Battle of Trenton

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Battle of Trenton
Begun December 26, 1776
Ended December 26, 1776

The Battle of Trenton occurred in the second year of the American Revolution, 1776, and is widely touted as one of the greatest American victories of the war. It followed several months of calamity for the Patriot cause, after an overwhelming force of British soldiers routed the Continental Army under General George Washington from New York and through New Jersey into Pennsylvania. The demoralized force suffered attrition from death, injury, and desertion. Infantry enlistments of the early war had a single year duration, and thus many troops, defeated, were going home. After the months-long chain of defeats and hundred miles of retreat, new enlistees were unlikely. The Continental Congress even fled Philadelphia for Baltimore, leaving everything in the hands of Washington.

Though Washington's victory at Trenton did not in itself turn the tide of the war in favor of the Americans, it did at least force the British onto the defensive and breathe new life into the American cause, at a time when yet another defeat might have been fatal.


After the British army under General William Howe had secured New York City, a large portion of it, under the command of General Charles Cornwallis, was assigned to drive Washington's Continental Army from New Jersey. Crossing the Hudson River from New York on November 20, Cornwallis forced the Americans out of their position overlooking New York City in the Battle of White Plains, and kept up a slow pursuit across the state over the next two weeks. By December 8, the Continental Army had fallen back across the Delaware River and taken up a position on the Pennsylvania side opposite Trenton, which British troops occupied that same day. Though there were some suggestions that the British continue the pursuit across the Delaware and take Philadelphia, Howe ultimately decided against this, due in part to the onset of winter, the exhaustion of many of his soldiers, and the domination of the lower Delaware by American naval vessels. Instead, he ordered Cornwallis to establish a network of garrisons across New Jersey, by both British regulars and German mercenaries (commonly referred to as Hessians, though they in fact came from several different German states), as a prelude to further campaigning in the spring.

The fall of New York and New Jersey (as well as Rhode Island, much of which was also conquered in December 1776 after a British invasion force took the port city of Newport) produced panic and despair among many Patriots. A few (including Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence) abandoned the cause altogether and took an oath of allegiance to the British Crown in return for the promise of amnesty being offered by Howe. Even among those who did not, there were many signs of disaffection from the struggle. A Virginia Loyalist remarked that by early December many Patriots in his district "had given up the cause for lost....Their recruiting parties could not get a man."[1]

The Battle

The General, in a last-ditch maneuver to provide the army a victory on which to recruit, decided to attack the 1560-man Hessian force in Trenton, under the command of Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rahl. An attack was coordinated to surround the city of Trenton, crossing both north and south of the city, at daybreak on December 26, 1776, coordinating with a 600-man unit of New Jersey Militia intended to mount a diversion to distract the German force. In a very risky move having the code name "Victory or Death," Washington began leading his men across the ice-filled Delaware River at five o'clock in the evening on Christmas Day. The crossing was extremely arduous, and not until 3:00 a.m. was the entire army across. A supporting force of Continentals and Pennsylvania militia, attempting to cross further downstream, could not make it because of the heavy ice, and the main body under Washington was compelled to attack alone.

After several hours of marching through a severe winter storm, Washington's troops arrived on the northwest outskirts of Trenton at about 7:30 a.m. and launched their attack. Though the storm had delayed the American march and forced them to attack in daylight, rather than the predawn darkness Washington had initially hoped for, it had also led the Hessian garrison to let its guard down, believing there could be no major action in such weather. Therefore, the American assault caught the enemy by surprise. After some stubborn fighting along the edge of town, the Hessians were overwhelmed by the converging attack, launched from several directions, and by the close-up support of Washington's artillery; they fell back through the streets before being rallied by Colonel Rahl, who had by now arrived to take personal command of the defense, and launched a counterattack north up King Street. Once more, intense close-quarters combat resulted; Henry Knox later described it as "a scene of war of which I had often conceived but never saw before. The hurry, fright, and confusion of the enemy was [not] unlike that which will be when the last trump shall sound."[2]

Eventually, the Hessian counterattack broke, especially after Rahl himself fell, hit by two bullets and mortally wounded. Driven back into an apple orchard east of town, and without any senior leadership, two of the three Hessian regiments quickly surrendered. The third regiment tried to escape to the southeast, in the direction of other Hessian units at Mount Holly and elsewhere, but was cut off and likewise forced to surrender.

Trenton was a huge victory for the Americans, with the main body of the Hessian garrison completely wiped out (apart from a handful of soldiers and a larger number of noncombatants). Historian David Hackett Fischer records the losses as 22 killed, 83 wounded, and 896 captured, for a total of 918 casualties. There were some casualties on the American side, including the wounding of future president James Monroe, but few deaths.[3]

The battles of Trenton are considered among the most decisive battles in the annals of military history.[4]


Colonel Rahl, the Hessian commander, was mortally wounded and died shortly after surrendering his forces. Although later sources would attribute the Hessian defeat to rampant drinking in the Hessian ranks, first-hand accounts by Americans suggest the contrary. "I am willing to go on record," wrote John Greenwood, a fifer in one of the Continental regiments, "that I did not see even a solitary drunken soldier belonging to the enemy."[5] The battle was won by Washington's skill alone. Washington caught the enemy completely by surprise: Rahl had ignored several warnings that an American attack was likely, citing the horrendous weather, and mistook a light skirmish with a handful of patriots as the promised battle.

Washington used the victory to plead his soldiers into reenlisting. Washington promised reenlisting soldiers a share in the bounty of Trenton, along with $10 (a monumental sum - their monthly salary, which few had received in months, was $6). After balking at first, a great deal of the soldiers reenlisted.

Amazingly, Washington did not have the authority to even offer these gifts: although an order en route to him authorized him to do so, Washington had yet to receive the order. The same order conferred upon Washington near-dictatorial powers in leading, providing for, and commanding his army. It is a credit to Washington and the spirit of America that he never considered maintaining this great power past its need.

Two years later, Washington wrote:
"The Hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this - the course of the war - that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more wicked that has not gratitude to acknowledge his obligations; but it will be time enough for me to turn Preacher when my present appointment ceases."

Prior to the Battle of Trenton, the British had considered the Battle of New York a decisive victory, likely to end the war once and for all. A number of colonists had begun to think the same, and flocked to the British side when Admiral Howe offered a general pardon. Washington's victory changed all that.

Further reading

  • Levin, Jack and Levin, Mark. George Washington: The Crossing (2013)


  1. Nicholas Cresswell, The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, ed. Samuel Thornely (New York, 1924), 179.
  2. William Stryker, Battles of Trenton and Princeton (Boston, 1898), 371.
  3. David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 254-55.
  4. The Battle of Trenton
  5. John Greenwood, The Revolutionary Services of John Greenwood of Boston, ed. Isaac J. Greenwood (New York, 1922), 82.

External links