December 26, 1776. The United States of America is about to be smothered in its crib. After the loss of New York and numerous defeats, George Washington’s Continental Army is at its lowest ebb of morale and hope. Washington makes the ultimate Hail Mary play: a Christmas night crossing of the Delaware River and a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton. One of history’s smallest battles is one of its most vital.
In my study of history, I’ve found very few events that could truly be called “decisive,” where the actions of a single day or a single person were enough to tip the scale in one devastating direction. History tends to be made up more of gradual changes, trends and forces. I’ve pointed out to some people that in almost every one of history’s battles and campaigns, with 20/20 hindsight, one side had a clear advantage and had basically done their work to win the fight before it began – or one side had screwed up and managed to lose it before it began. You can extend this to revolutions, elections, great cultural shifts: essentially, it is VERY rare that the battle itself is a deciding factor rather than what took place before or after it.
Trenton is one of the exceptions. Place it alongside Hastings or Midway on the far end of a scale labeled “was there a chance that everything changes today?” For Hastings, William the Conqueror almost lost that battle, so England as we know it would never have existed the same way – indeed, that could shift a millennium of world history in a totally different direction. For Midway, the sheer luck involved in the American pilots finding the Japanese carriers, by accident, at their most vulnerable point turned the tide of World War II against Japan in a matter of minutes.
Much the same thing happened at Trenton, in large part because one of history’s keystone people, one of the people without which American history would have been completely different, was in personal danger the whole time. But Trenton is also important because it was a victory the infant United States HAD to win. Had George Washington lost the Battle of Trenton, or even decided not to fight it, there might not be a United States today.
Only a few months after the Battles at Lexington and Concord kicked off the American Revolutionary War, in June 1775 the Second Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia to create a governing body for the rebelling Thirteen Colonies. One item on the agenda was paramount: how to organize a military to defend the nation? The scraps of Minutemen, local militias, and volunteer units that had the British penned up in Boston amounted to little more than a mob, their camps looking more like Lollapalooza than like a military encampment.
Unless they could be turned into something like a proper army, this unkempt mass of humanity could never face the British Redcoats in open combat. Trouble was, the Congress had no authority over the Thirteen Colonies (later States) whatsoever, and couldn’t order them or force them to create a military. Even if they COULD, a standing army doesn’t come from nothing, especially not without trained officers, a War Department to supply and pay soldiers, the ability to impose discipline…
Hoping that all these things would magically happen somehow, the Continental Congress turned to the only one of their number who had any sort of experience with leading soldiers. George Washington, though he had enough political sense not to openly lobby for the job, had showed up in his Virginia militia uniform as a not-so-subtle reminder of his past experience. While he had never led more than a regiment during the wars against the French and Indians from 1754 to 1758, this still put him head and shoulders above anyone else. Above all, though, Washington’s character and reputation recommended him for the role – and the fact that he was a Southerner, while so many of the ruling elite were Northerners. Washington was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army on June 15, 1775 by a unanimous vote.
Despite attempts to unseat him by jealous rivals and political cabals, George Washington would remain at the head of the fragile American military until the end of the war. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like he should have survived that long. No one has ever described Washington as a military genius. While he was well-read and studied military matters thoroughly, Washington was not possessed of that spark of intuitive skill that characterized someone like Caesar, Napoleon or Sherman. Washington presided over numerous terrible defeats, some of which I’m about to mention, and these far outnumbered his victories. On the battlefield, he was routinely outclassed by his British rivals, and outmaneuvered in ways that would be frankly embarrassing during 1776 and 1777. Much of Washington’s performance as a general did not recommend him for higher positions, and many historians have – on this basis – underrated him as a general.
But Washington’s qualities went far beyond only the technical skills of a general. He was charismatic, awe-inspiring and immensely impressive in person, fearlessly brave in battle and a beacon of serene calm during times of even utmost chaos. He also proved to be a shrewd manager and judge of men, handling his subordinates well – especially when their skill set made him look like a master tactician. He managed his limited supplies and provisions the best he knew how.
Washington’s greatest services to his country, though, were in the fields of strategy and politics. Washington ultimately formed a Continental Army that – even if it couldn’t beat the Redcoats in open battle most of the time – could at least stand up to this professional force. By preserving his command and not taking any unnecessary risks, Washington turned the Continental Army’s sheer resilience and unwillingness to give up into its greatest strength. Even after multiple defeats, the fact that Washington kept his army in the field against all odds was on its own a daily victory that the British could not overcome. By maintaining a firm relationship with political leaders and keeping the army subordinate to their will, Washington also prevented the military from assuming an overpowering role in the new Republic. Washington’s influence alone may have kept the young United States from becoming a military dictatorship.
No one but Washington could have carefully walked this balance between controlling the rogue’s gallery of personalities that made up America’s officers, maintaining good civil-military relations with Congress and state governments, presenting a figure of high character and bravery to America and the world, and – most importantly - keeping the Army in the field no matter what. No one else in the United States in 1776 came even close to being able to manage these conflicting forces, despite Washington’s lack of tactical skill. He was truly the indispensable man. The nation could not do without him.
It seemed like Washington was off to a good start. Upon his arrival in Boston, he got the army in some sort of order, but it took a year for his artillery commander Colonel Henry Knox to transport captured British guns to Boston in a magnificent display of management and will. When Washington placed these heavy guns on Dartmouth Heights above Boston under cover of darkness in March 1776, he forced the British to evacuate the city without a shot being fired. This eliminated the immediate British military threat and deprived them of a port on the American coast, which they would need if they hoped to suppress the rebellion.
The British forces in Boston boarded their ships and retreated to Halifax in Nova Scotia, where they would rendezvous with reinforcements coming from Europe. These troops included not only the bulk of Britain’s redcoat regular infantry, but also mercenary regiments from the German state of Hesse-Kassel. Several central European states were in the practice of hiring out their armies as mercenaries for the larger wars of the great powers, and Britain did not have enough soldiers in its Regular Army to mount the expedition to recover America. Thus, around 30,000 German mercenaries (only most of whom were Hessian) ended up fighting in the Revolution, making up a quarter of British forces in the Western Hemisphere. Without these mercenaries, the British would literally have been unable to fight the war.
The British forces at Halifax, the Army under General William Howe and the Navy under his brother Admiral Richard Howe, eventually amounted to almost 32,000 men and a large battle fleet. Rather than recapturing Boston in 1776, they decided to target New York City. It was more centrally located on the coast, and opened the possibility of moving up the Hudson River and splitting the rebellious colonies in two. Washington correctly predicted that the British would attack New York City, and moved the bulk of the Continental Army there as soon as Boston was secured.
Political events had proceeded at breakneck speed ever since the Revolution had begun, and a tidal shift in American public opinion had swept the country. Before Lexington and Concord, the vast majority of the colonists had never dreamed of independence; their protests up to 1775 were mainly in support of the rights they believed they deserved as subjects of the King. The open rebellion provoked first a gradual, then a decisive turn towards thoughts of outright independence. Thomas Paine’s publication of “Common Sense” in January 1776 gave this change a mighty shove forward, and only seven months later – July 4 – the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.
In just over a year, the colonists had gone from considering themselves loyal British subjects (who, yes, had some issues with the King’s ministers) to regarding themselves as a new, independent people. But 1776 would not just be critical because of documents and pamphlets. If the new country was going to survive, it had to prove it COULD survive. And only a few months later, that issue was highly in doubt.
On the same day as the Declaration of Independence’s adoption, July 4, the British returned in force to confront Washington at New York. Washington had spread his 20,000 poorly trained soldiers thinly, a bad move that allowed the British to land in force at a single point and overwhelm his defenses. Washington had to pull his lines in to Long Island, allowing the Howe brothers to occupy Staten Island and prepare for further operations.
Throughout July and August, Washington’s men fortified Long Island as General William Howe sent him multiple messages offering to negotiate an end to the “Rebellion.” When Washington refused, Howe moved once again, and in late August invaded Long Island. Tactical blunders, miscommunication, and the poor fighting ability of the Americans had more to do with the defeat on Long Island than Washington’s mistakes…but Washington made plenty of mistakes. Bloodied, bruised, and demoralized, his troops withdrew across Long Island Sound to the mainland.
At multiple points throughout the New York Campaign, Howe would take a long pause and try and feel out whether Washington was open to a compromise. Instead of storming into New York with fire and brimstone, he was doing his calculated best to secure a peaceful end to the conflict. To this end, he was applying a strategy of “graduated pressure,” where he would follow a show of force with an olive branch. He allowed Washington’s army to escape near-certain destruction several times in pursuance of this policy. The Continental Army only survived the New York Campaign by Howe’s strategic mercy – if he had seized the jugular, Washington and his men would likely have fallen directly into British hands that fateful year.
Throughout September and October, Howe continued to outmaneuver and thump the Americans time and again. Washington lost three separate battles in the course of the campaign: Long Island, Harlem Heights, and White Plains. Each of these was marked by blundering and errors on the part of Washington and his generals, and skill and restraint by the British. In a capstone to American misery, the overconfidence of General Nathanael Greene caused the loss of Fort Washington on the Hudson, where almost 3,000 men surrendered without firing a shot to Washington’s immense dismay. The Continental Army – what was left of it – fled New York, leaving it in British hands, and crossed New Jersey in something bordering on panic. Only when they crossed the Delaware River and reached the safety of Pennsylvania did they pause to reorganize.
Howe did not pursue Washington with any vigor. He moved his troops slowly and carefully into New Jersey, occupying most of the towns and preparing for winter quarters. Howe believed that after these military defeats, the Americans would likely just fall apart from lack of hope and poor morale. Washington? So much for Washington. He couldn’t even stop his men from running away, he had left wide-open gaps in his line that British columns marched through. There was trouble with the Hessians – they were bloody and ferocious, they executed prisoners, and they had issues with discipline – but Howe expected the war to be over shortly.
As for Washington, he was at possibly his lowest point of the war. His reputation, which had been stellar after Boston, was now in ruins. Much of the Continental Army was gone, but most losses were not in battle; they had just deserted. The cause of independence had been all that kept most men in the ranks, since it certainly wasn’t the pay or the food or camaraderie. And now it seemed like that cause was lost. The Army had not won a single battle in 1776, and had been humiliated by the ease with which the British and Hessians drove them from defensive positions. Washington had lost some of his vaunted control at Kip’s Bay, enraged at the lack of courage his soldiers showed. Now from an original 20,000 men, there were only around 5,000 left in Pennsylvania. How was this force supposed to defeat the British?
Washington knew that he faced a moment of crisis. Most of his remaining soldiers had signed a commitment for a year, and on January 1 that commitment would expire. Given the lack of American success, the dominant position of the British, their dearth of supplies and the hopelessness of the situation, how could Washington expect thousands more men to enlist for the battles sure to come in 1777? Without these men, the Revolution was dead. It seemed like there was no hope to be had.
Washington decided to call a Hail Mary. Here he displayed his excellent sense of politics and strategy: a victory was desperately necessary before 1777 began, not for the sake of some campaign or maneuver, not to capture a city or destroy a British Army, but for the sake of national morale. Unless Washington did SOMETHING to signal that the United States was still in the fight, he could kiss any hope of European intervention or American faith in the war goodbye. What was needed was a small battle, a quick and dramatic success against an enemy force he stood a chance of beating. Since winter was considered unsuitable for traditional military operations, he stood a good chance of launching a surprise attack.
Washington’s planning began to focus on the Hessian garrison of Trenton, New Jersey, which sat just across the Delaware River from his mangled army. Washington called a council of war and planned an attack for the morning after Christmas – December 26, 1776. His units would have to cross the river on Christmas night and hopefully launch a dawn attack on a hungover and unprepared garrison of the hated Germans. After calling in reinforcements from New York and other parts of Pennsylvania, Washington could scrape together around 6,000 men. It would have to be enough.
The British and German high commands soon got word that something was afoot. While Howe dismissed the rumors, some British and German officers took the threat somewhat seriously and predicted that Washington might plan a small raid. The commander of the Hessian forces in Trenton, Colonel Johann Rall, had been less than impressed with what he had seen of the Americans so far and dismissed any need for defensive preparations or scouting patrols. He had 1,500 men, and believed that would be more than enough to deal with Washington’s pitiful band. Even still, he had previously reported Trenton too exposed and indefensible and asked to withdraw inland, only to be fobbed off by the High Command.
It should be noted that Rall was not a typical Hessian officer. He was decidedly on the less competent side, brave but dull and unimaginative. The Hessian units in the American Revolution routinely proved their military competence and fighting ability, and these German regiments were some of the best fighting troops the British had. But they were also universally unpopular, even among loyal British subjects in America, since they tended to treat the colonists poorly and engaged in ransacking and looting on a regular basis. By alienating the local population of New Jersey, they convinced many local informants to help Washington when they might have been on the fence beforehand. It’s not like the entire population were enthusiastic Patriots; many probably believed the Revolution was over and it was time to get used to the King again.
On the night of December 25, 1776, Washington led his famous crossing of the Delaware. That this went off without a hitch, not a single man being lost in the terrible conditions, is remarkable; despite multiple warnings, no Hessians were there to greet them during the crossing, which could have been fatal. The plan went awry everywhere else, though. Washington himself led the main column north of Trenton, while he sent two other columns to launch diversions and attack from the south. Neither of these columns, under John Cadwalader and James Ewing, managed to get across the Delaware in time due to the poor weather. The massive ice floes in the Delaware and the force of the blizzard also forced Washington’s crossing to delay as well, and by the time he had assembled 2,400 men on the east side of the river he had been forced to give up all hope of a dawn attack. He would have to hustle nine miles south and do the best he could.
Also, Washington was not enough of an idiot to stand up in the middle of a boat during this difficult crossing, whatever the painting says.
As Washington’s men marched south with all due haste, a local Loyalist farmer sped to Trenton ahead of them to report the impending assault, only to be dismissed by Rall’s headquarters guards. They knew of the “raid,” they said. Rall was apparently under the impression that there was only to be a light raid on one of his outposts that day. Notably, despite the future American legend that all the Germans were still nursing hangovers from Christmas, this does not seem to have been true. The Germans were on the whole sober, a well-trained and drilled unit that was not on high alert but hardly a useless bunch of sodden wrecks. But this would not be enough.
Washington was legendary on December 26, 1776. He rode back and forth along his columns as they rushed south to surprise the Hessians, encouraging, prodding, cheering. The march was brutal enough that two Americans died from the cold and exposure as the ragged and tired Continentals left bloody footprints on the snow. As daylight approached, Washington egged them onto their final efforts. At one point, an American officer who had misunderstood the plan launched a premature attack on a Hessian outpost, only to be met by a furious Washington who said that he might have ruined the Army and the war. He might have – if Rall hadn’t assumed that this small exchange of gunfire to the north must have been the raid he’d been expecting, and ordered his men to stand down.
So it was that when Washington’s Continentals came bursting out of the trees north and south of Trenton, wheeling Captain Alexander Hamilton’s artillery into position to fire down both of Trenton’s crossroads, the Hessians were flabbergasted. In the early dawn light, the Continentals surged forward with the desperation of men who knew that this would be the decisive moment. Key to the perfect placement of troops was Nathanael Greene, the general who had so badly bungled the occupancy of Fort Washington back in October; despite this staggering failure, Washington believed Greene had the makings of a great general, and kept him on. He would not be disappointed. As Greene led the infantry and Hamilton’s gunners sent cannonballs rocketing through surprised groups of Hessians, the Battle of Trenton began.
It was over almost as quickly. The battle lasted little more than fifteen minutes. Most of the Hessian companies were so surprised, so unready for combat, that they broke and fled. Some units managed to get into formation and march down the streets, but they were unable to form ranks due to the incessant musket and cannon fire. Rall himself managed to mount a horse, form up part of his regiment, and attempt to lead it against Washington’s flank. For a brief moment, Washington himself was under fire, acting as if he didn’t even see the musket balls whizzing by his head. Then Rall was mortally wounded, along with several of his junior officers, and the whole thing was done.
For the cost of four Americans wounded, Washington’s little army had nearly annihilated the Hessian force. They killed 22, wounded 94, and captured 950 men, totally clearing Trenton of its occupiers. The short, sweet little victory was complete, but there was no time to celebrate. Washington got his men hustling back the way they had come, and by noon they were back across the Delaware, exhilarated and triumphant. Washington knew that he could not hold Trenton against a large-scale British counterattack, and General Charles Cornwallis was already marching his way with a significant force.
But Trenton had given Washington a bit more confidence, and when many of his soldiers – buoyed by their victory – reenlisted, Washington took the offensive back into New Jersey once again. In early January, he managed to outmaneuver Cornwallis and win another small victory at Princeton on January 3. Once again, Washington was in the forefront of danger, at one point only barely escaping capture by British infantry. Juking past the encircling arms of Cornwallis’s army, Washington managed to lead the Continental Army up to northern New Jersey, where they finally settled down into winter quarters.
The battles at Trenton and Princeton were, from a British point of view, annoying pinpricks. They had not done long-term damage to the British forces in North America, had gained no ground, had not done any injury that could not be quickly mended. It was not a turning point in the sense that it destroyed a British army, captured a critical city, or ended a victorious campaign. If anything, it was – at base level – little more than a well-done raid.
But for the Americans, Trenton and Princeton were a shot of adrenaline when the cause of independence was on its deathbed. By showing that the United States still had some fight left in it, Washington and his small army had offered the most important resource that America needed in 1776 – hope. Washington’s understanding of the need for morale and a show of resolve in the darkest hour of the Revolution underlines why he truly was the indispensable man: he was possibly the only commander on either side that really understood the war.
When all was said and done, the American Revolution would not be won by winning battles – but by continuing to fight them, even when things seemed hopeless. Had the Trenton-Princeton Campaign not happened, or had something gone wrong…maybe Washington is shot, maybe the Hessians stop the Americans, maybe the crossing fails or never takes place…independence could have died a cold, quiet death in 1776.
A small battle, yes. But few have been so important.