By now everyone is aware of the famous painting of General George Washington and his ragtag starving army crossing the Delaware. They did this on Christmas Day and were en route to the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey. Washington’s bold plan to quietly and quickly surround the Hessian garrison and win a much-needed battle was a pivotal win for the fledgling American Revolution.
The army had suffered defeats in New York, morale was low, the troops were starving and hungry and the revolution was on the verge of collapsing. But Washington’s bold attack and victory would inspire men to stay on in the army and would lead to more recruits rallying to the cause. The revolution even after Trenton would be far from a certainty but it was a much-needed rallying point.
Washington’s Plan: The Continental Army was in a bad way by December. They’d been routed out of New York and Long Island by the British and Hessians. They retreated across New Jersey and were across the river in Pennsylvania. The Hessians moved into Trenton, which was a small town at that time to establish their winter quarters. The Hessians numbered about 1400 men in four regiments and were commanded by Colonel Johann Rall.
Washington had about 2400 men under his command and planned to attack Trenton using three coordinated attacks.
First, General John Cadwalader would launch a diversionary attack at Bordentown, New Jersey, to block off reinforcements from the south. This would prevent the British from reinforcing Trenton’s Hessians from the south.
Then General James Ewing’s 700 men would seize the bridge at Assunpink Creek after taking his men over the Trenton Ferry. They would provide a blocking force which would effectively stop any of the Hessian troops from escaping.
Finally, Washington’s main assault force of two infantry divisions commanded by Generals Nathaniel Greene and John Sullivan, 2400 strong, would cross the river 9 miles north of Trenton, and attack from both the north under Greene and from the south under Sullivan.
Washington planned if this attack was successful, to make further moves against Princeton. Everything depended on the army getting into position without being compromised.
Rall was neither liked by his superiors or his troops, who thought him too soft to be a capable commander. Nevertheless, Rall who had been a soldier for more than 35 years had plenty of combat experience, despite his perceived shortcomings. Rall made a conscious blunder when against his own officer’s recommendations to build up defenses in the town with fortifications along the river, he declined. He mirrored what the British thought of the American soldiers and told his officers, “Let them come. We will go at them with the bayonet.”
Opening Moves: The Hessians were warned from Loyalists and American deserters that Washington was planning an attack. Outwardly, Rall dismissed them as nonsense, but in private he was worried. He wrote a letter to his commander Colonel Donop that the town was practically indefensible and he expected an attack at any moment.
On Christmas Night, the Hessians didn’t send out any patrols due to the weather. It had begun to rain, turned to sleet and finally snow. While the Hessians were bundling down trying to stay warm, Washington’s men were crossing the Delaware in boats while horses and artillery were taken across by ferry.
The weather delayed the crossing and set back the attack which was supposed to be a pre-dawn strike. But the weather also threw Washington’s plans completely off kilter. Neither General Cadwalader nor General Ewing were able to join the attack due to the severe weather conditions. As the men began marching towards Trenton, many of the men without boots were forced to tie rags around their feet and the snow was dyed red from their blood. Two men died of exposure on the way.
Only about 2 miles outside of town, Washington’s men ran into 50 armed American militia. Unaware of the plan to attack Trenton, they had just attacked a Hessian outpost. Washington was furious, believing that the Hessians would be alerted to their approach. However, Rall, having been warned by the British that the Americans would be planning an attack, believed the raid on the outpost was it and let his guard down, thinking that it was over.
Washington personally led the advance element when they ran headlong into another Hessian outpost about a mile from town. After the two sides exchanged fire, the Hessians realized they were facing a much larger force and beat a hasty but organized retreat, firing along the way.
It was then, General Sullivan and his troops entered from the south, which cut off the Hessian escape route and the firing increased. By the time Rall was assembling his three main regiments, his adjutant had informed him that Washington’s men had taken the main intersection of the town’s streets, where Rall’s engineers wanted to build a redoubt.
American cannons began to fire at the massing Hessians. Rall commanded one regiment to clear the guns. But as soon as they began advancing, the fire from the cannons broke up the attack. Rall ordered his own two cannons into action. They fired a few rounds each before accurate American return fire killed all of the crewmen and the cannons were captured.
The Hessian lines began to buckle. One regiment was pushed back and separated from the other two. The other two began to take heavy casualties from grapeshot and musket fire from the American infantry. A bayonet charge led by John Starke against the separated regiment broke them when their weapons wouldn’t fire due to wet powder.
Victory: Rall tried to reorganize his men and attack Washington’s flank. They marched in good order into the town’s streets where they briefly recaptured their cannons. But a determined American counterattack pushed them back. The Americans, firing from three directions broke up the attack. Rall was mortally wounded by cannon fire and his men retreated into an orchard where they quickly surrendered.
The third regiment of Hessians marched in the wrong direction and ran headlong into Sullivan’s troops who cut off their escape. Just minutes after the rest of the troops had surrendered, they too capitulated.
The battle was a stunning victory for Washington, who lost only the two men to frostbite and exposure on the march in and just five men wounded, including a near fatal wound to James Monroe who would later become the President of the United States. The Hessians lost 22 dead, including all four Colonels, 83 wounded and 896 men taken prisoner. Later, Sullivan captured another 200 Hessians who tried to escape to the British lines.
But even more importantly, the Americans, in dire need of food and supplies captured the Hessian’s stores at Trenton including food, arms, ammunition, clothing, shoes, boots, and bedding. Things which were all in short supply in the American Army. The ragtag Americans had gone toe-to-toe with a European army that had raised Cain in New York. Even British General Howe was surprised at the ease that the Americans had been able to dispatch the Hessians.
By noon on the 26th, Washington’s men and their prisoners were safely back across the Delaware and into Pennsylvania. The revolution would live on.
Illustration: National Archives