Sunday, December 8, 2019

Episode 126 The Battle of Princeton

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

Plan of Attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slipping Away

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

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

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

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

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

Quaker Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frog Hollow

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

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

Nassau Hall

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

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

Cornwallis in Pursuit

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

Next Episode 127 The Forage War

Previous Episode 125 Second Battle of Trenton

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Further Reading


American Crisis Ch. 2, Letter to William Howe, by Thomas Paine:

Battle of Princeton:

Battle of Princeton:

Battle of Princeton:

10 Facts About the Battle of Princeton:

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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