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, when an overwhelming force of British soldiers routed the Patriots 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 summer-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 General George Washington.

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.

In the morning, Washington's troops caught the enemy by surprise and won a huge victory, quickly capturing nearly a thousand enemy troops. There were some casualties, including the wounding of future president James Monroe, but few deaths on the American side.

Two battles of Trenton are considered among the most decisive battles in the annals of military history.[1]


Colonel Rahl, the Hessian commander, was mortally wounded and died shortly after surrendering his forces. Although later sources would chalk the Hessian defeat up rampant drinking in the Hessian ranks, first-hand accounts by Americans suggest to the contrary. 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)