Friday, December 26, 2008

‘Twas the Day After Christmas: The Battle at Trenton


As every schoolchild knows, exactly 232 years ago George Washington crossed the ice-choked Delaware on Christmas night as depicted in the famous painting by Emmanuel Leutze and defeated the Hessians at Trenton, N.J., early in the next morning, December 26, 1776.

The year 1776 had not been a good year for American colonists revolting against British rule. In five months of bitter fighting since the Declaration of Independence, they had lost a succession of battles in Long Island, New York City and White Plains before retreating through New Jersey. Washington had committed a general’s greatest blunder: scattering his forces so as to subject them to defeat in detail, instead of keeping his units within supporting distance of one another.

Nevertheless, he did accomplish masterful evacuations after each battle, although his loss of Fort Washington was a disaster that was almost fatal to the American cause. The Americans' steady retreat was finally halted south of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. The small remnant of the Continental Army shown crossing the Delaware to attack Trenton in New Jersey in the Leutze painting were near the end of their resources. This is the story of that fateful expedition.

Early in December of 1776, Washington began to get reinforcements. Maj. Gen. John Sullivan arrived with 2,000 bedraggled troops. Gen Horatio Gates came with 500 ragged and ill-equipped men from Gen. Schuyler’s Northern Command. Col. John Cadwalader appeared with 1,000 Philadelphia militia known as "Assocciators." Col. Nicholas Haussegger brought his regiment of Germans from Maryland and Pennsylvania. Just before Christmas, Washington had about 6,000 men listed as more or less fit for duty. Time was a major element. The British could resume their offensive when the Delaware froze hard enough to allow troops, wagons and cannon to cross. Washington’s meager force would be reduced to about 1,400 men with expiration of enlistments on December 31st. Taking note of these impending deadlines, Washington issued orders for strikes against British garrisons in New Jersey.

Washington’s Plan
Selecting the isolated British post of Trenton as his objective, Washington ordered an attack by three columns. In personal command of the main effort, some 2,400 veterans and 18 cannon, the troops of Generals Nathanael Greene and Sullivan, Washington would cross the Delaware at McConkey's and Johnson's ferries (now called Washington Crossing), ten miles above Trenton, and surprise the village from the north. Gen. Thomas Ewing would cross with 800 Pnnsylvania militia at Trenton Ferry and seize the bridge across Assunpink Creek to block the enemy's retreat in that direction. Col. Cadwalader and 1.800 men—mostly militia—was to cross the river to Burlngton, and draw the attention of the garrison at Bordentown as a diversion to prevent their reinforcing Trenton. Two of these attacks never took place. Ewing failed to cross the Delaware because of a massive ice jam. Cadwalader got his men across, but could not land his artillery and so was too late to give the main attack against Trenton any significant support.

The Attack
Washington's column left camp south of the Delaware at 2 p.m. and started embarking at dark in Durham Boats manned by Col. John Glover's Regiment of seamen and fishermen from Marblehead, Massachusetts. These sturdy freight boats ranged in length between 30 and 60 feet and were eight feet wide, but drew only about 24 inches of water when fully loaded. Designed to carry pig iron, lumber and produce from upcountry mines, forests and farms to the thriving port and markets of Philadelphia, they were sailed or rowed swiftly downstream by oars and an 18-foot sweep to steer through rapids. Going upstream, a crew of two or four pushed long iron-tipped setting poles against the banks or shallow bottom. The largest could carry a 15-ton cargo.

Debunkers who have scoffed at Leutze's paininting for depicting George Washington standing up in a boat are apparently unaware that large ferries and freight boats had few seats or none at all.
Anyone sitting in such boats would have been sitting in ice water or slush. Most of the men who crossed the Delaware with Washington that night were standing up in the boats.

Despite swift currents, floating chunks of ice, bitter cold, and a fierce storm of wind, hail, rain, and snow that began about 11 p.m., the arduous crossing was made successfully without detection. Although the plans called for the crossing to be completed by midnight, leaving five hours to reach Trenton before daybreak, the last man did not land until 3 a.m., and the troops were not ready to begin marching for another hour.

"The story of ragged, shoeless men leaving bloody footprints in the snow has been told so often that it has become commonplace, and often fails to impress the reader as it should," wrote historian Christopher Ward in his two-volume The War of the Revolution. "Added to these physical tortures was the mental stress of the knowledge that they were four hours behind schedule, and could not now hope to surprise the enemy at daybreak. It would be broad daylight before the attack could be launched, and that might make all the difference between victory and defeat, a defeat that might develop into a catastrophe fatal to the American cause."

A chain of unforeseen events favored the American attack. Although British intelligence was excellent, received largely from the large number of Tories in the region, and American deserters had revealed the day, the hour, and the place of he attack, Hessian Col. Johann Rall had no reason to foresee the threatened operation as nothing more than another of the small hit-and-run raids to which he had become indifferent. But the intelligence had not included the information that this raid would involve more than 2,000 men and would be led by none other than George Washington, the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.

Rall was a veteran of European campaigns, but had a fatal flaw as a commander that would contribute to his defeat and death at Trenton. Not only was he stupid, but also he was a drunkard and looked on his American opponents as "country clowns." Although his post was comparatively isolated from British garrisons at Princeton and Bordentown, he had not heeded suggestions to construct fortifications nor did he send scouting parties into the countryside . "Let them come," Rall sneered. "We want no trenches. We will go at them with the bayonet." So drunk from holiday revels was Rall that by Christmas night he had to be carried to his bed. Outside a howling northeaster raged. The Hessians felt secure from attack.

At Birmingham (now West Trenton), about four miles from their landing, the attacking force split into two columns. Turning left onto the Pennington Road so as to approach Trenton from the north, Gen. Adam Stephen's Virginia Continentals led the troops of Generals Hugh Mercer and William ("Lord Stirling") Alexander, a small troop of Philadelphia light horse, and about nine guns. Gen. Nathanael Greene was in command of this column, which Washington accompanied. Sullivan continued down the river road with the troops of Generals Arthur St. Clair and John Glover, Col. Paul D. Sargent, and a battery of about nine guns, to approach Trenton from the west.

Gen. Stephen had incurred Washington’s wrath for jeopardizing the attack on Trenton by sending a raiding party across the Delaware on Christmas Day to take revenge for the killing of one of Stephen's men. Washington summoned General Stephens and in an outburst of his famous raging temper said, "You, sir, may have ruined all my plans by having put them on their guard." As it turned out, the brief but vigorous firefight that had taken place the morning of the 25th when the American patrol had probed toward Trenton on Gen. Stephen's order, actually may have helped lulled the Hessians into a state of inattention. This raiding party, the Hessians reasoned, was the American force against which they had been warned in the intelligence reports, and the danger was now over.

On the morning of December 26, Rall was deep in an alcoholic sleep,. His 1,200-man Hessian garrison's three regiments were worn to exhaustion by constant alarms and attacks on patrols and outposts. Shooting started at about 8 a.m., when Hessian Lieutenant Wiederhold at the 20-man outpost occupying a cooper's shop saw the Americans emerge from the woods along the Pennington Road about half a mile from the northern edge of Trenton. Waiting until the enemy was within range, the outpost delivered an ineffective volley, and dropped back on Capt. von Altenbockum's company of the Lossberg Regiment, some 400 yards closer to the village. Threatened by flanking forces, the company then moved back in good order after firing one volley that did not significantly delay the American advance.

Coordination and timing of the attack was impeccable. About three minutes after the northern column made contact, to the south Gen. Sullivan's advance guard flushed and routed an outpost of about 50 jaegers who were stationed on the river road, half a mile west of Trenton. (Jaegers were light infantry recruited from foresters and gamekeepers for special missions such as reconnaissance or sniping.) Four other Hessian outposts south and east of the village did not figure in the action.

The Battle
The three Hessian regiments s quartered in Trenton turned out quickly and formed in King (now Warren) and Queen (now Broad) streets. Attempting an attack to the north, their formations were broken by the combination of artillery fire down these streets from the north and flanking fire from Mercer's troops attacking from the west. The artillery of Captains Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Forrest, whose fire enfiladed the streets, silenced four Hessian guns that attempted to go into action. Gen. Alexander's men charged down both streets toward the enemy batteries. Capt. William Washington (a distant cousin of the General) and Lt. James Monroe (who would later become the fifth U.S. president) were wounded in leading the capture of the cannon in King Street. Gen. Sullivan's troops, meanwhile, had penetrated the south end of the village, where they met the Knyphausen Regiment and drove it back. Several hundred men of this regiment escaped south across Assunpink Creek, where Gen. Ewing’s force was to have been positioned to block them.

The weather had rendered many of the American muskets useless, making it "mostly and affair of artillery, bayonet, sword and spontoon: (a form pike carried by foot soldiers), acording to Christopher Ward's The War of the Revolution. Superior in numbers, American artillery overpowered the Hessian guns and laid down barrage after barrage on Hessian forces, particularly their guns, causing Hessian gunners to abandon their guns and flee. The remnants of the Rall and Lossberg regiments retreated into an open field east of Trenton. When ordered to counterattack, only the Lossbergs moved forward, but they were stopped before they could get within bayonet range. Retreat to the south was now blocked by Sullivan's troops at the bridge over Assunpink Creek, so Rall ordered a withdrawal to the orchard at the southeast corner of the town. Seconds later Rall toppled from his horse, mortally wounded.

Rall's men next moved north only to find themselves confronted by more artillery and muskets and began striking their colors. At the same time, Sullivan's men captured the remnants of the Knyphausen Regiment and von Dechow's battalion of the Lossbergs, including the mortally wounding von Dechow. Some Germans tried to get across the Assunpink, only to find the bridge blocked and Gen. St. Clair's men covering the fords upstream. That route had been used earlier for the escape of the 50 jaegers who had manned an outpost on the river road, plus the 20 dragoons attached to Rall's command from the 16th Light Dragoons, the only British unit in Trenton, and others. Fifty infantrymen of the Knyphausen regiment escaped by swimming across Assunpink Creek, nearly drowning in the swift, icy waters of the stream. They reached the safety of Princeton ten hours later.

The Germans surrendered at 9:30 a.m., "only about one hour and three-quarters since the first shots had been fired," according to one writer. Other writers maintain that the battle lasted not more than 35 or 40 minutes.

Numbers and Losses
The Americans had won a decisive victory. About 2,400 American troops and 18 guns had crossed the Delaware. Losses were remarkably low. In addition to the previously mentioned William Washington and James Monroe, one or two privates were wounded in the action. Although some authorities say four Americans were killed, two from freezing (probably during the withdrawal), despite the ferocity of he battle, Douglas Southall Freeman, in his seven-volume biography of George Washington, says, "No American was killed in the skirmish at Trenton."

Of the 1,200 Hessians, 105 were killed or wounded (4 officers, 17 men killed; 6 officers, 78 men wounded). There were 896 prisoners, including the wounded (32 officers, 92 NCOs, and 29 men in such categories as musician and surgeon's mate, 25 servants, and 740 rank and file). As for those who escaped, sources put the number variously at between 400 and 500.

The Americans Withdraw
The failure of Ewing and Cadwalader to accomplish their missions made it impossible for Washington to continue his original plan of attacking Princeton and Brunswick. With a large body of prisoners to evacuate, and with enemy reinforcements nearby, his own troops exhausted, and with no prospect of adequate resupply from south of the Delaware, Washington had no choice but to withdraw to their camps in Pennsylvania. The return proved even more difficult than the advance. Leaving Trenton at noon, some of his men were not back in their bivouacs until noon of the 27th. Three men are said to have frozen to death in the boats. Some of the troops had been engaged for as long as 50 hours, some of them covering more than 40 miles, and in the worst of weather. British historian George Trevelyan wrote in his monumental six-volume The American Revolution, "It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater or more lasting results upon the history of the world."

Order of Battle in the Raid on Trenton

Washington's Staff
First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry
Commander in Chief's Guard (Washington's Lifeguard)

Bridgehead and Advance Guard

Brig. Gen. Adam Stephen's Brigade
Elliot's 4th Va. Regiment
Scott's 5th Va. Regiment
Buckner's 6th Va. Regiment

Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene's Division

Brig. Gen. Hugh Mercer's Brigade
20th Continental Regiment (Durkee's Conn.)
27th Continental Regiment (Hutchinson's Mass.)
Smallwood's 1st Maryland Regiment

Brig. Gen. Lord Stirling's Brigade
Weedon's 3rd Va. Regiment
Haslet's Delaware Regiment
Read's 1st Va. Regiment
Miles' Pa. State Rifle Regiment

Brig. Gen. Roche de Fermoy's Brigade
Hausseger's Pa.-Md. Rifle Battalion
1st Continental Regiment (Hand's Rifle Rgt.)

Maj. Gen. John Sullivan's Division

Col. Paul D. Sargent's Brigade
16th Continental Regiment (Sargent's Mass.)
Ward's Conn. Regiment
13th Continental Regiment (Reed's Mass.)
Gransevoort 3rd New York Regiment

Col. John Glover's Brigade
3rd Continental Regiment (Learned's Mass.)
19th Continental Regiment (Webb's Regt.)
14th Continental Regiment (Glover's Marblehead, Mass.)
23rd Continental Regiment (Bailey's Mass.)
26th Continental Regiment (Baldwin's Mass.)

Brig. Gen. Arthur St. Clair's Brigade
5th Continental Regiment (Stark's N.H.)
2nd Continental Regiment (Reed's N.H.)
8th Continental Regiment (Poor's N.H.)
15th Continental Regiment (Patterson's Mass.)

Artillery (in support of several brigades, Col. Henry Knox in command)
Companies of Knox's Continental Artillery
New York State Company of Artillery
Eastern Company New York State Artillery
Western Company New York State Artillery
Mass. Company Continental Artillery
New York Company Continental Artillery
2nd Company Penna. State Artillery
The Pennsylvania State Navy reinforced the gun crews of the above artillery units

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