Sunday, November 17, 2019

Episode 123 The First Battle of Trenton

Last week, we left General Washington with his army of 2400 men having just crossed the Delaware River.  This was less than half the force that had been planned for the overall campaign  Other crossings downriver failed because of the weather.  Washington’s own force was hours behind schedule, making a dawn attack on Trenton impossible.

March to Trenton

Washington sent two advance parties to move ahead of the main columns and set up roadblocks about three miles outside of Trenton.  Each party had about 40 men, with orders to keep anyone from entering or leaving Trenton who might warn the enemy of the Continental Army’s approach.  Captain William Washington, a distant cousin of the General, led one of the advance parties, assisted by his Lieutenant James Monroe.  The future president was a veteran of the New York campaign, but had been a college sophomore a year earlier.

 As the company blockaded the roads, the dogs from a nearby home alerted and began to bark.  The owner, Dr. James Riker, heard his dogs and assumed the men were Hessians.  Riker came out to cuss out the men and tell them to leave, only to learn that they were Continentals.  As a loyal Whig, Riker volunteered to join the company for the evening.  He figured there would soon be a fight and that his medical services would be needed.

March to Trenton (from Mount Vernon)
Because General James Ewing's forces had failed to cross at Trenton Falls, Washington had to divide his main column into two divisions.  Washington sent one division under General John Sullivan to move down the Delaware River Road, and move around south of Trenton and attack from the southwest.  This was the mission originally given to General Ewing, who failed to cross.  Meanwhile, the second division under General Nathanael Greene would move inland and then to the south where they would attack Trenton from the northeast.

Washington, and the bulk of the artillery under Colonel Henry Knox, moved with General Green.  Knox had managed to get 18 cannon across the river, much more artillery than a force this size would normally take.  Knox also had more artilleryman, with the hope of capturing several Hessian cannon by surprise and turning them on the enemy.  Even with horses, the cannon moved slowly and with great difficulty over the icy roads.  Most weighed between 1000 and 2000 pounds, with much more weight from the ammunition that accompanied them.

When the army finally began to move around 4:00 AM, they trudged along slowly.  The weather, still a miserable mix of rain and snow, got even heavier, along with what some described as hurricane force winds.  Walking in such weather was miserable enough.  But add to the fact that these men had been up all night, many did not have shoes, and most had well worn clothes that did little to keep out the cold.  At least two men would literally freeze to death on the march to Trenton, before anyone fired a shot.

The army marched uphill for several miles before hitting a flatter plain.  They then faced Jacob’s Creek at the bottom of a 100 foot ravine.  The men spent hours lowering cannon into the ravine, then pulling them up the other side.  Throughout the march, Washington road up and down the column, which stretched out for over a mile, urging the men to keep quiet and stay close to their officers.

Around 7:30 AM, the main columns caught up with the advance forces.  Despite the efforts to keep the march a secret, dozens of local militiamen turned out to support the Continentals in their attack.  Of course that also meant that local Tories were aware of the march and probably had slipped past the Continental roadblocks to warn the Hessians.

Continental pickets soon saw fifty armed men approaching their lines from Trenton.  It turned out this was a raiding party that Continental General Adam Stephen had sent out on Christmas Eve.  A few days earlier, the Hessians had shot and killed one of Stephens’ soldiers on the river.  Stephen dispatched this raiding party before he learned of Washington’s plans, with instructions to perform a hit and run on Trenton in revenge for the shooting.  They had attacked earlier that night, while Washington’s army was still crossing the Delaware.  The detachment remained in the area overnight and was now returning after first light back to the river.

Washington Leading the Army to Trenton
(from British Battles)
Upon hearing this report, Washington was livid.  Any hope of surprise was now completely gone.  The Trenton troops would be on full alert after such an attack.  Washington summoned General Stephen and berated him for ruining all of his plans.  It was another one of the very few occasions when anyone ever saw the normally imperturbable Washington lose his temper.

Washington and Stephen had known each other for decades, and did not get along for most of that time.  Stephen had been Washington’s second in command of Virginia militia forces during the French and Indian War.  While Washington attempted to develop the manners and behavior of a gentlemen, Stephen fell into the stereotype of a backwoods militia officer with his hard fighting, drinking, and refusal to obey orders.  After the French and Indian war, Stephen ran against Washington for the House of Burgesses and lost.  He also competed against Washington in western land speculation. 

Now Stephen, a Continental general, had destroyed the element of surprise by allowing this raid.  Even if he had ordered the raid before knowing of Washington’s plans, his failure to attempt to recall the men, or even inform Washington of the raid was inexcusable.  Washington now expected to find an alert enemy, fully entrenched and awaiting their attack.  With only half the forces he thought he would have, Washington did not even have a considerable numerical advantage over the enemy.  Despite all this, Washington could not turn around now.  He would make the attack regardless of the situation.

After regaining his composure, he invited the fifty men to join his column.  Despite his anger at General Stephen, the men had only obeyed orders and carried out a brave attack, not knowing about the larger campaign.  Washington complemented the men and resumed his advance.

The Hessians

Inside Trenton, the Hessian garrison had every reason to anticipate the attack.  As I mentioned last week.  British General James Grant had sent a note to the Commander, Colonel Johann Rall that intelligence indicated Washington might attempt an attack on Trenton.  Even if Rall ignored that report, On Christmas Eve, two American deserters told Rall that the Continental Army was preparing to march.  The next day as the Continentals  prepared to cross the Delaware, a Tory physician came to tell Rall that that an attack on Trenton was imminent.  Another local farmer reported the same to Rall.

Some stories have circulated over the years about how Washington managed to win at Trenton.  One is that the Hessians were drunk or hung over after too much Christmas celebration.  There is actually no evidence of drunkenness.  There is also a story that Colonel Rall received a note on Christmas night warning him of the attack on Christmas night, but that he was playing cards and simply stuck the note in his pocket without reading it.  There is no good evidence that story is true either.

The truth is that Rall, a professional officer, was well aware from several reports that there could be an enemy attack.  He had kept his soldiers on high alert.  The men slept in their uniforms with guns by their sides.  They had been called out on high alerts for each of the three days prior.  The Hessians were not drunk, but were exhausted from being on constant alert for the enemy.

It is also said that Rall was dismissive of the Americans and did not bother to post proper defenses.  It is true that he did not have his soldiers dig proper entrenchments.  However, it was the middle of winter with frozen ground, and he had been in Trenton for less than two weeks.  Rall also did not know where entrenchments would be needed since the Americans would attack from any direction. Rall was confident that his professional soldiers could meet the enemy on the field, and did not need entrenchments.  However, he did not leave himself open to surprise.  He had a ring of outposts stationed about a mile from the center of town with reinforced detachments.  Rall himself visited the outposts on Christmas day to ensure there were no problems.  He would certainly hear if any of the outposts came under attack and would have time to turn out his men in the event of an attack.

Two things, however, that had been difficulties for Washington ended up working in his favor.  The terrible winter storm that hit Christmas night, which made the march so difficult, and which soaked his soldiers and dampened their powder, convinced the Hessians that no one would be out in such a storm.  For the first time in nearly a week, the officers let their men stay indoors.  They cancelled the full daily pre-dawn patrol because there was no way anyone would be able to pass through the storm.

Second, was the Christmas night attack by Stephen’s small raiding party.  The fifty Virginians who struck the outpost northwest of town wounded perhaps half a dozen Hessians before riding off into the night.  Rather than put the Hessians on high alert, Rall simply assumed that small raid was the big attack about which he had received warnings.  His men mostly remained indoors, seeking shelter from the high winds, snow, sleet, and freezing rain that would keep any sane person off the roads.

The Attack

Just after 8:00 AM, Washington further divided Green’s division into three columns.  Although it was now well after daylight, the heavy storm kept the Hessian guards from venturing very far.  After the Stephen raid the night before, Lieutenant Andreas Wiederholdt took command of the Hessian guard post a few miles outside of town.  Even with the reinforcements, the total guard was only about two dozen men.  Their purpose was to warn of another raid, not defend against an all out attack by a major force.

Battle of Trenton (from Mount Vernon)
Even before dawn, the Hessians had deployed their usually patrols to march out and make sure that there was no threat.  But for the prior few weeks, the Hessians had been on constant alert.  They were looking for raiders who might pick off a few men, not an all out invasion.  Sometimes these patrols would have gone all the way down to the ferries at the Delaware River.  But on the morning of December 26, the storm was so miserable that the patrol only went out a few miles.  Not finding anything, they returned to get indoors and warm themselves.

The still falling snow limited visibility of the outposts and patrols.  Washington personally led the center column against a Hessian outpost at a cooper shop.  The Americans might have captured the outpost but for the fact that Lieutenant Wiederholdt happened to step outside and saw the approaching soldiers. The small outpost first suspected the approaching men might be another raiding party.  In that case, a few volleys would probably chase off the attackers.  The two sides exchanged fire at long range, with no casualties.

At that point, Wiederholdt realized that the force in front of him was much larger, and that there were two other attacking brigades on his right and left.  He ordered his men to retreat in order to avoid being surrounded.  The Hessian outpost then began a steady retreat back toward town, keeping up a line of fire as they retreated.

Around the same time Washington began his attack north of town, he heard cannon fire coming from the south.  General Sullivan’s division had reached its objective at the same time.  The coordinated two pronged attack actually worked as planned.  The Americans began to push back all the outposts both on the north and south sides of town.  At the same time, American cannon from the Pennsylvania side of the river opened fire on the town from the west.  This is the first documented plan that I know of where the two groups literally synchronized their watches before the attack so that both could begin the attack at the same time. Even with this effort, it was a miracle that both divisions got into position at the same time.

The Hessian regiments in Trenton turned out in a matter of minutes, forming lines and preparing to return fire.  Soldiers poured out of the buildings half dressed and prepared to meet the enemy.  Hessian cannons quickly deployed against the two main roads into town, forcing the attackers off the roads and into the fields next to them.  Colonel Rall was still asleep when an aide woke him.  Rall quickly dressed and tried to figure out what was happening.

The Americans fired on the town of Trenton as they advanced.  Because of the long wet march, many of the muskets misfired.  But sufficient shots, especially when combined with artillery fire that was more reliable in wet conditions, managed to create chaos for the Hessian defenders.  Soldiers could not find their officers.  Many men simply ran into the streets and began firing.  Those not taking shelter were cut down.

A few civilians were also killed or wounded as they scrambled for shelter.  Some Hessian accounts say they took fire from civilians who took shots at the soldiers from windows.  This seems unlikely since soldiers would have almost certainly stormed such a house and killed everyone inside.  Other accounts say Hessian riflemen took positions in the upper stories of houses to shoot at the enemy.

Colonel Rall received a report that the Americans were on both sides of town, cutting off all avenues of retreat.  That was not entirely true.  The Americans had not yet captured the stone bridge on Assunpink Creek.  If Rall had rallied his men and retreated across the bridge, he would have had a good defensive position.  He could have retreated east up a hill where he could have defended against the American attack.  Indeed the only British soldiers in Trenton, twenty mounted dragoons turned tail and got out of town across the bridge.  A large number of Hessian camp followers, women and children with the army also fled across the river before Sullivan’s division could secure it.

Battle of Trenton (from Wikimedia)
But even if Rall had known the bridge was still open,  his instinct was not to retreat.  He wanted to charge the American lines and scatter the enemy.  Like many professional officers, he believed the undisciplined Americans would flee at any daring counterattack.  His experience in New York and North New Jersey had confirmed this view.  Rall sent the bulk of his assembled brigade north through an apple orchard with the intent of charging up a hill into the American center.  At the same time, Hessian artillery pushed north up King street in an attempt to push back the Continental advance.

In response, Washington deployed several companies to the right of Rall’s advancing forces.  If he tried to cross up the hill, his men would be mowed down from two sides. At the same time, Knox’s Continentals artillery continued to fire down King and Queen streets.

Knox’s artillerymen had improved with months of combat experience.   Captain Alexander Hamilton, who had given an embarrassing performance in his attempt to fire his cannon on British ships sailing up the Hudson a few months earlier, now expertly used his guns against the enemy.  When the gun carriage broke on one of Knox’s guns, he ordered nearby infantry to charge an enemy gun with swords and bayonets.  The Hessian artillery had advanced too far without infantry support.

The Continentals charged into enemy fire to capture two cannons. They then turned the guns around and continued firing on the enemy.  The Americans took several wounded in the charge.  Both Captain Washington and Lieutenant Monroe suffered wounds in the charge.  Monroe suffered a severed artery in the shoulder.  He likely would have bled to death on the field, but for the services of Doctor Riker who had joined them overnight.  Riker’s quick action stopped the bleeding and saved the future president from an untimely death.

The Continentals overall fought with an aggressiveness and speed that surprised the enemy.  Perhaps one benefit of the many men who had deserted the Continental army in the weeks prior to battle, was that those remaining were the hard core and most committed.  The Americans fought with a fury, rushing the enemy at every opportunity.  The Hessians took dozens of casualties while inflicting very few on the attackers.

The Hessians fell back into town as multiple Continental brigades pressed them on several fronts.  Colonel Rall finally considered retreating over the bridge to the south, but by this time it was too late.  Continentals had secured the bridge, backed up with cannon.

Capture of Hessians at Trenton by Jonathan Trumbull
(from Wikimedia)
As he ordered his men to fall back, Colonel Rall took two shots in his side, and had to be carried off the field.  He would live until evening when he finally expired after the battle had ended.  With the loss of Rall and several other officers, the two regiments of Hessians who had advanced into the orchard and then began to fall back, decided they had enough.  Rall’s second in command, after failing to find a place to force through the lines and get to the Princeton Road, ordered the men to lay down their arms and surrender.  Many Hessian soldiers, disgusted with the idea of surrendering to the rebels, smashed their muskets on the ground and slashed their equipment.  This denied its use by the enemy and avoided the indignity of turning over the weapons to the enemy.  A few soldiers fled back into town and hid in various buildings, to be captured later.

A third regiment, the Knyphausen regiment was still in town after their comrades surrendered in the apple orchard or at the north of town.  These remaining men attempted to retreat south across the stone bridge.  But as I said, by this time, men from Sullivan’s division had taken control of the bridge and cut off retreat.  The remaining Hessians then tried to move up the creek to look for a spot where they could ford across.  However, the Americans kept up with them along the other side of the creek, continuing their fire.  More Americans came through the town surrounding the last remaining Hessian regiment.

After their acting commander, Major Dechow suffered a mortal wound, he suggested they surrender.  Some of his officers objected.  Dechow told them to do what they wished, then left the regiment. He walked back to town to surrender.  After a few more minutes of trying to find a place to cross the creek, the final regiment found itself surrounded.  The men finally laid down their arms and surrendered to the Americans.


The fighting had lasted somewhere between 45 and 90 minutes.  The American victory was pretty complete.  They had killed or captured most of the combat troops in Trenton.  Only 22 Hessians died in battle, with another 83 wounded, but about 900 were captured.  They also captured six Hessian field cannon, ammunition, and a wealth of supplies.

Next week: A victorious General Washington, had to decide what to do next.

- - -

Next Episode 124 Back Across the Delaware

Previous Episode 122 Crossing the Delaware

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Further Reading: 


Battle of Trenton:

Zellers-Frederick, Andrew A. “The Hessians Who Escaped Washington’s Trap at Trenton” Journal of the American Revolution, 2018:

Bickham, G. “Contemporaneous Account of the Battle of Trenton.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 10, no. 2, 1886, pp. 203–204.

Gianakon, Julie "Doctor Riker’s decision"

Wiederhold, Andreas. “Colonel Rall at Trenton.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 22, no. 4, 1898, pp. 462–467,

Falkner Leonard "A Spy For Washington" American Heritage Aug 1957 Vol 8 Issue 5:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The Detail and Conduct of the American War, under Generals Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, and Vice Admiral Lord Howe, (original reports and letters) The Royal Exchange, 1780.

Carrington, Henry Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781, A.S. Barnes & Co. 1876.

Collins, Varnum L. A Brief Narrative of the Ravages of the British and Hessians at Princeton in 1776-1777; a contemporary account of the battles of Trenton and Princeton, Princeton University Library, 1906.

Drake, Samuel A. The Campaign of Trenton 1776-77, Lee and Shepard, 1899.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 3, Washington: St. Claire Clarke, 1837.

Johnston, Henry The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn, Long Island Historical Society, 1878.

Martin, Joseph Plumb The Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier, 1830 (This is a copy of the original print, but in poor quality.  You can borrow a better quality copy or listen to a free audio copy of the book) or see below in "books worth buying" section.

Reed, William B. (ed) Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, Vol. 1, Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847.

Ross, Charles Derek (ed) Correspondence of Charles, first Marquis Cornwallis, Vol. 1 J. Murray, 1859.

Stryker, William Battles Of Trenton And Princeton, Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1898.

Stryker, William The Continental Army at the Crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night of 1776, J.L. Murphy Publishing Co. 1896.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Atkinson, Richard The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, Henry Holt & Co. 2019

Bill, Alfred Hoyt The Campaign of Princeton 1776-1777, Princeton Univ. Press, 1948.

Dwyer, William The Day Is Ours: How a Ragged Rebel Army Stood the Storm and Saved the Revolution,  Viking, 1983.

Fischer, David Hackett Washington’s Crossing, Oxford Univ. Press, 2004.

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Ketchum, Richard The Winter Soldiers, Garden City: Anchor Books, 1973.

Kidder, William L. Ten Crucial Days: Washington's Vision for Victory Unfolds, Knox Press, 2019 (book recommendation of the week).

Lefkowitz, Arthur S. The Long Retreat, The Calamitous American Defense of New Jersey 1776, Upland Press, 1998.

Maloy, Mark Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, December 25, 1776 - January 3, 1777, Savas Beatie, 2018.

McCullough, David 1776, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Schecter, Barnet The Battle for New York, New York: Walker Publishing, 2002.

Thompson, Ray Washington Along the Delaware: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton as told by the men who were there and through Washington's own official dispatches, Fort Washington, Pa: Bicentennial Press, 1970.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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