THE BATTLE OF TRENTON
The battles of TRENTON and PRINCETON are connected, and part of a campaign against the
British forces in NJ, during the American Revolution during the 1776-1777 winter. Here is a
general account of that campaign.
In the fall of 1776, Washington was in desperate straits, having been defeated in Long Island,
and having to retreat from New York City, which being surrounded by water, was found to be
indefensible from the British with their naval mobility and larger force. Leaving most of the
army under Major General Charles Lee, in Westchester, he crossed into New Jersey. Fort
Washington on Manhattan Island was captured by the Hessians (mercenary troops from
Germany employed by the British), and Fort Lee, opposite the Hudson on the Jersey shore, was
about to be attacked. Washington ordered the stores removed and the troops to prepare for
General Howe, the British commander, for once moved quickly, and the troops had to rush out of
the fort barely ahead of the British, who found stew still cooking on their fires in the fort when
they arrived. The British failed to move on New Bridge over the Hackensack River, and the
American force escaped. The British might have trapped the army on the peninsula between the
Hackensack River and the Hudson, but moved only to capture Fort Lee. Before the war, Howe
had supported the American efforts in reducing their grievances, and hoped to have victory
without a great deal of bloodshed.
November 21st 1776, Washington moved south with the troops from Fort Lee, desperately
ordering the rest of the troops, under General Lee in Westchester, NY, to join him. Lee, probably
seeing a chance to make himself look good in comparison to Washington (it was a continuing
problem to get people to act for the good of the country and not for themselves in all areas of
government during the war) and also wanting an independent command, acted very
lackadaisically, and moved very slowly to join him. Lee wanted to show he could succeed
against the British where Washington could not, by attacking their flank and rear, and leaving
Washington out on a limb.
Washington moved south first to Newark, and waited for the NJ militia to rally. Few showed up.
For the past several months the men of NJ were supposed to alternate serving a month on duty in
the militia, and now they were fed up with it, and stayed with their families. Many states had a
hard time getting anyone new to serve in the army, as the British seemed to be unbeatable. The
revolution seemed to be failing, and most people wanted to not get involved, faced with invasion
by the famed British regulars. Every kind of support for the war was failing, and all over, troops
even had a hard time getting permission to sleep in barns or buying food and clothing.
Washington moved to New Brunswick, leaving Newark on the 28th with the British entering the
town as the Americans left. While in New Brunswick, two Brigades of the "Flying Camp" a unit
set up to respond quickly to attacks from Staten Island by the British, had their terms of
enlistment expire, and 2026 demoralized men refused to reenlist, even with the enemy just a
short march away. Many more deserted. Washington has 3000 men left to him, not all fit or able.
On the 1st of December, the British forces moved to New Brunswick, and Washington orders the
troops to begin moving to Princeton. While a few units hold the bridge, the rest escape, finally
followed by the rear guard. Washington himself leads the pioneers at the rear of the march,
destroying bridges and cutting down trees, to delay any pursuit.
Once at Princeton,Washington, with less than 400 men with him, fell back to Trenton (see MAP)
along the Delaware River, the border with Pennsylvania, on December. 2nd. Lee was very
slowly moving across the state, General. Greene had a force covering Washington at Princeton,
and other units were scattered around the state.
Two thousand Pennsylvania militia men joined Washington at Trenton. Washington had all the
boats available along the river taken and held on the Pa. side of the river, with his supplies, then
moved back to Princeton on the 7th. Repeatedly he called for Lee to come to his support, and
called for the NJ militia to rally to him.
The militia showed up in disgustingly small numbers. Most men stayed home to protect their
families from the advancing invaders, moving possessions out of the way of the British and
Hessians. The British and Hessians destroyed Jersey homes, farms and possessions wantonly,
and saw little difference between loyalist and rebel, treating most the same.
As Washington moved to Princeton. General Greene was faced with the advancing British and
forced to retreat. Joining Washington, the combined army now moved back to Trenton and then
across the river. Washington had every boat that could be found moved to safety across to the
The scene was set for the Battle of Trenton.
Lee continued to refuse to come to Washington, until he was captured in Basking Ridge, NJ, by
Lt. Col. Harcourt leading British dragoons, on Dec 13 th. Under the leadership now of Sullivan,
the troops then quickly made their way to Washington. At the same time, General Gates, had
moved down from Fort Ticonderoga with 800 men to Washington's aid. Both units crossed the
Delaware around Phillipsburg and reached Washington on the 20 th of December.
Reaching the Delaware on the 8 th, Howe is cannonaded from across the river. After a fruitless
search for boats up and down the river, Howe decides to stop for the winter. The American army
was virtually helpless at this point, ragged, demoralized, greatly outnumbered, undertrained and
badly equipped. Howe lost a major chance to end the war by stopping for the winter instead of
"foreclosing the mortgage" as one of his officers called it.
General Howe placed his troops across the state, with major commands at Trenton, Burlington,
Princeton, Perth Amboy and New Brunswick. The Hessians, who had borne the brunt of the
assault on Fort Washington in NY, showing courage and discipline, had the honor of being to the
front in Trenton and Burlington. Howe recognized that his men were too spread out, but the
American army was in such poor shape, and so demoralized, they were not considered a threat.
The British forces had crossed the state almost unopposed. The militia had refused to join
Washington, many of his troops on hand were under short enlistment due to expire at the end to
the month, desertion was rampant, everyone was discouraged. Half the people had never really
supported the rebellion, and now they infected the rest. The new republic looked to be on its last
legs, and Washington perhaps wondered if he would be hung, drawn and quartered as a traitor
under British law.
Still everything was not going all the right way for the British. The Jersey men, while not joining
Washington, had not reacted passively to being invaded, and the poor behavior of the British and
Hessian troops enraged many. Ambushes of British patrols became a standard tactic. Morris
county had several units of militia assembled, with some Continental troops, and more troops
were around Paramus in the Northeast.
New Jersey irregular troops, acting in small groups, uncoordinated, and fueled by anger at the
horrible plundering by both the Hessians and British, raided the enemy to capture supplies,
ambushed patrols, harassed communications and movement. On Dec. 18 th, General Grant,
under Cornwallis in New Brunswick, ordered that nothing belonging to the army, even officers,
leave New Brunswick with out an escort. The local men of New Jersey couldn't seriously hurt
the British, but they could make them cautious, and reduce their ability to get information by
Along the river, von Donop was placed in charge of the Hessians, stationed at Burlington,
Trenton and with posts at Mansfield Square and Black Horse Tavern. In Trenton, 3 regiments of
Hessians, about 1 thousand men, were under the command of Colonel Rall ( sometimes spelled
Rahl). Rall was ordered to build field works needed to defend the town, but did not. Rall told one
of his officers who wanted to build redoubts-"Let them come! We want no trenches! We'll use
the bayonet!" Small raids worried his troops, and ambushes distressed his dragoons. He was
forced to increase the size of his picket posts, which created a lack of rest for his troops. Still
Rall had no fear of the American army, which seemed ready to dissolve in the face of winter.
Indeed, everyone in the American camp felt the situation to be desperate. Col. Joseph Reed wrote
Washington "that something must be attempted to revive our expiring credit, give our cause
some degree of reputation, and prevent a total depreciation of the Continental money, which is
coming in very fast- that even a failure cannot be more total than to remain in our present
situation." Washington admitted in a letter that "the game was about up."
On December 22 nd 1776, Washington had 4707 rank and file troops fit for duty.
Washington had a staff meeting and decided to attack. At first he wanted to attack von Donop at
Bordentown, but the militia in the area, under Col Griffin were too weak. The Hessians in
Trenton were in an exposed position, and it was known that they would heartily celebrate
Christmas on the night of Dec. 25 th. Washington decided on a predawn attack on the 26 th,
while the troops and officers were tired, and hopefully some suffering hangovers. It is a
misconception that the Hessians were expected to be drunk. Some of the officers might have
been expected to party late into the night, not the troops.
Washington ordered the troops ferried across just after dark, but a storm arose, first snow, then
freezing rain, snow and hail.Washington's aide, Col. John Fitzgerald wrote at 6 PM as the troops
started across: " It is fearfully cold and raw and a snowstorm is setting in. The wind northeast
and beats into the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for those who have no shoes. Some
of them have tied only rags about their feet: others are barefoot, but I have not heard a man
complain." Col. Glover's reg't from Marblehead, Mass, who were primarily sailors, manned the
boats at McKonkeys Ferry. They managed to get 2400 men, their horses and 18 cannon across
the icy river. Two other units, one to cross to the south of Trenton at the Trenton Ferry, and one
farther south at Bristol, were unable to cross, or unable to land on the other side, due to the storm
These southern crossings were to prevent the escape of the Hessians and to prevent von Donop
from supporting Trenton. Fortunately, von Donop at Burlington, had moved south in response to
the group of Jersey Militia troops under Col Griffin raiding towards him a few days earlier, and
was out of position to support Rall in Trenton.
Delayed by the storm, Washington's troops did not get across until 4 am, well behind schedule
for a predawn attack. They marched south to Trenton in two columns, one along the river, the
other along the Pennington road, with Generals Sullivan and Greene commanding, Washington
commanding overall, and riding with Greene.
In a severe winter storm, the troops advanced south. By 6 am they must have been complaining,
in fact it is reported that two men froze to death, but Washington is determined. Gen. Sullivan
sends word that the men's muskets will not fire due to being exposed to the storm all night.
Washington sends word back to rely on the bayonet-"I am resolved to take Trenton."
In Trenton, Hessian Major Dechow decided because of the severe storm not to send out the
normal predawn patrol, including 2 cannon, to sweep the area for signs of the enemy. Though the
storm cause extreme misery for the troops, it allowed them to approach undetected.
At 8 AM Washington's party inquires of a man chopping wood where the Hessian sentries are,
just outside of Trenton. He points to a nearby house, and the Hessians pore out and begin to open
fire. The battle of Trenton is on.
Moving quickly and driving in the pickets, both columns move in on the small town of Trenton.
The Hessians are caught completely unprepared. Col. Rall, who was up late at night, is slow to
awaken and dress.
The Hessian officers tried to rally and form their troops, but the Americans moved too quickly
for them. The Hessians are constantly disrupted by fast moving American units, charging in and
moving to cover all routes in or out of the town. American cannon are placed on a rise that
controls the two main streets of the town, and the Hessian formations are unable to form
properly. They try to get some of their own cannon into action but these are captured before they
can do any damage. The Americans moved rapidly and aggressively, closing in on the Hessians,
breaking up their formations, blocking all exits from town, seeming to be everywhere to the
Hessians. The Hessians move around in town trying to make a front, but some orders are
misunderstood, and the von Knyphausen regiment is separated from the Rall and von Lossberg
The Rall and von Lossberg Hessian regiments are forced out of town and form in an apple
orchard. Rall orders them to attack back into town,trying to force a hole to the road to Princeton.
Now the Hessians have wet guns from the storm, and have a hard time firing. When they get
again into the streets of the town, the American troops, joined by some civilians from the town
fire at them from buildings and from behind trees and fences, causing confusion, while the
American cannon break up any formations. Rall is badly wounded, and resistance falters. They
retreat back to the orchard, but are surrounded by the fast moving Americans.The Hessians
The third regiment of Hessians, on the south end of town, trying to get across the Creek to head
towards Bordentown are delayed by trying to bring their cannon through a boggy area and
suddenly find themselves surrounded and surrender as well. Many Hessians escape in small
groups, but 868 are captured. 106 are killed or wounded. The American army lost perhaps 4 men
wounded and 2 or 3 frozen to death, captured 1000 arms, several cannon and ammunition and
stores.The fighting lasted only 90 minutes. About 600 Hessians, most of which had been
stationed on the south side of the Creek, escaped.
After the battle, Washington had the captured men and stores shipped across the river, then
followed with the army across to Pennsylvania. The next day a thousand men reported ill.
von Donop, commanding at Burlington, learned of the battle from fleeing Hessians who had
escaped. Their estimates of the size of the force with Washington were exaggerated. Rumors of
attacks pending on them flew thick, based on partial spy reports of various plans of Washington,
and the British forces all across the state were worried. von Donop moved first to Allentown, NJ,
then to Princeton, to resist attacks that were just rumors.
Washington had turned the tide, from desperate waiting for the axe to fall, to aggressive victor,
chasing the British forces from the Delaware river and putting them on the defensive- for a few
Washington wrote a letter describing the action, which was put on the web at-The First American
The Battle of Trenton
Battle of Trenton – December 26, 1776
The Americans look us Germans over carefully, with distaste, because we have come
to help steal their freedom, ... This land, which so many poor and needy Europeans had
made worthwhile, and ... among whose inhabitants love, truth, faith, and freedom of
speech were to be found, were now, through war, to have their customs and well-being
Diarist Corporal Philipp Steuernagel, 3rd Waldeck Regiment, reflected the extraordinary
nature of the German force's arrival in America. In the first year following Lexington and
Concord, the contest between Britain and her colonies had remained a "familial"
conflict. By those skirmishes' anniversary, however, it was clear that George III would
consider no reconciliation with his children-colonists short of their complete subjugation,
for, by spring of 1776, he had contracted with six German principalities for an
ultimate total of 30,000 troops. So profoundly were Americans shocked by their father-
monarch's unprecedented act that public opinion swung toward the previously
unlikely aim of national independence. By the first week of July, their declaration to
the world's nations justifying that great stride included in its bill of royal indictments that:
He is at this time transporting large armies of foreigner mercenaries to compleat the
works of death, desolation and tyranny.
The German troops became central to the 1776 campaign aimed at destroying
Washington's army. At Long Island, Kip's Bay, Harlem Heights, White Plains, and
the capture of Fort Washington, Continental Army and militia troops were humiliatingly
bested by European professionals. From this combat superiority, atop an innate animus
toward "upstart rebels," the "Redcoats" and their "Hessian" allies developed a
denigrating contempt for such "country clowns". Concurrently, American military and
supporting civilian morale plummeted. During late November, with enemies in close
pursuit, Washington led a dwindling remnant of his army across Jersey and toward
sanctuary behind the Delaware; his less optimistic moments indeed led him to write: " ...
I believe the game is pretty near up".
22 December - During the night the black Negroes and yellow dogs planned to attack us
... A detachment at the Delaware was attacked by Americans who crossed ..., set some
houses on fire, and then retreated back across ... Diarist Private Johannes Reuber's
unit, the Rall Grenadier Regiment, was assigned to garrison Trenton by the British
command's opting for winter quarters, leaving the rebel army's destruction to await a
spring campaign. Also including the Knyphausen Regiment and the Lossberg Fusiliers,
the garrison brigade was commanded by fifty-year-old Colonel Johann Rall, a rough-
hewn but successful combat officer with a remarkable thirty-six years of army
experience. During their brief to-date service in America, these regiments had come to
fully exemplify "Hessians," with savage battle performances and a growing reputation
for plundering and abusing civilians. Placed at the northern-most position along the
Delaware, Rall's Brigade was to manage a key "hot zone" amid the long line of
occupation. Since arriving one week before Christmas, their position had been probed,
harassed and disrupted by near-daily forays of local militia and patrols of Continentals
from their camp across the river.
On Christmas night, Washington sprung his master stroke.
26 December - ... at daybreak, the Americans ... fired on our outposts. At the first salvo,
we turned out ... to form and prepare our battle formations. Now the rebels pressed in
on us. ... the Americans charged Colonel Rall's quarters, overran it, and took the
cannons from the regiment. Then Colonel Rall charged with his grenadiers. ... we took
our cannons and retired into the fields. Now Colonel Rall commanded, "All those who
are my grenadiers, charge!" and they stormed against the city as the Americans
retreated before us. However, after we had entered the city, the rebels, in three lines,
marched around us, and as we again tried to retreat, they brought seven cannons into
the main street. ... If the colonel had not been so seriously wounded, they would not
have taken us alive. ... in the end, all was lost.
As one among about 900 prisoners, Private Reuber was quickly marched to and across
the Delaware, and to a "rotten prison" on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Colonel Rall died
of his wounds that evening. American patriots,
nearly all astonished, rejoiced. And the news that would electrify all of Europe and
ultimately change the world began its journey.
Learn more about them:
War: American Revolution
Date: 25th December 1776
Place: Trenton, New Jersey on the Delaware River
Combatants: Americans against Hessians and British troops
Generals: General George Washington against Colonel Rahl.
Winner: The battle was a resounding physical and moral victory for Washington and his American
Only a troop of 16th Light Dragoons who left the town at the onset of the fighting.
After being driven out of New York by the British and forced to retreat to the West bank of the Delaware
during the late summer of 1776, the American cause was at a low ebb. In the harsh winter Washington
was faced with the annual crisis of the expiry of the Continental Army’s period of enlistment. He resolved
to attack the Hessian position at Trenton on the extreme southern end of the over extended British line
along the Delaware, before his army dispersed.
Washington’s plan was to cross the Delaware at three points with a force commanded by Lt Col
Cadwallader with a Rhode Island regiment, some Pennsylvanians, Delaware militia and two guns, a
second force under Brigadier Ewing of militia and the third commanded by himself which would cross the
river above Trenton and attack the Hessian garrison in the town. Washington had as his subordinates,
Major Generals Nathaniel Greene and John Sullivan.
Washington had some 2,400 men from Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts,
Connecticut and New York.
The force paraded in the afternoon and set off for the Delaware where they embarked in a flotilla of the
characteristic Delaware river boats.
It was a cold dark night and the river was running with flowing ice. At about 11pm a heavy snow and
sleet storm broke. Washington’s force did not reach the east bank until around 3am. His soldiers were
badly clothed and many did not have shoes.
Washington’s men then marched to Trenton, some of the men leaving traces of blood on the snow.
The German garrison comprised the regiments of Rahl, Knyphausen and Lossberg, with Hessian jagers
and a troop of the British 16th Light Dragoons.
The Hessian commander Colonel Rahl had been ordered to construct defense works around the town but
had not troubled to do so. On the night before the attack Rahl was at dinner when he was brought
information that the Americans were approaching. He ignored the message which was found in his
pocket after his death.
Colonel Johann Rall
Battle of Trenton - Background:
Having been defeated in the battles for New York City, General George Washington and the remnants
of the Continental Army retreated across New Jersey in the late fall of 1776. Vigorously pursued by
the British forces under Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis, the American commander sought to
gain the protection of the Delaware River. As they retreated, Washington faced a crisis as his battered
army began to disintegrate through desertions and expiring enlistments. Crossing the Delaware River
into Pennsylvania in early December, he made camp and attempted to reinvigorate his shrinking
Badly reduced, the Continental Army was poorly supplied and ill-equipped for winter with many of the
men still in summer uniforms or lacking shoes. In a stroke of luck for Washington, General Sir William
Howe, the overall British commander, ordered a halt to the pursuit on December 14 and directed his
army to enter winter quarters. In doing so, they established a series of outposts across northern New
Jersey. Consolidating his forces in Pennsylvania, Washington was reinforced by around 2,700 men on
December 20 when two columns, led by Major Generals John Sullivan and Horatio Gates, arrived.
With the morale of the army and public ebbing, Washington believed that an audacious act was
required to restore confidence and help boost enlistments. Meeting with his officers, he proposed a
surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton for December 26. For the operation, he intended to
cross the river with 2,400 men and march south against the town. This main body was to be
supported by Brigadier General James Ewing and 700 Pennsylvania militia which were to cross at
Trenton and seize the bridge over Assunpink Creek to prevent enemy troops from escaping.
In addition to the strikes against Trenton, Brigadier General John Cadwalader and 1,900 men were to
make a diversionary attack on Bordentown, NJ. At Trenton, the Hessian garrison of 1,500 men was
commanded by Colonel Johann Rall. Having arrived at the town on December 14, Rall had rejected his
officers' advice to build fortifications. Instead, he believed that his three regiments would be able to
defeat any attack in open combat. Though he dismissed intelligence reports that the Americans were
planning an attack, Rall did request reinforcements as colonial troops were raiding his supply lines.
Crossing the Delaware:
Combating rain, sleet, and snow, Washington's army reached the river at McKonkey's Ferry on the
evening of December 25. Behind schedule, they were ferried across by Colonel John Glover's
Marblehead regiment using Durham boats for the men and larger barges for the horses and artillery.
Having completed the crossing around 3:00 AM, they began their march south towards Trenton.
Unknown to Washington, Ewing was unable to make the crossing due to the weather and heavy ice in
the river. In addition, Cadwalader had succeeded in crossing his men, but returned to Pennsylvania
when he was unable to cross his artillery.
The Battle of Trenton:
Sending out advance parties, the army moved south together until reaching Birmingham. Here Major
General Nathanael Greene's division turned inland to attack Trenton from the north while Sullivan's
division moved along the river road to strike from the west and south. Both columns approached the
outskirts of Trenton shortly before 8:00 AM on December 26. Driving in the Hessian pickets, Greene's
men opened the attack and drew enemy troops north from the river road. While Greene's men blocked
the escape routes to Princeton, Colonel Henry Knox's artillery deployed at the heads of King and
Queen Streets (Map).
Taking advantage of the open river road, Sullivan's men entered Trenton from the south and sealed
off the bridge over Assunpink Creek. As the Americans attacked, Rall attempted to rally his regiments.
A Hessian attack up King Street was defeated by Knox's guns and heavy fire from Brigadier General
Hugh Mercer's brigade. Falling back to a field outside of town with two of his regiments, Rall began a
counterattack against the American lines. This was defeated with heavy losses and the Hessian
commander fell mortally wounded.
Driving the enemy back into a nearby orchard, Washington surrounded the survivors and forced their
surrender. The third Hessian formation, the Knyphausen Regiment, attempted to escape over the
Assunpink Creek bridge. Finding it blocked by the Americans, they were quickly surrounded by
Sullivan's men. Following a failed breakout attempt, they surrendered shortly after their compatriots.
Though Washington wished to immediately follow up the victory with an attack on Princeton, he
elected to withdraw back across the river after learning that Cadwalader and Ewing had failed to make
Aftermath of the Battle of Trenton:
In the operation against Trenton, Washington lost four men killed and eight wounded while the
Hessians suffered 22 killed and 918 captured. Around 500 of Rall's command were able to escape
during the fighting. Though a minor engagement relative to the size of the forces involved, the victory
at Trenton had a massive effect on the colonial war effort. Instilling a new confidence in the army and
the Continental Congress, the triumph at Trenton bolstered public morale and increased enlistments.
Stunned by the American victory, Howe ordered Cornwallis to advance on Washington with around
8,000 men. Re-crossing the river on December 30, Washington united his command and prepared to
face the advancing enemy. The resulting campaign culminated with an American triumph at the Battle
of Princeton on January 3, 1777. Flush with victory, Washington wished to continue attacking up the
chain of British outposts in New Jersey. After assessing his tired army's condition, Washington instead
decided to move north and enter winter quarters at Morristown.
Despite Washington's defeats in New York, he was not willing to sit idly by while
the British occupied all of New Jersey. The front lines of the British were occupied by
Hessians troops who held positions along the Delaware River opposite Washington's
troops in Pennsylvania. On Christmas Night, Washington surprised the British by
leading a group of 2400 troops across the Delaware. At the same time, James Ewing
was to seize the ferry just south of the city. Despite the ice floating down the river,
Washington succeeded in crossing the river and leading his men and their artillery
ashore. At a few minutes before 8:00, Washington and Ewing's troops converged on
Trenton. The Americans set up artillery that commanded the streets of the city. As the
Hessians who had been up late celebrating Christmas took to the streets, they were
struck down. The British commander, Colonel Rall, was soon killed. Within an hour, the
battle was over, 22 Hessians were dead, 98 were wounded and almost a thousand
were being held prisoner. Only four Americans, however, were wounded. Washington
returned with his triumphant forces to Pennsylvania. The next day, Colonel Caldwater
who had failed to cross the river the day before, crossed the Delaware with his troops
and occupied the empty town of Burlington. Two days later, Washington followed with
his men. As the year ended, Washington had 5000 men and 40 howitzers in Trenton.