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American Revolution: Battle of Princeton

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American Revolution: Battle of Princeton

"Study for "The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton," by John Trumbull

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Princeton - Conflict & Date:

 

The Battle of Princeton was fought January 3, 1777, during the American Revolution.

Armies & Commanders:

 

Americans

 

 

British

 

 

 

Battle of Princeton - Background:

 

Following his stunning Christmas 1776 victory over the Hessians at Trenton, General George Washington withdrew back across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. On December 26, Lieutenant Colonel John Cadwalader's Pennsylvania militia re-crossed the river at Trenton and reported that the enemy was gone. Moving into New Jersey with the bulk of his army, Washington assumed a strong defensive position south of Assunpink Creek on series of low hills near Trenton. Angered by the Hessian's defeat, General William Howe, dispatched Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis with 8,000 men to deal with the Americans.

 

 

Moving southwest, Cornwallis left 1,200 men under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood at Princeton and another 1,200 men under Brigadier General Alexander Leslie at Maidenhead (Lawrenceville), before arriving at Trenton late on January 2, 1777. Surveying Washington's position, Cornwallis launched three unsuccessful attacks before halting due to growing darkness. Though warned by his staff that Washington may escape in the night, Cornwallis rebuffed their concerns as he believed the Americans had no line of retreat. Rather than face Cornwallis' attack in the morning, Washington devised a daring plan to attack Princeton.

 

Battle of Princeton - Washington Escapes:

 

Leaving 400 men along the Assunpink Creek line to tend campfires and make digging sounds, Washington and the army slipped away east to Sandtown, before turning northwest and advancing on Princeton via the Quaker Road. As dawn broke, the American troops were crossing Stony Brook approximately two miles from Princeton. Wishing to trap Mawhood's command in the town, Washington detached Brigadier General Hugh Mercer's brigade with orders to slip west and then secure and advance up the Post Road. Unknown to Washington, Mawhood was departing Princeton for Trenton with 800 men.

 

Battle of Princeton - The Armies Collide:

 

Marching down the Post Road, Mawhood saw Mercer's men emerge from the woods and moved to attack. Mercer quickly formed his men for battle in a nearby orchard to meet the British assault. Charging the tired American troops, Mawhood was able to drive them back. In the process, Mercer became separated from his men and was quickly surrounded by the British who mistook his for Washington. Refusing an order to surrender, Mercer drew his sword and charged. In the resulting melee, he was severely beaten, run through by bayonets, and left for dead.

 

 

As the battle continued, Cadwalader's men entered the fray and met a fate similar to Mercer's brigade. Finally, Washington arrived on the scene, and with the support of Major General John Sullivan's division stabilized the American line. Rallying his troops, Washington turned to the offensive and began pressing Mawhood's men. As more American troops arrived on the field, they began to threaten the British flanks. Seeing his position deteriorating, Mawhood ordered a bayonet charge with the goal of breaking through the American lines and allowing his men to escape towards Trenton.

 

 

Surging forward, they succeeded in penetrating Washington's position and fled down the Post Road, with American troops in pursuit. In Princeton, the majority of the remaining British troops fled towards New Brunswick, however 194 took refuge in Nassau Hall believing that the building's thick walls would provide protection. Nearing the structure, Washington assigned Captain Alexander Hamilton to lead the assault. Opening fire with artillery, American troops charged and forced those inside to surrender ending the battle.

 

Battle of Princeton - Aftermath:

 

Flush with victory, Washington wished to continue attacking up the chain of British outposts in New Jersey. After assessing his tired army's condition, and knowing that Cornwallis was in his rear, Washington elected instead to move north and enter winter quarters at Morristown. The victory at Princeton, coupled with the triumph at Trenton, helped bolster American spirits after a disastrous year which saw New York fall to the British. In the fighting, Washington lost 23 killed, including Mercer, and 20 wounded. British casualties were heavier and numbered 28 killed, 58 wounded, and 323 captured.

Selected Sources

 

 

 

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