Anyone familiar with U.S. history knows that the Continental Army under Washington crossed the Delaware River on December 24th and defeated a force of about 1,500 German troops. Most history books will tell you that morale in the underfed, under-equipped, and underpaid Continental Army was low. By December 1776, the Continental Army was in danger of dissolving, and Washington knew it.
Washington’s (and the Continental Congress’) primary goal was to keep the Continental Army as a force in being. Even though his army had been run out of New York and beaten in almost every engagement by the British Army and their German mercenaries, Washington managed to avoid a catastrophic defeat. As long as Washington kept the Continental Army as a credible force, the British had to “honor the threat.”
Two years into the war, the British government in London and the British Army in the Thirteen Colonies were confident that, eventually, they would defeat the Continental Army and end the rebellion. Or the citizens would tire of trying to defeat what was then the most powerful country in the world and reaffirm their allegiance to the crown. The Colonials, as the Brits called them, American historians prefer Patriots, needed a decisive victory.
What follows are eight tidbits about the battle and the days that followed that are not in most history books.
Tidbit 1 – Washington had much better intelligence than the British. Spies gave him an accurate description of British Army and Germans deployments in New Jersey. One spy – John Honeyman – had become a “trusted source” to Colonel Rall, the commander of the German troops.
Tidbit 2 – Colonel Rall realized his position would be difficult to defend and asked for reinforcements which were refused. Loyalists warned Rall that Washington was planning an attack, and he ignored the intelligence and declined to build defensive positions. Nor did he order outposts to. be set-up along the primary avenues of attack to provide warning.
Tidbit 3 – The Germans were not drunk; they were caught unprepared and totally surprised.
Tidbit 4 – While most Americans use the word “Hessians” to denote the German mercenaries, they came from seven principalities – Anhalt-Zerbst, Ansbach-Bayreuth, Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Hannover, Hesse-Kassel, Hesse-Hanau, and Waldeck. Rall commanded three regiments from Hesse-Kassel.
Tidbit 5 – Washington planned two crossings, one north and one south of Trenton. Only the northern force made it and instead of attacking around dawn, the Continental Army arrived around four in the afternoon with roughly 2,400 troops instead of the 5,400 he had hoped to bring to the battle.
Tidbit 6 – While almost 900 Germans were captured, the real booty was the captured stores of desperately needed food, clothing, and ammunition.
Tidbit 7 – Future president James Monroe was seriously wounded in the battle.
Tidbit 8 – The victory at Trenton led to two more Continental Army victories in quick succession. First, at the Battle of Assunpink Creek on January 2nd, 1777, the Continental Army held off the British and killed or wounded close to 600 at a loss of less than 100. Then, on January 3rd, Washington decisively defeated Cornwallis at the Battle of Princeton, killing or wounding 150+ British soldiers and capturing over 200.
In less than a week, the Continental Army defeated the feared German mercenaries and the British Army not once but twice. Determination to win independence as morale soared and recruiting increased. Suddenly, the British realized that the Continental Army was a force to be reckoned with and now realized to use modern slang, “The Colonials were in it to win it.”
Nonetheless, it would take until March 1781 before the British came to their senses and began negotiating an end to the war. The last land battle of the American Revolution was fought at Cedar Bridge Tavern in southern New Jersey on December 27th, 1782, six years and two days after the Battle of Trenton.
Painting is the Hugh Charles McBarron depiction of the Battle of Trenton, courtesy of the U.S. Army Center for Military History.