send out any patrols because of the severe weather.

Crossing and March

1819 Passage OfThe Delaware byThomasSully MFABoston
The Passage of the Delaware, by Thomas Sully, 1819 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Each soldier carried 60 rounds of ammunition (bullets) and three days of rations for the battle. When the army arrived at the shores of the Delaware River, they were already behind schedule. Clouds had begun to form above them and it began to rain. As the air's temperature dropped, the rain changed to sleet, and then to snow. The Americans started to cross the river, with John Glover in command. The men traveled across in Durham boats, while the horses and artillery went across on large ferries. During the crossing, several men fell overboard, including Colonel John Haslet. Haslet was quickly pulled out of the water. No one died during the crossing, and all the artillery pieces made it over in good condition.

Washingtons Crossing Park Cannon
Cannon at Washington's Crossing Historic Park

Washington realized it would be impossible to launch a pre-dawn attack because the terrible weather conditions delayed the landings in New Jersey until 3:00 am; the plan was that they were supposed to be completed by 12:00 am. Another setback occurred for the Americans, as generals Cadwalader and Ewing were unable to join the attack because of the weather conditions.

At 4:00 am, the soldiers began to march toward Trenton. Along the way, several civilians joined as volunteers and led as guides (such as John Mott) because of their knowledge of the land. After marching 1.5 miles (2.4 km) through winding roads into the wind, they reached Bear Tavern, where they turned south onto Bear Tavern Road. The ground was slippery, but it was level, making it easier for the horses and artillery. They began to make better time. They soon reached Jacobs Creek, where, with difficulty, the Americans made it across. The two groups stayed together until they reached Birmingham (now West Trenton), where they split apart. Greene’s force headed east to approach Trenton by the Scotch and Pennington Roads and Sullivan headed southwest to approach by way of River Road. Soon afterward, they reached the house of Benjamin Moore, where the family offered food and drink to Washington. At this point, the first signs of daylight began to appear. Many of the troops did not have boots, so they were forced to wear rags around their feet. Some of the men's feet bled, turning the snow to a dark red. Two men died on the march.

As they marched, Washington rode up and down the line, encouraging the men to continue. General Sullivan sent a courier to tell Washington that the weather was wetting his men's gunpowder. Washington replied, "Tell General Sullivan to use the bayonet. I am resolved to take Trenton."

About 2 miles (3 km) outside the town, the main companies were startled by the sudden appearance of armed men, but they were American. Led by Adam Stephen, the men had not known about the plan to attack Trenton and had attacked a Hessian outpost. Washington feared the Hessians would have been put on guard, and shouted at Stephen, "You, sir! You, sir, may have ruined all my plans by having them put on their guard!" Despite this, Washington ordered the march to continue to Trenton. The attack on the Hessian outpost ended up working in Washington's favor. In the event, Rall thought the first raid was the attack which Grant had warned him about, and that there would be no more action that day.

Battle

U.S. Attack

Battle of Trenton.Dean.USMA.edu.history
The Battle of Trenton, December 26, 1776

At 8:00 am, Washington led an assault on a Hessian outpost at a copper shop on Pennington Road about one mile northwest of Trenton. As the Hessian commander of the outpost, Lieutenant Andreas Wiederholdt, left the shop, an American fired at him but missed. Wiederholdt immediately shouted, "Der Feind!" (The Enemy!) and other Hessians came out. The Americans fired three volleys, and the Hessians returned one of their own. Wiederholdt soon realized that this was more than just a raiding party. He saw other Hessians retreating from the outpost, and he led his men to retreat as well. On the high ground at the north end of Trenton, Wiederholdt's men were joined by a duty company from the Lossberg Regiment. They fought with the Americans, retreating slowly, keeping up the continuous fire, and using houses for cover. Once in Trenton, they gained cover fire from other Hessian guard companies on the outskirts of the town. Another Hessian guard company nearer to the Delaware River rushed east to their aid. This left River Road into Trenton open. Washington ordered the escape route to Princeton be cut off, sending infantry in battle formation to block it, while artillery formed at the head of King and Queen Streets.

Tactical formation column
A column formation

Leading the southern U.S. column, General Sullivan entered Trenton by the abandoned River Road and blocked the only crossing over the Assunpink Creek to cut off the Hessian escape. Sullivan briefly paused his advance to make sure Greene's division had time to drive the Hessians from their outposts in the north. Soon after, Sullivan's men continued their advance, attacking the Hermitage, home of Philemon Dickinson, where 50 jägers under the command of Lieutenant von Grothausen were stationed. Lieutenant von Grothausen brought 12 of his jägers into action against the advanced guard but had only pushed forward a few hundred yards when he saw a column of Americans advancing to the Hermitage. Pulling back to the Hessian barracks, he was joined by the rest of the jägers. After the exchange of one volley, they turned and ran, some trying to swim across the creek, while others escaped over the bridge which had not yet been cut off. The 20 British dragoons also fled. As Greene and Sullivan's columns pushed into the town, Washington moved to the high ground north of King and Queen Streets so that he could see the action and direct his troops. By this time, U.S. artillery from the other side of the Delaware River had come into action, destroying the Hessian positions.

When the alarm sounded, the three Hessian regiments who were stationed at Trenton began to prepare for battle. Lieutenant Piel, Rall's brigade assistant, woke his commander, who found that the rebels had taken the "V" of the main streets of the town. This is where the engineers had recommended building a redoubt. Rall ordered his regiment to form up at the lower end of King Street, the Lossberg regiment to prepare for an advance up Queen Street, and the Knyphausen regiment to stand by as a reserve for Rall's advance up King Street. On both sides of town, the U.S. cannons and soldiers fired too much for the Hessian soldiers to be able to fight back. The Hessian soldiers fell back and fled to a field. Many were lost to grapeshot and musket fire. Sullivan led a column of men to block off the escape of the troops across the creek.

Hessian Resistance Collapses

The Hessians in the field attempted to reorganize and make one last attempt to retake the town so they could make a breakout. Rall decided to attack the U.S. flank (the sides or back of the formation of soldiers) on the heights north of the town. Rall yelled "Forward! Advance! Advance!" and the Hessians began to move, with the brigade's band playing fifes, bugles, and drums to help the Hessians' spirit.

Washington, still on high ground, saw the Hessians approaching the U.S. flank. He moved his troops to assume battle formation against the enemy. The two Hessian regiments began marching toward King Street but were caught in U.S. fire that came at them from three directions. Some Americans had taken up positions inside houses. Some civilians joined the fight against the Hessians. Despite this, the Hessians continued to push, recapturing their cannon. At the head of King Street, the U.S. Brigadier General Knox saw the Hessians had retaken the cannon and ordered his troops to go recapture it. Six men ran and, after a short struggle, seized the cannon, turning it on the Hessians. With most of the Hessians unable to fire their guns, the attack stalled. The Hessians' formations broke, and they began to scatter. Washington led his troops down from high ground while yelling, "March on, my brave fellows, after me!" Most of the Hessians retreated into an orchard with the Americans in close pursuit. Quickly surrounded, the Hessians were offered terms of surrender, to which they agreed.

Although ordered to join Rall, the remains of the Knyphausen regiment mistakenly marched in the opposite direction. They tried to escape across the bridge but found it had been taken. The Americans quickly swept in, defeating a Hessian attempt to break through their lines. Surrounded by Sullivan's men, the regiment surrendered, just minutes after the rest of the brigade.

Casualties and Capture

Henry-revolutionary-war
The engraving George Washington at the Battle of Trenton by the Illman Brothers in 1870

The Hessian forces lost 22 who were killed in action; 83 were wounded and 896 were captured–including the wounded. The Americans suffered only two deaths during the march and five wounded from battle, including a near-fatal shoulder wound to the future U.S. president James Monroe. Other losses experienced by the Patriots from exhaustion, exposure, and illness in the following days may have raised their losses above those of the Hessians.

Rall was mortally wounded in the battle and died later that night at his headquarters. All four Hessian colonels in Trenton were killed in the battle. The Lossberg regiment was effectively removed from the British forces. Parts of the Knyphausen regiment escaped to the south, but Sullivan captured about 200 additional men, along with the regiment's cannon, supplies, approximately 1,000 arms, and much-needed ammunition. The Americans also captured the Hessians' entire store of provisions—tons of flour, dried and salted meats, ale, and other liquors, as well as shoes, boots, clothing, and bedding—things that were as much needed by the ragtag Continental forces as weapons and horses. The captured Hessians were sent to Philadelphia and later Lancaster. In 1777 they were moved to Virginia.

Among those captured by the Patriots was Christian Strenge, later to become a schoolmaster and fraktur artist in Pennsylvania.

Hessian Drinking

An officer in Washington's staff wrote before the battle, "They make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt the Hessians will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance to-night. They will be sleepy to-morrow morning." Popular history commonly portrays the Hessians as drunk from Christmas celebrations. However, historian David Hackett Fischer quotes Patriot John Greenwood, who fought in the battle and supervised Hessians afterward. Greenwood wrote, "I am certain not a drop of liquor was drunk during the whole night, nor, as I could see, even a piece of bread eaten." Military historian Edward G. Lengel wrote, "The Germans were dazed and tired but there is no truth to the legend claiming that they were helplessly drunk."

Aftermath

After the Hessians' surrender, Washington is reported to have shaken the hand of a young officer and said, "This is a glorious day for our country." On December 28, General Washington interviewed Lieutenant (later Colonel) Andreas Wiederhold, who detailed the failures of Rall's preparation. Washington soon learned, however, that Cadwalader and Ewing had been unable to complete their crossing, leaving his worn-out army of 2,400 men isolated. Washington realized he did not yet have the forces to attack Princeton and New Brunswick.

By noon, Washington's force had moved back across the Delaware into Pennsylvania, taking their prisoners and captured supplies with them. Washington would follow up his success a week later in the Battle of the Assunpink Creek and the Battle of Princeton.

Legacy

The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton December 26 1776
The painting The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776 by John Trumbull

This small but crucial battle, as with the later Battle of Cowpens, had an effect that was much greater than its size. The Patriot victory at Trenton gave the Continental Congress new confidence, as it proved that colonial forces could defeat regulars. It also increased re-enlistments in the Continental Army forces. By defeating a European army, the colonials lessened the fear which the Hessians had caused earlier that year after the fighting in New York. Howe was stunned that the Patriots so easily surprised and overwhelmed the Hessian garrison. Colonial support for the rebellion was further gained significantly at this time by writings of Thomas Paine and additional successful actions by the New Jersey Militia.

Two important U.S. officers were wounded while leading the charge down King Street: William Washington, cousin of General Washington, and Lieutenant James Monroe, the future President of the United States. Monroe was carried from the field bleeding badly after he was struck in the left shoulder by a musket ball, which severed an artery. Doctor John Riker clamped the artery, preventing him from bleeding to death.

The Trenton Battle Monument, standing at "Five Points" in Trenton, endures as a tribute to this U.S. victory. The crossing of the Delaware River and battle are reenacted by local enthusiasts every year (unless the weather is too severe on the river).

Eight current Army National Guard units (101st Eng Bn, 103rd Eng Bn, A/1-104th Cav, 111th Inf, 125th QM Co, 175th Inf, 181st Inf and 198th Sig Bn) and one currently-active Regular Army Artillery battalion (1–5th FA) originated with U.S. units that participated in the Battle of Trenton. There are thirty current units of the U.S. Army with colonial roots.

Painting

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, MMA-NYC, 1851
Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), by Emanuel Leutze

In 1851, German-American artist Emanuel Leutze painted the second of three paintings depicting Washington crossing the Deleware. At the time of its first exhibition, it caused a sensation in Europe and the United States. Leutze hoped it would bring revolutionary feelings in Germany. After six months in Germany, it was shipped to New York City where the New-York Mirror newspaper praised it with the words, "the grandest, most majestic, and most effective painting ever exhibited in America." It is currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is "one of the most famous American paintings." The painting is the centerpiece of the collections in the American Wing. It is still one of the most recognizable paintings at the Metropolitan. It is central to the canon of American historical art images, remaining just as popular now as when it was first exhibited.

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