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.

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Next Episode 125 Second Battle of Trenton

Previous Episode 123 First Battle of Trenton

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Further Reading: 


Battle of Trenton:

John Cadwalader:

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

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

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

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

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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