Princeton, New Jersey

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Princeton, New Jersey

PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY. 3 January 1777. Although his covering forces under Colonel Edward Hand delayed General Charles Cornwallis's approach to Trenton on 2 January so that the British did not reach the main American battle position along Assunpink Creek until dark, Washington knew that he could not stand up against the superior British forces upon the resumption of their attack the next day. Cornwallis was so sure of victory that he sought to avoid needless casualties and opted to wait until daylight rather than try to continue advancing in the dark.

Washington probably selected the position along Assunpink Creek with the thought of maneuvering in the direction of Princeton before he could be trapped. Washington convened a council of war in the evening of 2 January and, as was his custom, encouraged every member freely to speak his mind. Several offered an alternative to standing and fighting or risking a difficult night retreat. Brigadier General Arthur St. Clair had been on the extreme American right flank during the action that day and his patrols had uncovered a roundabout route to the north via Quaker Bridge. He suggested using that way to bypass Cornwallis; the Americans could then push six more miles and reach Princeton, where roads would allow them to go on to Brunswick. Adjutant General Joseph Reed, who had grown up in the area, confirmed the accuracy of the patrols' report and said that his own patrols with the Philadelphia Light Horse had found no evidence that the British were watching the route. At that point Brigadier General Hugh Mercer suggested that the move would appear to the public to be an advance, not a retreat, which would have a very important political impact. By the time the meeting broke up, virtually every member had supported this option, and Washington started making detailed plans to hit Princeton at dawn. As another piece of good fortune, the temperature dropped twenty degrees in a few hours, freezing muddy roads and making a rapid march possible.

MOVING TOWARD PRINCETON

Washington left a few hundred men to keep campfires burning as a deception, and the British interpreted the movements they saw as American preparations for another night attack like the one delivered on 26 December. At 1 a.m. on the 3rd, the last of the baggage and heavy guns headed south to Burlington under Brigadier General Adam Stephen, and Washington's main body started moving. Every precaution was taken to ensure secrecy. Only the generals knew where the expedition was headed, orders were given in whispers, and wheels of gun carriages were wrapped with rags to muffle their sound. It was a difficult feat for the veterans and the inexperienced militia, a few of whom panicked near South Trenton when they mistook another unit for Hessians. The column moved southeast for a bit to get clear of the lines and then swung east and finally turned north at Sandtown, a route that also had the added advantage of avoiding Brigadier Alexander Leslie's twelve hundred men in Maidenhead. At about first light (6:50 a.m.) it began to cross Stony Brook and deploy for the final advance. Major General John Sullivan took three brigades to the right in order to swing around and hit Princeton from the east. The main body under Washington and Major General Nathanael Greene formed the left wing and headed roughly north along a sunken road with Mercer's brigade in the lead. The scheme of maneuver was to have Sullivan drive the British to Worth's Mill, where part of Greene's force would be in a blocking position along Stony Brook, while the rest pushed on into town. Once again the Americans had missed their dawn attack because it had taken about five hours to travel nine miles, but they had done so without being detected.

Princeton was occupied by about twelve hundred British from Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood's Fourth Brigade, which had orders to move up to join Cornwallis on the 3rd. About 5 a.m., unaware of Washington's approach, Mawhood set out with two of his regiments (the Seventeenth and Fifty-fifth Foot), some artillery pieces, a cumbersome supply convoy, and part of the Sixteenth Light Dragoons. He intended to join Leslie at Maidenhead and then move on to Trenton. The other regiment, the Fortieth Foot, stayed in Princeton to guard supplies. Shortly after sunrise (7:22), Mawhood had already crossed Stony Brook Bridge with the Seventeenth and part of the Fifty-fifth when his flankers detected Sullivan's column a mile away. Mawhood formed up to consider falling back to defend Princeton or pushing on to Maidenhead. But because he thought the Americans were trying to escape from a defeat at Trenton, he set out to attack them instead.

THE BATTLE

Because of the sunken road Mawhood did not see Greene's force, nor did Greene see him. Washington was on higher ground, however, and sent a messenger to tell Greene to change the plan and advance on the British as soon as he got clear of the ravine. As Mercer came into the open, he and Mawhood both headed for the high ground on William Clark's farm, and particularly for his orchard. Fifty dismounted British dragoons got there first, but Mercer's larger vanguard soon started gaining the upper hand. Both sides fed in more troops as fast as they came up, and they began exchanging volleys at a range of from forty to fifty yards. Mercer's men were getting the better of the fight, thanks to the presence of a number of companies armed with rifles, but after about five minutes, Mawhood launched a bayonet charge. Unable to counter because the rifles had no bayonets, the Americans crumbled. Mercer himself went down as did Colonel John Haslett, who was next in command, and a number of other key officers.

Colonel John Cadwalader's brigade of Philadelphia Associators, including Captain Joseph Moulder's artillery company, arrived at this time, and the British halted. Cadwalader attacked but was driven back in some confusion. That short pause, however, let other Americans (particularly Colonel Daniel Hitchcock's New England Continentals) build up a new line supported by eight guns firing from a hilltop. Washington himself came up and helped to rally Mercer's and Cadwalader's men. Then the Americans advanced using platoon volleys and at a range of thirty yards broke Mawhood's line. The remnants of the Seventeenth Foot headed towards Maidenhead, having entered the battle with about 250 men and endured around 100 killed or wounded and another 35 captured. The Fifty-fifth and the supply convoy fell back on Princeton. Meanwhile, the Fortieth Foot had heard the gunfire and formed up on the college grounds; it then moved up to the outskirts of the village.

Sullivan's right wing now entered the fight with Colonel Paul Dudley Sargent's brigade in the lead. They smashed into the line that the Fortieth was attempting to defend (at modern Frog Hollow) before it had been organized, driving the British back through town. Part of the Fortieth occupied Nassau Hall, the college building. Captain Alexander Hamilton unlimbered his guns and fired a round into the building; the 194 men inside promptly surrendered. The remaining 200 or so British troops retreated all the way to Brunswick, losing about 50 more prisoners along the way.

Cornwallis had started moving from Trenton as soon as he saw that the Americans were gone. As soon as Princeton had been secured, Washington sent Major John Kelly with a substantial militia force back to destroy the bridge over Stony Brook. This delayed Cornwallis's movement, and the last Americans left town as the first enemy troops entered from the south. Although Washington wanted to continue his raid to Brunswick, his tired troops were not equal to the task. So rather than risk losing all that he had gained, he headed for safety in the high ground around Morristown and went into winter quarters on the 6th.

NUMBERS AND LOSSES

In the forty-five-minute battle near Princeton, the Americans lost around 35 killed and the same number wounded out of a total force of around 5,000—most of whom did not engage closely. Howe's notoriously shady official casualty reports admitted 28 killed, 58 wounded, and 187 missing. A more accurate accounting would be around 450 total losses, with 222 killed and wounded out of the 450 or so who bore the brunt of the fighting.

SIGNIFICANCE

The battle at Princeton effectively ended the British effort to occupy New Jersey outside of the strip near New York, where they could be supported and supplied by sea. It is significant primarily in the context of the greater campaign, and more for the political impact than the actual military damage inflicted. Unlike Trenton, which Howe and the ministry could blame on faults of the Germans, this time British regulars had been chewed up.

SEE ALSO Hand, Edward; New Jersey Campaign.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Fischer, David Hackett. Washington's Crossing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Stryker, William S. Battles of Trenton and Princeton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1898.

                             revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.