5) Desperation and Daring

Trenton and Princeton

If Washington is the general I think him to be,
he will not be there tomorrow morning.

–General Erskine to Lord Cornwallis


With the British fleet settling into winter quarters in Newport, Rhode Island, Sir William Howe concluded that the season for active field operations was likewise at an end. A march on Philadelphia now would put his army at the end of a long line of supply stretching back to New York, and with winter drawing on would leave him doubly vulnerable. Thus, its operations closed, the army would stand down, satisfied with what it had won thus far: namely, Long Island, Manhattan, New York as far as Albany, a good harbor at Newport, and most of New Jersey. While he returned to the comforts of New York (and the arms of Mrs. Loring), Howe would string a “chain” of garrisons stretching across New Jersey to the banks of the Delaware River. These outposts were perhaps “rather too extensive,” he wrote Lord George Germain, but he did not fear for their security. The southernmost “posts of honor” would go to the Hessians: Colonel Count Karl von Donop went into quarters at Bordentown with 2,000 troops and Colonel Johann Rall with 1,500 were posted at Trenton. The Germans shared Howe’s confidence. After all, as one officer confided to his diary, with the capture of Charles Lee “We have got our hands on… the only rebel general we had to fear.”

As it happened, the remaining Rebel commander on the west bank of the Delaware was just then making a grim appraisal of his predicament. General Washington was as always short of the needful materiel of war, and his manpower shortage was reaching a crisis, as enlistments were due to expire on the last day of the year. Meanwhile, a panicky Congress had fled Philadelphia, bestowing on Washington broad dictatorial powers but failing to send him men, guns, food or forage. “No man… ever had a greater choice of difficulties,” he wrote his brother Jack, “and less means to extricate himself from them.” Throughout New Jersey, hundreds of Americans sought out Howe’s officers to sign their pledge to “remain in peaceable obedience to His Majesty.” Washington was momentarily angry, but he also understood. New Jersey was submitting to royal authority for the same reason that its militiamen had failed to turn out: the “want of an Army to look the Enemy in the Face.” In a decision born of desperate courage and cool-headed calculation, Washington now resolved to cross the river and fulfill that want. As he wrote to his Adjutant, Joseph Reed, “Christmas day, at night, one hour before day, is the time fixed for our attempt on Trenton…. necessity, dire necessity, will, nay must, justify my attack.” If this was a desperate measure, it was not entirely reckless. The Hessian position was indeed exposed and vulnerable. This Washington knew in part owing to one John Honeyman, a former British soldier turned spy for the American cause. In his travels back and forth between the American and Hessian camps, Honeyman provided Washington with precise descriptions of the enemy’s position right down to the picket posts, and also proved invaluable by nourishing Colonel Rall’s blithe and rather boozy self-confidence. The Rebels, he assured the colonel, were half-starved, half-frozen, and utterly demoralized.

Cold and hungry they were, but demoralized they were not. Some 2,400 men now marched in scouring sleet to McConkey’s Ferry, nine miles upriver from Trenton. Their way was “tinged here and there with blood from the feet of men who wore broken shoes,” an officer wrote, “but I have not heard a man complain.” It was full dark on Christmas night when they boarded the ungainly Durham boats–big grain barges really–to cross the river. John Glover’s Marbleheaders would carry Washington’s army over water once more–and on no calm August night either. Vast slabs of ice came growling down the river threatening to swamp boats overburdened with men, horses, and cannon. Indeed, Washington’s plan called for simultaneous crossings directly opposite Trenton and farther downstream at Bordentown. But the 700 troops opposite Trenton never crossed because their commander, Brigadier James Ewing, took one good hard look at the river and concluded that it was not possible. His command never left Pennsylvania. Farther downstream, Lieutenant Colonel Cadwalader did manage to get some of his 1,900 men to the east bank–but none of his cannon. Unwilling to engage the Hessians at Bordentown without artillery support, he simply recrossed the river,  returning to the west bank. Whatever was going to be accomplished this night would have to be accomplished by the little band with Washington. Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware is inaccurate in almost every detail, but it seems to many to capture the right spirit, a spirit of steely resolve.

It was four in the morning before the whole of Washington’s attack force was on the Jersey side and marching for Trenton with nine miles of icy roads still to travel. Five miles below the ferry Washington divided his force into two columns: John Sullivan (newly exchanged prisoner of war) would take one column down the River Road while Nathanael Greene (who had barely escaped capture himself at Fort Lee) would take a second column down the Pennington Road a few miles inland. And on they came in nearly perfect silence in the gale-driven sleet, covering the last stretch of road in what one soldier remembered as “a long trot.” Just before eight the two columns materialized out of the storm and began to converge on both ends of the village of Trenton. A half-mile out on the Pennington Road a Hessian picket gave the garrison its first warning: “Der Feind! Der Feind! Herous!” (The enemy! The enemy! Turn out!) Legend may have exaggerated the number of Christmas hangovers in the Hessian camp that morning, but certainly some were still half-stupefied from their celebrating. (Rall himself had been drinking and playing cards well into the night; indeed, a Bucks County Tory had sent him a dispatch warning of Washington’s approach at midnight, but Rall had simply stuffed it in his pocket unread and returned to his diversions.) Still, the garrison turned out quick enough. Their problem was not the lingering effects of Christmas rum, but the swiftness and skill of Washington’s attack. Greene’s men were driving on the village from the north while Sullivan’s command drove eastward from the River Road. Meanwhile, Henry Knox posted guns at the head of King and Queen Streets and began to rake the town from that quarter. Rall was sufficiently clear-headed to see the mortal danger here and tried to mount a bayonet attack up King Street. But Knox’s guns in front and General Hugh Mercer’s brigade on his left flank broke this charge up before it was well started. Nearly surrounded now and under fire from dozens of houses in the village, the Hessians fell back in desperation through an orchard off to the southeast. When Rall was tumbled from his horse by grapeshot, mortally wounded, most of his survivors surrendered. In an hour of fighting Washington’s army had killed or wounded more than a hundred Germans and taken nearly nine hundred prisoners. (Another three or four hundred were even then legging it across Assunpink Creek to Bordentown–over the bridge that Ewing was supposed to have barred.) Washington had won this smart little victory at the cost of four wounded. Indeed, flush with victory, he wanted to push north and strike at Princeton, but the failure of Cadwalader and Ewing to cross the river and the plain exhaustion of his own men made him reconsider. Instead, he would have to take his wet, weary men–with their prisoners and their spoils–back to Pennsylvania the way they came.


When Rall’s fugitives reached the Hessian camps at Bordentown with the astonishing news of the Trenton disaster, von Donop was willing to revise his estimate of Washington and his army. He abandoned his post on the river directly and fell back on Allentown to the northeast. Even General James Grant, who had once boasted that 5,000 redcoats could march the length of the continent, admitted that he “did not think that all the rebels in America would have taken that brigade prisoners.” Indeed, rebellion in America was on the rise. Inspired by “an Army to look the Enemy in the Face,” Pennsylvania and New Jersey militia were on the march now, crossing the river just south of Trenton and reporting to Washington that there was not a Hessian posted from Trenton to Burlington. With the militia outfits “to lend a hand,” Washington believed he could drive the enemy entirely from New Jersey. That ambition would depend in large part on whether he could keep his Continentals in line just a little longer, for after the Trenton fight most had just five days left to serve. He had his regiments drawn up and made a frank, passionate, and personal appeal to them, pleading for another six weeks of service. He did not have much to offer–brave words and a ten-dollar bonus. But stay they did, perhaps for no other reason than the fact that Washington was the sort of general who did not say “go there” but rather “follow me.” Right now he wanted them to follow him to Princeton, and on 30 December he crossed the river once again to Trenton and pushed his advance units up the Post Road as far as Five Mile Run.

Of course the British would have a say in this affair. When Howe in New York got wind of Rall’s disaster on the river, he straightaway canceled one leave, that of Lord Cornwallis, who was given a column of 8,000 redcoats and ordered to drive Washington into the river. Nor did Cornwallis drag his feet. On New Year’s Day he was in Princeton; the next day, after posting a garrison of 1,200 there to cover his communications with New Brunswick, he pushed on toward a collision with Washington on the Delaware. But passage down the Post Road to the river was not going to be a stroll in the park. There was steady skirmishing from Five Mile Creek all the way south to Trenton where the fighting was sharpest. The sun was sinking on a raw winter’s day before the British managed to clear the Americans from the village itself, only to find the whole of Washington’s army drawn snugly up in line on brushy hills east of Assunpink Creek. Still, Cornwallis liked his chances. He outnumbered and outgunned Washington’s army, and where could Washington go in any case? He could fight it out on this line, flee southward down the river, or try to cross to the west bank. With the British in close pursuit, each move invited destruction. Cornwallis’ quartermaster was less convinced. “If Washington is the general I think him to be,” he warned, “he will not be there tomorrow morning.” Not at all, Cornwallis sniffed, tomorrow will be time enough to “bag the fox.”

But if the fox was at bay for the moment, he did not intend to remain so. While Cornwallis waited for daylight to take up the business of his destruction, Washington swung his army around the British left and hiked hard for Princeton, striking the garrison there while Cornwallis sat on his hands at Trenton. It was hardly a textbook solution to his problem, for it would put his force between two enemy forces, but the risk he judged to be “unavoidable.” And, as in the Trenton raid, it was a calculated risk and not recklessness, for Washington would make shrewd use of both information and disinformation in this effort. Indeed, his spies had already mapped out for him a road beyond the British left. In truth, the Quaker Road was not much more than a frozen track, but it was three miles from Cornwallis’ position and ran due north from Sandtown to the Post Road and Princeton. (Throughout the contest no general used hard intelligence to better purpose than Washington, and he saw to it that his spies were paid in hard money. Washington’s regulars got their ten-dollar bonus in Continental paper; his spies got their wages in Spanish silver.) As for disinformation, Washington had a sound and simple plan for keeping the British comfortably before their fires while he struck a blow against their comrades to the north. He would leave behind a detachment of some four hundred men who were to keep their campfires burning all night long–several dozen hearty blazes giving assurance of the American presence. As further evidence that the Americans intended to fight it out on this line in the morning, the detachment would keep up a steady clinking and clanging of picks and shovels throughout the night. British sentries across the way were quite sure the Americans were entrenching on the far bank.

Those same sentries–and their commander–were sufficiently startled the following dawn to hear the distant rumble of gunfire off to the north. Pulling the bulk of his army out of line after midnight, Washington had driven them east and then north as hard as they could go through the frozen muck. At sunrise they were already across Stony Creek on the approaches to Princeton. Here Washington was to get a surprise himself. When he pushed General Hugh Mercer’s brigade forward to cut the Post Road to Princeton, he discovered that a column of redcoats was already on it. These were two regiments of the Princeton garrison under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood, marching to reinforce Cornwallis at Trenton. Mercer’s Continentals came out of the dripping woods and filed into line behind a rail fence, and Mawhood’s redcoats pitched into them without delay. Mercer’s brigade banged away with disciplined volleys, but, outnumbered two to one, their lines began to buckle. (Mercer, one of the most promising of Washington’s general officers, caught a musket ball here and died soon after.) Nor did the arrival of Cadwalader’s Pennsylvania militia help matters. These came forward manfully enough–until they saw the oncoming British bayonets and fell back through the woods. But by this time Washington himself, mounted on a big white horse, rode forward at the head of the main body of his Continentals. When the lines closed to just thirty paces, Washington ordered his men to “Halt and fire.” The lines were briefly balanced as the redcoats rattled away with volleys of their own. (One of Washington’s aides covered his eyes with his hat, unwilling to see his chief shot from the saddle.) But now the weight of battle was all in the Americans’ favor, and the British lines crumpled at both flanks, then broke. As one survivor recalled, “a resolution was taken to retreat, i.e., run away as fast as we could.” Run they did, south if they could, to join their comrades in Trenton. The Americans, all fatigue forgotten now, were in hot pursuit. None hotter, it may be, than their commander. No doubt remembering the humiliating fox-hunting calls on the slopes of Harlem Heights, he gave a whoop himself, calling out: “It’s a fine fox chase, my boys!” Scooping up prisoners as he went, Washington now turned his column up the Post Road to Princeton. Most of Mawhood’s third regiment were already headed north to New Brunswick when Washington rode in, but a detachment attempted a stand behind the stone walls of Nassau Hall. Youthful Captain Alexander Hamilton got a gun forward and two blasts and a brief charge settled that affair. It would take a while for the full reckoning to reach Lord Cornwallis, but Washington’s daring run had cost the British 28 killed, 58 wounded, and more than 300 prisoners. Americans counted 40 killed and some 100 wounded. Perhaps a British junior officer gave the best accounting of the success of American arms. The Americans, he wrote, “might seem to be ignorant of the precision, order, and even of the principles, by which large bodies are moved, yet they possess… activity and a spirit of enterprise upon any advantage… though it was once the fashion of this army to treat them in the most contemptible light, they are now become a formidable enemy.”


Indeed, success at Princeton had scarcely dimmed Washington’s spirit of enterprise. Before the fighting had quite sputtered out at that place, he had already turned a covetous eye toward New Brunswick, its rich stores and hard cash. But if the spirit was strong, the flesh was marched-out and fought-out and Washington knew it. He started his weary column north to Kingstown and from there westward to the relative safety of the wooded heights of Morristown. A man in the ranks might well feel his step lightened by the image of Lord Cornwallis’ column tramping hopelessly after them “in a most infernal sweat–running and puffing and blowing and swearing at being so outwitted.” By the first week of January British fortunes had been thoroughly embarrassed. A month earlier Sir Henry Clinton had been convinced–and not without reason–that Washington’s army and the Rebel capital were well within the British grasp. Now Sir William Howe found himself backed up against the Atlantic sea wall once more, confined to a line running from New York to Amboy to New Brunswick. He did not intend to venture out against the Rebels until campaigning weather returned in the spring. Nor was Washington, for all his enterprise, really capable of mounting a winter campaign himself. The militiamen were even now drifting homeward, and, most important, in just a month his Continentals, having served above and beyond the call of duty, would likewise hike for home. For the time being Washington would harass the British with raids and skirmishes while he turned to the crucial business of this Morristown winter: raising and training what would be virtually a new army.

But it would be difficult to undervalue the achievement of Washington and the Continental Line of 1776. Washington himself, a hard man to shake, admitted that the game had been nearly up in December. Those days were, as Thomas Paine wrote in The American Crisis, “the times that try men’s souls.” Many a summer soldier and sunshine patriot did shrink from the service of his country, but the hard core of the Line stayed on long enough to put the sword back in Washington’s hands. It had been forged, as he wrote earlier, on the anvil of necessity, and with it Washington had struck two desperate and daring blows. Neither Trenton nor Princeton had been much more than a raid in force, but these successes had heartened a sinking cause and saved his army. Students of the American Revolution continue to argue about the meaning and significance of Washington’s New Jersey campaign. Some believe frankly that failure on the Delaware might have meant that America would never again pursue a “separate destiny”; others think that the Revolution had not yet begun to tap the real strength of the vast American heartland. But perhaps the signal fact here is that Washington did not fail. Although he had made grievous errors in judgment from high summer on Long Island to winter on the Delaware, he had not been beaten. In truth, he had been spared the worst consequences of his errors by the inexplicable lassitude of the British high command, for both the Howes seemed more keenly bent on winning the hearts and minds of the American people than winning battles in the field. In the end of course it was Washington who had won American hearts and minds. It may have been difficult for his contemporaries to take the full measure of this man, but Washington’s multi-faceted genius was beginning to emerge from the saving fog of Brooklyn and the powder smoke of Princeton. In his dealings with the political chaos of Congress, he demonstrated tact and intelligence. In his appeals to his fellow Americans, this taciturn Virginian powerfully communicated what he believed to be the justice of this “glorious cause.” On the battlefield, he was resourceful, flexible, and, in the moment of crisis, bold to the last degree. Lord Cornwallis had supposed that Washington was a fox who might be bagged by merely stretching out his hand. Many Americans were coming to think that General Washington was a rock on which to build an army and perhaps to found a nation.