The American Revolutionary War in the Middle Atlantic States:
Battle of New York City | Washington's Retreat from New York City | Washington's Crossing of the Delaware River
Battles of Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey | British Capture of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | Battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania
The Paoli Massacre | Battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania | Battle of the Barrels | The Winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey | Battle of Stony Point, New York | Battle of Springfield, New Jersey | General 'Mad' Anthony Wayne
Molly Pitcher | General Lord Charles Cornwallis
After his retreat through New Jersey after the fall of New York City, General George Washington reached the Delaware River on 2 December. He quickly ordered Colonel Richard Humpton, commander of the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment, to collect boats up and down the river and meet back with Washington in three days.
Humpton returned with 30-some boats. Washington and his men crossed the river five miles north of Trenton, the last boat crossed on 8 December just as Hessian mercenaries arrived on the scene. Washington's artillery was in position on Pennsylvania soil and protected the remaining boats by firing into the advancing Germans, inflicting minor casualties.
With the Americans temporarily out of reach, the Hessians completed their capture of Trenton, New Jersey on 14 December.
In Pennsylvania, Washington's generals were gathering. General John Sullivan linked up with Washington, bringing 2,000 men. Generals Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold arrived with another 900 troops a few days later.
On 22 December, Washington and his top aides met in his headquarters in William Keith's house near Newtown. They realised that when the Delaware River became frozen, the British would be able to march across and attack again. They agreed that their only course of action was a pre-emptive strike.
Washington planned a three-pronged attack with his main body of 2,400 men crossing the river and attacking the Hessians in Trenton from the north, and with militiamen from Pennsylvania and New Jersey crossing the river to the south to block the mercenaries' retreat. A third force was planned to cross below Burlington, New Jersey and attack Bordentown.
Spies warned the Hessians of the Colonials' plans on 23 December and reports continued to pour in until Colonel Johann Rahl ordered a reinforced guard around Trenton.
Around 5pm on 25 December, 20 armed Colonials appeared from the woods and attacked a Hessian outpost, killing three in a brief skirmish. These men retreated and were never found1. After this brief exchange of fire, Rahl recalled his guards convinced this was the 'American attack' of which he was warned. Rahl did not send out patrols along the river on that night for he believed the weather conditions too severe for an attempted crossing.
An hour later, the first American units (the Virginia Infantry under the command of General Adam Stephens) crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey. In a downpour of rain and sleet, the Americans crossed the river, fighting ice floes and fatigue. Washington made the crossing at midnight. By 1am, all his men were across but they were forced to wait for the artillery to cross in the one flatboat available for the task. The 18 cannon could only be brought across one gun at a time.
Downstream, and unbeknownst to Washington, the other two prongs of his attack were turned back by heavy ice in the river, leaving his force to carry on alone.
The crossing was finally completed at 4am, three hours behind schedule. Washington's men then began their march to Trenton. In route, Washington split his forces into two wings - on the right was General Sullivan who advanced toward the city along the river road, and on the left was Washington marching down the Pennington Road.
Their forces arrived at the city at daybreak, ruining Washington's plan for a night attack. He then realigned his men to block all the northern roads into Trenton and advanced down them simultaneously.
Some of these advance troops met a local farmer, and Captain Tom Forrest asked him where the Hessians were quartered. Receiving the information that the mercenaries were still sleeping, Forrest's men were able to capture the guard posts unawares, but the alarm was sounded.
The Colonials quickly rushed to the attack. Sullivan's men deployed on the west side of town and then headed south to surround the Knyphausen Regiment. General of Artillery Henry Knox deployed four cannon to fire down Queen Street and Captain Alexander Hamilton's New York State Artillery Company fired down King Street.
The Hessians scrambled around the city attempting to get organised to resist the American onslaught, but their attempts were shattered by Colonial firepower. Eventually, the Hessians surrendered with 918 taken prisoner and 21 killed, including their commander2.
American casualties included one private killed and two officers wounded.
The Americans returned to Pennsylvania on 27 December to send their prisoners away and reorganise their forces. However, on this same day, the third force from Washington's original plan of attack finally got across the river and occupied Burlington and Trenton.
The victory was praised throughout the colonies. But even more importantly, it gave Washington and his men a victory and a great morale boost. With the enlistments of many of the men in his army set to expire on 31 December, 1776, Washington used their high spirits (and a $10 incentive bonus) to convince most of his 7,000-man army to re-enlist to continue the fight for freedom.
Washington and his remaining 5,000 men crossed the river again before the new year and occupied Trenton.