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American Revolution: Battle of Trenton

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American Revolution: Battle of Trenton

The Battle of Trenton, 1776

Photograph Courtesy of the US Army Center for Military History

Battle of Trenton - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Trenton was fought December 26, 1776, during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Armies & Commanders

Americans

  • General George Washington
  • 2,400 men

    Hessians

  • Colonel Johann Rall
  • 1,500 men

  • Battle of Trenton - Background:

    Having been defeated in the battles for New York City, General George Washington and the remnants of the Continental Army retreated across New Jersey in the late fall of 1776. Vigorously pursued by the British forces under Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis, the American commander sought to gain the protection of the Delaware River. As they retreated, Washington faced a crisis as his battered army began to disintegrate through desertions and expiring enlistments. Crossing the Delaware River into Pennsylvania in early December, he made camp and attempted to reinvigorate his shrinking command.

    Badly reduced, the Continental Army was poorly supplied and ill-equipped for winter with many of the men still in summer uniforms or lacking shoes. In a stroke of luck for Washington, General Sir William Howe, the overall British commander, ordered a halt to the pursuit on December 14 and directed his army to enter winter quarters. In doing so, they established a series of outposts across northern New Jersey. Consolidating his forces in Pennsylvania, Washington was reinforced by around 2,700 men on December 20 when two columns, led by Major Generals John Sullivan and Horatio Gates, arrived.

    Washington's Plan:

    With the morale of the army and public ebbing, Washington believed that an audacious act was required to restore confidence and help boost enlistments. Meeting with his officers, he proposed a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton for December 26. For the operation, he intended to cross the river with 2,400 men and march south against the town. This main body was to be supported by Brigadier General James Ewing and 700 Pennsylvania militia which were to cross at Trenton and seize the bridge over Assunpink Creek to prevent enemy troops from escaping.

    In addition to the strikes against Trenton, Brigadier General John Cadwalader and 1,900 men were to make a diversionary attack on Bordentown, NJ. At Trenton, the Hessian garrison of 1,500 men was commanded by Colonel Johann Rall. Having arrived at the town on December 14, Rall had rejected his officers' advice to build fortifications. Instead, he believed that his three regiments would be able to defeat any attack in open combat. Though he dismissed intelligence reports that the Americans were planning an attack, Rall did request reinforcements as colonial troops were raiding his supply lines.

    Crossing the Delaware:

    Combating rain, sleet, and snow, Washington's army reached the river at McKonkey's Ferry on the evening of December 25. Behind schedule, they were ferried across by Colonel John Glover's Marblehead regiment using Durham boats for the men and larger barges for the horses and artillery. Having completed the crossing around 3:00 AM, they began their march south towards Trenton. Unknown to Washington, Ewing was unable to make the crossing due to the weather and heavy ice in the river. In addition, Cadwalader had succeeded in crossing his men, but returned to Pennsylvania when he was unable to cross his artillery.

    The Battle of Trenton:

    Sending out advance parties, the army moved south together until reaching Birmingham. Here Major General Nathanael Greene's division turned inland to attack Trenton from the north while Sullivan's division moved along the river road to strike from the west and south. Both columns approached the outskirts of Trenton shortly before 8:00 AM on December 26. Driving in the Hessian pickets, Greene's men opened the attack and drew enemy troops north from the river road. While Greene's men blocked the escape routes to Princeton, Colonel Henry Knox's artillery deployed at the heads of King and Queen Streets (Map).

    Taking advantage of the open river road, Sullivan's men entered Trenton from the south and sealed off the bridge over Assunpink Creek. As the Americans attacked, Rall attempted to rally his regiments. A Hessian attack up King Street was defeated by Knox's guns and heavy fire from Brigadier General Hugh Mercer's brigade. Falling back to a field outside of town with two of his regiments, Rall began a counterattack against the American lines. This was defeated with heavy losses and the Hessian commander fell mortally wounded.

    Driving the enemy back into a nearby orchard, Washington surrounded the survivors and forced their surrender. The third Hessian formation, the Knyphausen Regiment, attempted to escape over the Assunpink Creek bridge. Finding it blocked by the Americans, they were quickly surrounded by Sullivan's men. Following a failed breakout attempt, they surrendered shortly after their compatriots. Though Washington wished to immediately follow up the victory with an attack on Princeton, he elected to withdraw back across the river after learning that Cadwalader and Ewing had failed to make the crossing.

    Aftermath of the Battle of Trenton:

    In the operation against Trenton, Washington lost four men killed and eight wounded while the Hessians suffered 22 killed and 918 captured. Around 500 of Rall's command were able to escape during the fighting. Though a minor engagement relative to the size of the forces involved, the victory at Trenton had a massive effect on the colonial war effort. Instilling a new confidence in the army and the Continental Congress, the triumph at Trenton bolstered public morale and increased enlistments.

    Stunned by the American victory, Howe ordered Cornwallis to advance on Washington with around 8,000 men. Re-crossing the river on December 30, Washington united his command and prepared to face the advancing enemy. The resulting campaign culminated with an American triumph at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. Flush with victory, Washington wished to continue attacking up the chain of British outposts in New Jersey. After assessing his tired army's condition, Washington instead decided to move north and enter winter quarters at Morristown.

    Selected Sources

  • History of War: Battle of Trenton
  • British Battles: Battle of Trenton
  • Washington Crossing Historic Park

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