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Washington Risks Everything

By Michael Stephenson
11/5/2018 • Military History Magazine

In his audacious Christmas attack on Trenton, the commander in chief showed how aggressive he could be.

Although history tends to depict Washington as an overwhelmingly defensive commander, avoiding battle at all costs, a good case can be made for the opposite. He was an instinctive fighter. On the battlefield he was tactically highly aggressive, sometimes recklessly so. One thinks of his hair-raising gambles at the battle of Brooklyn and at the Second Battle of Trenton, where his army could have been destroyed comprehensively (whether that would have ended the rebellion is another matter), or his eagerness to give battle at the Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth Courthouse.

It was not the skulking marksman in the fringed hunting shirt that did for the British. The battles that gutted them were formal affairs: Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights (the two battles of Saratoga), Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse, and the siege of Yorktown. The naval Battle of the Chesapeake Capes, which proved fatal to the British cause, was also fought à la mode.

Washington had, from his early days as colonel of Virginia’s state troops, and as a respected member of the American oligarchy, a deep respect for European, and specifically British, military tradition. He wanted to fight a war in a style that would do credit to his class (with an army whose organization mirrored European social distinctions) and his country, and he wanted to fight it in a way he thought best suited to delivering grievous body blows to the British army. Washington despised the idea of sneaking in the back door and kicking the British out of the front. He preferred to come boldly in at the front and kick them out the back.

TRENTON I, DECEMBER 25–26, 1776

For Washington the retreat through northeastern New Jersey was a desperate thing. His army was evaporating before his eyes. On November 30, for example, 2,000 Maryland and New Jersey militia, whose term of service had expired, quit. At Hackensack, Washington ruefully noted, there were “not above 3,000 men, and they much broken and dispirited.” Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, who remained in Westchester, saw his original 7,000 dwindle to 4,000 effectives by early December. Maj. Gen. William Heath, in the Hudson Highlands, could muster perhaps another 2,000.

Washington’s pursuer, Lord Charles Cornwallis, although perhaps the most aggressive of the British field commanders, seemed to arrive with uncanny regularity just as Washington was putting out the lights and exiting through the back door. He had not, for instance, pursued Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene after the fall of Fort Lee, advising the Hessian captain Johann Ewald, “Let them go, my dear Ewald, and stay here….One jäger is worth more than 10 rebels.” Ewald was stunned: “Now I perceived what was afoot. We wanted to spare the King’s subjects and hoped to terminate the war amicably, in which assumption I was strengthened the next day by several English officers.” The Loyalist Charles Stedman was equally convinced of British Commander in Chief Sir William Howe’s bad faith: “General Howe appeared to have calculated with the greatest accuracy the exact time necessary for the enemy to make his escape.” The facts, however, are like square wheels on the otherwise sleek chariot of conspiracy.

Howe’s overarching strategy after his victories of the previous months was to consolidate an army that had been campaigning for four months. As winter drew on he desperately needed forage for his horses and food supplies for his men. The Jerseys, with a significant population of Loyalists, were fertile and untouched by war. When Cornwallis reached Brunswick on the Raritan River on December 1, it seemed (to his and Howe’s critics) an act of perversity, stupidity, sloth—the list is extensive—not to hop over and destroy what Joseph Reed, Washington’s odious adjutant general, described as the “wretched remains of a broken army.” One of the problems, and not an insubstantial one as later engagements would bear out, was that the “broken army” still had formidable artillery that vigorously engaged the British and Hessians from the west bank of the Raritan. Perhaps more important, Cornwallis’ force was exhausted, and its lines of communication were dangerously stretched. As Cornwallis saw it: “I could not have pursued the enemy from Brunswick with any material advantage, or without greatly distressing the troops under my command….But had I seen that I could have struck a material stroke by moving forward, I should certainly have taken it upon me to have done it.”

Passing through Princeton on his way to the Delaware, Washington left Lord Stirling in the college town with a rear guard of 1,400 men that left at 3 p.m. on the 7th. Cornwallis arrived one hour later. The whole of Washington’s part of the army was now down to about 2,600, and Charles Lee, despite the ever more desperate entreaties of his chief to join him, dragged his feet while enjoying the schadenfreude of Washington’s predicament. (Lee’s pleasure was cut short when he was ignominiously captured, “in his slippers…his shirt very much soiled from several days’ use,” by a detachment of dragoons under the young Banastre Tarleton, a firebrand cavalry officer who would make an even greater mark later in the war.)

The Patriot army crossed the Delaware between the 2nd and 7th. On the 8th Howe and Cornwallis entered Trenton and were promptly bombarded by 37 guns from the far bank. The British commanders, as was expected of gentlemen-officers, sat their horses with a nonchalant disregard of danger. A Hessian officer in attendance wrote, “Wherever we turned, the cannonballs hit the ground, and I can hardly understand, even now, why all five of us were not killed.”

Fortune, it seemed, was smiling on the British commander. He could look back with some satisfaction on the achievements of the campaigning season. He had outgeneraled, outfought (and outnumbered) his enemy. He had all but destroyed Washington’s ability to fight. He controlled New York City, all of Canada and large swaths of eastern New Jersey, where 300 to 400 men a day were declaring their allegiance to the Crown. Congress had been panicked out of Philadelphia. He knew that the reverses he had inflicted on the Patriots encouraged desertion and sapped the will to reenlist. (On December 20, Washington wrote to John Hancock, “Ten more days will put an end to the existence of our army.” And to his cousin Lund Washington, “I think the game is pretty near up.”) He had dispatched to Rhode Island the irksome General Sir Henry Clinton, who successfully secured an all-season port for the big ships of his brother, Admiral Howe. He had an army of 10,000 compared with perhaps 5,000 under Washington. And his domestic arrangements with his mistress, Mrs. Loring (the wife of his accommodating commissary of prisoners), were, to put it delicately, pleasing.

Howe’s army, however, was stretched and vulnerable to guerrilla attack. (“Every foraging party was attacked…. They could be called nothing more than mere skirmishes, but hundreds of them happened in the course of the winter.”) He needed winter cantonments to secure the territory he had taken, rather than undertake a potentially perilous crossing of a major river in midwinter and make an amphibious landing against an entrenched enemy enjoying significant artillery support. The irony was that Washington looked across the Delaware and felt nothing but dread and vulnerability: “Happy should I be if I could see the means of preventing them. At present I confess I do not.” Hindsight is an unforgiving critic, and, of course, there were many (Clinton and Lord George Germain among them) who later deplored his decision.

Howe himself was not entirely happy with the arc of posts that ran from Burlington and Bordentown in the south, up through Trenton and on to Princeton and Brunswick (the location of a major supply dump as well as the army’s £70,000 war chest), and back to Amboy. On December 20, he wrote to Germain, “The chain, I own, is rather too extensive, but…trusting to the general submission of the country to the Southward of this chain, and to the strength of the corps placed in the advanced posts, I conclude the troops will be in perfect security.” Colonel Carl von Donop, stationed at Bordentown (some eight miles south of Trenton), had overall command of the Hessian troops in the sector. At Trenton was Colonel Johann Rall with approximately 1,500 men of the Lossberg, Knyphausen and Rall regiments, together with a small detachment of British dragoons.

Rall had played a major role at Chatterton’s Hill during the battle of White Plains and again in taking Fort Washington, but history has been harsh to him, as it so often is to commanders who not only lose battles but also contrive to get themselves killed in the process. The conventional wisdom is that he was a drunk, a crude loudmouthed slob—“conceited and insolent”—who got his comeuppance. Much has been made of his “failure” to entrench, which is usually portrayed as an arrogant contempt for his enemy. It is true that he held the Patriot “peasant army” in low esteem, as indeed did most of the British and Hessian officer corps. It was as much a social as a military prejudice. But there were other reasons. As Rall saw it, it was pointless trying to entrench against an enemy that could hit him almost at will and from any direction. He was in “Indian” country and being driven half crazy with anxiety: “I have not made any redoubts or any kind of fortifications because I have the enemy in all directions.” When he was urged by some of his officers to dig in, his exasperation expressed itself trenchantly. “Scheiszer bey Scheisz! (Shit on shit) Let them come…we will go at them with the bayonet.” It was a response fueled by desperation rather than complacency.

Many histories imply that the situation at Trenton was static, with Rall and his Hessians lolling around. The opposite was true. Under constant guerrilla attack and well aware of his vulnerability, Rall called often to von Donop at Bordentown, General James Grant at Brunswick and General Alexander Leslie at Princeton for reinforcements that never materialized. Far from being complacent, he kept his men on an exhausting regimen of patrolling and round-the-clock surveillance. They slept dressed for action.

Washington too was in a desperate situation. He knew that unless he made some kind of demonstration against the enemy, the rebellion was likely to wither away by the New Year. On December 31, the service agreements of large numbers of men would expire. He was driven to action, come what may, while he still had at least the semblance of an army. Joseph Reed underscored the predicament, writing on December 22: “We are all of the opinion, my dear general, that something must be attempted…even a failure cannot be more fatal than to remain in our present situation. In short some enterprise must be undertaken in our present Circumstances, or we must give up the cause.” After taking counsel, Washington fixed on December 26 for an attack on Trenton, where, he knew, the garrison was close to the breaking point. (“We have not slept one night in peace since we came to this place. The troops can endure it no longer,” a Hessian officer wrote.)

British intelligence quickly picked up the scent of the impending attack on Trenton, even though it did not know the exact day. On the evening of the 24th, Grant warned Rall of a possible attack, and the Hessian responded energetically by increasing his surveillance. The story of the unheeded warning given to a drunken Rall on Christmas night by a Loyalist farmer is in most popular histories but makes no sense given that Rall was already all too painfully aware of the danger he was in, not only from Grant’s informer but from various other sources.

The aura of composure, rationality, almost detachment that surrounds Washington like a slightly saintly penumbra can be misleading when it comes to Washington the general. His natural bent as a commander, though often disguised by the conventions of his class and time, and occasionally tempered by strategic necessity, was highly aggressive—sometimes to the point of recklessness. Although many of his contemporaries labeled him a modern-day Fabian (for the ancient Roman who preferred to run away in order to fight another day), he was by nature a fighter and an opportunist and, when cornered by circumstances as he now was, would almost always elect to roll the dice.

Washington also had a fondness (weakness, some might say) for complicated battle plans. His attack on Trenton would require three forces, separated by considerable distances, in the dead of night, in the depth of winter, in (as it turned out) a screaming storm, to coordinate their efforts. He would lead the most northerly group of 2,400 men in two divisions across the 800-yard-wide Delaware, now choked with ice floes. One division, under Nathanael Greene, was to head inland and approach Trenton from the northeast, while the other, under Maj. Gen. John Sullivan, was to move down the river road and come at the Hessians from the west. These maneuvers in themselves required complicated coordination.

In the center, almost opposite the town, Brig. Gen. James Ewing would cross with his 800 men and secure the bridge over the Assunpink Creek, the only escape route for the garrison. Farther south, Colonel John Cadwalader (whose brother Lambert had been with Washington at the battle of Brooklyn) with 1,200 Philadelphia Associators (militia) and 600 New England Continentals under Colonel Daniel Hitchcock would cross and engage the Hessians at Burlington to prevent them from coming to the rescue of their compatriots at Trenton.

Washington’s troops were late at their assembly points, and by the time he had crossed with the vanguard he was three hours behind schedule, which, he said, “made me despair of surprising the Town, as I well knew we could not reach it before the day was broke.” By the time the army got under way it was 4 a.m. and the plan was running four hours late. But Washington was always lucky with the weather. (One thinks immediately of the saving storm and fog at Brooklyn.) The raging nor’easter that slammed into the transports around 11 p.m. as they crossed the Delaware was a wicked trial for the ill-clad soldiery, but it brought its own benefits, lasting throughout the night and early morning to mask their approach and offer them the surprise that was key to Washington’s gamble.

All gamblers are grateful for the occasional ace, and the 18 cannons under Henry Knox ensured a massive supremacy of firepower over the six the Hessians could muster. It also meant, on that sodden night, that the artillery, which, unlike the musketry, could to some extent be weatherproofed, could be relied on to perform. In addition, seven batteries on the Pennsylvania side would also engage the Hessians.

Farther south, Cadwalader could make only a partial landing, which he had to recall, while Ewing failed to make it across at all. Although some historians have suggested that both these commanders were, to put it euphemistically, deficient in determination, Washington knew very well that the river at their crossing points was even more treacherously clogged with ice than where he had crossed at McConkey’s Ferry, and was forgiving of their failure.

Rall had been thorough in covering the approaches to the town, but at 8 a.m. the outposts on the northeastern and northwestern sides were driven in. (After the battle, Washington would commend them on their orderly retreat.) The alarm was sounded, and the Hessians poured out of their quarters, dressed and fully prepared. Certainly this was no drunken rabble, as John Greenwood, an American soldier, testified: “I am willing to go upon oath, that I did not see even a solitary drunken soldier belonging to the enemy—and you will find…that I had an opportunity to be as good a judge as any person there.”

Nine of Knox’s cannons, firing down the main north-south thoroughfares of the town—King and Queen streets— with canister and ball, knocked out the two Hessian guns facing them, exposing the Hessian foot to a murderous fire that was further augmented by the musketry of Sullivan’s men pushing through the westerly side streets and alleys to hit the Hessians on their left flank. Rall had no option but to pull his men out of the town center and move toward the east in an attempt to turn the American left wing—a maneuver that Washington adroitly forestalled by extending his left to threaten the Hessian right flank.

For the Hessian commander it was a critical moment. He might have retreated across the bridge and taken up a defensive position on the high ground on the southern side of the Assunpink (as Washington would do very successfully when he returned to Trenton a few days later). If, by doing so, he bought time for reinforcements to reach him, it could have been disastrous for the Patriot cause, trapped up against the Delaware and far from their transports. But history remains supremely indifferent to ifs and maybes, and Rall did not retreat (partly because he was under the misapprehension that the bridge was already impassable). In fact, he did the opposite, driving back into the town center in a heroic but futile attempt to recapture his guns and regimental standards. The Hessians were hit on three sides simultaneously—by General Hugh Mercer ahead, firing from the west; Maj. Gen. Lord Stirling and the artillery firing into their right flank from the north; and General Arthur St. Clair firing into their left flank from the south. Amazingly, the Hessians recovered their two cannons, but Rall received two mortal wounds to his side. Demoralized, the Rall and Lossberg regiments surrendered, followed shortly after by the Knyphausen regiment, which had tried but failed to cross the Assunpink. It was all over by 9:30 a.m.

Given the ferocity of the street fighting (Patriot Sergeant Joseph White recalled that his “blood chill’d to see such horror and distress, blood mingling together, the dying groans….The sight was too much to bear”) and the overwhelming numerical superiority of artillery and muskets available to Washington, it is a dramatic illustration of the nature of the warfare of the period and the effectiveness of its weaponry that out of 1,500 Hessians, only 22 were killed and 83 wounded (834 were captured). The American losses were astonishingly small: two men dead of exposure and two wounded; Captain William Washington, a distant cousin of the commander in chief, shot through both hands; and a future president, Lieutenant James Monroe, who survived an almost fatal shoulder wound.

On December 26 and 27, Washington led his triumphant, exhausted and drunk army— Joseph Reed reported that “the soldiers drank too freely to admit of Discipline or Defence,” even though Washington had ordered 40 hogsheads of rum destroyed—with its prisoners and loot back to Pennsylvania. They had crossed not only the Delaware but also a psychological barrier: the frontier that separates those who believe they are condemned to be beaten and those who are convinced they are destined to win. The battle may have been only a largescale raid, but its impact was massive. A Loyalist, Nicholas Cresswell, reported on the sea change in his Patriot neighbors: “A few days ago they had given up the cause for lost. Their late successes have turned the scale, and now they are all liberty made again.” The raggedy-assed soldiery had done something extraordinary, and they knew it. Equally extraordinary, they would be back in Trenton in only three days.

TRENTON II, DECEMBER 30, 1776

The Second Battle of Trenton, although given fairly short shrift in most histories, is full of interest not only for the student of Washington’s command style but also as a fine example of what might be called the “organic” evolution of strategy: the role of happenstance as an important factor in warfare (much to the chagrin of those historians who prefer to ascribe intention and planning that only hindsight lends to what in reality is the chaotic ricochet of events).

First, Washington had no clearly thought-out strategy after Trenton. What happened next was taken, in his characteristically aggressive and opportunistic manner, on the fly. What triggered Washington’s return to Trenton was, ironically, Cadwalader’s eventual successful landing in New Jersey on December 27. There they now were, 1,800 men stuck out on their own limb. After the usual war council, Washington decided to support Cadwalader with everything he had: “a considerable force,” by Washington’s own estimation.

During the 29th and 30th, Washington sent over 6,800 men and a formidable artillery train to Trenton, ranging them on the high ground on the southern bank of the Assunpink. In retrospect it all seemed perfectly logical. Lure Cornwallis to attack a strongly held defensive position and then, while he banged at the front door, slip out the back and capture the enemy’s rear bases (including that succulent £70,000).

It is an appealing theory (seemingly sanctified by events), except that almost everything points in the opposite direction. Washington had placed his men in the gravest peril and risked everything to chance. It is difficult to understand how the strategic benefit could ever have outweighed the massive risk. He had deployed his army with its back to the Delaware without what in modern jargon would be called “an exit strategy.” In fact, many in his army were panicked by the situation in which they now found themselves. A Virginian, Ensign Robert Beale, in the American center, recognized the danger: “This was the most awful crisis: no possible chance of crossing the River, ice as large as houses floating down, and no retreat to the mountains, the British between us and them.” Captain Stephen Olney concurred: “It appeared to me then that our army was in the most desperate situation I had ever known it; we had no boats to carry us across the Delaware, and if we had, so powerful an enemy would certainly destroy the better half before we could embark.” One of Washington’s generals, Arthur St. Clair, referred to the “probability of defeat.”

Before he sallied out of Princeton to do battle with Washington, Cornwallis had been urged by Colonel von Donop, who knew the country behind the American lines, to take a route that could be used to flank the American right. Cornwallis, with the airy self-confidence of the blinkered, decided to stick with his frontal strategy. It was on just such arbitrary turns of the cards that Washington’s fate hung.

The British and Hessian column was delayed by a hit-and-retreat maneuver, carried out brilliantly by Colonel Edward Hand and Colonel Nicholas Haussegger, which bought valuable time for Washington to consolidate his positions on the Assunpink. Once in Trenton, inspiration seems to have abandoned Cornwallis, who accepted battle entirely on Washington’s terms. He ordered attack after attack—all inspiringly heroic, all bloodily sterile—on the bridge and one or two other main choke points across the Assunpink, which, of course, Washington had taken very particular care to defend in depth with his most experienced troops, interspersed with the more fragile militia units. The fighting at the bridge was fierce, and Washington’s own conduct there is an exemplar of the detachment that was so highly prized by officers of his social class. With his horse’s chest pressed against the bridge rail, he made a flamboyant gesture of nonchalance in the face of danger. “The firm, composed and majestic countenance of the General inspired confidence and assurance in a moment so important and critical,” remembered Private John Howland.

American fire tactics at the bridge provide a valuable insight into the tendency to shoot high during the stress of battle, perhaps caused by involuntary flinching at the moment of firing. (The same tendency had plagued the British attackers at Breed’s Hill and would again at the battle of Princeton.) To counter it, Colonel Charles Scott instructed his Virginians:

Now I want to tell you one thing. You’re all in the habit of shooting too high. You waste your powder and lead, and I have cursed you about it a hundred times. Now I tell you what it is, nothing must be wasted, every crack must count. For that reason boys, whenever you see them fellows first begin to put their feet upon this bridge do you shin ’em. Take care now and fire low. Bring down your pieces, fire at their legs, one man Wounded in the leg is better a dead one for it takes two more to carry him off and there is three gone.

 

For further reading, Michael Stephenson recommends: Washington’s Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer, and Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, by Mark M. Boatner III.

Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.  

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