Trenton, New Jersey

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Trenton, New Jersey

TRENTON, NEW JERSEY. 26 December 1776. Trenton was held by the Hesse-Cassel brigade of Colonel Johann Rall, which had distinguished itself during the battles at White Plains and Fort Washington. The brigade consisted of three regiments—the experienced Füsilier-Regiment von Lossburg and the Füsilier-Regiment von Knyphausen, along with the Landgrenadiere Regiment von Rall. This latter unit was formed in 1776 by splitting a two-battalion regiment (the other battalion stayed in Germany). In peacetime it maintained lower tables of organization than the other field regiments, meaning that it had absorbed many new replacements in the spring and lacked the quality and cohesion of normal Hessian units. All three regiments had absorbed relatively heavy casualties already, and many of the officers who had been wounded were still in New York receiving medical attention. The brigade had six artillery pieces (two per regiment) with their gun crews, a detachment of jägers, and a small detachment of British light dragoons.

Rall himself was a commander with important political connections and great personal bravery. However, he had certain shortcomings that combined to produce spectacular failure at Trenton: like General Edward Braddock in the French and Indian War, he had a very conventional tactical sense and he severely underestimated his opponents. His superiors understood his inexperience at independent command, but the four senior officers who would normally have commanded the brigade were all ill. Although relatively isolated from the other garrisons at Princeton and Bordentown, he saw no need to construct fortifications, but he did establish some outposts and conducted morning and evening patrols of the nearby countryside. Near dusk on Christmas day Rall personally led one such patrol, which skirmished with an unauthorized American patrol. The brigade had gone into winter quarters and occupied various buildings in Trenton, a policy that kept them protected from the miserable wet and cold weather but required the regiments to take time to assemble in the event of an emergency. Also, the wear and tear of constant small skirmishing and nightly alerts had worn them down. On Christmas night a howling northeaster finally gave them a chance to relax a bit, since it was clear to all that the Americans would be quiet for a change.


Selecting the isolated post of Trenton as his objective, Washington—on the west bank of the Delaware River—devised a scheme of maneuver utilizing three separate groups. Brigadier General James Ewing would cross the Delaware with eight hundred militia at Trenton Ferry and occupy the south bank of Assunpink Creek to block the enemy's retreat in that direction. Colonel John Cadwalader was to lead eighteen hundred men—his Philadelphia Associators, supported by Colonel Daniel Hitchcock's Continental brigade—across the river at Burlington and block the garrison at Bordentown from reinforcing Trenton. Weather, particularly the ice on the river, prevented the supporting attacks from taking place. Ewing never got across the river; Cadwalader only got the van of his force over before conditions deteriorated and he had to pull them back.

The main body under Washington's personal command planned to cross at McKonkey's Ferry (later Washington Crossing), nine miles upstream, and separate into two columns. Major General John Sullivan's (Brigadier General Arthur St. Clair's, Colonel John Glover's, and Colonel Paul D. Sargent's brigades) would advance along the River Road. Washington and Major General Nathanael Greene would lead the brigades of Brigadier Generals Hugh Mercer, Adam Stephen, Lord Stirling, and Matthias Roche de Fermoy inland and attack down the Pennington Road. Washington allocated a total of eighteen cannon to these two columns, about three times the ratio of guns normally found in European warfare. Four accompanied each lead brigade, with three others at the head of each of the supporting brigades and two with each column's trail brigade. The plan called for the two columns to synchronize watches and strike the village from the north before dawn, which would come about 5 a.m.


Washington's column got off late and only reached the assembly area starting at 6 p.m. The men embarked in the dark in Durham boats and assorted other river craft manned by Glover's Fourteenth Continental Regiment, watermen from the Philadelphia Associators, and the local ferrymen. In a remarkable feat, the force crossed eight hundred feet to the east bank in the face of the strong current; floating ice; bitter cold; and a storm of wind, hail, rain, and snow that started about 11 p.m. Not a man was lost, and the artillery and horses also made it, but way behind schedule. Although the debarkation was supposed to be accomplished by midnight, leaving five hours to reach Trenton before daybreak, the last man was not landed until 3 a.m., and the troops were not ready to start marching for another hour.

Despite the delays, a number of events combined to favor the American attack. British intelligence had been collecting information from Loyalist sympathizers, but reports back estimated that only American raiding patrols would cross the river. That had been the experience of a week or more, and on the morning of the 25th, Rall himself had led a sweep that clashed with an unauthorized probe by Captain Richard Clough Anderson of the Fifth Virginia Regiment and later in the day with a second raiding party from the Fourth Virginia Regiment under Captain George Wallis. Each morning Rall had his pickets make a dawn sweep of the immediate vicinity, which normally returned about sunrise (on the 26th at about 7:20 a.m.). By moving later than they had planned, the Americans avoided this patrol and therefore remained undetected.

At Birmingham, about four miles from its landing, the attacking force split into its two columns. Turning left to pick up the Pennington Road so as to approach Trenton from the north, Greene had Stephen's Virginia Continental brigade in the lead, followed by Mercer and Stirling and the Philadelphia Light Horse. Its vanguard consisted of forty men from the Third Virginia Regiment under Captain William Washington and Lieutenant James Monroe. Washington accompanied this column as did Fermoy's brigade, which would peel off and hold the Princeton road to prevent reinforcement of the Hessians. Sullivan continued down the River Road with the troops of St. Clair in front, followed by Glover and then Sargent. They would approach Trenton from the northwest. Captain John Flahaven led the vanguard of this column with forty men from the First New Jersey Regiment.

At about 7:30 a.m., American scouts located the Hessian outposts about a mile from the center of town. Fifty jägers under Lieutenant Friedrich von Grothausen covered the more dangerous River Road while a smaller force under Lieutenant Johann Andreas Wiederhold of the Knyphausen regiment held a building at the intersection of the Scotch and Pennington Roads, with about twenty assorted men; similar small detachments watched the Princeton Road and the bridge over the Assunpink, with the British dragoons further downstream. Washington therefore had Greene stop and deploy under the cover of woods into three brigade-sized columns before making their final advance. Wiederhold's men spotted them at the last second and got off a few shots about 8 a.m. Then they fell back on the billets of Captain Ernst von Altenbockum's No. 3 Company of Lossburg; that force fell out and also put up a brief resistance before falling back. Three minutes after Wiederhold was engaged, the artillery leading Sullivan's column opened fire on the outpost at the River Road.

Despite the myths, Rall was not drunk when the shooting started. But because the Hessians had gone into winter quarters, the companies were billeted in multiple buildings and required considerable time to assemble into regimental formations capable of actually fighting, a process complicated by the fact that the officers had to turn the five administrative companies into eight firing platoons before it could engage. The Rall and Lossburg regiments were generally situated in the north end of town, while Knyphausen's was in south end. Each day one regiment was designated as the "alert" regiment and kept under tighter control so that it could assemble first and give the other two more time. Rall's had assumed that duty at 4 p.m. on Christmas Day and was to form up on King Street. The Lossburg was supposed to use Queen Street, and the Knyphausen would form along the creek.

Although the Hessians turned with a reasonable amount of speed, Washington's posting of artillery in the van enabled the gunners to enfilade the regiments by firing down the street. Captain Alexander Hamilton's company broke up Rall's regiment as it was trying to sort itself out, and—together with Captain Thomas Forrest's guns firing down Queen Street—silenced the four Hessian guns in the center of town. The infantry followed with a charge, since the wet conditions limited the men's ability to reload their muskets effectively. William Washington and Monroe were both wounded as they overran the Lieutenant Johannes Englehard's two cannon supporting Rall's regiment in King Street. Sullivan's troops, meanwhile, had penetrated the south end of the village led by St. Clair's brigade and drove back the Knyphausen regiment before it could effectively organize. Several hundred of the jägers and Knyphausen men escaped over the bridge across the Assunpink because Ewing's force was not there to block them. Glover's brigade pushed directly on to finally seal the bridge, while Sergeant's concentrated on securing the old barracks building.

From the Hessian point of view the scene was one of indescribable confusion. Converging American columns pushed forward on their designated lines of advance and drove the Germans into the open east of town. Rall's remnants took shelter in an apple orchard, where they were joined by most of the Lossburg (without their cannon, which had become bogged down in low ground). Two counterattacks simply never made any headway and the two regiments were pounded by artillery fire. The Knyphausen regiment fought a separate battle in the south end of town and was similarly driven into fields near the creek without its guns. Efforts to find a route to escape proved useless, and as casualties began to mount (Rall himself went down mortally wounded), the senior officer still on his feet, Lieutenant Colonel Franziscus Scheffer of Lossburg, ordered the survivors to give up. Stirling's brigade took the surrender of the Rall-Lossburg force, while the Knyphausen element ground its arms to Sullivan slightly later, at about 9:30 a.m. Overall, the engagement lasted roughly ninety minutes from first skirmish to last surrender; heavy fighting lasted only from thirty to forty-five minutes. This variation explains the discrepancies in different accounts.


The inability of Ewing and Cadwalader to accomplish their missions made it out of the question for Washington to continue his offensive to Princeton and Brunswick. With a large body of prisoners to evacuate, his own men exhausted, and knowing that other enemy forces were nearby, Washington had no choice but to withdraw. The return proved even more arduous than the advance because the icing had gotten worse. Evacuation started at noon, and the rear guard did not reach its bivouacs until noon on the 27th.


While most sources state that Washington crossed with about twenty-four hundred troops and eighteen guns, a more accurate estimate can be made from the returns compiled on 22 December. (St. Clair's brigade was not included in the return.) Green's column had around three thousand officers and men and Sullivan over thirty-five hundred. The two American casualties that are positively known are William Washington and James Monroe, both wounded. Washington also reported one or two privates wounded in the action, and probably several more men died as a result of exposure.

Of the 1,400 Hessians, 106 were killed or wounded (5 officers, 17 men killed; 6 officers, 78 men wounded). Including wounded prisoners, 918 Hessians were captured (32 officers, 92 noncommissioned officers, 29 individuals in such categories as musician and surgeon's mate, 25 servants, and 740 rank and file). The rest escaped. None of the handful of British light dragoons was a casualty.


It is hard to overstate the importance of this battle to the American cause. It started the reversal of fortunes that kept the Revolution alive and began the erosion of the Germans' reputation of invincibility that culminated the following autumn at Red Bank. Americans no longer feared them, and the British started to relegate them mostly to garrison activity. And, most significantly, the experimental use of combined arms brigades in this battle convinced Washington to adopt that formation permanently.

SEE ALSO Alexander, William; Cadwalader, John; Durham Boats; Fermoy, Matthias Alexis de Roche; Fort Washington, New York; Glover, John; Greene, Nathanael; Hamilton, Alexander; Mercer, Hugh; Monroe, James; New Jersey Campaign; Rall, Johann Gottlieb; St. Clair, Arthur; Stephen, Adam; Sullivan, John; Washington, William; White Plains, New York.


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

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

                          revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.