1776, the first full year of the American Revolutionary War, began with General George Washington and the Continental Army breaking the ten month Siege of Boston and driving the British out. In April, suspecting that General William Howe, commander-in-chief of all British forces in America was headed for New York, Washington marched his somewhat undisciplined, fledgling army from Cambridge, Massachusetts to New York City. They occupied the largely loyalist city. In anticipation of an attack, the army set up batteries on the waterfront and a string of fortresses across the harbor at Brooklyn Heights on Long Island.
In July, an armada commanded by Admiral Lord Richard Howe arrived with 13,000 British and Hessians on board and dropped anchor off Staten Island. Born as illegitimate relations to King George III, the powerful Howe brothers let their troops recover from their long sea voyage before attacking the Continental position on Long Island late in August. After being badly outflanked, Washington’s army was able to escape to Manhattan under cover of fog at the oars of Colonel John Glover and his Marblehead Massachusetts mariners.
With the British in control of the East and Hudson Rivers, New York harbor and Long Island, Washington abandoned the city leaving behind a small force under General Israel Putnam and a regiment of artillery corps commanded by Henry Knox. Howe landed 10,000 troops on the eastern shore of New York Island and divided his army—some marched south to take the city (Putnam and Knox managed to escape). The rest of Howe’s army pursued the retreating Continental Army and defeated them at White Plains, New York.
Washington’s ragged, sick, and hungry army crossed the Hudson into New Jersey. Their last hope lay in the American forts that faced each other across the Hudson. Garrisoned with 2,500 troops, Fort Washington stood on a summit on the New York shore. Fort Lee, manned with 3,500 soldiers, rose on the palisades on the New Jersey shore. The forts fell to the British in mid-November, after which, General Howe set up a line of seven garrisons to hold the southern half of New Jersey. The smallest of these was at Trenton manned by fourteen hundred Hessians under Colonel Johann Rall.
Pursued by one of Howe’s best generals, the aggressive Lord Charles Cornwallis, the Continental Army retreated south through New Jersey headed for Trenton. The dispirited Patriots, many whose enlistments were to expire on December 1 and December 31 and had refused to re-sign, deserted by the hundreds reducing Washington’s army to a force of about 2,400 men.
General Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island reported to Washington, “Two brigades left us at Brunswick. It made no difference that the enemy is within two hours march and coming on.”
On December 1, despite being slowed by trees blocking the roads, destroyed bridges, and enemy sniper fire, Cornwallis’s exhausted army almost caught up with the Continental Army on the banks of the Raritan River at New Brunswick. He stopped in obedience to orders from General Howe to go no further.
When the Continental Army arrived near Trenton, they were faced with crossing the icy Delaware River into Pennsylvania. Washington dispatched Colonel John Glover, to bring over every small boat he could find. The army safely gathered on the Pennsylvania shore.
Washington realized that the Patriots needed a victory to instill new hope after the failed effort to keep the British from occupying New York. He knew he must strike a military blow to the enemy before his army melted away and he was determined to hit the Hessian garrison at Trenton. He and his general officers also understood that the element of surprise was the only way that the army stood a chance of defeating the highly trained Hessian mercenaries. They would attack on Christmas night.
On Christmas Day, the weather turned ominous. Glover was in charge of the boats: big, flat-bottomed, high-sided Durham boats normally used to transport pig iron on the Delaware from the Durham Iron Works near Philadelphia. Colonel Henry Knox (who would later become the army’s artillery general) organized and directed the crossing. A demanding part of the task would be transporting the eighteen field cannon and fifty horses.
General John Cadwalader and Washington’s adjutant, Colonel Joseph Reed, were to lead a force of Pennsylvania militia and Rhode Island troops and cross downriver at Bristol. General James Ewing was directed to take Pennsylvania militiamen, attack directly across the river at Trenton, and hold the wooden bridge over Assunpink Creek at the foot of Queen Street, which the enemy might use as an escape route.
Drums rolled in camp, and starting at two in the afternoon the army began moving out for the river, each man carrying sixty rounds of ammunition and food enough for three days. The password was “Victory.” The answer was “Or Death.” It was nearly dark and raining when the troops reached McConkey’s Ferry where the boats waited. Glover’s men used oars and poles to get the big boats across.
At 11:00 p.m., a full-blown northeaster struck, slowing the crossing as sheets of ice formed that grew thicker as they bounced on the windblown waves in the Delaware River. The ice was hindering the sweep oars and scraping against the sides of the boats.
It was 3:00 a.m., three hours behind schedule, when the last of the troops, horses, and cannon were across. The march south from McConkey’s Ferry turned into a march of misery. The storm worsened with cold, driving rain, sleet, snow, and violent hail. The troops trudged on in the most profound silence. Many wearing worn-out shoes or cloth tied around their feet left a trail of blood. Knox’s artillery led the way. There was little light to see by. A few men carried lanterns, and torches were mounted on some of the cannon so the army wouldn’t be seen moving through the forested terrain. Men and horses kept slipping and skidding in the dark.
Washington rode out into the lines and said, “For God’s sake, keep with your officers.”
The entire twenty-four hundred on the march kept together for five miles until they reached the crossroads at Birmingham where the army divided. General John Sullivan’s column, which included Glover’s brigade, kept to the right on the River Road. Generals Lord Alexander Stirling and Hugh Mercer, commanded by Nathanael Greene, veered off to the left with Washington along the Pennington Road. The distance to Trenton was four miles either way.
Sullivan sent a courier to tell Washington that the weather was wetting his men’s gunpowder.
“Tell General Sullivan to use the bayonet,” Washington responded. “I am resolved to take Trenton.”
Yet some of the plan stalled. General Ewing called off his attack on Trenton because of ice in the river. General Cadwalader’s and Joseph Reed’s diversionary landing to the south had been aborted due to ice.
The Patriot columns reached their position outside Trenton at about the same time: an hour after daylight. Most of the residents had fled the village. The Hessians were quartered in the abandoned houses and the stone barracks. Harassed by rebel patrols that kept coming over the Delaware, Colonel Johann Rall established outposts on Pennington Road outside of town. The Patriots attacked the outposts just after eight o’clock in the morning.
Hessian Major Jacob von Braam heard the sudden sound of a musket volley. He and his disoriented company ran out into the blinding snow and tried to get into formation. The Americans surged forward in a confusion of musket fire and smoke.
Major von Braam saw his men were still unable to get into formation. “Retreat!” he ordered.
The Hessians fell back into town, as they had been trained to do when retreat was the only choice. They shouted in warning, “Der Fiend! Heraus! Heraus!” (“The enemy! Turn out! Turn out!”) In town, Hessians rushed out of their houses and barracks into the streets. Drums beat and officers shouted orders.
Henry Knox’s artillery was positioned at the head of King and Queen Streets. General Mercer and his troops moved down a hill on the west side of town and swept into the village through alleys and house lots. The Hessians retreated into the side streets as generals Sullivan’s, Stirling’s, and Greene’s men came at them with fixed bayonets.
When the Hessians rolled out a field gun midway on King Street, American artillery Lieutenant James Monroe rushed forward, seized it, and turned it on them. James lit the touchhole. The cannon belched a tongue of fire and black smoke when the ball exploded from the muzzle, killing two Hessians. Colonel Rall, who was rousted out of bed, was on horseback and in command in the midst of the battle. He ordered a charge, “All who are my grenadiers, forward!” A musket ball hit Rall in the chest and he fell from his horse.
Some of Rall’s confused men retreated to the cover of an orchard. The Patriots steadily advanced on the Hessians. Knox shouted orders to move the artillery units toward the orchards. Mortally wounded, Rall’s men picked him up and carried him to safety where he would die later that day. The Hessians in the orchard, finding themselves surrounded, lay down their arms and surrendered. Within forty-five minutes, twenty-one Hessians were killed, ninety were wounded, and nine hundred were taken prisoner. Five hundred managed to escape across Assunpink Creek at the foot of Queen Street.
Four Americans were wounded. Only two Americans died on the march. Washington exclaimed to his officers, “This is a glorious day for our country!”
The Continental Army was faced with the arduous journey from Trenton back to the Delaware River through snow and ice with the Hessian prisoners. The troops were uplifted, however, because they had done something glorious at last.
From Baltimore, addressing Washington on behalf of the Continental Congress, John Hancock wrote, “It is all the more extraordinary given it had been achieved by men broken by fatigue and ill fortune.”
The British naturally did not see it that way. William Howe cancelled Lord Cornwallis’s furlough request and ordered him to return to Trenton. To General James Grant, overall commander of the New Jersey outposts, Howe wrote:
Trenton was an unlucky cursed affair quite beyond comprehension. I have dispatched General Cornwallis to New Jersey with an army of 8,000 men to smash the remnants of the filthy rebel army and retake Trenton.
The Americans crossed the Delaware River back into Pennsylvania. On December 30, Washington took a force of five thousand men back to Trenton and encamped at Assunpink Creek Bridge. General John Cadwalader had finally crossed the Delaware River at Bristol leaving Washington’s army divided and vulnerable.
Washington rode among his ranks, who had not been paid in months and whose enlistments were up, and issued a plea for them to stay. “My brave fellows, you have done all that I have asked you to do and more than could be reasonably expected. But your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear.”
At Assunpink Creek Bridge, Knox’s artillery crews trundled cannon in place to defend the bridge as Cornwallis’s army attacked. The two sides exchanged heavy cannon fire. The Americans volleyed furiously at Cornwallis’s advancing troops. The bridge over Assunpink Creek was soon drenched in blood and the creek began to run thick with it as the bodies of the dead splashed into the water. Surrounded by the fog of smoke and confusion, Cornwallis called for his troops to fall back three times.
When night fell, Charles Cornwallis declared, “We’ve got the old fox safe now. We’ll go over and bag him in the morning.”
But in the morning, to Cornwallis’s mortification, Washington and his army had stolen away in the dark. Nathanael Greene’s army veered off to the left and John Sullivan’s army veered off to the right of Washington’s main army. On January 3, Greene’s vanguard clashed with Cornwallis’s army outside of Princeton. The British were taken totally unaware. Although General Hugh Mercer was unmercifully bayoneted and died nine days later, the Americans prevailed at Princeton, taking three hundred and fifty prisoners. Cornwallis’s rear guard retreated rather than risk anymore of their numbers.
The British viewed Trenton and Princeton as minor American victories, but with these victories, now known as “The Ten Crucial Days”, the Americans believed that they could win the war. A century later, British historian Sir George Otto Trevelyan wrote in a study of the American Revolution, when talking about the impact of the victories at Trenton and Princeton, that “It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world.”
As General Nathanael Greene wrote to Thomas Paine, his aide and author of the popular Patriot pamphlet Common Sense, “The two late actions at Trenton and Princeton have put a very different face upon affairs.”
This post is a part of the Historical Writers Forum 2021 Holidays blog hop!
The Crossing of the Delaware is an event in the second novel in my award-winning historical fantasy series of the American Revolution: Angels and Patriots Book Two, The Cause of 1776. Click the cover to see more information on this book and all the books in the series.
O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. The Men Who Lost American New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013. Print.
Puls, Mark. Henry Knox Visionary General of the American Revolution New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.
McCullough, David. 1776 New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Print.
Schecter, Barnet. The Battle For New York New York: Walker & Company, 2002. Print.
Thayer, Theodore. Nathanael Greene Strategist Of The American Revolution New York: Twayne Publishers, 1960. Print.
Featured Image: Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, The Metropolitan Museum of Art