The Campaign of Trenton 1776-77
by Samuel Adams Drake
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A thousand prisoners, six cannon, with small-arms and ammunition in proportion, were the trophies of this brilliant victory. The work had been well done. From highest to lowest the immortal twenty-four hundred had behaved like men determined to be free.

[Sidenote: The river recrossed.]

Now, while in the fresh glow of triumph, Washington learned that neither Ewing nor Cadwalader had crossed to his assistance. He stood alone on the hostile shore, within striking distance of the enemy at Bordentown, and at Princeton. Donop, reenforced by the fugitives from Trenton, outnumbered him three to two. Reenforced by the garrison at Princeton, the odds would be as two to one. All these enemies he would soon have on his hands, with no certainty of any increase of his own force.

His combinations had failed, and he must have time to look about him before forming new ones. There was no help for it. He must again put the Delaware behind him before being driven into it.

Washington heard these tidings as things which the incompetence or jealousies of his generals had long habituated him to hear. Orders were therefore given to repass the river without delay or confusion, and, after gathering up their prisoners and their trophies, the victors retraced their painful march to their old encampment, where they arrived the same evening, worn out with their twenty-four hours' incessant marching and fighting, but with confidence in themselves and their leaders fully restored.

This little battle marked an epoch in the history of the war. It was now the Americans who attacked. Trenton had taught them the lesson that, man for man, they had nothing to fear from their vaunted adversaries; and that lesson, learned at the point of the bayonet, is the only one that can ever make men soldiers. The enemy could well afford to lose a town, but this rise of a new spirit was quite a different thing. Therefore, though a little battle, Trenton was a great fact, nowhere more fully confessed than in the British camp, where it was now gloomily spoken of as the tragedy of Trenton.


[1] Harris says that Rall had intelligence of the intended attack, and kept his men under arms the whole night. Long after daybreak, a most violent snow-storm coming on, he thought he might safely permit his men to lie down, and in this state they were surprised by the enemy.—Life, p. 64.

[2] General Knox's account is here followed.—Memoir, p. 38.



[Sidenote: Cadwalader crosses.]

The events of the next two days, apart from Washington's own movements, are a real comedy of errors. The firing at Trenton had been distinctly heard at Cadwalader's camp and its reason guessed. Later, rumors of the result threw the camps into the wildest excitement. Bitterly now these men regretted that they had not pushed on to the aid of their comrades. Supposing Washington still to be at Trenton, Cadwalader made a second attempt to cross to his assistance at Bristol on the 27th, when, in fact, Washington was then back in Pennsylvania.[1]

Cadwalader thus put himself into precisely the same situation from which Washington had just hastened to extricate himself. But neither had foreseen the panic which had seized the enemy on hearing of the surprise of Trenton.

[Sidenote: At Bordentown.]

On getting over the river, Cadwalader learned the true state of things, which placed him in a very awkward dilemma as to what he should do next. As his troops were eager to emulate the brilliant successes of their comrades, he decided, however, to go in search of Donop. He therefore marched up to Burlington the same afternoon. The enemy had left it the day before. He then made a night march to Bordentown, which was also found deserted in haste. Crosswicks, another outpost lying toward Princeton, was next seized by a detachment. That, too, had been hurriedly abandoned. Cadwalader could find nobody to attack or to attack him. The stupefied people only knew that their villages had been suddenly evacuated. In short, the enemy's whole line had been swept away like dead leaves before an autumnal gale, under that one telling blow at Trenton.

Even Washington himself seems not to have realized the full extent of his success until these astonishing reports came in in quick succession. As the elated Americans marched on they saw the inhabitants everywhere pulling down the red rags which had been nailed to their doors, as badges of loyalty. "Jersey will be the most whiggish colony on the continent," writes an officer of this corps of Cadwalader's. "The very Quakers declare for taking up arms."[2]

[Sidenote: Trenton reoccupied.]

In view of the facts here stated, Washington was strongly urged to secure his hold on West Jersey before the enemy should have time to recover from their panic. The temper of the people seemed to justify the attempt, even with the meagre force at his command. On the 29th he therefore reoccupied Trenton in force. At the same time orders were sent off to McDougall at Morristown, and Heath in the Highlands, to show themselves to the enemy, as if some concerted movement was in progress all along the line.[3]

[Sidenote: Princeton reenforced.]

Meantime the alarm brought about by Donop's[4] falling back on Princeton caused the commanding officer there to call urgently for reenforcements. None were sent, however, for some days, when the grenadiers and second battalion of guards marched in from New Brunswick. In evidence of the wholesome terror inspired by Washington's daring movements comes the account of the reception of this reenforcement by an eye-witness, Captain Harris, of the grenadiers, who writes of it: "You would have felt too much to be able to express your feelings on seeing with what a warmth of friendship our children, as we call the light-infantry, welcomed us, one and all crying, 'Let them come! Lead us to them, we are sure of being supported.' It gave me a pleasure too fine to attempt expressing."

Howe was now pushing forward all his available troops toward Princeton. Cornwallis hastened back to that place with the elite of the army. While these heavy columns were gathering like a storm-cloud in his front Washington and his generals were haranguing their men, entreating them to stay even for a few weeks longer. Such were the shifts to which the commander-in-chief found himself reduced when in actual presence of this overwhelming force of the enemy.

[Sidenote: Washington concentrates.]

Through the efforts of their officers most of the New England troops reenlisted for six weeks—Stark's regiment almost to a man.[5] And these battalions constituted the real backbone of subsequent operations. Hearing that the enemy was at least ready to move forward, Cadwalader's and Mifflin's troops were called in to Trenton, and preparations made to receive the attack unflinchingly. This force being all assembled on the 1st of January, 1777, Washington posted it on the east side of the Assanpink, behind the bridge over which Rail's soldiers had made good their retreat on the day of the surprise, with some thirty guns planted in his front to defend the crossing. Washington and Rall had thus suddenly changed places.

[Sidenote: His position, Jan. 2, 1777.]

The American position was strong except on the right. It being higher ground the artillery commanded the town, the Assanpink was not fordable in front, the bridge was narrow, and the left secured by the Delaware. The weak spot, the right, rested in a wood which was strongly held, and capable of a good defence; but inasmuch as the Assanpink could be forded two or three miles higher up, a movement to the right and rear of the position was greatly to be feared. If successful it would necessarily cut off all retreat, as the Delaware was now impassable.

On the 2d the enemy's advance came upon the American pickets posted outside of Trenton, driving them through the town much in the same manner as they had driven the Hessians. As soon as the enemy came within range, the American artillery drove them back under cover, firing being kept up until dark.

Having thus developed the American position, Cornwallis, astonished at Washington's temerity in taking it, felt sure of "bagging the fox," as he styled it, in the morning.

The night came. The soldiers slept, but Washington, alive to the danger, summoned his generals in council. All were agreed that a battle would be forced upon them with the dawn of day—all that the upper fords could not be defended. And if they were passed, the event of battle would be beyond all doubt disastrous. Cornwallis had only to hold Washington's attention in front while turning his flank. Should, then, the patriot army endeavor to extricate itself by falling back down the river? There seems to have been but one opinion as to the futility of the attempt, inasmuch as there was no stronger position to fall back upon. As a choice of evils, it was much better to remain where they were than be forced into making a disorderly retreat while looking for some other place to fight in.

Who, then, was responsible for putting the army into a position where it could neither fight nor retreat? If neither of these things could be done with any hope of success, there remained, in point of fact, but one alternative, to which the abandonment of the others as naturally led as converging roads to a common centre. In all the history of the war a more dangerous crisis is not to be met with. It is, therefore, incredible that only one man should have seen this avenue of escape, though it may well be that even the boldest generals hesitated to be the first to urge so desperate an undertaking.

[Sidenote: Washington's tactics.]

In effect, the very danger to which the little army was exposed seems to have suggested to Washington the way out of it. If the enemy could turn his right, why could not he turn their left? If they could cut off his retreat, why could not he threaten their's? This was sublimated audacity, with his little force; but safety here was only to be plucked from the nettle danger. It was then and there that Washington[6] proposed making a flank march to Princeton that very night, boldly throwing themselves upon the enemy's communications, defeating such reenforcements as might be found in the way, and perhaps dealing such a blow as would, if successful, baffle all the enemy's plans.

The very audacity of the proposal fell in with the temper of the generals, who now saw the knot cut as by a stroke of genius. This would not be a retreat, but an advance. This could not be imputed to fear, but rather to daring. The proposal was instantly adopted, and the generals repaired to their respective commands.

[Sidenote: Jan. 3, 1777.]

[Sidenote: March to Princeton.]

Replenishing the camp fires, and leaving the sentinels at their posts, at one o'clock the army filed off to the right in perfect silence and order. The baggage and some spare artillery were sent off to Burlington, to still further mystify the enemy. By one of those sudden changes of weather, not uncommon even in midwinter, the soft ground had become hard frozen during the early part of the night, so that rapid marching was possible, and rapid marching was the only thing that could save the movement from failure, as Cornwallis would have but twelve miles to march to Washington's seventeen, to overtake them—he by a good road, they by a new and half-worked one. Miles, therefore, counted for much that night, and though many of the men wore rags wrapped about their feet, for want of shoes, and the shoeless artillery horses had to be dragged or pushed along over the slippery places, to prevent their falling, the column pushed on with unflagging energy toward its goal.

[Sidenote: British in pursuit.]

Shortly after daybreak the British, at Trenton, heard the dull booming of a distant cannonade. Washington, escaped from their snares, was sounding the reveille at Princeton. The British camp awoke and listened. Soon the rumor spread that the American lines were deserted. Drums beat, trumpets sounded, ranks were formed in as great haste as if the enemy were actually in the camps, instead of being at that moment a dozen miles away. Cornwallis, who had gone to bed expecting to make short work of Washington in the morning, saw himself fairly outgeneralled. His rear-guard, his magazines, his baggage, were in danger, his line of retreat cut off. There was not a moment to lose. Exasperated at the thought of what they would say of him in England, he gave the order to press the pursuit to the utmost. The troops took the direct route by Maidenhead to Princeton; and thus, for the second time, Trenton saw itself freed from enemies, once routed, twice disgraced, and thoroughly crestfallen and stripped of their vaunted prestige.

[Sidenote: Mercer's fight.]

Three British battalions lay at Princeton the night before.[7] Two of them were on the march to Trenton when Washington's troops were discovered approaching on a back road. Astonished at seeing troops coming up from that direction, the leading battalion instantly turned back to meet them. At the same time Washington detached Mercer to seize the main road, while he himself pushed on with the rest of the troops. This movement brought on a spirited combat between Mercer and the strong British battalion, which had just faced about.[8] The fight was short, sharp, and bloody. After a few volleys, the British charged with the bayonet, broke through Mercer's ranks, scattered his men, and even drove back Cadwalader's militia, who were coming up to their support.

Other troops now came up. Washington himself rode in among Mercer's disordered men, calling out to them to turn and face the enemy. It was one of those critical moments when everything must be risked. Like Napoleon pointing his guns at Montereau, the commander momentarily disappeared in the soldier; and excited by the combat raging around him, all the Virginian's native daring flashed out like lightning. Waving his uplifted sword, he pushed his horse into the fire as indifferent to danger as if he had really believed that the bullet which was to kill him was not yet cast.

Taking courage from his presence and example the broken troops re-formed their ranks. The firing grew brisker and brisker. Assailed with fresh spirit, the British, in their turn, gave way, leaving the ground strewed with their dead, in return for their brutal use of the bayonet among the wounded. Finding themselves in danger of being surrounded, that portion of this fighting British regiment[9] which still held together retreated as they could toward Maidenhead, after giving such an example of disciplined against undisciplined valor as won the admiration even of their foes.

While this fight was going on at one point, the second British battalion was, in its turn, met and routed by the American advance, under St. Clair. This battalion then fled toward Brunswick, part of the remaining battalion did the same thing, and part threw themselves into the college building they had used as quarters, where a few cannon shot compelled them to surrender.

Three strong regiments had thus been broken in detail and put to flight. Two had been prevented from joining Cornwallis. Besides the killed and wounded they left two hundred and fifty prisoners behind them. The American loss in officers was, however, very severe. The brave Mercer was mortally wounded, and that gallant son of Delaware, Colonel Haslet, killed fighting at his commander's side.

After a short halt Washington again pushed on toward Brunswick, but tempting as the opportunity of destroying the depot there seemed to him, it had to be given up. His troops were too much exhausted, and Cornwallis was now thundering in his rear. When Kingston was reached the army therefore filed off to the left toward[10] Somerset Court House, leaving the enemy to continue his headlong march toward Brunswick, which was not reached until four o'clock in the morning, with troops completely broken down with the rapidity of their fruitless chase.

Washington could now say, "I am as near New York as they are to Philadelphia."


[1] Cadwalader seems to have done all in his power to cross his troops in the first place. His infantry mostly got over, but on finding it impossible to land the artillery—ice being jammed against the shores for two hundred yards—the infantry were ordered back. Indeed, his rear-guard could not get back until the next day. This was at Dunk's Ferry. The next and successful attempt took from nine in the morning till three in the afternoon, when 3,000 men crossed one mile above Bristol.

[2] Thomas Rodney's letter.

[3] Heath was ordered to make a demonstration as far down as King's Bridge, in order to keep Howe from reenforcing the Jerseys. It proved a perfect flash-in-the-pan.

[4] Part of Donop's force fell back even as far as New Brunswick.

[5] Stark made a personal appeal with vigor and effect. His regiment had come down from Ticonderoga in time to be given the post of honor by Washington himself.

[6] In a letter to his wife Knox gives the credit of this suggestion to Washington, without qualification.

[7] These were the Seventeenth, Fortieth, and Fifty-first.

[8] The hostile columns met on the slope of a hill just off the main road, near the buildings of a man named Clark, Mercer reaching the ground first.

[9] The Seventeenth regiment, Colonel Mawhood, carried off the honors of the day for the British.

[10] The position at Morristown had been critically examined by Lee's officers during their halt there. Washington had therefore decided to defend the Jerseys from that position.



It had taken Cornwallis a whole week to drive Washington from Brunswick to Trenton; Washington had now made Cornwallis retrace his steps inside of twenty-four hours. In the retreat through the Jerseys there had been neither strategy nor tactics; nothing but a retreat, pure and simple. In the advance, strategy and tactics had placed the inferior force in the attitude menacing the superior, had saved Philadelphia, and were now in a fair way to recover the Jerseys without the expenditure even of another charge of powder.

While Washington was looking for a vantage ground from which to hold what had been gained, everything on the British line was going to the rear in confusion. Orders and counter orders were being given with a rapidity which invariably accompanies the first moments of a panic, and which tend rather to increase than diminish its effects.

What was passing at Brunswick has fortunately found a record in the diary of a British officer posted there when the news of Washington's coming fell like a bombshell in their camp. It is given word for word:

On the 3d we had repeated accounts that Washington had not only taken Princeton, but was in full march upon Brunswick. General Matthew (commanding at Brunswick) now determined to return to the Raritan landing-place, with everything valuable, to prevent the rebels from destroying the bridge there. We accordingly marched back to the bridge, one-half on one side, the remainder on the other, for its defence, never taking off our accoutrements that night.

On the 3d, Lord Cornwallis, hearing the fate of Princeton, returned to it with his whole force, but found the rebels had abandoned it, upon which he immediately marched back to Brunswick, arriving at break of day on the 4th. I then received orders to return to Sparkstown (Rahway?). Washington marched his army to Morristown and Springfield. At about the time I arrived at Sparkstown, a report was spread that the rebels had some designs upon Elizabethtown and Sparkstown. The whole regiment was jaded to death. Unpleasant this! Before day notice was brought to me by a patrol that he had heard some firing towards Elizabethtown, about seven miles off. I immediately jumped out of bed and directed my drums to beat to arms, as nothing else would have roused my men, they were so tired. Soon after this an express brought me positive orders to march immediately to Perth Amboy, with all my baggage. At between six and seven the rebels fired at some of my men that were quartered at two miles distance. I had before appointed a subaltern's guard for the protection of my baggage. This duty unluckily fell upon the lieutenant of my company, which left it without an officer, the ensign being sick at New York. I immediately directed my lieutenant, who was a volunteer on this occasion, to march with his guard, that was then formed, to the spot where the firing was, while I made all the haste I could to follow him with the battalion.

The lieutenant came up with them and fired upwards of twelve rounds, when, the rebels perceiving the battalion on the march, ran off as fast as they could. Had I pursued them I should perhaps have given a good account of them.

The company baggage-wagon was, however, carried off by the Americans, driver and all. The garrison got to Perth Amboy that night. Elizabethtown was evacuated at the same time. The narrative goes on to say:

The only posts we now possess in the Jerseys are Paulus Hook, Perth Amboy, Raritan Landing, and Brunswick. Happy had it been if at first we had fixed on no other posts in this province.... Washington's success in this affair of the surprise of the Hessians has been the cause of this unhappy change in our affairs. It has recruited the rebel army and given them sufficient spirit to undertake a winter campaign. Our misfortune has been that we have held the enemy too cheap. We must remove the seat of war from the Jerseys now on account of the scarcity of forage and provisions.

The writer shows the wholesome impressions his friends were under in this closing remark: "The whole garrison is every morning under arms at five o'clock to be ready for the scoundrels."

In New York great pains were taken to prevent the truth about the victories at Trenton and Princeton from getting abroad. False accounts of them were printed in the newspapers, over which a strict military censorship was established; but in spite of every precaution enough leaked out through secret channels to put new life and hope in the hearts and minds of the long-suffering prisoners of war.

It was one of the misfortunes of this most extraordinary campaign that every blow Washington had struck left his army exhausted. After each success it was necessary to recuperate. It was now being reorganized in the shelter of its mountain fastness, strengthened by a simultaneous uprising of the people, who now took the redress of their wrongs into their own hands. No foraging party could show itself without being attacked; no supplies be had except at the point of the sword. A host of the exasperated yeomanry constantly hovered around the enemy's advanced posts, which a feeling of pride alone induced him to hold. Putnam was ordered up to Princeton, Heath to King's Bridge, so that Howe was kept looking all ways at once. Redoubts were thrown up at New Brunswick, leading Wayne to remark that the Americans had now thrown away the spade and the British taken it up. Looking back over the weary months of disaster the change on the face of affairs seems almost too great for belief. From the British point of view the campaign had ended in utter failure and disgrace. In England, Edward Gibbon says that the Americans had almost lost the name of rebels, and in America Sir William Howe found that he had to contend with a man in every way his superior.


American Army, 12, 17 note; marches to N. York, 12; its efficiency, 14; weakened by detachments, 19, 24 note; reenforced, 19, 20; effectives in summer of 1776, 22, 24 note; defeated at L. Island, 29; losses there, 31; how posted after the battle, 31, 32; driven from N. York, 39; fights at White Plains and Fort Washington, 40; losses there, 41; is divided into two corps, 44; dissension in, 49 note; reduced numbers, 50; summary of losses, 52, 53; reaches the Delaware, 57; in position there, 75; is reenforced, 79; time expiring, 80; reenlistments, 97.

Bedford, L. I., seized by British, 27.

Bordentown, occupied by British troops, 71, 72; evacuated, 95.

British Army of subjugation, 23; by regiments, 25 note; takes the field, 27; drives the Americans from L. Island, 27 et seq.; in winter quarters, 72, 76.

Brooklyn Heights fortified, 20, 24 note; outer defences, 26; turned by British, 27, 28.

Cadwalader, Col. John, 80, 87 note; fails to get his troops across the Delaware, 83; succeeds better in a second attempt, 94; and occupies Bordentown, 95.

Clinton, Gen. Sir Henry, at N. York, 34; moves to Throg's Neck, 36; captures Newport, R. I., 70.

Cornwallis, Gen. Lord, surprises Fort Lee, 45; is reenforced, 55; pursues Washington, 55, 56, 57, 58 note; is unable to follow him beyond Trenton, 62, 67 note; has leave of absence, 71; hastens back to Trenton, 97; makes a forced march back to N. Brunswick, 106.

Declaration of Independence, read to the army, 23.

Donop, Col. Count, 72, 75; abandons Bordentown, 95.

Ewing, Gen. James, 83, 87 note.

Fort Lee, 24 note; evacuated, 45, 49 note.

Fort Washington, built, 21, 24 note; assault and capture of, 40, 41, 42 note.

Gates, Gen. Horatio, brings troops from Ticonderoga, 63, 67 note; refuses a command, 81.

Glover, Gen. John, at L. Island, 30; at Trenton, 85, 88 note.

Greene, Gen. Nathaniel, advises the holding of Fort Washington, 40; at Fort Lee, 45; heads a column at Trenton, 87.

Griffin, Colonel, moves into the Jerseys, 82.

Hale, Capt. Nathan, taken and hanged, 36.

Harlem Heights, the army headquarters, 32, and note.

Haslet, Col. John, at Princeton, 105.

Heath, Gen. Wm., put in command in the Highlands, 44, 96, 106 note.

Howe, Gen. Sir William, lands at L. Island, 26; his delays, 36; moves into Westchester, 39; fights at White Plains, 40; and takes Fort Washington, 40; inhumanity to prisoners by his permission, 52; plans for next campaign, 70; takes things easy, 71; roused by Washington's bold strokes, 97.

King's Bridge, importance of, to N. York, 20, 21; an outpost, 22, 24 note.

Kipp's Bay, landing-place of British, 34; account by an eye-witness, 34, 35.

Knox, Gen. Henry, improves the artillery service, 16, 17; at Trenton, 84, 85.

Lee, Gen. Charles, sent to N. York, 18 note; ineffectually urges evacuation of Fort Washington, 41; a rival of Washington, 41; gets a separate command, 44; moves to join Washington, 59; his equivocal attitude, 50, 60; his troops, 60, 67 note; is reenforced, 61; halts at Morristown, and is captured, 63; probable aims, 65.

Long Island, campaign opened at, 26; British plan of attack, 27; flank march, 27, 28; evacuated, 30.

McDougall, Gen. Alexander, at Morristown, 96.

Mercer, Gen. Hugh, at Princeton, 104, 105, 107 note.

Mifflin, Gen. Thomas, at Trenton, 98.

New Jersey, invaded, 50; apathy of people, 51; military situation in, 71; outrages perpetrated by the invaders, 77, 78; arouse the people, 78; mostly reconquered, 108, 112.

New York, the seat of war, 11; its strategic value, 13; defence determined upon, 13; how effected, 20 et seq.; the city and island in 1776, 20; escapes bombardment, 30; dispositions for holding the city, 31, 32; evacuation ordered, 33; takes place, 34; partially burnt, 35.

North Castle, Washington retreats to, 40.

Percy, Gen. Lord Hugh, in command at Harlem, 36.

Philadelphia, critical situation there, 81.

Princeton, attacked by Washington, 103; losses at, 105.

Putnam, Gen. Israel, commands at Philadelphia, 81; sends a force into the Jerseys, 82, 88 note.

Rall or Rahl, Col., 72; alarm of an attack, 89, 93 note; fights bravely, and is mortally hurt, 91.

Reed, Joseph, 81, 87 note.

St. Clair, Gen. Arthur, at Princeton, 105.

Stark, Gen. John, at Trenton, 87, 106 note.

Sterling or Stirling, Lord (William Alexander), at Princeton, 62.

Sullivan, Gen. John, succeeds to command of Lee's corps, 64; leads a column at Trenton, 87.

Throg's Neck, British land at, 39, 42 note.

Trenton, occupied as a British outpost, 72; carried by assault, 89 et seq.; fruits of victory, 91; an epoch in the war, 93; first abandoned, 93; then reoccupied, 96.

Washington, Gen., at N. York, 12; decides to act on the defensive, 18 note; stands on his dignity, 24; not in command at L. Island, 29; orders its evacuation, 30; moves to White Plains, 39; rights there, but has to fall back, 40; his dilemma, 43; decides to divide his force, 44; crosses into N. Jersey, 45; manoeuvring for delay, 50; rises above partisanship, 54; directs Lee to join him, 54, 55; retreats to Newark, 55; to New Brunswick, 56; troops leave him, 56; at Princeton, 57; admirable retreat, 57; crosses the Delaware, 62; determines on striking the British outposts, 79, 80; his plan, 82, 83; marches on Trenton, 83 et seq.; carries Trenton by assault, but is obliged to recross the Delaware, 91, 92; but reoccupies Trenton, 96; takes post there, 98; steals a march on Cornwallis, 101, 107 note; fights at Princeton, 103; personal gallantry, 104; marches to Somerset C. H., 106.

White Plains, Washington concentrates at, 39, 42 note; action at, 40.


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