Fought on December 26, 1776, the Battle of Trenton was a pivotal battle during the American Revolutionary War. Prior to the battle, the British had handed the Americans a number of major defeats. The American morale was very low and many men had deserted the army. At such a juncture, George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, laid out a bold plan to attack the enemy forces stationed at Trenton in New Jersey. The American forces first made the famous crossing of the Delaware River, which was accomplished “with almost infinite difficulty”. They then swiftly defeated the missionaries at Trenton capturing around 900 soldiers along with provisions; and arms and ammunition. The Battle of Trenton was a key victory for the Americans as it boosted the morale of the Continental Army and instilled vigor in the general populace. Know more about the causes, significance, casualties and effects of the Battle of Trenton through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 The American had suffered major defeats before the Battle of Trenton

In August 1776, the Americans lost the Battle of Long Island, the first major battle of the American Revolutionary War. They had to give up control of the strategically important port city of New York and after several more defeats, they were forced to retreat through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. The morale of the Continental Army was very low and many men had deserted, feeling that the cause for independence was lost. In a letter to his cousin, George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, expressed his concern and wrote: “I think the game is pretty near up”. At such a juncture, Washington spotted an opportunity and devised a plan to launch a surprise attack on the Hessian soldiers stationed at Trenton in New Jersey. Hessians were paid German soldiers who were fighting for the British army.

George Washington in July 1776
George Washington in July 1776 – Portrait by Charles Willson Peale

 

#2 The American plan of a three pronged attack couldn’t be realized

George Washington devised a plan by which he would carry a three pronged attack. His force of 2,400 men would carry the main assault. Colonel John Cadwalader, with a force of 1,900 men would launch a diversionary attack against the British garrison at Bordentown, New Jersey, to block off reinforcements from the south; while General James Ewing would take 700 militia to seize the bridge over the Assunpink Creek and prevent enemy troops from escaping. The American plan required three different crossings of the Delaware River, which forms the entire boundary between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. However, in the end, both Cadwalader and Ewing’s forces were unable to cross the river as it was ice-choked and there was a storm.

Map showing the location of Trenton
Map showing the location of Trenton

 

#3 The British leaders were negligent despite intelligence of a probable attack

A British spy had informed British Major General James Grant that Washington’s army was looking to attack Trenton. This information was passed to German colonel Johann Rall, who was in command of the Hessian troops at Trenton. Grant didn’t believe that Washington would attack but he still asked Rall to be vigilant. Rall asked the British to establish a garrison in Maidenhead, close to Trenton. However, his request was denied. At the time, Trenton was a small town with about 100 houses and two main streets. Also, unlike most American settlements, it lacked city walls or fortifications. Some of the Hessian officers advised Colonel Rall to fortify the town but Rall dismissed their concern and even said, “Let them come… Why defenses? We will go at them with the bayonet.”

 

#4 Washington’s men crossed the ice choked Delaware before the battle

On the night of December 25–26, 1776, George Washington and his troops crossed the ice choked Delaware river. The crossing was accomplished “with almost infinite difficulty” with the most prominent danger being the “floating ice in the river”. It was made worse by the arrival of a strong storm that brought freezing rain, snow, and terrifying winds. Washington was among the first of the troops to cross. The charge of the crossing logistics was given to Brigadier General Henry Knox. Under his overall command, 18 cannons were brought over the river. He is highly praised for bringing men, horses and artillery across the river without loss. Washington’s crossing was later captured by German artist Emanuel Leutze in his painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, which became a sensation and remains one of the most famous paintings in the United States.

Washington Crossing the Delaware painting
Washington Crossing the Delaware – Famous painting by Emanuel Leutze

 

#5 The American army split into two and followed two different routes to Trenton

George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River couldn’t be complete till 3 am on December 26, three hours behind schedule. As soon as the army was ready, Washington ordered it to be split into two columns: one under the command of himself and Major General Nathanael Greene; and the second under Major General John Sullivan. At 4:00 am, the soldiers began to march towards Trenton. The column under Sullivan took the abandoned River Road from Bear Tavern to Trenton while Washington’s column followed Pennington Road, a parallel route that lay a few miles inland from the river. It took the American army around 4 hours to march from the river crossing site to the outskirts of Trenton. Along the way, several civilians joined as volunteers. They primarily served as guides due to their knowledge of the terrain.

Battle of Trenton map
Map of The Battle of Trenton

 

#6 Washington’s forces were able to achieve the surprise attack they had planned

Shortly after eight o’clock on the morning of December 26, 1776, the American forces attacked the Hessians stationed at Trenton. Three columns marched through thick snow with Washington personally leading the middle charge. When the Americans fired at the Hessian commander at the outpost Lieutenant Andreas Wiederholdt, he shouted “Der Feind!” (The Enemy!) and other Hessians came out. Washington was able to achieve the surprise attack that he had planned. Hessian detachments made organized retreats, firing as they fell back. They then gained covering fire from other Hessian guard companies on the outskirts of the town. Hessian commander Johann Rall decided to counterattack the Americans within the city. This proved costly as Washington’s forces occupied the highest ground in the city and had clear views of all movements of the Hessian army.

George Washington at the Battle of Trenton
Engraving of George Washington at the Battle of Trenton

 

#7 The American forces won the Battle of Trenton in just one hour

Washington ordered the escape route to Princeton to be cut off, sending infantry in battle formation to block it. Also, General Sullivan, who had entered Trenton by the abandoned River Road, had blocked the only crossing over the Assunpink Creek to cut off the Hessian escape. The Hessians formed ranks and began to advance up the street but soon they were forced to break ranks and flee. They made one last attempt to retake the town so they could make a breakout. However, Washington, on high ground, saw the Hessian soldiers approach the American flank and moved his troops in battle formation against the enemy. After a brief struggle, the Hessian attack failed. They retreated into an orchard with the Americans in pursuit. Soon they were surrounded and offered terms of surrender, to which they agreed. Another Hessian regiment tried to escape across the bridge but was found and surrendered. The Battle of Trenton lasted for only one hour.

Painting of Battle of Trenton
Painting of Battle of Trenton by Charles McBarron

 

#8 Two thirds of the Hessian force at Trenton was captured by the American army

The Battle of Trenton pitted 2,400 American soldiers against a Hessian force numbering about 1,400. 22 Hessian men were killed in action and 83 were wounded. Around 900 soldiers, or nearly two third of the Hessian force, was captured while the rest was able to escape. Only five American soldiers were wounded while two froze to death during the campaign. As both Colonel John Cadwalader and General James Ewing were unable to complete the crossing of the Delaware river; George Washington decided that, without their 2600 men, he did not have the forces to attack Princeton and New Brunswick. Thus the American force moved across the Delaware back into Pennsylvania with the captured Hessian soldiers and supplies.

Capture of the Hessians at Trenton
The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton – Painting by John Trumbull

 

#9 Future President James Monroe was severely wounded during the Battle of Trenton

Hessian commander Johann Rall was fatally wounded during the Battle of Trenton. Among the few Americans who were wounded was James Monroe, who went on to serve as the fifth President of the United States from 1817 to 1825. Monroe was carried from the field bleeding badly after he was struck in the left shoulder by a musket ball, which severed an artery. Doctor John Riker clamped the artery, preventing him from bleeding to death. One of the soldiers who participated in Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware before the Battle of Trenton was Conrad Heyer. In 1852, aged 103, Heyer posed for a photograph. He thus became the earliest-born person of whom a photograph is known to exist.

Portrait of James Monroe
Portrait of James Monroe – Future President of U.S. who was wounded at Trenton

 

#10 The Battle of Trenton is regarded as a key victory in the American Revolutionary War

Apart from capturing a sizable force of the enemy, the Battle of Trenton provided the Americans with much needed provisions: tons of flour; dried and salted meats; liquors; and shoes, boots, clothing and bedding. This was as valuable as the 1,000 arms and ammunition captured at Trenton. Though the Battle of Trenton was a small battle, it was pivotal. After the Hessian surrender, Washington is reported to have shaken the hand of a young officer and said, “This is a glorious day for our country.” The dramatic American victory at Trenton significantly boosted the morale of the Continental Army; inspired rebels in the colonies; and led to new recruits joining the forces. The colonial effort was galvanized, and the Americans overturned the psychological dominance achieved by the British troops in the previous months.

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