By Allen Guelzo, PhD, Gettysburg College
Washington’s surprise at Trenton threw the British occupation of New Jersey into a panic: Carl von Donop—who was in command of the outposts at Trenton, Burlington, and Bordentown—now imagined himself outmaneuvered and cut off by unseen Americans, and he ordered a pullback to Princeton, where he furiously began throwing up entrenchments.
“Thus had the times changed!” wrote Captain Johann Ewald, who had missed the action at Trenton because he was out on patrol duties. “The Americans had constantly run before us. Four weeks ago we expected to end the war with the capture of Philadelphia, and now we had to render Washington the honor of thinking about our defense. Due to this affair at Trenton, such a fright came over the army that if Washington had used this opportunity we would have flown to our ships and let him have all of America.”
This is a transcript from the video series The American Revolution . Watch it now, on The Great Courses.
It appeared that the war would require another full-dress campaign, and therefore stretch into 1777—not news that Lord George Germain wanted to bring into Parliament. “All of our hopes were blasted by that unhappy affair at Trenton,” Germain later complained, and the king warned Lord North that since Trenton “will undoubtedly rather elate the rebels, who till then were in a state of the greatest despondency,” it would have exactly the opposite effect on the government’s majority in Parliament.
Keeping the British Wolves at Bay
No one hoped more fervently that this would be so than George Washington. The victory at Trenton kept the wolf from the door, but there was no guarantee that even with that victory Washington would continue to have much of an army to bolt the door with.
All of his instincts were to keep von Donop retreating, but a council of officers pointed to the weather, the management of the huge take of prisoners, and the pitiful condition of the men. They counseled a retreat to safety back in Pennsylvania.
Those short-term enlistments, which had worried Washington all through the year, were also going to become a problem because they were about to run out on December 31, 1776. The elation of victory would chill quickly in the snow and ice and freeze many attempts to get soldiers to reenlist. Washington implored the Philadelphia financier, Robert Morris—one of the few members of the Congress who had not fled Philadelphia—to beg or borrow enough hard cash to offer a $10 bounty to every man who would reenlist.
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Washington paraded Greene’s and Sullivan’s divisions—the men who had fought at Long Island, Harlem, and White Plains; men whose regiments had dwindled in battle or the dreary gloom of the retreat across New Jersey—and he made a personal appeal to them and entreated them to stay. The drums rolled, but no one stepped forward to volunteer.
A Heartfelt Plea
Washington rode sorrowfully down the lines, wheeled his horse around, and made a second appeal to the men of the army:
My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected; but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigue and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you probably can never do under any other circumstances.
George Washington had never been known as having a special gift for words. His letters and reports are straightforward and unadorned with the literary turns and elegance typical of 18th-century English letter writers. He was a soldier, and even though he had been away from soldiering for 20 years, he was not a novelist by any stretch of the imagination. But from somewhere within him there came moments when this tightly reined-in and stiff-upper-lipped gentleman planter could reach out and touch the ordinary soldiers in his regiments with uncommon force; this was one of them.
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The men in the ranks began to waver, arguing out loud with each other even as they stood shivering in their ranks, making bargains—“I’ll stay if you stay”—and finally someone bawled out, “We cannot go home under such circumstances.” By ones and twos, then by companies, they stepped forward, until 1,200 men—almost the entire strength of these two divisions of Continentals—stood there. Should we get them to sign something? one of Washington’s officers asked. No, Washington replied: “Men who will volunteer in such a case as this, need no enrollment to keep them to their duty.”
Washington Rallies the Troops
All told, Washington managed to hold on to about 3,300 Continentals. Equally good news came in the form of the militia, who—after Trenton— decided to come off their fences and rise to Washington’s aid. Thomas Mifflin recruited 1,500 Pennsylvania militia; John Cadwalader of Philadelphia put together a brigade of 1,700 Philadelphia artisans, dockworkers, and shopkeepers; and New Jersey militia units—which had lain low during the retreat—turned up in such numbers that not even all the captured Hessian equipment from Trenton was sufficient to arm them.
They were untrained, undisciplined, and spoiling mainly to take revenge on Loyalists who had come forward to point the finger at them to the British. At least they were there, and if Washington did not use them for something, they could just as easily melt away—after having eaten up his stores and having been issued his precious collection of captured Hessian equipment—it might just go with the winter snow. Washington called a council of war and this time he persuaded his officers to lunge once more across the Delaware River into New Jersey, this time to strike at von Donop’s quivering defenses at Princeton.
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Lord Cornwallis, the 3rd Viginia Continentals, and the Battle for the Bridge
Washington needed to move quickly because the British were not sitting idly by. Lord Cornwallis had packed his bags to take winter leave in England. But when the news from Trenton arrived, he didn’t even bother to unload from the ship he was ready to board; instead, Cornwallis rode 50 miles to take personal command of the scattered forces that had been left across New Jersey under the oversight of General James Grant.
Cornwallis collected two brigades worth of troops and set off for Trenton, where they collided with the Continentals just outside the town at the bridge over the Assunpink Creek. Cornwallis tried to force his way over the bridge, but three regiments of Virginia Continentals had fixed themselves on the other side first.
“Well, boys,” announced Charles Scott, who was the colonel of the 3rd Virginia Continentals, “you know the old boss has put us here to defend this bridge; and by God it must be done.” The Hessian grenadiers made up the first assault wave and lost 31 killed and wounded. Then the British regulars pressed forward, and again the attack ground to a halt.
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By the time evening fell, Washington estimated that Cornwallis had lost 500 killed and wounded. One of Thomas Mifflin’s Pennsylvania militiamen, William Hutchinson of Chester County, stared wide-eyed at the mowed-down piles of British and German dead: “Their dead bodies lay thicker and closer together for a space than I ever beheld sheaves of wheat lying in a field over which the reapers had just passed.”
This second battle of Trenton on January 2, 1777, provided another feather in Washington’s cap, but it was not one he could afford to linger over.
Common Questions About Battles of the American Revolution
The four most important battles of the American Revolution were the British surrender at Saratoga in October 1777, the British defeat at King’s Mountain in October 1780, the defeat of the British at Cowpens in January 1781, and the practical end of British military effort in America after British total defeat at Yorktown in October 1781.
The bloodiest, most heinous battle of the American Revolution was at Oriskany in August 1777. A Patriot party was ambushed and lost upwards of 450 men versus around 150 of the Loyalists and Indians.
The battle of Saratoga in October of 1777 not only defeated the British but won the confidence of the French to join the Americans and built American resolve that the war was turning in their favor.
The battle at Yorktown in October of 1781 defeated the British completely and although there were minor skirmishes after, it would signal the end of the war.