Sunday, December 8, 2019

Episode 126: The Battle of Princeton




Last week, following General Washington’s raid on Trenton, General Cornwallis brought an army of over 5000 regulars and Hessians down to restore British control.  The Continental Army had pulled back to Pennsylvania, but once again returned to Trenton a few days later.  The Americans had bloodied Cornwallis’ advance on Trenton and slowed the column so that they did not reach the town until a few hours before nightfall.

Plan of Attack

The British and Hessians actually had fewer soldiers in the Trenton area than did the Continentals and militia.  Cornwallis had about 5000 men, while Washington commanded nearly 7000.  Cornwallis, however, had the best regiments in the army with him, while Washington was relying on relatively untested militia for more than half his force.  Cornwallis also had more artillery with him.

George Washington after Princeton
(from Princeton Museum of Art)
The Continentals were in a good defensive posture on Assunpink Creek and had held off several British attempts to take the bridge over the creek on the evening of January 2, 1777.  Even so, both sides expected that the British would be able to force there way across the creek the next morning and take the battlefield.  The Continentals had a difficult line of retreat, and no easy way to cross over the Delaware River again in the face of the enemy.  So once again, Washington was risking the destruction or capture of the entire Continental Army.

Cornwallis held a council of war with his top generals on the evening on January 2.  Many of them urged a night raid to prevent the Continentals from slipping away at night, like they had at the Battle of Long Island and again at Harlem Heights.  Cornwallis, however, did not want to launch a night attack on unfamiliar ground without good enemy intelligence.  If the enemy gave up their defensive position overnight, the British could chase them down in open field.  If not, a dawn battle made more sense.

Washington also held a council of war.  His generals debated whether to stand and fight or slip away. Fighting carried a good chance that the whole army would be captured.  Leaving without a fight would make the first Battle of Trenton look like a lucky raid against a Hessian outpost, but would not dissipate the conventional wisdom that the Continentals could never really stand up against the British Army.

Then the council considered a third option.  The idea is usually credited to a newly promoted brigadier general, Arthur St. Clair from Pennsylvania.  He proposed the pull out that night but then take a back road to the north around Cornwallis’ army and attack his smaller reserve force at Princeton.  Such a surprise attack would have a higher chance of success against a smaller and unprepared enemy.  It would also mean the Continentals could avoid the battle with Cornwallis without looking like they were simply running away.  It would also put the army in position to hit the town of Brunswick as well.

There is some good evidence that Washington was already preparing for this option before the counsel met.  He likely discussed the plan with St. Clair ahead of time, wanting some other officer to make the initial proposal. After some discussion, the council came to a consensus and Washington approved the plan.

Slipping Away

Once again the weather cooperated to an astonishing degree with the Continentals.  Witnesses reported the night much darker than usual, despite their being a partial moon and no clouds.  More importantly, the muddy slush that has slowed British wagons all day disappeared as the temperature dropped suddenly after dark. The roads froze solid, making travel much easier.  The Americans kept all their campfires stoked and used picks and shovels to convince the British, only a few hundred yards away, that they were digging entrenchments for the morning battle.  Meanwhile the bulk of the army packed up and quietly marched away.  Commanders organized the troops at a whisper and did not tell them what they were doing.  They only had orders to form up and march away.  The quiet movement of so many men down a narrow dirt road took time.  Although the movement began before midnight, some troops did not move out until after 2:00 AM.

Battle of Princeton (from Wikimedia)
Despite American efforts, British sentries and their officers reported the movements back to headquarters.  Cornwallis, however, thought the movements indicated a possible night attack.  As a result, the British remained alert but in camp and on the defensive.

For the Americans, the dark night brought problems of its own.  As the men marched down a dark road toward an unknown destination, most of them had no idea that other units were doing the same thing.  One group of Pennsylvania militia spotted several companies of Continentals at a crossroad and mistook them for Hessians.  More than 1000 militiamen panicked and ran away, ending up in Bordentown the next morning.  Some soldiers never received word of the move.  Benjamin Rush had been working with military surgeons to help the wounded that night.  When they awoke the next morning, they found the camp almost empty.  Assuming the Continentals had retreated to Bordentown in an attempt to get back to Pennsylvania, Rush and his colleagues headed south in an attempt to find them before the British took the camp.

The bulk of Washington’s army, however, remained on task.  The army traveled up a lesser used road off to the east.  Part of the journey required moving through a forest where tree stumps made passage difficult.  Another part required moving through a swamp, which fortunately, had frozen sufficiently to make passage possible.  For many of the men, this was their second night without sleep.  Some reported nodding off while marching.

Despite the conditions of the passage and the men, the army traveled about nine miles in five hours, arriving at Quaker Bridge shortly before 7:00 AM, about the time first light began to brighten the sky.

Quaker Bridge

General Washington had hoped to be at Princeton by dawn, but was still about two miles away.  Quaker Bridge was not strong enough to handle the wagons and artillery, leading to delays in getting the equipment across the river.

As the main army struggled, Washington ordered General Hugh Mercer to move west to the main road used by the British to travel between Princeton and Trenton.  Mercer’s assignment was to destroy the bridge on that road and set up a defensive line there so that, once Cornwallis realized the Americans had left Trenton and were attacking Princeton, he would be delayed in getting his regulars and Hessians back to Princeton.

The Death of General Mercer (from Wikimedia)
Mercer led a detachment toward the bridge while the main army continued up the road toward Princeton.  About a mile from the bridge, however, the Americans discovered a large column of British soldiers crossing the bridge headed south.  This turned out to be a reinforcement column led by Colonel Charles Mawhood.  Cornwallis had ordered Mawhood to bring his force from Princeton to Trenton for what he thought would be the morning battle in Trenton.

When the two armies discovered each other, they immediately formed lines of battle and prepared to fight.  Neither knew exactly how large the other force was.  Mawhood commanded about 450 men, including eight artillery pieces and some cavalry.  Washington deployed a force under General Nathanael Greene which, including Mercer’s men, totaled about 1500.  But the pace of battle initially favored the British.  Greene ordered Mercer to confront the British force.  Both sides rushed to take possession of an orchard in the area between the two armies.  About 50 British dragoons reached the orchard first, but were pushed back by about 120 Americans.  Both sides sent in more reinforcements with two lines forming about 40 yards apart.  Both began firing volleys, standing their ground and taking heavy casualties.

The British were outnumbered at this point but ordered a bayonet charge.  The Americans, who did not have bayonets, began to fall back.  Mercer attempted to rally the troops but got knocked down by a British soldier who demanded his surrender.  Rather than surrender, Mercer lunged at the soldiers with his sword.  The British bayoneted him repeatedly and left him for dead on the field.  Second in command, Colonel John Haslet, who had fought heroically in multiple battles in New York, took a shot to the head and also died.  Some British soldiers mistook Mercer for Washington and thought they had killed the American leader

In the face of British bayonets and the deaths of their officers, the survivors of Mercer’s force began to retreat in disarray.  As they fell back, they ran into Colonel John Cadwalader’s advancing Pennsylvania militia, who had been coming forward to reinforce them.  The frightened retreat of Mercer’s men caused part of the militia to turn and run as well.  But part of the line stood and fought, including an artillery battery that fired on the advancing British.  Seeing the American line hold, some of those soldiers who had fled initially, turned around and returned to the line.

Washington Rallies Troops at Princeton (from Wikimedia)
About that time, Washington himself arrived on the field of battle.  Now I’ll be the first to admit that Washington has some limitations as a strategist, but no one could compete with him as a field officer for bravery and leadership.  Washington rallied the line and led his men toward the enemy.  Washington was about 30 paces away from the enemy, still on horseback, leading his army into the charge.  One witness reported that the British line fired a volley directly at Washington. The soldier witnessing this event closed his eyes and turned away, thinking Washington certainly would have died on the spot.  But when he looked up again, Washington remained on his horse, unharmed, still encouraging his men forward.

The superior American numbers forced back the British, many of whom were killed or captured.  General John Sullivan brought another 1300 soldiers to the field, giving the Americans an overwhelming numerical advantage.  Washington, clearly elated at the win, shouted to his men “It is a fine fox chase my boys!”  He began to gallop after the fleeing enemy until his aides stopped him and reminded him that he needed to return to the main army for the attack on Princeton.  I think Washington considered this vindication of the shame he felt when British soldiers used fox hunting calls to chase down Americans during a retreat in New York.

Some of the British soldiers fled west and scattered.  But Mawhood ordered his artillery and the remainder of his army to move back north to Princeton to aid in the defense of the town.

Frog Hollow

Part of Mawhood’s remaining force moved to a defensive position at a ravine known as Frog Hollow.  There, they hoped to engage with the advancing Americans.  Mawhood had moved his artillery to support the position, making an American assault more difficult.

General Sullivan’s force fought a pitched battle along the ravine.  The American’s aggressively moved on the British defenses, climbing through the ravine to engage with the enemy.  The American numbers made the British position untenable, as the Americans attacked them from the center, and began to envelope them from both flanks.  The British fell back in good order to another defensive breastwork where they continued the fight.  Eventually, in the face of overwhelming numbers, the remaining British force surrendered.

Nassau Hall

Nassau Hall (from Princeton Museum of Art)
The final British stand took place at Nassau Hall, a large brick building on the college campus of Princeton University, then called the College of New Jersey.  The Americans brought up artillery, commanded by Captain Alexander Hamilton and fired on the building.  The Americans then rushed the building.  The British finally surrendered rather than continue the fight.

The British defenses though, gave time for Colonel Mawhood to remove some of the supplies from Princeton and march them toward Brunswick, thus denying them to the enemy.  Other than the loss of supplies, Princeton was a great American victory.  The British suffered around 150 dead and wounded, with another 300 or so prisoners.  The Americans lost about 40 killed and another 40 wounded.

Cornwallis in Pursuit

Washington, however, still needed to contend with General Cornwallis, who by this time and realized the Americans had left him at Trenton and were at Princeton.  Cornwallis moved his army toward Princeton, only to encounter the Americans at Stoney Brook, the spot where General Mercer had originally been deployed to delay Cornwallis.  With the bridge destroyed and an American rear guard preventing an easy crossing, Cornwallis was delayed long enough to let the Americans escape Princeton before the main British Army could get there.

Washington had little time to decide his next move.  One possible move was to move his army on Brunswick.  There the Americans could have captured the British supplies, including a pay chest with about £70,000 in hard currency.  This would have gone a long way toward paying the soldiers and supplying them for some time to come.

The Battle of Princeton (from Princeton Museum of Art)
But the Americans were exhausted. Most had not slept in two nights, had fought two battles over the last two days, and had been on repeated marches when not fighting.  Raiding Brunswick would have meant Cornwallis’ army probably catching up with them there and engaging in another major battle, this time with the British having a numerical advantage.  Washington later claimed that with only a few hundred fresh troops, he could have taken Brunswick and added another victory.

Instead though, his moved his army north to Somerset, where his men collapsed for the night.  By this time, Cornwallis was more concerned about protecting his supplies at Brunswick than pursuing the Continentals.  He led his army back to Brunswick without considering an attack on Washington at Somerset

Over the next few days, Washington led his army north, through the Watchung mountains to winter quarters in Morristown in northern New Jersey.   Only 25 miles west of New York City, the position established that the Americans were not ready to run from the British and would control most of New Jersey.

Aftermath

Although the Battles of Trenton and Princeton already get a lot of notoriety, it really is hard to overstate how important they were to the American cause. The week before Christmas, the British had looked invincible.  There were calls for Washington to be replaced, and the Continental army seemed on the verge of dissolution.

Less than two weeks later, the American victories gave new hope to the cause for independence.  Washington had out-generaled the best British generals and had secured support for his command, at least for now.  Soldiers began to reenlist, and new recruits enlisted in much greater numbers.  Americans who thought the cause was lost, took new hope and provided new support.  Tories, and the British back home realized that victory would not come as quickly and as easily as they expected.

Hugh Mercer (from Revolutionary-War)
The British, of course, tried to downplay the events as a minor raid on a small outpost, and noted that Washington was still afraid to face Cornwallis’ army directly.  The British though, realized they could not pacify large regions with a series of small outposts. The British had to keep their forces concentrated around New York City or face another attack like Trenton.

For the British leadership, everyone tried to blame someone else.  General Howe mostly blamed the Hessians, even though they had played almost no command role at Assunpink Creek or Princeton.  General Clinton blamed Howe for setting up the outposts and Cornwallis for letting Washington slip away at Assunpink Creek.  Lower field officers lost respect for the generals after allowing what they were told were untrained inferior rebels to outmaneuver the British Army.

General Howe’s initial letters to London attempted to downplay the events as relatively minor.  However, over the following weeks, his letters turned increasingly pessimistic as the rebels seemed to gain new momentum from the victories.  In a letter to Lord Germain, Howe said
"It is with much concern that I am to inform your Lordship the unfortunate and untimely defeat at Trenton has thrown us further back, than was at first apprehended, from the great encouragement given to the rebels...I do not now see a prospect of terminating the war but by a general action...”
Some have noted these comments were an admission that Howe had not been seeking a general action up until this point.  His goal was to push back the Continental Army but avoid a bloodbath.  This would prove the British were invincible and that the war would end without great bloodshed.  The American wins at Trenton and Princeton now destroyed that presumption of British invincibility.  Now, Howe was saying the gloves were off and they would have to do some serious fighting in the coming year.

The Patriots, of course, played up the victories.  On January 13, 1777, Thomas Paine published Chapter 2 of his American Crisis series. Essentially Paine’s Crisis number two was an open letter to General Howe, which taunted him about his inability to conquer America.  The experiences of the past few weeks showed that yes, the British Army could occupy a city or two, but could never effectively control the people of America.
“We may be surprised by events we did not expect, and in that interval of recollection you may gain some temporary advantage: such was the case a few weeks ago, but we soon ripen again into reason, collect our strength, and while you are preparing for a triumph, we come upon you with a defeat.”
Military recruiters who were getting laughed out of town a few weeks earlier were now filling their enlistment quotas.  The Continental Army rebuilt itself as people regained hope in the ability to resist the British.

Washington's Headquarters at Morristown, NJ
George Washington, who a few weeks earlier was seen by many as perhaps an amateur in over his head, now became the hero of the continent.  Talk of replacing him vanished, at least for the moment.  General Horatio Gates, who had bet on Washington failing in his attack and who had rode off to Baltimore to convince Congress to put him in charge, now had to crawl back to Washington and pretend he was supporting him all the time.  Amazingly, Washington did not seem to hold it against General Gates, and allowed him to continue in his command.

Washington, of course, did not simply get credit for being a great general.  He was actually becoming a great general.  Over past year, he learned from his mistakes at Boston and New York.  He now appreciated the importance of good intelligence.  He was figuring out who his best generals were and how best to make use of them.  He was learning more how not to fight the British on their terms, but to use surprise and the strengths of his Continentals and militia to defeat the enemy.

Crossing the Delaware the first time had been an act of desperation.  If it had failed, the whole army probably would have disappeared.  The second crossing to Trenton was doubling down on the gamble and again risking everything to build on the first success.  The surprise move on Princeton showed the ability of the Continentals to think on their feet and to adjust strategy based on what they could do.  The decision not to go after Brunswick showed a realistic assessment of their limitations and not to push their luck too far.  Finally, settling into winter quarters in northern New Jersey near New York City established that this was not just a hit and run, but an army that was reconquering its territory.

Next Week, the Americans use the rest of the winter to run a guerrilla war against the British, keeping them on the defensive.

- - -

Next Episode 127 The Forage War (Available Dec. 15, 2019)

Previous Episode 125 Second Battle of Trenton

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Further Reading

Websites

American Crisis Ch. 2, Letter to William Howe, by Thomas Paine: http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1776-1785/thomas-paine-american-crisis/chapter-ii---to-lord-howe---philadelphia-jan-13-1777.php

Battle of Princeton: https://paw.princeton.edu/article/battle-princeton

Battle of Princeton: https://www.britishbattles.com/war-of-the-revolution-1775-to-1783/battle-of-princeton

Battle of Princeton: http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/battle-of-princeton

10 Facts About the Battle of Princeton:
http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/the-revolutionary-war/ten-facts-about-the-revolutionary-war/10-facts-about-the-battle-of-princeton

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

The Parliamentary Register: Or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons, Vol. 10 (1802).

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.

Goolrick, John The Life of General Hugu Mercer, Neal Publishing, 1906

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 the "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.

Wilkinson, James Memoirs of my own times, Abraham Small, 1816.

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com 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.

Cecere, Michael Second to No Man but the Commander in Chief, Hugh Mercer: American Patriot, Heritage Books, 2018 (book recommendation of the week).

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.

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.

Price, David The Road to Assunpink Creek: Liberty's Desperate Hour and the Ten Crucial Days of the American Revolution, Knox Press, 2019.

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.


Sunday, December 1, 2019

Episode 125 Second Battle of Trenton




We last left the Continental Army having pulled off a surprise victory at Trenton, capturing the Hessian garrison there.  After retreating back to Pennsylvania, the leadership almost immediately decided to go back to New Jersey and see if they could follow up on their victory.

Howe Deploys a Counterattack

As Washington attempted to build on his victory at Trenton, the British in New York had to decide how to react to the Trenton raid.

I’ve been covering quite a bit of detail in the last few episodes, so it’s important to remember that, despite several episodes, it had been only about two weeks since General Howe had secured New Jersey in mid-December, organized the outposts and returned to New York City to sit out the cold winter with good wine, a fire, and his mistress.

Lord Cornwallis (from NPS)
Colonel Carl Von Donop had retreated from Mount Holly on the night of December 26 moving his force of Hessians toward Princeton and Brunswick.  He collected some the Hessians who had escaped capture at Trenton during his march.  Von Donop sent a messenger to Brunswick with news of the capture of Trenton.  From there, General James Grant, who served in overall command of the force in New Jersey, sent an express rider to New York City to inform General Howe.  Some of the reports coming in suggested the Americans had invaded New Jersey with as many as 20,000 men.  In truth there were maybe 5000 or 6000 total combined American soldiers in the state, most of whom were relatively inexperienced militia.

When Howe received word on December 27 that the Americans had attacked Trenton the day before and taken the Hessians prisoner, he knew his work was not done for the year.  Howe had no intention of marching out into the snow himself.  Instead, he called upon the most able field officer still in New York.

General Lord Cornwallis, has already stowed his bags aboard the HMS Bristol.  He was looking forward to his return to England for the winter, and to be with his sick wife.  Instead, Howe cancelled his leave and ordered him back into New Jersey.  Cornwallis would take his army to Brunswick and then on to Princeton, linking up with General Grant and the other British and Hessian forces already in New Jersey.

Occupying Trenton

To meet the British column preparing to advance on Trenton, the Americans had retaken the town. The first of Washington’s troops reentered the town on the afternoon of December 29, three days after they had first raided and then returned to Pennsylvania.  Washington continued to move men across the river that night as well as the 30th and 31st.  Washington personally crossed on the morning of December 30 and joined his men in Trenton later that day.

Colonel Joseph Reed was already in Trenton on the 29th when the first soldiers arrived.  He had been with Colonel John Cadwalader’s militia who crossed on the 27th and had made his way from Burlington to Trenton a day earlier.  Reed immediately began deploying soldiers in pursuit of Colonel Von Donop’s Hessians who were mostly north of Trenton by this time, but perhaps not entirely secured and connected with reinforcements.  It was not until the following day, December 30th that the bulk of Von Donop’s army reached Princeton and joined up with General Alexander Leslie’s regulars.  That same day, Reed personally road out near Princeton to scout the town and gather intelligence on the enemy position.

John Cadwalader
(from Smithsonian)
Other soldiers under Cadwalader had already occupied Allentown, where Von Donop’s Hessians had encamped the day before.  In addition to looking for Hessians, some of whom were hiding in farm houses in the area, the Continentals rounded up Tories who had given aid to the enemy during the British occupation.

As Washington committed the Continental Army to New Jersey, he was not confident that he could hold it against what the British might throw at him.  He kept most of the army’s baggage in Newtown, Pennsylvania.  He left General Lord Stirling in command with the baggage.  Stirling had participated in the first crossing, but had fallen ill under the harsh conditions and was unable to participate in the second crossing.  He was left in command of other soldiers who were also too sick to remain on active duty, but not sick enough to be sent to Philadelphia for care.  Washington also organized boats at each of the various ferry crossings, lest the army be forced to make a hasty retreat in the face of overwhelming force.

Some of the Continental officers thought they should go on the offensive immediately and attack Princeton.  Washington, however, opted to occupy Trenton again and await the British response there.  Like the Hessians before them, the Americans saw little point in trying to fortify the town itself.  There were no natural barriers or defensive positions for any sort of siege.  Washington took up residence in a building downtown, but the Americans planned to meet the British on the hill just below town, across Assunpink Creek.  The hill with the creek on one flank and woods on the other provided a defensible position for a frontal assault.

On the other hand, if they enemy wanted to work his way around the hill and hit from the back, the defenders would be in big trouble.  The narrow bridge provided the main avenue of retreat, and could easily be cut off by the enemy.

To avoid such a trap, Washington deployed soldiers all over the region.  He sent cavalry patrols up all the major and minor roads looking for signs of the enemy.  He personally questioned some captured enemy deserters and prisoners.  Word spread that he would pay hard money for any tips or other helpful information about the enemy.  He also deployed soldiers, usually with artillery, at any fords where the enemy might potentially cross.

British Response

It took Cornwallis a couple of days to assemble his forces who were camped in and around New  York City. He began with a long one day forced march on New Year’s day 1777 to Princeton, about 50 miles.  Along with the forces already in the colony, Cornwallis had at his disposal a force of about 10,000 regulars and Hessians, as well as thousands of more loyalist militia if needed.  About 8000 of those were concentrated in and around Princeton.

Carl Von Donop
(from Wikimedia)
After arriving late that evening Cornwallis assembled his officers for a council of war.  He was not much interested in their advice, as much as he was there to give them their orders.  He would take the bulk of his army, about 6000 soldiers, straight down the post road to Trenton.  There, he would take on the enemy directly.

Others, including Colonel Von Donop who had joined Cornwallis’ force at Princeton, recommended two columns in a flanking maneuver, so that they could push the Continentals back from two sides.  Cornwallis, however, did not want to waste any time.  He believed a short direct assault, launched quickly would force the Continentals to scatter or be crushed.

He was not going to waste any time.  The men would assemble that night and be prepared to march by morning on January 2.  Cornwallis had selected the best regiments of the army, a full complement of artillery, including large twelve pounders, and would rely on overwhelming force and speed to hit the enemy.  At first light, the column began marching, even before some regiments had arrived.  There would be no delay, they would have to catch up.  Colonel Von Donop’s Hessians would be given the honor of leading the column.

British and Hessian officers and men alike were ready for a fight.  Many thought the Christmas raid to be a sleazy tactic by an uncivilized enemy.  The Hessians were particularly embarrassed by the loss at Trenton and were more than ready to redeem their reputation. Von Donop told every man under his command that if they took any Americans prisoner, they would receive 50 lashes.  In other words, there were to be no prisoners.  All enemy combatants would be put to the sword.

Eight Mile Run

In preparing to meet the British response, Washington made use of local militia who knew the area well.  He also relied on numerous patrols to keep track of enemy movements.  The Continentals set up outposts between Princeton and Trenton, who could keep tabs on the enemy and harass them when they moved.

Before Cornwallis even arrived in Princeton, the Americans had begun to engage the enemy there.  Washington sent a force of about 1000 Continentals and militia toward Princeton to engage the enemy and delay its advance.  The force included a few small artillery pieces, a few rifle regiments, as well as some of his best infantry companies.

This special force fell under the command of General Matthias de Roche-Fermoy.  This was the first French officer to receive a general’s commission from the Continental Congress.  Unlike later French officers, Fermoy came from Martinique in the West Indies, not France itself.  He had presented himself to Congress as a Colonel of Engineers in the French Army.  Not doing any background checks, Congress took him at his word, commissioned him a general in November 1776, and sent him off to Washington’s Army.  Fermoy had led a division at the first battle of Trenton and by most accounts, had commanded his division well.

Second Trenton (from Mt. Vernon)
On new year’s eve, the Americans set up a defensive position about halfway between Princeton and Trenton where the road crossed a small creek known as Eight Mile Run. It was a good defensive position where the terrain made it difficult for a larger force to flank the defenders or storm them in force.

On the morning of January 1, a mixed force of British light infantry and Hessian Jaegers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercromby, moved down the road.  Their goal was to sweep it for any rebels before the main column advanced the next day.  They ran into the American defenders and opened fire.  The Americans held their positions and returned fire, resulting in a pitched battle of several hours.  The British were forced to bring in reinforcements of British grenadiers before the Americans gave up their position.  The British and Hessians took well over 100 casualties.  American casualties are not well recorded, but are estimated at two or three dozen.  At least two Americans were captured and then summarily shot.  This was pursuant to orders to take no prisoners.

The battle at Eight Mile Run was a fairly substantial one as far as Revolutionary war skirmishes go, but one that gets lost in the larger events of a few days before and after.  It also put the British on notice that the Americans were in no mood to scatter and would challenge their advance on Trenton.  The British could probably take the town, but would pay a substantial price in blood.

Militia Reinforce the Continentals

On the evening on January 1, probably about the same time Cornwallis was holding his council of War with British and Hessian officers in Princeton, Washington held his own council of war with his generals in Trenton, including his two division commanders, Greene and Sullivan, as well as Knox, Reed, and St. Clair.  Congress had just promoted Knox to general a few days earlier, following the first battle of Trenton.  So, congratulations Henry!  The leaders expected a British advance to come and needed to decide how to respond.  They could fall back to Crosswix where Pennsylvania Colonel John Cadwalader still had a couple of thousand militia. They could order Cadwalader’s forces to join them in Trenton, or they could fight on their own, then fall back and allow Cadwalader’s forces to hit the British a second time.

After some debate, they decided it would be best to focus both armies in Trenton and face the enemy there.  Benjamin Rush, a member of Congress, was visiting the army that night and had just come from Cadwalader’s forces.  The generals asked his opinions and requested that he carry a note to Cadwalader ordering his army to Trenton.  Rush set off that night with Washington’s orders, making the seven mile journey on horseback in about three hours.  He arrived at Cadwalader’s camp around 1:00 AM and got the general out of bed.

After a brief discussion Cadwalader woke his army, assembled the men, and began a night march to Trenton.  The bulk of his army arrived in Trenton shortly after dawn on the morning of the second.  The combined Continental army and militia in New Jersey totaled around 7000 men, although not all of them were in Trenton.

The British Advance

On January 2, only hours after Cadwalader’s forces had begun marching north to Trenton from Crosswix, Cornwallis’ main column of British and Hessians began their march south from Princeton toward Trenton.  Only a mile or two out of Princeton, the lead column began taking fire.  Enemy riflemen attempted to pick off officers or anyone mounted on a horse.  They shot and then rode off before anyone could get to them.  The harassing fire took out a few men, but mostly had the effect of angering and fraying the nerves of the attacking column even further.

At least once or twice, a Hessian attempted to ride out after one of these local horsemen.  The horseman led his pursuer into an American ambush who shot and killed the Hessian.  The locals then disappeared before anyone else from the column could attack them.

The column had spread out over the road.  When the advance group arrived at Maidenhead, about five miles north of Trenton, they stopped and waited for the main column to catch up with them.  As they began their advance toward Trenton, they found the American advance force waiting for them at Five Mile Creek.  General Fermoy, who commanded the Continental forces there, saw the enemy approaching, and executed what I like to call a “French charge.”  This is a maneuver where an officer mounts his horse turned around so that the tail of the horse is facing the enemy, then spurs the horse to flee from the field in a panic.  Fermoy galloped away toward Trenton without saying a word, leaving his brigade without its commander.

Edward Hand (from Geni)
The soldiers were stunned, but second in command Colonel Edward Hand from Pennsylvania assumed command, assisted by Major Henry Miller from Maryland.  The men ambushed the British advance guard, forcing them to retreat in disarray back to the main column.  American artillery forced the British column to stop and form a line of battle.

The American force was clearly outnumbered against Cornwallis’ entire army and never expected to do anything but delay the British advance.  They held the British at bay for about two hours before British flanking maneuvers threatened to surround them.  They pulled back in good order to another defensible position about a quarter of a mile down the road.  There, they halted the British column a second time.  When overwhelming forces moved in on their position a second time, the group moved further south toward a place called Stockton Hollow, just on the northern outskirts of Trenton.  Again, they delayed the British column before Colonel Hand and his men fell back once again.

The British and Hessian forces marched into Trenton from the north, the same route taken by the Americans in the first battle of Trenton.  There was some street fighting in the town as the Americans fell back.  The men retreated through Trenton to reach the main continental lines just south of Trenton on the other side of Assunpink Creek.  General Knox’s thirty cannons opened up an artillery barrage on the British and Hessians as they began to occupy the town.  General Cornwallis, ordered his own larger cannon to get into position and return fire.  The artillery duel lasted about thirty minutes.

Colonel Hand’s delaying tactics had done what they needed to do.  They kept the British from reaching Trenton until just before sundown.  The British and Hessians took control of Trenton where there was some infantry fighting in the late afternoon.  Hand’s Brigade made a fairly orderly retreat through the town, along with a few regiments that Washington sent across the creek to support the retreat.  The Hessians did manage to capture one unarmed chaplain who had lingered in a Trenton tavern a little too long.  Taking no prisoners, they robbed the man, stripped him naked, forced him onto his knees, then bayoneted him to death.

Continentals defend bridge over Assunpink Creek
(from Rev War and Beyond)
Most of the Americans, though, retreated out of town, across the bridge over Assunpink Creek.  To make sure the retreat did not turn into a panic, General Washington rode down to the bridge and directed the men personally across, pointed them to their positions in the main Continental line.

At sundown, the British and Hessians probed the line for points of weakness, but found that Washington had deployed his troops and artillery to cover the bridge and any fords along the river where the enemy might cross.  The British and Hessians made four attempts to take the bridge that evening, but were driven back with heavy casualties each time.  The British did not bother to report their casualties, but the Americans estimated the killed, wounded, or captured to be at least 500.  Most estimates put the number at 350-400, including those shot during the march to Trenton as well as the fighting in town and on the bridge.  The Americans took only about 50 casualties that day..

With nightfall, both sides settled down for the night.  Although they continued to fire their cannons all night, Cornwallis decided against a nighttime infantry attack.  Many of his men had marched about 70 miles in two days and had been involved in a running fight for most of the day.  Cornwallis kept his men along the banks of the creek, without fires, where they could keep an eye on the Americans and prevent the enemy from making any advances to identify their positions.  Cornwallis then deployed his army into positions for a dawn raid.  American scouts reported these deployments.

Cornwallis held another council of war with his other officers, Grant, Stirling, Leslie and Erskine.  They discussed the option of a night raid but Cornwallis opted for a dawn attack once all his forces were positioned where he wanted them.  He also wanted to bring in more artillery overnight from Princeton.  A night attack on unfamiliar terrain with exhausted troops just held too many risks.  They would finish the job in the morning.

Next week: Washington opts not to let Cornwallis finish the job at Trenton, but instead dashes off to fight the Battle of Princeton.
- - -

Next Episode 126 Battle of Princeton

Previous Episode 124 Back Across the Delaware

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Further Reading

Websites 

Battle Map: http://www.mountvernon.org/preservation/maps/map-battle-of-second-trenton

Second Battle of Trenton https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/battle-of-second-trenton

American Military Podcast, Second Battle of Trenton: http://americanmilitaryhistorypodcast.com/the-edward-hand-of-washington-the-second-battle-of-trenton

Ferris, Frederick The Two Battles of Trenton Trenton Historical Society: http://www.trentonhistory.org/His/battles.html

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

The Parliamentary Register: Or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons, Vol. 10 (1802).

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.

Clyde, John C. Rosbrugh, a Tale of the Revolution, Easton, 1880.

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 the "books worth buying" section.

Reed, Joseph General Joseph Reed's Narrative of the Movements of the American Army in the Neighborhood of Trenton in the Winter of 1776-77, originally published in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 8 (Dec. 1884).

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.

Wilkinson, James Memoirs of my own times, Abraham Small, 1816.

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com 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.

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.

Price, David The Road to Assunpink Creek: Liberty's Desperate Hour and the Ten Crucial Days of the American Revolution, Knox Press, 2019 (book recommendation of the week).

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.