When 26 December 1776
Strength Hessians – 1,500 Americans – 2,400
In Europe, armies traditionally stopped fighting and go to their camps during winter where they could recruit and train soldiers and replace and repair equipment. As such, the British army established a chain of defensive outposts in New Jersey and entered their winter quarters. They controlled New York harbor and much of New Jersey and were in a good position to resume operations in the spring.
Having been driven from New York City and forced to retreat across New Jersey to the west bank of the Delaware River, the cause for independence seemed hopeless. In the harsh winter of 1776, George Washington was faced with the added crisis of losing most of his men as their terms of enlistment were about to expire. Realizing he needed some success to persuade his men to stay on, he decided to attack the lightly defended Hessian outpost at Trenton.
Washington’s plan was to cross the Delaware River at three points: the first by a force commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Cadwallader; a second force under Brigadier Ewing; and the third commanded by himself, which would cross the river above Trenton and attack the Hessian garrison in the town.
It was a cold, dark night and a strong current carried large chunks of ice downriver. At about 11 p.m., a heavy snow and sleet storm began. Washington’s force did not reach the east bank until around 3 a.m. on 26 December. His soldiers were badly clothed and many did not have shoes. After landing in New Jersey, Washington’s men marched to Trenton, some of the men leaving traces of blood on the snow.
Despite being orders to do so, the Hessian commander, Colonel Rahl, had not constructe defensive works around the town nor did he send out any patrols because of the severe weather. On the night before the attack, Rahl was at dinner when a local Loyalist passed him a letter warning of the approaching Americans. Rahl did not read the message but instead placed it in his pocket.
The main American force under Washington entered Trenton from the north-west. Sullivan marched around the town and attacked from the south. Ewing and Cadwallader failed to make the river crossing and took no part in the attack. The rest of the American force took a position to the north-east cutting off the Hessians’ retreat. The Hessians attempted to get into formation in the town but came under artillery fire from the Americans. Americans occupied houses in the town and shot at the German soldiers from second floor windows.
Colonel Rahl was fatally wounded and his troops retreated to an orchard in the south-east of the town, where they surrendered.
The outcome of this battle was blown out of all proportion, but hundreds of soldiers extended the length of their enlistment in the army as morale rapidly improved. Likewise, Washington regained some of his reputation with Congress which had begun to doubt his capabilities as commander-in-chief.
Hessians – 20 killed / 100 wounded / 1,000 captured Americans – 2 wounded
Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, 1851.