Whether casually interested or deeply rooted in American history, most have heard the story of General George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware on the night of December 25–26, 1776. While his morning attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey, was successful, a second action at the same location just a week later would really test his men’s commitment to him and the war against Great Britain.
A NEW YEAR'S EVE PLEA
Following the quick defeat of the Hessian garrison at Trenton on December 26, Washington re-crossed the Delaware to return to his camp in Pennsylvania. There, he would retrieve the remainder of his Army. On December 30, he moved his full force back to Trenton, forming his troops on the south side of Assunpink Creek.
At that moment, General Washington knew he faced a problem greater than the British Army: The enlistment period of all but a few of his soldiers was about to expire the next day. If they left, Washington’s Army would collapse.
Washington made an offer to his men: $10 if they would stay just one month longer. Mounted on his horse, he rode to the front of his assembled troops and appealed, “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 fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay only one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country which you probably never can do under any other circumstances.”
Having said all that he could, Washington looked at the line of bedraggled and tired soldiers. No one came forward. It seemed an eternity before one soldier broke ranks to take one step in advance. Others followed. Eventually, most had stepped forward, leaving only a few in the original line.
On the morning of January 1, 1777, Washington learned that a British force of 8,000 men under the command of General Charles Cornwallis was moving into position to attack Trenton. Washington’s situation was becoming more desperate. Fortunately, money from the Continental Congress had just arrived in Trenton. As Washington paid his soldiers, New Year’s day saw morale increase among his troops. Bolstered by this, Washington decided to stand at Trenton and meet Cornwallis’ advance.
He had to act quickly if he was going to withstand an attack by superior numbers. Washington immediately sent a dispatch to General John Cadwaleder, then at Crosswicks, to march his 1,800 militiamen to Trenton. He then ordered his men to build earthworks parallel to the south bank of the Assunpink Creek southeast of Trenton proper. Finally, he directed Matthias Alexis Roche de Fermoy to use his riflemen to form an outer defensive line halfway between Trenton and Princeton — they were to delay any British advance. When de Fermoy staggered back to Trenton drunk, Colonel Edward Hand took over command of the riflemen.
January 2, 1777
Meanwhile, Cornwallis and his large British force had reached Princeton on the morning of New Year’s Day. The following morning, Cornwallis assigned Charles Mawhood to remain in Princeton with part of the British force.
Cornwallis then formed 5,500 men and 28 cannon into three columns to march to Trenton, 11 miles away. Part way there, he detached Colonel Alexander Leslie with 1,500 men to remain in Maidenhead until the following morning.
As Cornwallis neared the outer defenses of de Fermoy's riflemen (now under the command of Col. Hand), he deployed a skirmish line of Hessian Jaegers and British light Infantry. When the American riflemen opened fire, the British reacted by forming into line of battle. As they did so, the American riflemen fell back and took cover behind trees, in ditches, or whatever cover they could find to continue their fire.
Finally, the riflemen totally abandoned their initial position, reforming in a heavily wooded area on the south bank of Shabakunk Creek. The Americans took up positions among the trees. As the British crossed the bridge over the stream, they lost sight of riflemen. Just then, the riflemen opened fire at point-blank range. The intense fire confused the British. They thought Washington’s entire force was facing them. They hastily formed into lines of battle again and brought up their artillery.
Beginning an advance on the woods, the British waited for the American volley that never came. The confused British skirmishers searched the woods for a half an hour looking for the Americans but to no avail. The American riflemen had withdrawn to a new position again.
All of this played into General Washington’s plan. He wanted to hold the British off until nightfall. He believed darkness would prevent the British from attacking his defenses on the south side of Assunpink Creek.
With only about an hour and a half of light remaining, the British had advanced to within about a half mile from Trenton by three in the afternoon. Once again, they encountered the withdrawing riflemen who were then forming a line of defense along a ravine known as Stockton Hollow. Washington hoped that the riflemen would stop the advance there for the day.
Cornwallis’ quartermaster general, William Erskine, urged Cornwallis to strike right away, saying “If Washington is the General I take him to be, his army will not be found there in the morning.”
There was still time to form lines of battle and to once again bring up the artillery before nightfall. Cornwallis ordered his troops to advance on the defensive position. The American riflemen slowly gave way and fell back to Trenton. When the British had advanced as far as the creek in front of the town, Cornwallis’ Hessians fixed bayonets and charged. Chaos ensued.
Seeing his front line crumble, Washington rode out through the crowd of men fleeing across the bridge. He regrouped and reformed a rear guard under the cover of American artillery fire from the town.
As the British advanced over the final line of defenses and began to cross the bridge, they were met by a massive volley of the entire, reconsolidated American forces. The British fell back, but only for a moment.
The British charged the bridge a second time, but the American artillery's solid and exploding shot stopped them. As daylight began to fade, the British made another charge —it would be their last. The American artillery fired canister shot this time, raking the British lines. One soldier later remarked, “The bridge looked red as blood, with their killed and wounded and their red coats.”
Some of Cornwallis’ commanders implored the General to halt the advance, arguing that there was no way for the Americans to retreat, daylight had failed, and that the British troops were worn out. They tried to convince the British commander that it would be better for them to attack in the morning
Cornwallis did not want to wait. However, he conceded an attack in the dark would be too dangerous. He told his commanders, “We’ve got the old fox safe now. We’ll go over and bag him in the morning.” Cornwallis withdrew his army to a hill north of Trenton for the night.
THE SLIPPERY "FOX"
With Cornwallis across the creek, Washington decided to make an attempt on the British garrison in Princeton. During the night, the American artillery, under the command of Henry Knox, fired occasional shells to keep the British alert while the American army prepared to slip out of town.
By 2 AM on January 3, all but 500 Americans and two cannons, took up the line of march for Princeton. Those troops left behind were to keep the fires burning, the cannons firing, and to make noise with picks and shovels to make the British think they were digging new defensive positions.
When the British finally advanced to attack at dawn, the 500 delaying troops had left the town, as well. Trenton was empty.
As Cornwallis entered Trenton on the morning of January 3, 1777, he found the town deserted. Washington’s troops had marched for Princeton. Following a brief battle with the garrison at Princeton, Washington took the town and a substantial number of prisoners.
Casualty reports for the Battle at Assunpink are in disagreement. The historian, Howard Peckham, records the fighting on January 2 as two separate engagements, both of which he categorized as “skirmishes.” For the first, at Five Mile Run, he indicates there were no American losses. During the second, at Stockton Hollow, he gave the American casualties as 6 killed, 10 wounded and 1 deserter. On the other hand, an earlier historian, William S. Stryker, wrote that the entire American loss on January 2 was 1 killed and 6 wounded.
Peckham gives the British losses at Five Mile Run as 1 Hessian killed and those for Stockton Hollow as “at least” 10 killed, 20 wounded and 25 captured. Nineteenth century historian, Edward J. Lowell, gives the Hessian losses on January 2 as 4 killed and 11 wounded.
General William Howe was dismayed by his subordinate’s third defeat in ten days. He ordered Cornwallis to withdraw from the southern New Jersey most of the way back to New York. As they did, Washington moved his army up to Morristown to take up winter quarters.
Facing a force twice his size with an army that was ready to be discharged took grit. Here’s to General Washington and his small force that answered the call of sacrifice and duty on January 1-3, 1777.
Preserve the Memories,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine