Sunday, December 1, 2019

Episode 125 Second Battle of Trenton

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

Howe Deploys a Counterattack

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

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

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

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

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

Occupying Trenton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

British Response

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

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

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

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

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

Eight Mile Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

Militia Reinforce the Continentals

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

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

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

The British Advance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Episode 126 Battle of Princeton

Previous Episode 124 Back Across the Delaware

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Further Reading


Battle Map:

Second Battle of Trenton

American Military Podcast, Second Battle of Trenton:

Ferris, Frederick The Two Battles of Trenton Trenton Historical Society:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kidder, William L. Ten Crucial Days: Washington's Vision for Victory Unfolds, Knox Press, 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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