Sunday, November 24, 2019

Episode 124 Back Across the Delaware




Last week, as the battle of Trenton came to an end by mid morning December 26, 1776, the Americans held the town and the few remaining enemy soldiers were scattered.  Amazingly, the Americans suffered no combat deaths, and only five wounded.  However, several men later died from the horrific march through the storm the night before.  There are several accounts of deaths later that night and in the following days from exhaustion, exposure, and hypothermia.

Occupying Trenton

Despite the victory, Washington could not simply sit back and enjoy the moment.  There were still thousands of Hessians under Colonel Carl Von Donop to his south in Mount Holly, along with more British and Hessian regiments to his north in Princeton.  Around four or five hundred Hessians at Trenton had escaped, along with many Hessian women and children camp followers.  Most of these endured a ten mile forced march to Princeton.

Hessian Prisoners marched through Philadelphia
Some companies marched north or south looking for Hessians who had fled the field of battle.  They also searched buildings in town for enemies still in hiding.  General Washington, along with General Nathanael Greene, visited the dying Colonel Johann Rall at the Methodist Church.  After his death Rall would take the primary blame for the day’s loss.  British leaders noted his failure to build defensive entrenchments in town or to send out sufficient patrols to detect the enemy as they crossed the river.  But hindsight is 20/20.  Most of the other outposts had behaved similarly to Rall before the attack.

As Rall lay dying, the Continentals collected prisoners and secured the town.  The dead were looted of anything of value.  The capture of clothing equipment and cannons all added to the American victory.  The Hessians had been told to expect to be killed if they were captured.  The frightened prisoners were relieved to be treated reasonably well.  Some had equipment taken from them, such as their knapsacks.  The Hessian brass helmets were also highly prized by the victors.

The Hessians would be marched back to the river, and transported on the same boats used by the Continentals at McConkey’s Ferry and Johnson’s Ferry back to Pennsylvania.  Early in the day, some Hessians and equipment crossed at the closer Trenton Ferry, where General James Ewing had been unable to cross the night before.  As the day progressed, conditions worsened again and the army marched back to McConkey’s and Johnson’s ferry, where they still had the larger Durham boats.

Once in Pennsylvania, the prisoners spent a few days with the army.  Washington then moved them to Philadelphia where he ordered the officers separated from the men.  Both were treated well, but he wanted the enlisted men to be taught about the ideal of liberty so that if returned these ideals might begin to spread through the Hessian ranks.  Eventually the prisoners would be transported to the western parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.  There, they lived on parole among German speaking colonists.  Most were able to live and work in the communities, with restrictions on how far they could travel and nightly curfews.  Many of the soldiers enjoyed their new conditions so much that they opted to stay in America after the war.

Stone Building in Carlyle, PA built by Hessian Prisoners
(from Wikimedia)
There were 48 wounded Hessian officers and men, including the injured commander Colonel Rall, who received parole.  This meant they were left in Trenton under the promise that they would not take up arms again unless exchanged for American prisoners.  However, most were so severely wounded that they would not survive.  Colonel Rall died that evening.  One young lieutenant with a spinal injury remained in Trenton convalescing for several months.

Washington conferred with his generals about whether they should continue their attack by taking the fight to Princeton or Mount Holly, or whether it would be better to take the win and simply retreat back to Pennsylvania before the enemy could counter attack.  Washington’s initial plan had been to meet up with the forces under Colonel John Cadwalader and General James Ewing, who were supposed to have crossed further down river and attacked the three thousand British and Hessian soldiers at Mount Holly.  But neither of those crossings had been successful.

The Americans, of course were exhausted.  Many were suffering from hypothermia and frostbite as well.  The weather was also still a mix of snow and freezing rain that made any movement on the roads miserable and would likely increase deaths from hypothermia.  It did not help that the soldiers had discovered several barrels of rum in town and got roaring drunk before the officers discovered what they had found.  The Americans still had 900 Hessian prisoners to control.  At least part of the army would have to remove the prisoners to Pennsylvania if the rest either moved to engage the enemy at another location or stayed in Trenton to await a counter attack.

If the Continentals moved against the enemy at Mount Holly, they would be attacking a force larger than they were, twice as large as the Trenton garrison, and would no longer have the element of surprise.  In the end, Washington decided to take their prisoners, and captured booty and pull back to Pennsylvania.

The army spent the rest of the day and another sleepless night attempting to recross the Delaware River.  The snow turned back to rain during the day, making travel on the roads into a muddy mess.  Later in the day, everything began to refreeze, making the wet soldiers even more miserable.  Despite continuing problems with ice in the river, the army spent much of the evening and night moving everything back to Pennsylvania.

Many officers and men had been up for three days straight, running on little more than adrenaline.  Many suffered from frostbite, hypothermia, or illness brought on as a result of being cold, wet, hungry, and sleep deprived.  The river was even icier than the night before, and the army had to move 900 prisoners, six additional cannon and numerous captured horses in addition to everything they had brought over the first time.  Many soldiers and prisoners reported trying to walk across the ice to reach the boats, only to have it break and fall into the river.

Even so, the men were buoyed by their win, and this was the most hard core of the much larger army that had been dwindling down over the prior few months.  As one example, during the battle, a gun carriage was broken meaning they had no wheels to transport the 2000 pound weapon.  General Knox had ordered the gun spiked and abandoned as part of the retreat.  However, one sergeant refused to do so.  He got four other soldiers to help him drag the cannon as dead weight across the ground for miles back to the river.  Dragging the weapon was so slow going, that even the rear guard passed the team.  General Knox again told them to abandon the gun and get to the river.  At one point, the team thought a party of British light horse was approaching them, although it turned out to be a group of Quakers.  They eventually got the gun to the river and into a boat.  General Knox rode up and asked them where that gun had come from.  When told it was the one he had ordered abandoned at Trenton, he praised the men for their efforts.

With great effort, by the morning of December 27, the day after the battle, the bulk of the army, equipment, and prisoners were safely back in Pennsylvania.

Let’s Do It Again!

Washington had lunch with some of the captured Hessian officers.  They discussed the battle and what the Hessians had done wrong. By all accounts, it was a polite, cordial, and friendly meal between officers.  Washington even granted Lieutenant Andreas Wiederholdt parole to return to Trenton to collect some personal property he had left behind. Wiederholdt returned to Trenton, collected his items and then returned to the American lines to begin his imprisonment.  Such was the level of trust and honor between officers.

Washington, however, was not ready to declare victory and settle into winter quarters.  On the afternoon of the 27th, he held another council of war to discuss the possibility of future operations to follow up on their success.

As the council met, a courier arrived with news.  Remember Colonel Cadwalader who was supposed to cross the Delaware the same night as Washington but further down river?  He had failed to cross that night or the next day.  But on the morning of December 27, his men, mostly Pennsylvania Associators (local militia) had gotten 1800 men across the river and were near Burlington New Jersey.  They had gotten word that Washington had reached Trenton and were eager to participate in the attack.  By the time they learned that afternoon that Washington’s forces were back in Pennsylvania, they decided after some debate to proceed forward.  They set up a base in Burlington and sent scouting parties to Mount Holly and Bordentown.

Col. Von Donop
The Associators found the Hessians, mostly those under Colonel Von Donop, in disarray and retreating back toward New York.  It turned out that Von Donop was so shaken by the news of Trenton, that he immediately retreated north toward Princeton.  He abandoned his own sick and wounded in order to speed the retreat, but according to at least one source, did not abandon 150 wagons full of plunder that his army had taken.  That evening, scouts rode as far as Allentown New Jersey, a small town east of Trenton, where Colonel Von Donop’s Hessians had spent the previous night.  They learned Von Donop had divided his retreating force, moving to Princeton and Brunswick. With the Hessians in retreat and with the Associators now across the river, Washington believed they could force all enemy forces out of the area and retake West Jersey.

Some of Washington’s generals thought this was madness.  The Continental Army was still sick and exhausted from the first raid.  They were not ready to launch another.  Some of the men had not made it back to their camps until noon that day.  Even the healthy men needed time to sleep, eat, and dry out.   Also, the British could very likely be sending reinforcements from New York to crush whatever resistance they found.  That was why they had crossed back into Pennsylvania in the first place.  If the British won a victory in the days following their loss of Trenton, they would change the narrative right back to an inevitable British victory in the war.

After considerable discussion, the consensus developed that the army had to attempt a second crossing and fight the enemy.  It appeared that the enemy was disorganized and inclined to retreat.  If the Continentals could follow one victory with another, they could prove that the raid on Trenton was not a little fluke on a small outpost.  Further, the Trenton victory would encourage thousands of militia to get involved in the renewed winter campaign.

Washington sent out orders the next morning, December 28, that the army would once again cross the Delaware on December 29, and engage the enemy.  He also sent riders to New Jersey and Connecticut, calling on militia to turn out and support the new Continental offensive.  The Continental Army would return to Trenton and continue a winter campaign.

Crossing the Delaware, Again

Thomas Mifflin
(from Wikimedia)
The first step in any offensive would be to cross the Delaware River again.  This time the army would bring even more men and equipment.  They were not tied to the strict deadline of getting everyone over in one night.  Although part of the crossing took place at night, it also continued into the following day.  The weather had gotten even colder in the days since the first crossing, making river ice and creating even greater difficulty.  The Americans also had to contend with about six inches of snow, which fell during the crossing.  The ice on the river had gotten worse, but with enough time, the army made its way across the river, often breaking through ice by hand as they forced their way across.  The army was also able to use more ferries and also already had large contingents of Pennsylvania Associators in New Jersey under the command of Colonel John Cadwalader and Continental General Thomas Mifflin.

Uncharacteristically, the Army had sufficient arms and ammunition for the new campaign.  They also had recently received shipments of tents and blankets to replace those lost during the retreat from Fort Lee.  But a new difficulty arose during the crossing, the Continental Army ran out of food.  Part of the problem was that soldiers were not allowed to forage and simply take food from the local citizens at gunpoint, and that the local farmers were unwilling to sell food for Continental dollars, which were simply pieces of paper which were worth less and less every day.

Holding The Army Together

The blame though, fell mostly on a man named Carpenter Wharton, a Philadelphia businessman who served as Deputy Commissary General.  He has been accused of incompetence and corruption.  It does seem that this member of the powerful Wharton family did seem more concerned about he and his friend profiting from war contracts than in supporting the war effort generally.  A few months after these events, Wharton would be charged with treason and forced to resign his post.  Don’t read too much into the treason charge though.  He came from a Quaker family that got into trouble for refusing to sign parole agreements and were expelled from Philadelphia.  Finding food for an army without any money to pay for it was a difficult and thankless task.  That said, I would not exactly put Wharton among the most dedicated of patriots.

For the moment though, Washington had to halt the crossing temporarily on the 30th to keep part of his force in Pennsylvania.  They needed food before they could be deployed in the field.  After Washington shot off a letter to Robert Morris in Philadelphia, Morris was able to get Wharton to begin moving food supplies to the army in the field, at least enough to keep them from starving.

Robert Morris
With the food crisis resolved, Washington now faced a second one.  Many soldiers felt unappreciated.  The food shortage was only the most recent example of how the civilian population simply refused to supply the army with adequate food, clothing and shelter.  Despite the recent victory at Trenton, many of the men in the Continental Army who had not yet deserted remained because they felt honor bound to serve out their enlistments, which ended on December 31, just a few days away.  When that time came, they planned to go home.  Among these men were Glover’s New England mariners who had been critical to multiple river crossing for the Army.  They wanted to go join privateer ships where they could support the war effort, but also collect prizes for captured property.

Others simply had had enough misery.  They had done their part.  It was time for someone else to step up and replace them.  Recruiters were having better luck now enlisting new soldiers based on the victory at Trenton.  Others would take up the burden of service.  But these new recruits would not arrive for at least several weeks, and would be raw inexperienced soldiers. Despite embarking on this new campaign into New Jersey, the officers could not convince most of the men to remain in the field.  For that matter, many junior officers were ready to go home as well.

Many of the militia had been convinced to participate in the campaign with the promise of $10 hard money.  This was not Continental paper, but real gold and silver.  Privates were normally paid just over $6 per month, but usually received it in paper, if at all.  So, $10 was not a huge sum, though Washington thought it extravagant.  He needed to keep his army in the field for a few more weeks, or there would be no way to run a winter campaign.

Washington assembled the soldiers whose enlistments were about to expire and personally made the offer of a $10 bounty to anyone who remained for a few more weeks.  Not a single man stepped forward to take him up on the offer.  Undeterred, Washington tried to appeal to their sense of duty he told them:
My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than can be reasonably expected; but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you probably can never do under any other circumstances.
With those word, almost every man stepped forward to volunteer to continue the fight.  No amount of money could convince them to fight, but the fact that their commander absolutely needed them to continue the cause did convince them.

Moved by their agreement, Washington did not require any of them to sign their extended enlistments.  Instead, they would be accountable by their own honor to the service.

Washington next had another problem.  He did not have any hard money to pay the bounties that he had just promised.  Once again, Washington turned to Robert Morris, explained the situation and pleaded with him to come up with the money by any means necessary.  Morris, himself a wealthy merchant, had already turned over all of his own hard currency to the cause.  He had to turn to a wealthy Quaker friend.  According to legend, the friend asked what security he had that Morris would repay the loan.  Morris replied that he only had his word and his honor.  In other words, he had to promise to repay the loan on his personal honor, not that of the government.  With that the Quaker went to his backyard and dug up his hidden chest of coins.  That would be used to keep the Continental Army in the field.

With the food, money and reenlistment issues resolved at least for the moment, The Continental army with its militia auxiliaries, was once again ready for battle.  They knew they would continue to confront the British army but were not sure exactly what the British would do next.

Next week: The New Jersey campaign continues with the Second Battle of Trenton.

- - -

Next Episode 125 Second Battle of Trenton

Previous Episode 123 First Battle of Trenton

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Further Reading: 

Websites 

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

John Cadwalader: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/john-cadwalader

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.

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 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

Previous Episode 122 Crossing the Delaware



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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


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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.