Interactive: Battle of Trenton, 1776 | HistoryNet MENU

Interactive: Battle of Trenton, 1776

By John Antal
7/19/2017 • HistoryNet

Choose the correct target for an American infantryman facing multiple Hessian mercenaries.

You are Private James MacFarlane, an infantryman in General George Washington’s Continental Army. Yesterday – Christmas Day 1776 – Washington led you and 2,400 troops in a blinding snowstorm across the ice-choked Delaware River to launch a surprise attack early this morning against 1,500 Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, N.J. After months of demoralizing defeats inflicted by British regulars and hired Hessian soldiers, the Continental Army is at its lowest ebb. Morale is sinking, many of the men’s uniforms are in tatters, and supplies are running dangerously low. Washington realizes his army desperately needs a victory to raise flagging spirits and to maintain popular support for the American Revolution.

Yesterday’s Delaware River crossing was a frozen nightmare. The bitter cold numbed the Continentals in their ragged uniforms and wornout shoes – some were even barefoot. Two men died of exposure on the 9-mile march to Trenton. Most of the army’s troops are sustained only by their eagerness to strike back at the enemy at last.

Moments ago, around 8 a.m., the army reached Trenton’s western edge and found the town completely quiet, with no Hessians stirring. Washington now quickly forms a battle line and shouts, “Advance and charge!” As you and your fellow Continentals race along Trenton’s main street, the Hessians begin to stumble sleepily out of houses and buildings, finally realizing they are under attack.

Suddenly, directly to your front, you see several Hessian artillerymen attempting to manhandle a small cannon into position to fire at the onrushing Americans. Although the enemy gunners seem sluggish and confused, their gun crew chief appears to be getting them organized to fire the weapon. Just as you raise your .75-caliber Brown Bess musket to shoot at him, a Hessian officer mounted on a white horse gallops into the street. He frantically shouts orders at the men and they eagerly obey, indicating he is a senior-ranking commander.

Since you have time for only one well-aimed shot, you must make it count. But which target should you choose – the gun crew chief or the mounted officer?

WHAT IS YOUR DECISION, PRIVATE MACFARLANE?

ASSESSMENT OF THE TACTICAL SITUATION

The standard battle tactics employed by both sides in the American Revolutionary War are most closely associated with Prussia’s military genius Frederick the Great. Called “linear tactics,” they consist of the opposing forces forming long battle lines several ranks deep and then, at the commanders’ orders, bringing the lines to face each other using well-drilled maneuvers. Once the two sides are at close range, they exchange volleys of musket fire until one of the lines breaks. At that point, the other side charges forward with bayonets to exploit the breach. The intricate maneuvers of linear tactics require strictly disciplined soldiers who execute orders instantly as if automatons. Frederick the Great called these men “walking muskets.”

Yet the tactical situation in Trenton is far different than that of a conventional battle. There are no ordered ranks of soldiers facing each other, immediately obedient to their officers’ commands. Instead, the Continental Army’s charge has produced a swirling melee as you and your comrades race through the street encountering individual Hessians and small groups of them trying to mount a makeshift defense. Each Continental must pick his targets and act on his own initiative to engage the enemy without waiting for orders.

In this developing battle, Washington’s men are no longer expected to be “walking muskets.” Each must make split-second, life-or-death decisions. Collectively, your choices will determine whether the Continental Army’s surprise attack succeeds or fails. Failure could signal the death knell of the American Revolution.

POSSIBLE COURSES OF ACTION

You must quickly decide between two courses of action – shoot the gun crew chief, or shoot the mounted officer.

Your first option is to target the Hessian gun crew chief who is quickly bringing order to what only moments ago was a completely disorganized, ineffective effort. If not stopped, he will certainly have the cannon firing within moments. Although the cannon is not a large one, it is still capable of killing or wounding you and many more of the charging Continentals. Thus targeting the gun crew chief offers immediate self-preservation.

Your second choice is to take out the Hessian officer on horseback. He obviously is a high-ranking commander, as his directives are obeyed instantly and he is bringing order to the chaotic Hessian defense efforts. The enemy soldiers are forming up at his command, and you fear they may be preparing for a counterattack against the Continental Army’s vulnerable flank. Thus targeting the senior officer could affect the outcome of the entire battle.

MACFARLANE’S DECISION

Although the possibility of being hit by cannon fire seems the most immediate threat to you and your comrades, you realize that taking out the gun crew chief will have less of an impact on the battle’s outcome than will killing a senior officer. Therefore you decide to take your chances with the cannon and target the mounted Hessian commander.

Holding your musket as steady as your cold-numbed fingers will allow, you take careful aim and pull the trigger. Much to your relief, your powder is dry enough to ignite and your weapon fires properly. Peering through the cloud of gun smoke, you see the officer suddenly jerk and fall from the saddle. Your aim has been true.

 

 Colonel (Ret.) John Antal is the author of 10 books, including “Hell’s Highway” (randomhouse.com).

HISTORICAL NOTE: Although this article calls the American infantryman Private James MacFarlane, the name of the man who shot the Hessian officer actually remains unknown. However, the mortally wounded commander was Colonel Johann Rall. In fact, all four Hessian colonels present during the Battle of Trenton were killed, thus decapitating the enemy leadership and greatly contributing to the stunning, badly needed American victory. The Hessians suffered 105 killed and wounded and 900 captured against the Americans’ loss of only two dead (from exposure while marching to Trenton) and five wounded in battle. Washington rightly exclaimed, “This is a glorious day for our country.”

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Armchair General.

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