For Independence Day, let’s learn about George Washington and the Battle of Trenton

Washington crosses the Delaware river before the Battle of Trenton
Washington crosses the Delaware river before the Battle of Trenton

My favorite book about the American Revolutionary war by far is called “1776”. It’s written by famous historian David McCullough. The part of the book that really stuck out to me was the Battle of Trenton. I think that this battle really defines the essential character of America, as seen in the decision-making of its great general and first President, George Washington.

In the book, I learned about how George Washington and his revolutionary army had suffered a string of defeats at the hands of the powerful Commonwealth army, and their mercenary allies. It was the middle of a freezing cold winter, and the many of the sickly and ill-equipped American troops were just days from having their enlistment contracts run out. Some of the troops were not waiting for their enlistments to expire, they were just deserting. In droves.

Washington was losing, and was just days from losing his Continental Army. If the Americans lost the revolutionary war, then it would mean that every man who signed the Declaration of Independence would be hanged as a traitor. The American revolutionaries had risked everything for liberty, and they were about to lose everything – their money, their property and even their lives.

I found a page that summarizes the battles leading up to the Battle of Trenton.

First battle, a defeat for Washington:

The Battle of White Plains

October 28, 1776

RESULT: BRITISH VICTORY

With the British army maneuvering to make his Harlem Heights position untenable, George Washington withdrew from the island of Manhattan, and established a new encampment further north near White Plains, New York.

On October 28, 1776, a flank attack by the British on this new position resulted in the collapse of Washington’s line. Thankfully, he was able to orchestrate an orderly withdrawal that preserved the army. Unfortunately, Washington’s retreat further exposed Fort Washington, which remained garrisoned on Manhattan.

Next, another defeat for Washington:

The Battle of Fort Washington

November 16, 1776

RESULT: BRITISH VICTORY

Following the defeat of George Washington’s army at White Plains, New York, British General William Howe focused his army’s attention on Fort Washington, the last post defended by the Continental army on Manhattan.  Although Washington hoped to abandon the fort, his officers convinced him that it needed to be held in order to keep British ships from ascending the Hudson River.

During a carefully-orchestrated, all-out attack on November 16, 1776, British and Hessian forces overwhelmed the fort’s garrison after vicious fighting. When he heard the attack begin, Washington, who had stationed himself across the Hudson River in New Jersey, travelled across the river to the enter the fort and personally inspect its defenses. Several officers accompanied Washington, including Generals Israel Putnam, Hugh Mercer, and Nathanael Greene. They convinced Washington to leave the fort just 30 minutes before it was surrounded.

And then, another defeat for Washington:

Evacuation of Fort Lee

November 20, 1776

RESULT: BRITISH VICTORY

After the fall of Fort Washington, George Washington made plans for the evacuation of Fort Lee, which stood across the Hudson River in New Jersey. In a letter written to John Hancock on November 19, 1776, the general wrote that “…Fort Lee was always considered as only necessary in conjunction with [Fort Washington]…,” and that it would be abandoned as soon as provisions and other supplies were removed.

Unfortunately, a large British force succeeded in scaling the heights close to the fort on November 20, 1776. Faced with superior numbers, Washington called for the immediate evacuation of the fort, which resulted in the loss of dozens of cannon, 2-300 tents, and 1,000 barrels of flour.

That brings us to the Battle of Trenton. Across the Delaware river from Washington’s army was an encampment of Hessian mercenaries, fighting for the British. The Hessians believed that Washington’s Continental army was in full retreat. The British generals had already written home to the King to tell him that the war was nearly over, and that they had won. But had they?

Washington crosses the Delaware

Here is what Washington decided to do on December 25th, 1776:

General George Washington’s commitment to cross the Delaware River on Christmas 1776 foreshadowed the many hardships faced as well as the eventual victory of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. At first glance, the decision to transport 2,400 Continental soldiers across an icy river in one night, directly into a severe winter storm of sleet and snow seems irrational.

Washington’s decision, however, was based on strategic motivation, understanding that the Continental Army desperately needed a victory after months of intense fighting with several significant defeats and no major victories. Washington also understood that the element of surprise was the only way that he and his army stood a chance of defeating the highly trained Hessian mercenaries.

On the morning of December 25, 1776, Continental soldiers woke up in their camps along the Delaware River to a frozen, snowy covered ground. Weather conditions worsened and temperatures continued to drop throughout the day. Late in the afternoon, the Continentals left their tents and began to form along the river in anticipation of the night’s events. Washington kept almost all of the details of the crossing a secret; as a result, none of the soldiers knew anything about their upcoming mission.

Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River on December 25, 1776 allowed his army to strike the Hessians at Trenton the next morning.

Washington’s plan was to cross the river at night, march to the nearby town of Trenton, New Jersey, and attack the Hessian garrison right before dawn. Time was Washington’s greatest enemy; to combat it his orders called for the various regiments to assemble at their designated crossing points no later than sunset. The close proximity to the crossing points allowed the soldiers to begin the journey immediately after nightfall struck and complete the crossing no later than midnight. Once across, Washington intended for the armies to reassemble and march approximately ten miles to Trenton, arriving there no later than five o’clock in the morning to achieve surprise. Despite his meticulous planning, the schedule failed almost before it even began.

Many of the regiments did not arrive at the river until well after dark. Additionally, a severe winter storm that included wind, rain, snow, hail, and sleet met the soldiers at the banks of the river significantly slowing their crossing. Many of the boats had to combat ice jams and unfavorable currents. To make matters even worse, the extreme darkness caused by the storm made it hard for the boatmen to see the opposite shore.

The necessity of using larger ferries to carry pieces of artillery across the river caused even more delays. Washington crossed the river with John Glover’s Marblehead mariners and upon arrival debated whether or not to cancel the entire operation because it was more than three hours behind schedule. Washington decided it was too costly to retreat and he painfully watched as his army continued to trickle across the river.

If you were standing by the river along with Washington watching his sick, frozen, ill-equipped army struggle across the Delaware, then you would probably think that Washington had lost the element of surprise. This attack was just taking too long to happen. Maybe Washington would give up his plan, because things hadn’t gone his way. But Washington didn’t quit – he persisted.

The Battle of Trenton, December 25, 1776
The Battle of Trenton, December 25, 1776 (click for larger image)

The Battle of Trenton

This is how the battle went down in Trenton, New Jersey:

Immediately following his famous crossing of the Delaware River, General George Washington marched the Continental Army to Trenton, New Jersey. The army’s forces included horses, guns, wagons, and soldiers, stretching for nearly one mile. The weather was worse than it had been crossing the river, but the army continued to proceed as Washington rode up and down the column pressing his men to carry on.

Shortly after eight o’clock on the morning of December 26, 1776, the Continental Army started its charge on the city. Three columns marched through thick snow with Washington personally leading the middle charge. As the soldiers pushed forward, artillery began to fire. At the same time, German drums urgently called the Hessians to arms. To his astonishment, Washington had maintained the element of surprise.

Immediately after the firing began, three Hessian regiments ran from their quarters ready to fight, quickly forming ranks. As the Hessians grouped, the Continental Army entered the city at two points: John Stark marched into the city on River Road from the west, while Nathanael Greene and Washington arrived from the north.

Andreas von Wiederholdt, a Hessian lieutenant, incorrectly reported to Colonel Johann Rall that the Continental Army had surrounded Trenton and there was no available route for retreat. As a result, Rall decided to counterattack Washington within the city and not retreat across Assunpink Creek. This proved to be costly as Washington’s forces occupied the highest ground in the city and had clear views of all of Rall’s movements.

Time after time, Washington countered Rall’s efforts to outflank the Continentals. Eventually, Washington’s forces overpowered the Hessians. Rall was mortally wounded and many of his soldiers broke ranks, fleeing from the fighting. Normally very disciplined, Rall’s regiment was confused and disoriented without their commander. They retreated to an orchard east of Trenton where they were forced to surrender.

Despite the large number of Hessians that escaped Trenton, Washington still won a crucial strategic and material victory. In only one hour of fighting, the Continental Army captured nearly nine hundred Hessian officers and soldiers as well as a large supply of muskets, bayonets, swords, and cannons. Washington ordered his soldiers to treat the Hessian prisoners in a humane manner, and the general quickly focused his attention on what to do next. Washington assembled all of his officers in Trenton to discuss whether they should attack another post, hold their position in Trenton, or retreat back across the Delaware. Washington decided that because of the condition of his army, the best move was to return to their camps across the River.

When the Continental Army returned to camp on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, soldiers were exhausted. They had marched and fought for two straight days through rain, snow, sleet, and hail. Washington knew that his army had far exceeded expectations at Trenton and that they faced many more challenges going forward.

Washington won two more battles in rapid succession. Many of his troops re-enlisted because of these victories. There were many battles remaining to fight, and many hardships such as the winter at Valley Forge. But the Battle of Trenton was the turning point of the revolution. George Washington would not let a string of defeats stop him.

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