About the Battle of Princeton

 

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Ten Crucial Days that changed America

The period between December 25, 1776 and January 3, 1777 is considered by historians to be the "Ten Crucial Days of the American Revolution." These ten days marked a turning point in the war; prior to this time, Washington's army had not been able to defeat Britain's professional soldiers. Morale among the troops was at an all time low; even those sympathetic to the Patriot's cause were giving up hope.  The fate of the American dream of independence hung in the balance. It was at this crucial point that a series of brilliant moves by Washington and the sacrifices of many brave men turned the tide of the war. These ten crucial days saw victory over professional Hessian soldiers at the first Battle of Trenton; victory at the second Battle of Trenton, followed by a stealthy escape from Cornwallis; and culminated with a victory over British Regulars at the Battle of Princeton. As word of these victories reached Philadelphia and beyond, the fact that the ill-equipped Continental army was able to so soundly defeat professional soldiers gave the American people new hope.

Events leading up the Battle of Princeton

Washington and his troops passed through Princeton a month prior to the Battle of Princeton.  Retreating from a loss at the Battle of Long Island, the Continental army was pursued by Cornwallis as far as New Brunswick, where the British stopped on orders from Lord Howe. On the night of December 1, 1776, the Continental army reached Princeton. Within days, Cornwallis restarted the pursuit of the Continental army, arriving in Princeton on December 9th. By this time, Washington had moved his 3000 troops across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. The King's Troops caused a great deal of damage while in Princeton, pillaging and destroying property in Morven, the home of Declaration of Independence signer Richard Stockton;  burning the Sergeant house, and ransacking Tusculum, the home of the college’s president, Dr. John Witherspoon.

On December 20th, Washington informed Congress that the American cause of freedom was in a precarious position and might be dissolved within ten days. The Continental Army had been decimated by British and Hessian forces; the men were ill equipped, with many being barefoot and half-clothed. Most of the remaining army’s period of service was expiring. The British had set up posts across New Jersey and were preparing for an invasion of Philadelphia. It was under these dire circumstances that Washington prepared a daring plan to attack a Hessian garrison in Trenton.

The First and Second Battles of Trenton

While many felt the cause of American independence was hopeless, Washington had not given up hope and instead planned a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison in Trenton. During the cold, dark hours of Christmas night, the Continental army made the perilous crossing of the Delaware River. The river was filled with jagged ice flows; the men braved high winds, sleet, and snow as they struggled to keep the boats from capsizing. These poor conditions meant that the river crossing took three hours longer than expected. It wasn't until 3:00 a.m. that the entire army made it across the river and started the march to Trenton. Even though the plan of an attack under the cover of darkness was foiled, Washington's army was still able to surprise the Hessian pickets and quickly took control of the town and captured the enemy's cannons. Wounded during the fight for the Hessian's artillery was Lieutenant James Monroe, who later became the 5th  President of the United States.

Eyewitness accounts indicated that the combination of heavy sleet and the smoke from the artillery made it difficult to discern friend from foe. It was due to this limited visibility that the Hessian commander Colonel Rall found himself within thirty paces of American forces, mistaking them for his own forces. The American's achieved a resounding victory, with less than 8 wounded or killed. The Hessians surrendered to the Americans, having suffered the loss of the mortally wounded Colonel Rall and 900 troops, either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.

That afternoon, Washington directed his army to return to the boats at McKonkey's Ferry and re-cross the river, since he realized his army could not withstand an attack by British reinforcements. The victorious army returned to their previous camp near Newtown, Pennsylvania elated but exhausted, with most of the men having marched 30 miles in the previous 24 hours. Washington worked quickly to get reinforcements so he could try to force the British out of New Jersey. Washington's troops crossed the Delaware for the third time on December 30th and  began building earthworks on the high ground near the south bank of the Assunpink Creek.

The reports of an American victory sent the British springing into action: Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis was ordered to move against Washington in Trenton. Cornwallis reached Princeton on New Year's Day. On January 2nd he divided his forces, leaving some to fortify Princeton under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood , and with the rest started marching to attack Washington in Trenton. As the King's Troops approached Lawrenceville, they were met by American snipers who, hiding in the thick woods and deep ravines, were able to fire at almost point-blank range as the British tried to cross a bridge over Shabakunk Creek. This delaying action, and others along the British path to Trenton, prevented Cornwallis' troops from arriving in Trenton until twilight. As the British and Hessian troops  approached Trenton, they were met with stiff opposition from Washington's entrenched artillery at the bridge over the Assunpink Creek, which runs through Trenton. Interestingly, this was the same bridge where Colonial Rall's men had retreated after the first Battle of Trenton. The "Battle of the Assunpink Creek" or more commonly known as "The Second Battle of Trenton" was successful in preventing Cornwallis's army from overrunning Washington's forces that night.

As night fell, Cornwallis decided to cease hostilities and instead prepared to attack Washington at dawn. More reinforcements would be sent from Princeton, leading Cornwallis to be confident  that since Washington was trapped between the King's Troops and the Delaware River, the next day would bring an end to the American uprising. Washington, knowing that staying to fight would spell disaster for his troops, formulated a plan to sneak his army around Cornwallis's army and head to Princeton and ultimately to New Brunswick. Washington ordered a few hundred of his men to stay behind to keep the campfires burning and to dig entrenchments within the hearing of the British and Hessian pickets. With the enemy pickets only 150 yards away, the sound of voices, combined with the sounds of the tools gave the illusion that the Americans were preparing for battle the next morning. Washington ordered the cannon carriage wheels  to be wrapped in cloth to muffle the sound of their movement and men were given strict orders to remain as quiet as possible. Just after midnight, the Continental army starting out of Trenton and headed towards Princeton. Even though some of the British pickets saw American movements, their reports to Cornwallis were ignored. Cornwallis slept soundly as his foe slipped out of his grasp.

The Battle of Princeton

Clyde (1880) dramatically describes Cornwallis' reaction when he realized Washington had outwitted him:

On the morning of January 3rd, 1777, at Trenton, the British commander opened his eyes to behold smouldering [sic] camp fires where had been the host which the night before dealt out death and defeat to his proud battalions. They were gone, but where! Not knowing what moment they might attack him from the most unexpected quarter, and with a mind full of amazement and bewilderment, a strange sound falls upon his ear. Can it be thunder from out of a clear and crisp wintry sky? No, it is the voice of the enemy's artillery in his rear, and between him and his base of supplies. (p. 63).

The journal of Captain Thomas Rodney (Stryker,1898) provides an eyewitness account of the night march from Trenton and the Battle of Princeton:

January 3d 1777.

At two o'clock this morning, the ground having been frozen firm by a keen N. West wind, secret orders were issued to each department and the whole army was at once put in motion, but no one knew what the Gen. meant to do. Some thought that we were going to attack the enemy in the rear ; some that we were going to Princeton : the latter proved to be right. We went by a bye road on the right hand which made it about 16 miles. During this nocturnal march I with the Dover Company and the Red Feather Company of Philadelphia Light Infantry led the van of the army and Capt. Henry with the other three companies of Philadelphia Light Infantry brought up the rear. The van moved on all night in the most cool and determined order, but on the march great confusion happened in the rear. There was a cry that they were surrounded by the Hessians and several corps of Militia broke and fled towards Bordentown, but the rest of the column remained firm and pursued their march without disorder, but those who were frightened and fled did not recover from their panic until they reached Burlington. When we had proceeded to within a mile and a half of Princeton and the van had crossed Stony Brook, Gen. Washington ordered our Infantry to file off to one side of the road and halt. Gen. Sullivan was ordered to wheel to the right and flank the town on that side, and two Brigades were ordered to wheel to the left, to make a circuit and surround the town on that side and as they went to break down the Bridge and post a party at the mill on the main road, to oppose the enemy's main army if they should pursue us from Trenton. The third Division was composed of Gen. Mercer's Brigade of Continental troops, about 300 men, and Cadwalader's brigade of Philadelphia Militia to which brigade the whole of our Light Infantry Regiment was again annexed. Mercer's brigade marched in front and another corps of infantry brought up the rear. My company flanked the whole brigade on the right in an Indian file so that my men were very much extended and distant from each other ; I marched in front and was followed by Sarjeant [sic] McKnatt and next to him was Nehemiah Tilton. Mercer's Brigade which was headed by Col. Haslet  of Delaware on foot and Gen. Mercer on horseback was to march straight on to Princeton without turning to the right or left.

It so happened that two Regiments of British troops that were on their march to Trenton to reinforce their army there, received intelligence of the movements of the American Army (for the sun rose as we passed over Stony Brook) and about a mile from Princeton they turned off from the main road and posted themselves behind a long string of buildings and an orchard on the straight road to Princeton. The two first Divisions of our army therefore passed wide to the right and left, and leaving them undiscovered went in to Princeton. Gen. Mercer's Brigade, owing to some delay in arranging Cadwalader's men, had advanced several hundred yards ahead and never discovered the enemy until he was turning the buildings they were posted behind, and then they were not more than fifty yards off. He immediately formed his men, with great courage, and poured a heavy fire in upon the enemy. But they being greatly superior in number returned the fire and charged bayonets, and their onset was so fierce that Gen. Mercer fell mortally wounded and many of his officers were killed, and the brigades being effectually broken up, began a disorderly flight. Col. Haslet retired some small distance behind the buildings and endeavored to rally them, but receiving a bullet through his head, dropt dead on the spot and the whole brigade fled in confusion. At this instant Gen. Cadwalader's Philadelphia Brigade came up and the enemy checked by their appearance took post behind a fence and a ditch in front of the buildings before mentioned, and so extended themselves that every man could load and fire incessantly ; the fence stood on low ground between two hills ; on the hill behind the British line they had eight pieces of artillery which played incessantly with round and grape shot on our brigade, and the fire was extremely hot. Yet Gen. Cadwalader led up the head of the column with the greatest bravery to within 50 yards of the enemy, but this was rashly done, for he was obliged to recoil ; and leaving one piece of his artillery, he fell back about 40 yards and endeavored to form the brigade, and some companies did form and gave a few vollies, [sic] but the fire of the enemy was so hot, that, at the sight of the Regular troops running to the rear, the militia gave way and the whole brigade broke and most of them retired to a woods about 150 yards in the rear: But two pieces of artillery stood their ground and were served with great skill and bravery.

At this time a field officer was sent to order me to take post on the left of the artillery, until the brigade should form again, and, with the Philadelphia Infantry keep up a fire from some stacks and buildings, and to assist the artillery in preventing the enemy from advancing. We now crossed the enemy's fire from right to left and took position behind some stacks just on the left of the artillery ; and about 30 of the Philadelphia Infantry were under cover of a house on our left and a little in the rear. About 150 of my men came to this post, but I could not keep them all there, for the enemies fire was dreadful and three balls, for they were very thick, had grazed me : one passed within my elbow nicking my great coat and carried away the breech of Sarjeant McKnatt's gun, he being close behind me, another carried away the inside edge of one of my shoe soles, another had nicked my hat and indeed they seemed as thick as hail. From these stacks and buildings we, with the two pieces of Artillery kept up a continuous fire on the enemy, and in all probability it was this circumstance that prevented the enemy from advancing, for they could not tell the number we had posted behind these covers and were afraid to attempt passing them ; but if they had known how few they were they might easily have advanced while the two brigades were in confusion and routed the whole body, for it was a long time, before they could be reorganized again, and indeed many, that were panic struck, ran quite off.

Gen. Washington having rallied both Gen. Mercer's and Gen. Cadwalader's brigade, they moved forward and when they came to where the Artillery stood began a very heavy platoon fire on the march. This the enemy bore but a few minutes and then threw down their arms and ran. We then pushed forwards towards the town spreading over the fields and through the woods to enclose the enemy and take prisoners. The fields were covered with baggage, which the Gen. ordered to be taken care of. Our whole force met at the Court House and took there about 200 prisoners and about 200 others pushed off and were pursued by advanced parties who took about 50 more. In this engagement we lost about 20 killed, the enemy about 100 men killed and lost the field. This is a very pretty little town on the York road 12 miles from Trenton ; the houses are built of brick and are very elegant especially the College which has 52 rooms in it; but the whole town has been ravaged and ruined by the enemy (pp. 438-441).


Sources

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