Trudging across the frozen New Jersey countryside in the winter of 1776–77, the armed Americans resembled a mob more than an organized military force. They camped in snow-covered fields without benefit of tents or blankets, and while on the march they were beset by high rates of desertion and an overall aura of exhaustion. The American commander was all too familiar with such straits. Though a combat veteran and personally courageous, Gen. George Washington had participated in more noble defeats than glorious victories. Indeed, in 1775 when Congress had appointed him to command the fledgling Continental Army, a contemporary pointed out that while Washington was a decent man, he’d lost every major battle in which he’d participated during the 1754–63 French and Indian War.
In late December 1776 Washington’s main concern was to distance his ragtag force from the enemy, and so the Army marched on. On the night of December 25–26 he had directed his men on what was intended to have been a coordinated three-pronged assault across the Delaware River against Trenton. As events turned out, two of his three attacking columns never made it across the river, the planned broad advance turning into a narrow, single-column crossing. While Washington had prevailed at Trenton, days later when he’d ordered a subordinate to delay the British advance, the officer had instead abandoned his men and left the field. That same day the Army had found itself in a defensive position so tenuous the enemy commander had gloated he would “bag” the Americans the next day. And during a desperate nighttime movement from that position, more than 1,000 Americans had panicked and fled without firing a shot.
Despite such setbacks, by New Year’s Day 1777 the Army had finally reached a position of relative safety. And contrary to appearances, it was not a defeated mob. Although Washington had experienced multiple near disasters over the previous two weeks, he had also outgeneraled, outmaneuvered and outfought his British foes in an astonishing campaign that had reinvigorated the fight for independence.
That campaign had begun on Christmas night 1776, with Washington’s bold crossing of the Delaware and subsequent victory at Trenton coming at a critical time in the American Revolutionary War.
The events leading up to Washington’s operations along the Delaware, however, had not reflected highly on his generalship or his Army’s fighting ability. Having lost New York City to a well-executed naval/land campaign under British Gen. William Howe in early fall 1776, the Americans had retreated north to defendable, rugged terrain near White Plains, N.Y. Uncertain of British intentions, Washington had divided his already demoralized, outnumbered Army into three groups. Leaving two of the groups in defensive positions in upper Manhattan, the American commander had led the third component west across the Hudson River into New Jersey. Exploiting Washington’s indecision, Howe had overrun and captured the 3,000-man garrison at Fort Washington, then crossed to the west side of the river and forced the Americans to abandon their defenses (and much of their supplies) at Fort Lee. As Washington desperately sought to consolidate his forces, Howe drove him from New Jersey across the Delaware into Pennsylvania.
Fortunately for the American cause, Howe had halted operations soon after reaching the river on Dec. 13, 1776. Rather than crossing it to engage and defeat Washington’s Army once and for all or perhaps capture the capital at Philadelphia, the British general moved his army into winter quarters. After dispersing his troops in a series of outposts along the Delaware and across central New Jersey, he then returned to New York City. It was the outpost at Trenton, occupied by three Hessian regiments under Col. Johann Rall, that Washington attacked on December 26.
Washington had planned a three-pronged attack against Trenton. One force of 1,800 men led by Col. John Cadwalader would cross downriver at Burlington to ensure the Hessians could not reinforce Rall from the south. A second force of 800 men under Brig. Gen. James Ewing would cross immediately south of Trenton and capture the bridge at Assunpink Creek, the primary Hessian escape route. The third and main assault force of 2,400 men, co-led by Maj. Gens. Nathaniel Greene and John Sullivan, would cross some 9 miles north of town at McConkey’s Ferry. Washington would accompany the latter. As it turned out, icy conditions on the river thwarted the Cadwalader and Ewing crossings. Only Washington’s main column successfully crossed. Fortunately for the Americans, it proved sufficient to overwhelm the poorly prepared defenders in Trenton. Rall was killed, and more than 900 Hessians were captured. Unfortunately, some 400 Hessians escaped south across the undefended Assunpink bridge.
By noon on December 26 Washington’s assault force had successfully re-crossed the Delaware back into Pennsylvania. The capture of nearly 1,000 Hessian mercenaries stunned the British and rejuvenated the American cause. As Washington himself exclaimed to a subordinate immediately following the Battle of Trenton, “This is a glorious day for our country!”
Early on December 27, assuming Washington was still in Trenton, Cadwalader crossed into New Jersey near Burlington. Resolving to take advantage of Cadwalader’s belated move and build on his success—something Howe had failed to do weeks earlier—Washington re-crossed the Delaware with the main body on December 30 and reoccupied Trenton. This was no raiding party. Washington brought with him some 40 artillery pieces (as compared to 18 on the first crossing), clearly intending to engage any British force sent after him. Posing a potential hitch to his plans, the enlistments of many of his veteran regiments were due to expire at year’s end. Once in New Jersey, however, Washington managed to convince most of his men to extend their enlistments by appealing to their patriotism and offering them a bounty. Which carried the most weight is uncertain.
On linking up with Cadwalader and newly arrived militia units, Washington found he fielded some 5,000 men in and around Trenton. While the city itself was not a strong defensible position (as the late Col. Rall had demonstrated four days earlier), Assunpink Creek and the high ground immediately southwest of it could be used to anchor a defensive line. The Assunpink ran from Great Bear Swamp roughly 4 miles southwest to the Delaware River at Trenton. Paralleling the Trenton–Princeton road, the creek was not particularly wide and was fordable at several spots. However, its banks were largely steep and overgrown, and it provided a definite impediment to the movement of a large force and a degree of security for defenders dug in behind it. Aside from the fords, the key terrain along the creek was the bridge at Trenton (the same span the Hessians had fled across days earlier). Washington prepared his main defensive position on the low ridge along the Assunpink and covered the bridge with multiple artillery pieces. He also sent cavalry and a strong covering force of 1,000 men toward Princeton to contact and delay expected British columns moving on Trenton.
Somewhat out of character, Howe reacted swiftly when news of the American victory at Trenton reached him in New York. He ordered Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis, who was preparing to return to England, to assume control of British forces in New Jersey and destroy the American army. On New Year’s Day Cornwallis, at the head of 1,000 reinforcements, reached Princeton, where he took command of nearly 7,000 troops. Early on January 2 he moved against Trenton with 5,000 soldiers, leaving a rear guard of some 1,200 men in Princeton. As planned, the latter force was to join Cornwallis in Trenton the next day.
Trenton is a dozen miles from Princeton, a straight shot down the Post Road. Five miles south of Princeton the road intersects with Five Mile Creek (aka Little Shabakunk Creek). At that junction late that morning Cornwallis ran into the American covering force led by Brig. Gen. Matthias Alexis Roche de Fermoy, a French soldier of fortune with a commission in the Continental Army. Never to be confused with that other French volunteer the admirable Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, Fermoy lived up to his reputation as a drunkard and a coward by abandoning his brigade and meandering back to Trenton as the British column approached. Fortunately for the American cause, the capable Col. Thomas Hand filled the vacant command position and conducted a masterful delaying action. By alternately skirmishing to disrupt the British march and then withdrawing in good order, Hand moved his force from Five Mile Run to fallback positions along the Post Road. Deceived into believing they were facing the main American body, the British deployed, thus delaying their march by more than two hours.
Hand continued his delay tactics, falling back to a position just northeast of Trenton, where he was supported by artillery and an American advance guard. Regardless, the onrushing British drove the American forward units through town and across the Assunpink toward the main defensive positions on the far bank. Panic threatened to erupt as men rushed to cross the bridge, but order was restored on the appearance of Washington, who always seemed to be at the decisive point on the battlefield. Under his steadying presence, the forward units settled down and filed across the bridge to safety.
Seeking from the march to force the American position, the British made three spirited but uncoordinated attacks on the bridge that afternoon. All were repulsed, Washington’s well-placed and deftly utilized artillery playing a decisive role. The Americans suffered fewer than 100 casualties, the British three times as many.
Convinced he had the American force trapped, but reluctant to launch a full-scale assault with weary troops in darkness, Cornwallis elected to disengage and renew the attack at first light. He planned a diversionary assault on the bridge to keep the Americans pinned down while he led the main British attack against Washington’s right flank. In so doing, Cornwallis disregarded the advice of several of his officers, who pushed for an immediate assault. Included among those who took issue with the plan was his quartermaster general, Sir William Erskine, who warned, “If Washington is the general I take him to be, he will not be found there in the morning.”
Across the Assunpink the American force was in a perilous position. Washington’s troops had fought well that day, but the general did not think they could survive a full British onslaught. He’d also noticed Cornwallis had positioned his troops to force a crossing of the creek to the far right of the American position. If the British succeeded, they might turn Washington’s flank and rout his entire army. Retreat across the Delaware was not a viable option; Cornwallis was too close, and the boats needed to support such a move were upriver northwest of Trenton—closer to the British than to the Americans. Retreat southeast along the Delaware was a possibility, but that would put the Army at risk of being caught on the march and destroyed. Above all, Washington realized any course of action that involved abandoning New Jersey would tarnish the earlier victory at Trenton. “Our situation was most critical, and our force small,” he explained in a subsequent letter to Congress. “To remove immediately was again destroying every dawn of hope which had begun to revive in the breasts of the Jersey militia.” The American cause needed another victory, not another retreat.
Rather than wait passively for the expected British assault, Washington elected to go on the offensive, move his entire force that night and attack the British garrison at Princeton. In the interest of speed, he sent excess supplies and artillery pieces south toward Bordentown. To deceive the British into thinking his men were continuing to dig in, he ordered 500 men to remain in position along the Assunpink, busily clanking shovels, chopping wood and feeding campfires. As Washington prepared to move out, he had wagon wheels and the cannons wrapped in rags to deaden their noise and demanded absolute silence of the main column as it marched north up a secondary road. A sudden propitious freeze eased travel along the previously mud-bogged roads. Despite such precautions, a contingent of Pennsylvania militiamen panicked and fled the march, leaving Washington with some 4,000 men. Still, the column went undetected.
At dawn on January 3 the American advance guard made contact at Stony Brook, about 3 miles from Princeton, with the British rear guard, which per orders was moving to join the main British force at Trenton. Meanwhile, Cornwallis, on realizing Washington was gone, promptly sent a column up the Princeton road in pursuit. But it was too little, too late. The Battle of Princeton had begun.
Washington would secure yet another victory over an outnumbered and surprised enemy detachment. While the main American column routed the British rear guard at Stony Brook (Washington once again exercising personal leadership to turn an American retreat into a resounding victory), a second American column swept the British out of Princeton. Two hundred enemy soldiers made a stand in the College of New Jersey’s Nassau Hall, while the rest of the garrison fled toward Brunswick, 19 miles to the northeast. Having inflicted some 200 casualties and bagged nearly 300 prisoners, Washington considered pressing his attack on the large, weakly defended British supply base at Brunswick. But Cornwallis was approaching, and the American troops were in no shape to fight another battle. Dwelling on the missed opportunity, Washington wrote John Hancock the next day, “In my judgment six or eight hundred fresh troops upon a forced march would have destroyed all their stores and magazines…and put an end to the war.” It was not to be. Bypassing Brunswick, Washington moved the Army into winter quarters farther north at Morristown, prompting Howe to withdraw British forces from much of New Jersey. Washington’s brilliant winter operation along the Delaware was complete.
The Continental Army victories along the Delaware River from Dec. 26, 1776, to Jan. 3, 1777, had significant tactical, operational and strategic implications. Tactically, the Americans proved they could outmaneuver and outfight both the main British army and its Hessian mercenaries. Operationally, the Americans secured the capital at Philadelphia and prompted the British to largely abandon New Jersey. Strategically, the Army made it clear to both its own wavering countrymen and to friendly foreign powers (especially France) that Americans had the will and ability to defend their recently declared independence.
While the Delaware River campaign did not win the war for the Americans, defeat at Assunpink Creek could have lost it for them. Washington had taken a major risk in reoccupying Trenton and challenging the main British army under one of its most dangerous generals. Defeat would have meant the probable destruction of the Continental Army and an end to the rebellion.
The battle had presented numerous opportunities for disaster. If the advance American forces at Five Mile Run on January 2 had followed the example of the intrepid Fermoy and left the battlefield, Cornwallis would have reached Trenton by late morning with ample opportunity to launch a full assault against the main American position before nightfall. If the withdrawal of the American screening forces across the Assunpink had turned into a general panic, the entire position could have melted away. If any of the three late-afternoon British assaults on the bridge had succeeded, Cornwallis would have broken and overrun Washington’s defensive position. During the night march around the British position only the onset of a sudden freeze had kept the American force from slogging through a muddy quagmire that could have left it mired and vulnerable at daybreak. The panic and subsequent desertion of the Pennsylvania militia during the march could have panicked the entire force, causing the Army to fall apart. Greater diligence on the part of British sentries could have resulted in the American column being discovered, overwhelmed and destroyed while on the march. However, through a combination of inspired leadership, tenacious fighting, surprise and luck none of those potential disasters came to pass.
Four long years would pass before Cornwallis (the commander outfoxed by Washington at Assunpink Creek) would surrender the British army at Yorktown, Va. In the interim the upstart Americans would suffer multiple combat defeats and the loss of their capital, not to mention the humiliating enemy occupation of most of their major cities. That said, the outlook for success would never again be as bleak as it was before Washington’s multiple crossings of the Delaware. Capped by the victories at Trenton, Assunpink Creek and Princeton, his one-week campaign had changed the momentum of the war that ultimately led to American independence. A century after Washington’s winter operations along the Delaware, British historian Sir George Otto Trevelyan observed, “It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting results upon the history of the world.”
James F. Byrne Jr. is a retired U.S. Army officer and frequent contributor to Military History. For further reading he recommends 1776, by David McCullough, George Washington’s War, by Robert Leckie, and The First American Army, by Bruce Chadwick.