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US History E-Text > The Revolution: War and Independence > New Jersey and Trenton

The remaining two months of this memorable year -- save only the final week -- must be pronounced the darkest days of the Revolution. A chain of unfortnate events came near bringing ruin upon the cause of American independence.1 The officious interference of Congress, a serious blunder by General Greene, and the disobedience of Charles Lee, who had arrived from the South, brought about the famous retreat across New Jersey and produced an appalling depression of spirits throughout the land.

Washington, seeing that the fort called by his name could not prevent the enemy's vessels from passing up the Hudson, decided to abandon it. He urged the matter on General Greene, but left the ultimate decision to the latter's discretion while he made a trip to West Point, which was being fortified by General Heath. Congress now interposed, and resolved that Fort Washington2 should not be given up unless through dire necessity. Greene for once distrusted the judgment of his commander and followed the advice of Congress. The mistake was a disastrous and costly one. To hold the fort was impossible; the British army was closing around it and the garrison could not now be withdrawn. On November 17 Howe stormed the fort with almost his entire army, and, after losing five hundred men, forced the surrender. Colonel Magaw, the commandant, had made a valiant stand, but he was compelled to surrender to superior numbers; and he, with three thousand men, together with a great quantity of cannon, muskets, and military stores, so much needed by the Continental army, passed into the hands of the enemy.3 The fall of Fort Washington was a terrible blow to the patriots, and Greene never forgot the costly lesson it taught him.

It was now determined to abandon Fort Lee, on the west side of the Hudson. Ere this was done, however, five thousand British soldiers had scaled the rocky walls of the Palisades, and were ready to dash upon the fort; and the garrison under Greene retreated with such haste as to leave their cannon behind. This was not a serious disaster, but it was the last straw to the disheartened patriot army. For several months one misfortune had borne upon another, and thousands of people now came to believe that the patriot cause was lost. Amid the general discouragement one cannot but note the extraordinary fortitude of Washington. His soul was wrung with grief, but there is no evidence that his faith in ultimate success was shaken. His ability as a soldier was of a very high order. Seldom was his army in a condition to meet the enemy in the open field; but equal if not greater skill is required in conducting a retreat, and in wearing out a large army with a small one; and in this Washington was a master with few equals in history. Washington's diminished and discouraged army now lay at Hackensack, New Jersey, and the troops were leaving for their homes as fast as their brief enlistments expired. The commander had urged upon Congress the importance of long enlistments, and that body had complied, but their action had not yet borne fruit.

He had with him but six thousand men, having left seven thousand with Lee at North Castle, in New York, with orders to cross the Hudson and join him as soon as practicable. But Lee hesitated; and Washington, moving on to Newark with Cornwallis in pursuit, sent messengers again and again, urging Lee to join him with all possible haste. Lee sent excuses, argued, dissembled, pretended to misunderstand, and refused to move; and the commander in chief was forced to his inglorious retreat across New Jersey with but a fragment of his army.

Charles Lee requires a little special attention at this point. He was English born, the son of a British officer, and had entered the army when only a boy. He served in various European wars and in the French and Indian War in America. Having returned to Europe, he again came to America when he saw that the people were about to grapple with the mother country, and offered his services to the patriot cause. But there is nothing in his career to show that he cared for the cause or that he possessed any special ability as a commander. Neverthless he succeeded, by constant boasting, and by reckless criticisms of military affairs, in making the American people believe that he was a great military genius. Tall, hollow-cheeked, and uncomely, he was irascible, selfish, pompous, and censorious; but these qualities were regarded as but pardonable eccentricities of a great man. All classes, including Congress and the commander in chief at first greatly overrated Lee. In truth, he was an adventurer, a seeker of fame and fortune, and, as revealed by his private letters unearthed in London nearly a hundred years later, a traitor to the American cause.

While Washington was fleeing before the British regulars and appealing to Lee for the other half of the army, the latter was plotting for the overthrow of his chief, whispering slanders, and writing to governors of states and members of Congress, asserting that the recent disasters were due to Washington's incompetency, and that it would all have turned out differently if his advice had been heeded. To Dr. Rush of Philadelphia Lee declared in substance that he could bring order out of chaos if he were made dictator for one week. Many of the uncritical, in whose minds Washington's star had recently waned, firmly believed Lee to be the greater general of the two. Lee was still lauded throughout the North as the hero and victor of Fort Moultrie, whereas he had done nothing in that noble defense but scold and find fault while beyond the reach of the British guns. Such was Charles Lee, the senior major general of the army since the retirement of Artemas Ward.

The hour was dark and threatening indeed. Half the army was fleeing like a hunted fox across the Jersey plains, while the men were departing for their homes by hundreds, believing the cause to be a lost one; the other half was held inactive by a traitor a hundred miles away. Furthermore, the gloomy outlook had led some three thousand of the leading Jersey farmers to accept Howe's latest offer and to swear allegiance to the Crown. Surely the infant life of the republic quivered in the balance. At this dark hour Congress came to the rescue. Silver and gold it had none; but it could do something, and so it did. It made a master stroke for liberty, and in the same act answered Lee's intrigue and gave to the country its opinion of Washington. It made him military dictator for six months.4

Washington had reached the bank of the Delaware before Lee moved hand or foot to join him. Then Lee crossed the Hudson and leisurely proceeded westward. But ere the middle of December, after he had spent a night at a village tavern, and just as he was finishing a letter to Gates in which he spoke of Washington as "damnably deficient," a band of British riders did the American people a lasting service by making General Lee a prisoner. Thus a large portion of the army, released from the baneful influence of this designing self-seeker, became again useful to the commander in chief.

Howe had fully expected to catch his prey in West Jersey; but the unwearied vigilance of Washington had saved the American army from capture, and landed it safely on the western bank of the Delaware. Intense was the excitement in Philadelphia when it was learned that the patriot army was fleeing before the enemy toward the city. Congress fled to Baltimore, all business was suspended, and the stores and schools were closed; excited multitudes gathered in the streets, and a few days later the roads leading from the city were crowded with all sorts of vehicles bearing women and children and household goods to places of refuge.5 A great mass meeting, held in the statehouse yard, was addressed by Thomas Mifflin and the result was that several hundred men shouldered their muskets and set out to join the army.

The patriot cause had now reached its lowest ebb. Howe believed that armed resistance had collapsed, and retired to New York, while Cornwallis prepared to take ship for England. New Jersey was held in the firm grasp of the British. Count Donop was at Bordentown with a body of men; a small force was stationed at Princeton, another at New Brunswick; while a larger body, some twelve hundred Hessians under Colonel Rall, occupied Trenton.

But the dawn was beginning to break upon the darkness. The volunteers from Philadelphia arrived in camp; Sullivan came with the troops that Lee had held so long at North Casfle; and Horatio Gates joined the army with two thousand men, sent by Schuyler from the upper Hudson. Washington now determined on a bold stroke. He would recross the Delaware by night and attack the Hessians at Trenton. He chose the most opportune time, -- the day after Christmas, -- judging wisely that after the festivities of the holiday the soldiers would be ill prepared for defense. The whole project was planned and executed by Washington. Gates, who was expected to assist, had gone off to Baltimore to intrigue with Congress; Putnam, who was guarding Philadelphia, could spare no men for the enterprise. Ewing and Cadwalader, who were ordered to cross the river at a lower point and cut off the enemy's retreat, failed to do so on account of the floating ice. But no obstacle could daunt the commander in chief. At the twilight hour, as the earliest stars began twinkling from a clear sky on that cold Christmas night, the little army of twenty-four hundred men began their struggle with the ice floes and the rapid current. Encumbered with their cannon and baggage they occupied many hours in crossing. By midnight the sky was overcast with clouds and the snow was falling, and the remaining hours were intensely dark. But the men labored on with brave hearts and at four o'clock, without the loss of a man, the army was safely landed on the Jersey shore. This was at Mackonkey's Ferry, nine miles above Trenton, and the march down the river was one of extreme suffering, for the snow had turned to rain and hail, and the roads were in a dreadful condition. In two divisions, commanded by Sullivan and Greene, the army reached the little capital by converging roads almost at the same moment, and began a simultaneous attack. The enemy was wholly unprepared. Rall was roused from his bed to take command, but he soon fell mortally wounded. The battle was sharp and decisive, and was all over in three quarters of an hour. The American victory was complete. Less than two hundred Hessians made their escape; a hundred or more were killed and wounded, while about nine hundred and fifty were made prisoners. Six cannon, twelve hundred muskets, and other stores were also taken. The American loss was two killed, two frozen to death, and a few dozen wounded.

The victory at Trenton astonished everybody, so closely had Washington guarded the secret of his intentions. As the news spread through the country the rejoicing was loud and unrestrained. The captured Hessians were marched through the streets of Philadelphia to give the people ocular proof of the American triumph. The people thanked God for the victory, and took courage to renew the stuggle for liberty. "The Lord of hosts has heard the cry of the distressed," exclaimed the Lutheran patriarch, Mühlenberg, "and sent his angel to their assistance."6

Cornwallis, on hearing of the American victory, gave up his visit to England and hastened to Trenton. Washington had recrossed the swollen river with his spoils, but a week later we find him again at Trenton with a larger and more hopeful army. The terms of enlistment of a large number of his men expired with the year 1776, but by pledging to them his private fortune (an example followed by John Stark and others) and by the use of $50,000 placed in his hands by Robert Morris, the great financier of the Revolution, he induced them to remain. Cornwallis had reached Princeton, and on the 2d of January he began his march upon Trenton with eight thousand of his best troops. Washington had taken a stand on the banks of a little river south of the town, the Assunpink. But he saw that his force was much inferior to that of his antagonist, and he dared not risk a battle. The British reached Trenton late in the afternoon. Cornwallis now determined to throw his entire force against Washington, crowd him to the bank of the Delaware, and capture his whole army. But his men were weary and it was evening. He decided to wait till morning, never doubting the success of his plans. He retired in high spirits, saying, "At last we have run down the old fox and will bag him in the morning."7 But the fox was too wily to he caught. Keeping his camp-fires brightly burning all night, and a few men busily throwing up embankments within hearing of the British sentinels, Washington silently removed his entire army around the left wing and to the rear of his enemy, and by daylight they were marching happily toward Princeton. As the army neared the town a detachment under General Hugh Mercer encountered some two thousand British under Colonel Mawhood on their way to join Cornwallis. An immediate conflict ensued. After a fierce opening fire, the British rushed upon the patriots with the bayonet; and the latter, being without bayonets, fled through an orchard, leaving their valiant commander mortally wounded on the ground. As the English were pursuing the fugitives they came to the brow of a hill where they met the main army under Washington, who had heard the firing and was hastening to the spot. The British halted, and the battle became general.

At this battle of Princeton Washington signally displayed that marvelous physical courage which characterized him. The Pennsylvania militia wavered and seemed on the point of breaking, when the commander, to encourage them, rode to the front in the very midst of the flying bullets and drew rein within thirty yards of the enemy's lines. One of his aids drew his cap over his eyes that he might not see his chieftain die. Next moment a cloud of smoke enveloped rider and horse and hid them from view. A shiver of dread ran through the patriot ranks, but as the smoke cleared away and the commander sat unhurt, a wild shout of joy arose from the army.

The British were soon put to flight, and the battle was over. Cornwallis was amazed to discover, on the morning of January 3, that his prey had again escaped him. The distant boom of cannon at sunrise told the story. He broke camp and made a dash for Brunswick to save his stores collected there, while Washington moved northward to Morristown and went into winter quarters in a strong position.

In three weeks Washington had done a marvelous work for liberty. Frederick the Great is said to have pronounced his achievements in those three weeks the most brilliant in military history. In that time Washington, with a small, half-trained, half-hearted army, had won two victories, had taken a large number of prisoners, had greatly increased the size of his army, and, above all, had turned the tide of popular feeling and infused a new and living hope into the hearts of the patriots from Maine to Georgia and from the mountains to the sea. The star of Liberty, that had seemed so near its setting, was mounting again toward the zenith.


1See Fiske, Vol. I, p.219. [return]

2Fort Washington had been built early in the spring by Rufus Pumam, afterward "Father of Ohio," a cousin of General Putnam. [return]

3Howe had made a threat that he would put the garrison to the sword if they did not yield without resistance. Magaw answered defiantly and opened the battle. Howe was a humane man and probably had no intention of carrying out his threat. On gaining the fort, however, the Hessians, exasperated at the determined resistance, put a few of the men to the sword, and Washington, viewing the spectacle from beyond the river, burst into tears and sobbed like a child. Fiske, I, p.220. [return]

4This action was taken the day after Washington's success at Trenton, to be noticed later, though Congress had not yet heard of the victory. [return]

5Winsor, Vol. VI, p.371. [return]

6Winsor, Vol. VI, p.376. [return]

7Fiske, Vol. I, p.232. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XII p. 258-265. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

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