|Washington Rallying Troops at Princeton, William T. Ranny|
Two excellent resources I relied on heavily for my portrayal of the battles of Trenton and Princeton are David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing and Richard M. Ketchum’s The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton. The picture they present differs from the traditional account, which maintains that the Americans caught the Hessians completely off guard, that because of the storm or simple laxity they had no patrols in place, and that they were still suffering from the effects of drunken Christmas parties when the Americans attacked the morning after Christmas. I’ve heard that often over the years and likely wouldn’t have questioned it if I hadn’t read Fischer and Ketchum, who justly laid it to rest.
Fischer particularly draws a vivid, extensively documented account of the rising of the Jersey militias against the Hessians, who had plundered and abused the inhabitants beyond endurance. By the end of December 1776 the militias’ harassment of the occupying force had become unrelenting. Colonel Rall, who commanded the Hessian garrison at Trenton, repeatedly demanded reinforcements, to the point that Major General James Grant, the British commander in New Jersey, considered him a crybaby. Not only that, but British spies posted at Washington’s headquarters relayed the news that a move was afoot almost as quickly as Washington made the decision to act. The Trenton garrison had every reason to be on high alert, and they were.
These were disciplined, highly professional soldiers, and on the night in question, Fischer states, “Colonel Rall had been thorough in his precautions. German outguards covered every major approach by land into Trenton, and other men were in place along the Delaware River. Behind the outposts were duty companies that could offer support. In the center of town, one Hessian regiment was always on alert in ‘alarm houses,’ and the others were ready to muster quickly” (Washington’s Crossing, p. 235). In fact, many of the soldiers had taken to retiring in their uniforms at night with weapons in hand because they were awakened so often by alarms.
Another oft-cited myth is that the Hessian soldiers were drunk after an excess of Christmas partying. Washington and his officers hoped that would be the case, but the reality was far different. Fischer states that “The German responses to the American attack were not those of intoxicated revelers.” He cites Boston fifer John Greenwood, who later wrote in his memoir: “I am willing to go upon oath, that I did not see even a solitary drunken soldier belonging to the enemy” (pp. 239-240).
|General George Washington at Trenton, John Trumbull|
In spite of their initial confusion, the Hessians rallied to put up stout resistance, and Fischer gives a very affecting account of the true number of American casualties that resulted directly from the battle. The regiments Rall personally commanded fought their way to an apple orchard on the outskirts of town, only to be driven back into the town, where Rall was mortally wounded. Deprived of their commander and with the Americans rapidly gaining the upper hand, the remnants of Rall’s shattered regiments muscled their way back to the apple orchard in another effort to break through to the British garrison at Princeton, before they were finally surrounded and forced to surrender. On the other end of town, a Hessian detachment held the stone bridge over Assunpink Creek for most of the battle. It was via that route that between 400 and 500 Hessian soldiers and a few civilians escaped before the Americans finally captured the bridge.
What Washington’s ragged, poorly equipped, and ill-trained army accomplished in defeating an alert and formidable enemy by attacking through a raging nor’easter is a testimony to their tenacity and commitment to the Glorious Cause of liberty. The accurate account of what really happened makes it all that much more heroic. That they followed it up by returning over the frozen Delaware only to recross it a few days later to fight a second battle at Trenton against a formidable British force before attacking Princeton is truly astounding.