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Very early in the evening there had been firing at Rall's outposts, but the careless enemy hardly gave it his attention. Some lost detachment had probably fired on the pickets out of mere bravado. The night had been spent in carousal, and the storm had quieted Rall's mind as regards any danger of an attack.[1] 

But in the gray dawn of that dark December morning the two assaulting columns, emerging like phantoms from the midst of the storm, were rapidly approaching the Hessian pickets. All was quiet. The newly fallen snow deadened the rumble of the artillery. The pickets were enjoying the warmth of the houses in which they had taken post, half a mile out of town when the alarm was raised that the enemy was upon them. They turned out only to be swept away before the eager rush of the Americans, who came pouring on after them into the town, as it seemed in all directions, shouting and firing at the flying enemy. That long night of exposure, of suspense, the fatigue of that rapid march, were forgotten in the rattle of musketry and the din of battle.


Roused by the uproar the bewildered Hessians ran out of their barracks and attempted to form in the streets. The hurry, fright, and confusion were said to be like to that with which the imagination conjures up the sounding of the last trump.[2] Grape and canister cleared the streets in the twinkling of an eye. The houses were then resorted to for shelter. From these, the musketry soon dislodged the fugitives. Turned again into the streets the Hessians were driven headlong through the town into an open plain beyond it. Here they were formed in an instant, and Rall, brave enough in the smoke and flame of combat, even thought of forcing his way back into the town.


But Washington was again thundering away in their front with his cannon. In-person he directed their fire like a simple lieutenant of artillery. Off at the right, the roll of Sullivan's musketry announced his steady advance toward the bridge leading to Bordentown. The road to Princeton was held by a regiment of riflemen. Those troops, whom Sullivan had been driving before him, saved themselves by a rapid flight across the Assanpink. Why was not Ewing there to stop them! Sullivan promptly seized the bridge in time to intercept a disorderly mass of Hessian infantry, who had broken away from the main body in a panic, hoping to make their escape that way.


Not knowing which way to turn next, Rall held his ground, like a wounded boar brought to bay until a bullet struck him to the ground with a mortal wound. Finding themselves hemmed in on all sides, and seeing the American cannoneers getting ready to fire with canister, at short range, the Hessian colors were lowered in token of surrender.

A thousand prisoners, six cannon, with small-arms and ammunition in proportion, were the trophies of this brilliant victory. The work had been well done. From highest to lowest the immortal twenty-four hundred had behaved like men determined to be free.


Now, while in the fresh glow of triumph, Washington learned that neither Ewing nor Cadwalader had crossed to his assistance. He stood alone on the hostile shore, within striking distance of the enemy at Bordentown, and at Princeton. Donop, reënforced by the fugitives from Trenton, outnumbered him three to two. Reënforced by the garrison at Princeton, the odds would be as two to one. All these enemies he would soon have on his hands, with no certainty of any increase of his own force.

His combinations had failed, and he must have time to look about him before forming new ones. There was no help for it. He must again put the Delaware behind him before being driven into it.

Washington heard these tidings as things which the incompetence or jealousies of his generals had long habituated him to hear. Orders were therefore given to repass the river without delay or confusion, and, after gathering up their prisoners and their trophies, the victors retraced their painful march to their old encampment, where they arrived the same evening, worn out with their twenty-four hours' incessant marching and fighting, but with confidence in themselves and their leaders fully restored.

This little battle marked an epoch in the history of the war. It was now the Americans who attacked. Trenton had taught them the lesson that, man for man, they had nothing to fear from their vaunted adversaries; and that lesson learned at the point of the bayonet is the only one that can ever make men soldiers. The enemy could well afford to lose a town, but this rise of a new spirit was quite a different thing. Therefore, though a little battle, Trenton was a great fact, nowhere more fully confessed than in the British camp, where it was now gloomily spoken of as the tragedy of Trenton.



[1] Harris says that Rall had intelligence of the intended attack, and kept his men under arms the whole night. Long after daybreak, a most violent snowstorm coming on, he thought he might safely permit his men to lie down, and in this state, they were surprised by the enemy.--_Life_, p. 64.

[2] General Knox's account is here followed.--_Memoir_, p. 38.