Friday, December 25, 2009


The signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th was greeted by citizens far and wide as a day of triumph.

Young men joined the fight with naive confidence in their ability to defeat a the King of England and a distant army.

Thirty thousand men joined the Continental army during the pleasant months of summer. Washington’s army suffered a terrible defeat in New York and was in retreat by Christmas.

By December 24th, a tiny remnant, 2,500 patriots remained in his threadbare army.

After the American withdrawal from New York and Washington’s retreat into Pennsylvania, British commanding general William Howe took his army back to New York following the pursuit of Washington.

Wintering in New York, the British relied on 2,000 Hessian mercenaries to garrison the New Jersey front line. Although there was some local guerilla resistance, forcing the troops to confine themselves to cities and towns, the assumption was that with Washington’s army safely across the Delaware River, no immediate threat existed.

The Hessians at Trenton were commanded by Colonel Johaan Gottlieb Rall. Rall, who once referred to the patriot soldiers as “country clowns,” never bothered to fortify the town. No defensive redoubts were constructed. Rall also received conflicting reports from the British prior to Washington’s attack.

On December 21st, British General Grant wrote Rall, stating that that the American army was, “almost naked, dying of cold, without blankets, and very ill supplied with provisions.”

But Rall also received word from General Thomas Leslie in Princeton that Washington was preparing a Delaware crossing aimed at attacking Trenton.

Washington divided his army, intending a diversionary attack against Colonel Carl von Donop’s headquarters at Bordentown, south of Trenton. This group, however, never made it across the icy Delaware. The main force, ferried across the river amidst rain and sleet on cargo barges, was assembled on the Jersey side by 3:00 AM January 26th.

The success of the attack depended upon absolute surprise.

Washington’s gamble paid off.

The Hessians, still sleeping off their Christmas revelries, barely had time to form ranks. This was an army used to fighting European style battles. The streets of Trenton, however, made for a very different battle order. By the time artillery had been brought forward and officers connected with their units, the battle was all but over.

Writing to his wife on December 28th, Henry Knox related that, “Providence seemed to have smiled upon every part of this enterprise.

Effects of the Battle of Trenton

News of the Trenton fiasco forced General Howe to dispatch Lord Cornwallis to Princeton to lead a force of 7,000 against Washington’s tattered army.

But Washington escaped, recrossing the Delaware and moving north to eventually attack Princeton.

The battle of Trenton had taken one hour and resulted in a thousand prisoners. General Gates, who had voiced public disapproval of the plan, was proven wrong.

According to historian Christopher Hibbert, Washington’s victory at Trenton, “encouraged a fresh revolutionary spirit amongst a people becoming disillusioned by…war…”

Although “Washington had hardly turned the tables,” according to writer Robert Harvey, the propaganda value of the victory was immense.

Enlistments increased in early 1777, a crucial need since many of Washington’s enlistments were due to expire January 1st.

Trenton also demonstrated that George Washington was not only a competent field commander (he personally commanded the main force attacking Trenton) but a brilliant strategist.

Victory of Trenton restored confidence in both the Revolutionary cause and the leadership of Washington.


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