Battle of Trenton 1776

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TRENTON, BATTLE OF. During the American Revolution, following General George Washington's evacuation of New Jersey, the British general William Howe established two unsupported cantonments of 1,500 Hessians each, at Bordentown and Trenton. Washington, sure the enemy only awaited the freezing of the Delaware River to seize Philadelphia, planned a simultaneous surprise movement against both cantonments, with the main blow falling at Trenton.

On Christmas night, with 2,500 troops, he crossed the Delaware at McKonkey's Ferry, eight miles above Trenton. Delayed by floating ice and a storm of sleet and snow, his two columns, under his command and that of General John Sullivan, reached the village at 8:00 a.m., in broad daylight. The Hessians, who had spent Christmas night celebrating, were completely surprised. Their commandant, Colonel Johann Rall, who had ignored warnings of the attack, seemed nonplussed. The Americans fired from houses and cellars and from behind trees and fences, while their artillery raked the two main streets of the town. In the battle, lasting scarcely forty minutes, thirty Hessians were killed (including Rall), and one thousand were taken prisoner, while the Americans had only two officers and two privates wounded. Two supporting divisions failed to cross the river until the following day; meanwhile, the Hessians at Bordentown safely withdrew.

Coming so swiftly after a succession of bitter defeats, this victory infused new life into the revolutionary cause, restored confidence in Washington both at home and abroad, strengthened the resolution of Congress, and, coupled with the victory at Princeton a few days later, practically freed New Jersey of British control.


Bill, Alfred H. The Campaign of Princeton, 1776–1777. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1948.

Dwyer, William M. The Day Is Ours!: November 1776–January 1777: An Inside View of the Battles of Trenton and Princeton. New York: Viking, 1983.

Stryker, William S. The Battles of Trenton and Princeton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1898. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Co., 1967.

C. A.Titus/a. r.

See alsoDelaware, Washington Crossing the ; German Mercenaries ; New Jersey ; Princeton, Battle of ; Revolution, American: Military History .

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By December 1776 the Continental Army, reeling from a series of defeats that resulted in the loss of New York and New Jersey, seemed to be in the process of dissolution. As Congress retreated from Philadelphia to the relative safety of Baltimore and the army faced the expiration of the enlistments of all but fourteen hundred men, the future appeared bleak indeed. Defeat had severely impacted Patriot morale and even George Washington privately admitted that the end might be near.

Washington quickly recovered from such pessimism and displayed the determination and resourcefulness that were such prominent marks of his character. He knew that the British garrisons at Trenton and Princeton were isolated and exposed to attack. The garrison of fourteen hundred Hessians at Trenton, under the command of Colonel Johann Rall, was of particular interest. Homesick and exhausted from weeks of dealing with hostile elements in "pacified" New Jersey, the Hessians made an inviting target.

The crossing of the Delaware River, on Christmas evening 1776, has rightfully assumed a prominent position in American iconography. If the crossing did not match the image of indomitable courage in the famous, and largely inaccurate, Emmanuel Leutze painting of 1851, it was indeed heroic. The unsung heroes were Colonel John Glover and his Marblehead mariners, who managed the crossing on a raw and bitter night in which rain, sleet, snow, wind, and floating ice made the crossing difficult and dangerous. Though Washington deplored the delays caused by the weather, the bitter night actually assisted his designs, as weather conditions, rather than the alcohol of legend, were largely responsible for the achievement of surprise. The fighting lasted only an hour and a half and, at the cost of less than ten men killed and wounded; the Americans killed or captured over nine hundred Hessians, including Colonel Rall, who was killed.

Trenton was Washington's most striking victory. Though other campaigns possessed more strategic significance, the victory at Trenton, and the less conclusive fighting at Princeton a week later, rejuvenated Patriot morale and carried the cause through the difficult winter of 1776–1777.

See alsoHessians; Revolution: Military History .


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

Ketchum, Richard M. The Winter Soldiers. New York: Doubleday, 1973.

Daniel McDonough

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Trenton, battle of, 1776. Washington's attack upon Trenton in New Jersey, though small scale, gave a welcome victory after the loss of New York in September 1776. Early in the morning of Christmas Day, the Americans attacked the Hessian garrison under the command of Colonel Rall. Nearly 1,000 Hessians were taken prisoner and their commander killed.

J. A. Cannon

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