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.

Aftermath

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 (Available Nov. 24, 2019)

Previous Episode 122 Crossing the Delaware



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Further Reading: 

Websites 

Battle of Trenton: https://www.myrevolutionarywar.com/battles/761226-trenton

Zellers-Frederick, Andrew A. “The Hessians Who Escaped Washington’s Trap at Trenton” Journal of the American Revolution, 2018: https://allthingsliberty.com/2018/04/the-hessians-who-escaped-washingtons-trap-at-trenton

Bickham, G. “Contemporaneous Account of the Battle of Trenton.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 10, no. 2, 1886, pp. 203–204. www.jstor.org/stable/20083136.

Gianakon, Julie "Doctor Riker’s decision" https://hekint.org/2017/01/30/doctor-rikers-decision

Wiederhold, Andreas. “Colonel Rall at Trenton.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 22, no. 4, 1898, pp. 462–467, www.jstor.org/stable/20085817.

Falkner Leonard "A Spy For Washington" American Heritage Aug 1957 Vol 8 Issue 5:
https://www.americanheritage.com/spy-washington

Free eBooks
(from archive.org 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 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 (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.



Sunday, November 10, 2019

Episode 122 Crossing the Delaware




For the last few weeks I've been building up Washington's famous crossing of the Delaware River, famously portrayed in Emanuel Leutze’s  painting.  Despite the attention given to this famous act, it's hard to exaggerate just how important this event was to the course of the war.  Had Washington not attempted the attack, or failed in its execution, there is a very good chance that the Continental Army would have dissolved that winter and the rebellion come to an end.

Continental Army in Tatters

Washington's Army had fallen to a few thousand men without adequate food, clothing, or shelter to get through the winter. the British regulars had pushed them back to Philadelphia.  The only thing that had kept the regulars from taking Philadelphia that winter, was General Howe’s decision not to deliver the final blow.  A great many of Washington’s soldiers had already gone home, and many of those remaining were simply waiting for their enlistments to end on December 31st.  Conventional wisdom was that, if there was still an army in the field to oppose it, the British Army would begin its final offensive in the spring, continue conquering territory, and suppress all armed resistance and talk of independence.

Washington's Crossing by Emanuel Leutze
(from Metropolitan Museum of Art)
It was far from clear that Washington's surprise attack would be successful or even that it would be a surprise.  The combined British and Hessian forces in southern New Jersey probably outnumbered the forces that Washington could put into any attack.  Washington had to have considered the precedent a year earlier when generals Montgomery and Arnold conducted a similar winter attack against Quebec leading to Montgomery's death, Arnold’s serious injury, and the capture of most of the northern army.

This is pure speculation on my part, but I have often wondered if Washington really thought he could pull off a victory that night, or whether he thought it preferable to die in a desperate battle rather than lose the war and surrender. Whatever he really thought about his chances, Washington never expressed any defeatism even to his closest associates.

Washington’s situation had improved a little.  Following the capture of General Charles Lee on December 13, his army in northern New Jersey, which Lee had complained could not make the journey to join up with Washington, seemed to have no problems making the march without their commander.  General Horatio Gates had also led regiments from Fort Ticonderoga to join Washington.  The Pennsylvania Associators, which were militia, also assembled to provide support.

By December 22, Washington reported that the men under his command numbered over 11,000, though only about half were ready for combat.  The other half of his army remained on the sick rolls.  Lack of adequate winter clothing and shoes, as well as inadequate food, contributed largely to the numbers of sick.  Even so, his effective fighting force of just over 6000 gave him a slight numerical advantage over the British and Hessian outposts along southern New Jersey, or as it was called at the time, West Jersey.

The Decision to Fight

That same day, Colonel Joseph Reed sent a letter to Washington saying that his spies had seen little activity between the scattered and isolated British outposts, and that Colonel Samuel Griffin’s force of 600 had engaged Colonel Carl Von Donop’s Hessians at Mt. Holly and were in high spirits.

Reed’s letter continued by recommending that Washington either send more troops to reinforce Griffin, or use the opportunity to make a major attack on another isolated outpost.  Reed thought the latter a better choice.  He stressed his recommendation by saying:
I will not disguise my own Sentiments that our Cause is desperate & hopeless if we do not take the [opportunity] of the Collection of Troops at present to strike some Stroke. Our Affairs are hasting fast to Ruin if we do not retrieve them by some happy Event. Delay with us is now equal to a total Defeat.  Be not deceived my dear General with small flatterg Appearances, we must not suffer our selves to be lulld into Security & Inacti[o]n because the Enemy does not cross the River—It is but a Reprieve the Execution is the more certain for I am very clear that they can & will cross the River in Spite of any Opposition we can give them.
Remember Reed and Washington had a strained relationship at this time, because Washington had recently learned of Reed’s letter to General Lee criticizing Washington for his indecision in his battles with the British in New York. Reed ended his letter asking pardon for his impertinence in recommending strategy to his commander, but again stressed the desperate circumstances.
Pardon the Freedom I have used, the Love of my Country, a Wife & 4 Children in the Enemys Hands, the Respect & Attachment I have to you—the Ruin & Poverty that must attend me & thousands of others will plead my Excuse for so much Freedom.
A courier brought Reed’s letter to Washington that same day.  Within hours, Washington convened a council of war with his most senior officers to discuss their options.  Washington submitted the proposal to cross the Delaware and attack a Hessian outpost as Reed’s, not his own.  He wanted his generals to speak openly before he presented his own views.  Everyone seemed to agree that an attack was the best option.  Even if it was risky, the consensus that doing nothing would lead to almost certain dissolution of the army meant that such a risk was justified.  The council then turned to the tougher question of how this would be done.

Planned Crossing Points
(from US Marine Corps College)
With Von Donop’s force of around 3000 Hessians in Mount Holly facing Colonel Griffith’s 600 Americans, the smaller outpost at Trenton was isolated.  Von Donop had been stationed at Bordentown, only five miles from Trenton.  His current location at Mount Holly was about 20 miles away, a day’s march given the weather.  Support from the outpost at Princeton was 14 miles from Trenton and had fewer troops to deploy.  The 1400 Hessians isolated at Trenton became the target of the Continental attack.

Once again, Washington relied on Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead regiment to get his army across the river.  Glover had been invaluable in moving the army across the rivers around New York.  His New England mariners would once again use their experience to move an army across the Delaware River at night.

The next day, December 23, Washington sent out his orders to senior officers for the planned attack on the night of December 25.  Surprise was a key element of the attack.  Washington instructed his senior officers not to reveal the plan the rank and file.  Surprise, though, was out of the question.  The British had numerous spies at top levels of the Continental Army.  Shortly after the American officers learned of the planned attack, an express rider took off for Brunswick New Jersey to inform British General James Grant.  After learning of the plans, Grant sent another express rider back to Trenton to inform the local commander, Colonel Johan Rall, of the planned attack.  Rall received this intelligence on the evening of December 25.  The intelligence was vague, but it told Rall to be on alert for a possible attack.

The Plan

Washington had long had a penchant for drawing up hopelessly complex plans of attack.  This attack was no exception.  Washington divided his forces into three separate divisions.  Washington with his main force would cross the Delaware with the largest force of about 2400 soldiers at a small town with the amazingly coincidental name of “Washington’s Crossing” about 10 miles north of Trenton.  Ok, the area got that name after the fact.  At the time, it was known as McConkey’s Ferry.  His force would also make use of Johnson’s Ferry, a short distance upstream from McConkey’s.

A second force of 1200 men under the command of Pennsylvania Militia General James Ewing would cross at Trenton Ferry, just south of town.  Although Ewing was a militia officer, he had decades of experience.  He was actually an alumnus of the Braddock Expedition, along with Washington, from way back in 1755.  Ewing’s mission was to capture and hold the bridge just south of Trenton, to prevent any Hessian retreat as Washington’s forces attacked from the north.

John Cadwalader and Family
(from Wikimedia)
A third force under the command of Colonel John Cadwalader with 1200 Philadelphia Associators, and Colonel Daniel Hitchcock with 600 Continentals, would cross about 12 miles south of Trenton from Bristol, Pennsylvania to Burlington New Jersey, the current location of the Burlington Bristol Bridge.  Of course, there was no bridge at the time.  The men would have to cross in boats.  Their mission was to attack Colonel Von Donop’s Hessians and British Colonel Stirling’s Highlanders, possibly joining up with Colonel Griffith’s 600 militia who had already engaged Von Donop at Mount Holly.  Although the enemy outnumbered the patriot attackers here, they were mostly there to act as a diversion and prevent Stirling or Von Donop from marching to rescue the forces at Trenton.  As Washington put it in his orders to Cadwalader: “if you can do nothing real, at least create as great a diversion as possible.”

General Israel Putnam also planned to make a fourth crossing further south, moving several hundred Philadelphia militia to attack and distract the enemy at Mount Holly from the south.  Putnam’s attempted crossing, however, was considered the most difficult, and was not considered critical to the Trenton attack.

The plan was for each of these separate crossings take place at night and then have all of them reach their targets at the same time just before dawn in order to surprise the enemy.  This seemed like a tall order. Washington was dividing his forces in the face of the enemy and simply counting on nobody having problems keeping to the planned schedule.  In truth though, Washington had little choice.  There was no way he could get all of these forces across the river at one location in one night. Crossing the river in small boats, loading and unloading men and equipment took considerable time.  It probably would have taken at least two or three days to effect a crossing of all the forces from one location, even in good weather.  Dividing his forces was not so much a tactical choice as it was a necessity.

Washington spent Christmas Eve moving his forces into position for deployment the following night.  The crossing would take place on the night of December 25-26 with the attack on Trenton scheduled for dawn on December 26.  There is a famous story of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a member of the Continental Congress from Philadelphia, visiting Washington on Christmas Eve.  They spoke as Washington wrote out the following day’s password on small slips of paper.  Rush picked up one after it fell to the floor and noted that the password was victory or death.

Crossing the Delaware

On December 25th, each soldier received three day’s rations and 60 rounds of ammunition.  Though they still did not know their mission, everyone knew something was coming.  Almost immediately, things began to go wrong.  Washington had planned for all of his forces to be in place by dusk on the 25th, so that that immediately after dark, just before 5PM, they could move down to the bank and begin crossing.  The entire army had to be across the river by midnight so that they could make the ten mile march to Trenton before dawn.

By dusk though, most of the troops had not arrived at their embarkation points.  With everything so tightly scheduled, even a short delay meant they would arrive in Trenton after dawn. With that, that they would lose the element of surprise.

As Washington was trying to deal with his delays, a messenger delivered a dispatch from General Gates.  Now that General Lee was a prisoner of war, Gates was the ranking general officer with real combat experience as an officer in the regular army before the war started.  You may recall from Episode 118 that Gates had been conspiring with Lee to oust Washington just before the British captured Lee.  Now Gates seemed to be abandoning Washington entirely.  Washington had asked Gates to oversee the crossing at Trenton.  Gates begged off, saying that he was too sick to command the crossing and that he was headed for Philadelphia.  Washington asked him at least to check on the crossing at Bristol on his way to Philadelphia.  But again, Gates claimed he was too sick and had to go straight to Philadelphia.

Now Washington learned that the “sick” General Gates was riding 100 miles to the Continental Congress in Baltimore where he would try to get Congress to order Washington to cancel his attack and pull back the army to Maryland where it could protect the Congress at Baltimore.  Gates was essentially calling Washington a complete failure and saying they needed to give up any defense of Philadelphia because of his failures.  The obvious next step seemed to be to remove Washington and give command of the army to someone else, maybe General Gates.  Upon reading Gates’ message, Washington apparently lost his temper for a moment, something extremely rare, but almost immediately composed himself.  Right now, he had a desperate battle to fight.  He would have to worry about his top general stabbing him in the back later.

Washington likely crossed on a ferry like the one portrayed
here (from Washington's Crossing State Park)
Washington’s more immediate problem was the weather. Just after dark, a light drizzle began to fall.  Very quickly it turned into a driving combination of rain, sleet, and snow, soaking his army and causing the soldiers to freeze.  Ice flows in the river made the crossing almost impossible.  The river had not frozen solid enough for the army to walk across but large chunks of ice made the use of boats extremely hazardous as well.

Further down river, the ice situation was even worse.  General Ewing’s planned crossing just below the Trenton Falls never even started.  The ice jam prevented any chance of a passage.  Ewing’s men did not even get into their boats, but simply turned back and gave up.

At the Bristol Crossing, a similar problem with ice floes made crossing impossible.  Colonel Cadwalader marched his men six miles further south go Dunk’s ferry, where they thought they might have a better chance.  The boats were able to make it about 150 feet from the Jersey shore, when they hit solid ice.  The soldiers were able to get out and walk over the ice, but could not land their cannon or other heavy equipment.  Later attempts to cross found conditions even worse.  After several hours only about one-third of the force had crossed and none of the cannons or horses.  Colonels Cadwalader and Hitchcock decided to call off the attempt and bring the soldiers back to the Pennsylvania side.

The 600 or so soldiers who had already crossed were upset, not only that the rest could not make it, but that they were now required to make the perilous return trip.  Many debated continuing the attack without their leaders.  But after some discussion, they decided that if none of the other divisions had crossed either, they would only be taken prisoner.  Reluctantly, they troops returned to the Pennsylvania by dawn: cold wet, and miserable over the failure of the mission.

Although Washington was not yet aware of these failures, he was dealing with his own problems.  His soldiers were crossing, but the late start and the weather was destroying his time schedule.  Most of the army came over in Durham boats.  These were large high walled flat bottomed boats built for the Durham Iron Works, to ship iron down river.  They looked like really large canoes, 30 to 60 feet long. They were very stable and could carry lots of weight.  The army filled the boats with soldiers, standing for the entire trip in order to cram as many as possible into each crossing.  Also, since they had no seats, sitting down would have meant sitting in a puddle of ice water in the bottom of the boats.

Reproduction Durham Boats
(from Boats Depot)
Although the Durham boats were large enough to handle heavy equipment, getting horses or cannons into the boats, over the high walls would have been difficult.  Instead, the army used the ferries to move cannon and horses across the river.

The river was a little narrower for Washington than for the divisions passing down river.  The crossing was about 800 feet, which was made difficult by a swift current and floating chunks of ice hitting the boats.  The men were forced to jump up and down in the boats to keep ice from forming along the sides of the boats.  Although there was a bright moon that night, storm clouds kept the night dark, making passage even more difficult.

Joining Glover’s New Englanders were men who had grown up on ships and docks.  These experienced sailors tested their limits that night against the tough conditions.  The fact that most soldiers could not swim made the passage even more perilous.  Of course, falling in might mean you could freeze to death even if you did not drown.

Eventually, Washington’s forces made it across the river.  His men built small fires along the banks in an attempt to keep warm.  Washington ordered pickets to cover all roads for several miles, capturing anyone found on the roads at night in order to prevent anyone from warning the Hessians.  But it seemed clear that they could no longer surprise the enemy.

By the time they were ready to march, it was 4:00 AM.  That meant they would not arrive in Trenton until long after daylight.  They would not be able to surprise the Hessians and they would have no other support from the other divisions that failed to cross.  It is not clear exactly when Washington learned that the other crossings were complete failures and this his force was on its own.  Not that it probably would have mattered.  Washington's password of victory or death was not simply an aphorism.  He was going to succeed or die trying.  Turning back, even with the odds against him, was not an option.

- - -

Next Episode 123 First Battle of Trenton (Available Nov. 17, 2019)

Previous Episode 121 Battle of Iron Works Hill



Click here to donate
American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Make a one time donation through my PayPal account. 
Thanks,
Mike Troy


Click here to see my Patreon Page
You can support the American Revolution Podcast as a Patreon subscriber.  This is an option for people who want to make monthly pledges.  Patreon support will give you access to Podcast extras and help make the podcast a sustainable project.  Thanks again!



Further Reading

Websites

Letter from J. Reed to G. Washington, Dec. 22, 1776: https://archive.org/details/jstor-20084674

Washington’s Crossing the Delaware: http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/crossing-of-the-delaware

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): https://www.jstor.org/stable/20084674

Miller, William P. An Examination of George Washington's Employment of the Pennsylvania Militia at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, US Army War College, 2005: https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/An-Examination-of-George-Washington's-Employment-of-Miller/bcfd7e368687e0dab24858922591bce7882eb8d9

Colvin, Patrick. “Patrick Colvin the Ferryman of Trenton in 1776.” The American Catholic Historical Researches, vol. 7, no. 3, 1911, pp. 258–263. www.jstor.org/stable/44374931.

Billias, George A. "Soldier In A Longboat" American Heritage, Feb 1960 Vol. 11 Issue 2:
https://www.americanheritage.com/soldier-longboat

Fischer, David Hackett "The Spirit Of ’76" American Heritage February/March 2004 Vol 55 Issue 1:
https://www.americanheritage.com/spirit-76

Free eBooks
(from archive.org 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 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 (book recommendation of the week).

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.

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, November 3, 2019

Episode 121: Iron Works Hill





When we last left the Continental Army, Washington was probably at the lowest point in his life.  His attempts even to put up a decent defense against the British invasion of New York had failed completely.  By December 1776, his army had retreated across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.  The only reason the British stopped their advance was that the British Commander Howe decided to call off any further campaigning and to put his armies into winter quarters.

Continental Army on the Ropes

The British controlled all of the area around New York, took all of New Jersey, and had moved unopposed into Rhode Island.  General William Howe wrote self-congratulatory letters back to London saying that his forces had accomplished everything they had planned for the year.

Of course, that was not completely true.  The British had originally planned to move up the Hudson River through New York and meet up with the British forces under General Guy Carleton in Canada.  Carleton was to have moved down the Hudson River, thus cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies.  That did not happen, mostly because Continental General Benedict Arnold had forced Carleton to delay his advance.  Carleton needed to build his navy on Lake Champlain to defeat Arnold at Valcour Island (see Episode 110).  The delay in doing that forced Carleton to delay an invasion of New York until the following spring.

Joseph Reed
So while General Arnold had delayed British plans, General Washington had not stopped Howe from doing anything.  Everyone seemed to come to the conclusion that General Washington just wasn’t up to the task of taking on the full British Army.

Thousands of Continental soldiers now sat in prison ships in New York Harbor, dying from disease and starvation.  Thousands more deserted the Continental Army, with little desire to join their comrades on the prison ships once the final surrender came.  By some estimates, Washington’s Army had dwindled to as little as 3000 men by the time his army crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.  New York and New Jersey militia did not march with the army.  Pennsylvania militia had not yet arrived.  General Charles Lee still had several thousand continental soldiers in northern New Jersey and refused Washington’s increasingly desperate requests that he join him in Pennsylvania.  After Lee’s capture, General John Sullivan still needed time to move his Continentals in north Jersey to meet up with Washington just outside of Philadelphia.   Likewise General Horatio Gates was marching with reinforcements from Fort Ticonderoga, but was still on the march and had not yet reached Washington.

Many in Congress had lost faith in Washington as well.  They had talked of turning over command to General Lee.  The British leadership seemed to hold the same opinion.  When they captured General Lee on December 13, they saw it as a more important victory than the capture of 3000 Continental soldiers at Fort Washington.  Lee was the only general they seemed to respect.  Fortunately for the patriots, the capture put off talk of replacing Washington for a time.  It also ensured that Lee’s army would finally join with Washington in Pennsylvania.

Washington even had to be doubting himself by this time.  By the end of December, most of the remaining Continental enlistments would expire.  His army would almost certainly choose to go home as had earlier enlistments.  Washington sent many of his officers home to recruit a new army.  But no one seemed interested to sign on to what looked like a losing cause.  Thomas Paine did his part by publishing the Crisis, which I covered last week.  However, there was no good evidence that would do any good before the end of the year, if at all.

Looting and Pillaging

Despite bleak prospects, there was still reason to oppose the British occupation.  In earlier episodes, I’ve alluded to the problems of looting and pillaging.  Remember that British regulars were dirt poor.  Their pay was eight pence per day.  That’s roughly $10 per day when converted to inflation adjusted dollars.  By the time all the deductions were made for food, uniforms, and a host of other expenses, soldiers were lucky to receive maybe one fourth of that.  Their Hessian allies were paid even less. These were men living at bare subsistence, often without enough clothes to keep warm or enough food to stop feeling hungry.  When they came across abandoned homes or other property, they would help themselves to whatever they could, unless officers prevented it.  In that case, they had to do it on the sly.  Obtaining alcohol or any small valuables that could be sold later were prime targets.  But really just about anything they could carry would go.

Hessian Jagers occupied New Jersey
(from British Battles)
At times looting was part of a war strategy.  Some officers thought that the rebels should suffer after having rejected the King’s protection.  However, General Howe’s offer of pardon and amnesty was supposed to protect those who had signed oaths of allegiance.  The soldiers were not particularly careful to make that distinction.  Many New Jersey Tories who had welcomed the regulars as liberators, soon found their homes and personal items ravaged.

Not all of the pillaging was for personal gain either.  Rampaging soldiers often burned homes and simply destroyed property that they could not take with them.  They argued that civilians claiming loyalty were all rebels and would turn back to rebellion as soon as the soldiers moved on.

Rapes were another serious problem.  There were thousands of reported rapes of all sorts, from girls as young as ten to women in their seventies.  Married women and children were gang raped in front of their husbands, fathers, and brothers.  These were brutal acts of violence were often compounded with beatings threats of murder, and actual murder.

Many of the British officers put blame for these abuses on the Hessian soldiers.  British regulars did engage in such abuses too.  Whether Hessians were more to blame is questionable since British officers had an incentive to blame their allies.  If the abuses were committed by their own troops, that reflected poorly on the officers.  If committed by Hessian soldiers, the blame fell primarily on Hessian officers.

Whatever the percentage of blame, it is clear that Hessians engaged in some great share of the pillaging, looting and raping across New Jersey.  As I said, Hessians were paid even less than British Regulars.  Most enlisted men had come from families in abject poverty back in the German States and who had virtually no rights at all.  Seeing colonists who enjoyed comparative wealth and freedom and who still dared to commit treason against their king made many Hessians justify their ill treatment as just punishment.

Had the invaders limited their assaults to patriot households, that might not have been so bad for British policy.  But many loyalists quickly fell victim to military abuses: theft, destruction of property, assaults, and even murder.  Many who had spoken for the loyalist cause as the way to protect law and order now had reason to question their views.  Many were experiencing a tyranny that made many question their loyalties to the King.  The soldiers they once hailed as liberators had become their abusers.

Occupation of South Jersey

British officers did make some attempts to reign in soldier abuses, but the leadership did not seem terribly concerned about it.  Military victories would convince the citizenry to end the rebellion.  Once they returned to keeping the King’s peace, the military occupation could end and the abuses would also go away.

Initially the plan seemed to work.  General Howe’s amnesty proclamation motivated thousands across New York and New Jersey to swear allegiance to the King in return for a full pardon.  The British set out a series of outposts across New Jersey where subjects could see that they were in charge.  With any luck the Continental Army would dissolve over the winter and Howe could extend his amnesty across the continent without having to butcher thousands more on both sides.

Map of regional forces during Mount Holly Raid
Before Howe returned to New York for the winter, he personally surveyed and posted his army along the Delaware River, making sure the Americans would not attempt to cross back into New Jersey.

He left General James Grant in overall command of the region.  For those of you keeping track of such things, we first met General Grant in Episode 12, when he was a mere major captured near Fort Duquesne near the end of the French and Indian war, and again in Episode 15 when as a Lieutenant Colonel, he attacked the Cherokee at the Battle of Etchoe in South Carolina.  After the French and Indian war, Grant served as Governor of East Florida for a time, then returned home to be elected to Parliament.  There, he was one of the toughest talking members against the brewing rebellion. Grant said the patriots would never stand up to military action and that he could march across the entire continent with 5000 regulars.

When war broke out, he received a commission as full colonel and traveled with General Howe to Boston in 1775.  After Howe replaced General Thomas Gage as overall commander of North America, Grant received a promotion to brigadier general.  His leadership during the battle of Brooklyn had led to yet another promotion to major general.

Despite his rise in rank, Grant did not seem to have the respect of his officers and men.  Like General Howe, he seemed more interested in personal comforts than in the success or even the safety of the men under his command.  Grant set up his headquarters in Brunswick, NJ, closer to New York than to the outposts he commanded along the Delaware River.

The ranking officer actually present at the outposts was Hessian Colonel Carl Von Donop.  General Howe ordered Von Donop with a force of about 2000 Hessians to occupy Bordentown, NJ, a small town just a few miles south of Trenton along the Delaware River.  At the time, Bordentown had only a couple of dozen houses, nowhere near enough buildings to house 2000 Hessians for the winter.  Also as it bordered the Delaware River, the Hessians attracted artillery fire from ships and Continentals on the other side of the river.  Von Donop had to move inland and scatter his forces in farm houses around the countryside.

Some estimates say Von Donop had about 3000 men.  However, this may include the division deployed to Von Donop’s south.  Howe directed, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Stirling, an officer commanding the 42nd Regiment, known as the Black Watch, as well as a battalion of Hessians.  Stirling’s men would occupy Burlington, NJ about 10 miles southeast of Bordentown.  Again, Burlington was not large enough to house even this smaller force and suffered enemy artillery fire from the river.  Stirling also deployed his forces a few miles south of Burlington, further inland, scattering them among several farmhouses and barns in the area.

Carl Von Donop
(from Historica)
To Colonel Von Donop’s north Colonel Johann Rall commanded about 1400 Hessians at Trenton.  Rall held an independent command and did not report to Von Donop, but instead reported directly to General Grant.  At least Trenton, with about 100 buildings, was large enough to accommodate most of Rall’s soldiers, even if they did have to pack themselves into pretty tight quarters.

To support these front line outposts, General Howe established a supply depot at Princeton, further inland and about 13 miles north of Trenton.  There, General Alexander Leslie commanded another brigade of British infantry.  For those paying attention, this is the same Colonel Leslie who led a raid on Salem back in 1775 before Lexington and Concord, see Episode 46.  In early 1776 he received a promotion to brigadier general.

The British deployment was not particularly defensible.  These were thousands of soldiers spread over lightly populated countryside, with no forts or other particularly defensible positions.  Their focus was more on pacifying the region, hunting down small groups of rebels or bandits and making sure everyone knew they occupied New Jersey.  No one expected the crippled Continental Army to attempt any sort of large attack.  If an attack came, the forces were a few hours march away.  Any of the outposts should be able to hold out until relief could arrive.

While many in New Jersey had accepted the British occupation and sought amnesty.  There remained a hard core of militia who continued to harass the British at every opportunity.  These were not conventional soldiers.  They were essentially civilians with guns.  They could not take on the British army, or even the outposts that were set up.  They could, however, shoot British messengers that traveled between units, or attack supply trains providing food and supplies to the outposts.  If the British sent out companies of soldiers to track down the guerrillas, they would find only civilians who had hidden their guns and now claimed to be loyal subjects who knew nothing about the attacks in the area.  The British knew they were in hostile territory, but were frustrated that they could not get the enemy to stand and fight on a battlefield.

Iron Works Hill

Across the river in Pennsylvania, General Washington had to decide if there was anything he could do before his Army evaporated at the end of the year, just a few weeks away.  If fearful New Jersey civilians could see that they were not completely abandoned by the Continental Army, they might begin to rally around the American cause once again.  He also did not want to let the enemy get comfortable settling into winter quarters.  Anything they could do to harass and annoy the enemy had to continue.

On December 17, Washington ordered Colonel Samuel Griffin from Virginia to cross over into New Jersey.  Griffin commanded a force of about 600 men, a few Virginia artillerymen with small field cannon, along with mostly Pennsylvania and New Jersey militia.  The force made its way to Mount Holly New Jersey, where they set up a defensive position at the top of a small hill near the local iron works.

Mount Holly was close to the southernmost British outpost commanded by Colonel Stirling.  However, Stirling did not receive word of the American incursion into New Jersey, or if he did, he simply reported it to Colonel Von Donop and did not deploy any of his soldiers.  In Bordentown, Von Donop received word of the American presence. Some accounts indicate that his soldiers encountered rebels attempting to steal cattle.  They informed the British that more than 1000 rebels had encamped near Mount Holly.

Von Donop and Griffin had met on the field of battle once before.  Both men had led their battalions into battle at Harlem Heights, where Griffin was wounded.  It is not clear, however, that either man knew much about the other, or their opponent in the  previous encounter.

Samuel Griffin
(from Wikimedia)
Von Donop moved nearly all of the 3000 soldiers under his command to confront the enemy.  On December 21, the patriots encountered a small British force holding Petticoat Bridge, over Assiscunk Creek.  Outnumbered, the British outpost fell back to the north to meet up with Von Donop’s 3000 man force.

The following day, the main body of Hessians recaptured the bridge.  A brief skirmish took place, with a few casualties on each side.  The Americans fell back to Mount Holly.

That same day, Washington’s aide, Colonel Joseph Reed, rode into New Jersey to find Colonel Griffin.  He asked Griffin to keep the Hessians engaged in order to distract them as Washington prepared to cross the Delaware and attack further north.  Reed was pleased to find that Griffin had already engaged the enemy and was keeping them occupied.

It is not clear if Washington had sent Griffin into New Jersey with the intent of creating a distraction away from his newly formed plan to attack the Trenton garrison.  There are no written instructions to that effect.  Washington may have simply sent  Griffin more to get a better idea of the locations and numbers of British forces in the area.  The decision to use Griffin to distract and divide the enemy probably came later, hence Reed’s visit on the 22nd.  Reed himself called the engagement at Mount Holly accidental but with a “happy effect.”  Reed sent a messenger back to Washington, letting him know the enemy was scattered and divided making an immediate attack advisable.  Reed suggested either supporting Griffin or making a separate attack while Von Donop’s forces were so far from Trenton.

A day later, December 23, the Hessian force under Von Donop moved into Mount Holly.  The two sides engaged in a firefight lasting at least several hours, and involving the use of field cannon.  The Hessians eventually forced the smaller American battalion to fall back to their defensive position on Iron Works Hill.

The two sides continued in an exchange of fire, but the Hessians did not attempt to take the hill.  The American force was entrenched on the hill and had its own field cannons to deter any assault.  The Americans were outnumbered and that evening the Americans retreated to Moorestown, leaving Mt. Holly to the Hessians.

By some accounts, there were up to 100 casualties on both sides combined.  That seems exaggerated though.  Most accounts indicate only two or three killed on each side and maybe a dozen wounded.

Colonel Von Donop and his army occupied Mount Holly.  The Hessians looted houses, apparently found a fair amount of alcohol and got drunk.  With the patriot army having withdrawn and most of the local population having fled town, Von Donop decided not to pursue the enemy any further for the moment.  Instead, he allowed his troops to enjoy the town.

Though most of the locals fled, there is a story of one young widow who remained in town and entertained Von Donop.  Some historians have speculated that this widow might have been Betsy Ross, though I could find no solid evidence to support the theory.  Whoever she was, the widow apparently caused Von Donop to want to remain in town for a few days.  Another Hessian officer noted that Von Donop had a weakness for the ladies and was smitten by this young beautiful widow.  With the patriot force still in the area, and finding reasonably comfortable accommodations at Mount Holly, Von Donop and his men spent Christmas in the town.

Von Donop’s decision to remain in Mount Holly meant that Colonel Rall and the Hessian force in Trenton were isolated and at least a day’s march away from Von Donop’s larger force of Hessians.

- - -

Next Episode 122 Washington Crosses the Delaware (Available Nov. 10, 2019)

Previous Episode 120 The American Crisis



Click here to donate
American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Make a one time donation through my PayPal account. 
Thanks,
Mike Troy


Click here to see my Patreon Page
You can support the American Revolution Podcast as a Patreon subscriber.  This is an option for people who want to make monthly pledges.  Patreon support will give you access to Podcast extras and help make the podcast a sustainable project.  Thanks again!




Further Reading

Websites

The Skirmish at Petticoat Bridge, by Norm Goos and Earl Cain: http://www.thehistorygirl.com/2014/12/the-skirmish-at-petticoat-bridge.html

Battle of Iron Works Hill https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1776/battle-iron-works-hill

Battle of Iron Works Hill: http://www.revwartalk.com/Battles-1776/12-22-1776-battles-battle-of-iron-works-hill-in-mount-holly-new-jersey-new-jersey-campaign.html

Iron Works Hill Revolutionary War Sites in Mount Holly, NJ
https://www.revolutionarywarnewjersey.com/new_jersey_revolutionary_war_sites/towns/mount_holly_nj_revolutionary_war_sites.htm

Iron Works Hill: https://bclhnsassoc.org/battle-of-iron-works-hill

Free eBooks
(from archive.org 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 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.

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

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.