Battles of Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, USA
Created | Updated May 23, 2011
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
With the Colonial Army in possession of Trenton, New Jersey after General George Washington's bold crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Day, British General Lord Charles Cornwallis gathered his troops in nearby Princeton for an assault on the Americans.
Cornwallis was able to muster about 6,000 men and immediately marched on the Americans on 2 January, 1777. His forces met with a screening force of Americans at present-day Lawrenceville, New Jersey and the Yanks began a fighting retreat toward Trenton, slowing the Redcoats' advance.
The British finally arrived at Trenton at 5pm and found that the 5,000 Colonial soldiers had created entrenched positions and were prepared to fight. After several attempts to cross the Assunpink Creek by a bridge were repulsed, Cornwallis decided to quit the field and allow his men to rest for a full-fledged attack in the morning.
Realising his position was hopeless because the creek could be forded at several places, Washington decided to retreat in the night. He employed the New Jersey militia to keep camp fires behind the rebel lines blazing all night as the Colonials retreated around the southern flank of the British force and headed toward Princeton.
Early the on morning of 3 January, the rebels ran into a British column under the command of Colonel Charles Mawhood. He was heading toward Trenton from Princeton to support Cornwallis' attack there. General Hugh Mercer, leading the American troops, attacked Mawhood's men immediately. It is interesting to note that both sides believed the other to be a small patrol. However Mawhood had 276 men, and Mercer had 120, with 200 more in close support.
After a few exchanges of fire, Mawhood's men fixed bayonets and charged into the Americans, who were armed with rifles and thus were unable to attach bayonets to their weapons. With this action on his left threatening to ruin the assault on Princeton, Washington took personal command of the field.
Showing great personal courage, Washington rode within 30 yards of the British before ordering his men to fire. When the smoke cleared, Washington was unharmed and the British were in retreat. The Colonials pursued the withdrawing Redcoats to ensure that they wouldn't reorganise and resume the attack. Then Washington turned back toward the main battle.
Meanwhile in Princeton, General John Sullivan was assaulting the Royal forces in the town. The British were in a prepared position behind a dike in Frog Hollow and were able to hold off the assault until Sullivan brought up his artillery. After a few salvos from the Colonial cannon, the British retreated to the grounds of Princeton College.
The largest force of Redcoats was gathered in the college's Nassau Hall. Again, the Yanks were forced to bring in the cannon to dislodge them. Legend tells that it only took two shots - the first bounced off the building and the second tore into the main room where the British were hiding and struck a painting of King George III, tearing his head off.
When Cornwallis attacked the 'rebel camp' in Trenton on the morning of 3 January, he found it deserted. A short while later he began to receive reports of the American attack on Princeton, and he put his forces into motion.
A small militia force at a bridge over Stony Brook slowed the British advance by destroying the bridge and forcing the Redcoats to form into line of battle to face them. The rebels then fled and joined Washington. His army had gathered what supplies it could in Princeton and was on the run.
One of Washington's objectives was to attack the lightly defended town of New Brunswick, New Jersey where the British treasury was kept. However, his forces were too exhausted and they made a defensive position in nearby Millstone. The British caught up with the Colonials at 6am and prepared to defend New Brunswick.
With the arrival of Cornwallis, Washington was compelled to give up any notion of attacking the town. The Yanks moved toward Morristown, New Jersey where they went into their winter camp. His choice of Morristown forced the British to withdraw from much of New Jersey to protect New York City and its lines of supply and communication. Also Morristown was itself a difficult target to assault as it was surrounded by thickly wooded hills.
The two sides spent the rest of the winter of 1777 in their winter quarters, and no more campaigning took place. The 'Ten Crucial Days' as they became known provided a great morale boost for the Colonials and the French released a great deal of supplies to aid the rebel cause as a result of the victories in Trenton and Princeton.