Sunday, January 2, 2011

Following up the Advantage

On January 2, 1777, Washington and the Continental Army were back in Trenton, following up on their victory the day after Christmas. This time they prepared to face down an even larger British force. “At 10 a.m. we received news that the enemy were advancing, when the drums beat to arms, and we were all paraded on the south side of the [Assunpink Creek] bridge,” recalled Lt. James McMichael of the Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment.

At Gen. Arthur St. Clair’s headquarters, Dr. Benjamin Rush was just about to go to bed after a night of hard riding to deliver messages. Roused by the drums, he asked the general what he intended to do. “Why, fight them,” St. Clair answered, smiling. He then “took down his sword, and girded it on his thigh with a calmness such as I thought seldom took place at the expectation of a battle.”

After their success at Trenton on Christmas day, both officers and enlisted men were composed and even eager for the battle. And that day they acquitted themselves admirably against a much larger force commanded by British General Charles Cornwallis, greatly delaying his march toward Trenton and inflicting heavy casualties. After a valiant fight, toward evening the Americans were finally driven to a defensive position on the far side of Assunpink bridge, where they continued to ferociously resist attempts to drive them back.

With casualties mounting, Cornwallis called off the attack and settled his force for the night. Both sides realized that Washington’s force would not be able to hold its defensive line against the British force when dawn arrived. “We’ve got the Old Fox safe now,” Cornwallis told his council confidently. “We’ll go over and bag him in the morning.”

Under cover of darkness, however, the “Old Fox” pulled his force out of Trenton and by dawn was on his way to attack the garrison at Princeton. As he had at Long Island, Washington once again engineered an unlikely miracle and slipped stealthily out of the British noose. Cornwallis awoke the next day to find his foe attacking the British rear.