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Parent Category: American Revolution Reference
Category: The Campaign of Trenton 1776-77
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The events of the next two days, apart from Washington's own movements, are a real comedy of errors. The firing at Trenton had been distinctly heard at Cadwalader's camp and its reason guessed. Later, rumors of the result threw the camps into the wildest excitement. Bitterly now these men regretted that they had not pushed on to the aid of their comrades.

Supposing Washington still to be at Trenton, Cadwalader made a second attempt to cross to his assistance at Bristol on the 27th, when, in fact, Washington was then back in Pennsylvania.[1]

Cadwalader thus put himself into precisely the same situation from which Washington had just hastened to extricate himself. But neither had foreseen the panic which had seized the enemy on hearing of the surprise of Trenton.

On getting over the river, Cadwalader learned the true state of things, which placed him in a very awkward dilemma as to what he should do next. As his troops were eager to emulate the brilliant successes of their comrades, he decided, however, to go in search of Donop. He, therefore, marched up to Burlington the same afternoon. The enemy had left it the day before. He then made a night march to Bordentown, which was also found deserted in haste. Crosswicks, another outpost lying toward Princeton, was next seized by a detachment. That, too, had been hurriedly abandoned. Cadwalader could find nobody to attack or to attack him. The stupefied people only knew that their villages had been suddenly evacuated. In short, the enemy's whole line had been swept away like dead leaves before an autumnal gale, under that one telling blow at Trenton.

Even Washington himself seems not to have realized the full extent of his success until these astonishing reports came in in quick succession. As the elated Americans marched on they saw the inhabitants everywhere pulling down the red rags which had been nailed to their doors, as badges of loyalty. "Jersey will be the most whiggish colony on the continent," writes an officer of this corps of Cadwalader's. "The very Quakers declare for taking up arms."[2]

 

In view of the facts here stated, Washington was strongly urged to secure his hold on West Jersey before the enemy should have time to recover from their panic. The temper of the people seemed to justify the attempt, even with the meager force at his command. On the 29th he, therefore, reoccupied Trenton in force. At the same time orders were sent off to McDougall at Morristown, and Heath in the Highlands, to show themselves to the enemy as if some concerted movement was in progress all along the line.[3]

 

Meantime the alarm brought about by Donop's[4] falling back on Princeton caused the commanding officer there to call urgently for reënforcements. None were sent, however, for some days, when the grenadiers and second battalion of guards marched in from New Brunswick. In evidence of the wholesome terror inspired by Washington's daring movements comes the account of the reception of this reënforcement by an eye-witness, Captain Harris, of the grenadiers, who writes of it: "You would have felt too much to be able to express your feelings on seeing with what a warmth of friendship our children, as we call the light-infantry, welcomed us, one and all crying, 'Let them come! Lead us to them, we are sure of being supported.' It gave me a pleasure too fine to attempt expressing."

Howe was now pushing forward all his available troops toward Princeton. Cornwallis hastened back to that place with the _élite_ of the army. While these heavy columns were gathering like a storm cloud in his front Washington and his generals were haranguing their men, entreating them to stay even for a few weeks longer. Such were the shifts to which the commander-in-chief found himself reduced when in actual presence of this overwhelming force of the enemy.

 

Through the efforts of their officers, most of the New England troops reënlisted for six weeks--Stark's regiment almost to a man.[5] And these battalions constituted the real backbone of subsequent operations. Hearing that the enemy was at least ready to move forward, Cadwalader's and Mifflin's troops were called into Trenton, and preparations were made to receive the attack unflinchingly. This force being all assembled on the 1st of January, 1777, Washington posted it on the east side of the Assanpink, behind the bridge over which Rail's soldiers had made good their retreat on the day of the surprise, with some thirty guns planted in his front to defend the crossing. Washington and Rall had thus suddenly changed places.

 

The American position was strong except on the right. It being higher ground the artillery commanded the town, the Assanpink was not fordable in front, the bridge was narrow, and the left secured by the Delaware. The weak spot, the right, rested in a wood which was strongly held, and capable of a good defense; but inasmuch as the Assanpink could be forded two or three miles higher up, a movement to the right and rear of the position was greatly to be feared. If successful it would necessarily cut off all retreat, as the Delaware was now impassable.

On the 2d the enemy's advance came upon the American pickets posted outside of Trenton, driving them through the town much in the same manner as they had driven the Hessians. As soon as the enemy came within range, the American artillery drove them back undercover, firing being kept up until dark.

Having thus developed the American position, Cornwallis astonished at Washington's temerity in taking it, felt sure of "bagging the fox," as he styled it, in the morning.

The night came. The soldiers slept, but Washington, alive to the danger, summoned his generals in council. All were agreed that a battle would be forced upon them with the dawn of day--all that the upper fords could not be defended. And if they were passed, the event of battle would be beyond all doubt disastrous. Cornwallis had only to hold Washington's attention in front while turning his flank. Should, then, the patriot army endeavor to extricate itself by falling back down the river? There seems to have been but one opinion as to the futility of the attempt, inasmuch as there was no stronger position to fall back upon. As a choice of evils, it was much better to remain where they were than be forced into making a disorderly retreat while looking for some other place to fight in.

Who, then, was responsible for putting the army into a position where it could neither fight nor retreat? If neither of these things could be done with any hope of success, there remained, in point of fact, but one alternative, to which the abandonment of the others as naturally led as converging roads to a common center. In all the history of the war, a more dangerous crisis is not to be met with. It is, therefore, incredible that only one man should have seen this avenue of escape, though it may well be that even the boldest generals hesitated to be the first to urge so desperate an undertaking.

 

In effect, the very danger to which the little army was exposed seems to have suggested to Washington the way out of it. If the enemy could turn his right, why could not he turn their left? If they could cut off his retreat, why could not he threaten theirs? This was sublimated audacity, with his little force; but safety here was only to be plucked from the nettle danger. It was then and there that Washington[6] proposed making a flank march to Princeton that very night, boldly throwing themselves upon the enemy's communications, defeating such reënforcements as might be found in the way, and perhaps dealing such a blow as would, if successful, baffle all the enemy's plans.

The very audacity of the proposal fell in with the temper of the generals, who now saw the knot cut as by a stroke of genius. This would not be a retreat, but an advance. This could not be imputed to fear, but rather to daring. The proposal was instantly adopted, and the generals repaired to their respective commands.

 

Replenishing the campfires, and leaving the sentinels at their posts, at one o'clock the army filed off to the right in perfect silence and order. The baggage and some spare artillery were sent off to Burlington, to still further mystify the enemy. By one of those sudden changes of weather, not uncommon even in midwinter, the soft ground had become hard frozen during the early part of the night, so that rapid marching was possible, and rapid marching was the only thing that could save the movement from failure, as Cornwallis would have but twelve miles to march to Washington's seventeen, to overtake them--he by a good road, they by a new and half-worked one. Miles, therefore, counted for much that night, and though many of the men wore rags wrapped about their feet, for want of shoes, and the shoeless artillery horses had to be dragged or pushed along over the slippery places, to prevent their falling, the column pushed on with unflagging energy toward its goal.

 

Shortly after daybreak the British, at Trenton, heard the dull booming of a distant cannonade. Washington, escaped from their snares, was sounding the reveille at Princeton. The British camp awoke and listened. Soon the rumor spread that the American lines were deserted. Drums beat, trumpets sounded, ranks were formed in as great haste as if the enemy were actually in the camps, instead of being at that moment a dozen miles away. Cornwallis, who had gone to bed expecting to make short work of Washington in the morning, saw himself fairly outgeneralled. His rearguard, his magazines, his baggage, were in danger, his line of retreat cut off. There was not a moment to lose. Exasperated at the thought of what they would say of him in England, he gave the order to press the pursuit to the utmost. The troops took the direct route by Maidenhead to Princeton; and thus, for the second time, Trenton saw itself freed from enemies, once routed, twice disgraced, and thoroughly crestfallen and stripped of their vaunted prestige.

 

Three British battalions lay at Princeton the night before.[7] Two of them were on the march to Trenton when Washington's troops were discovered approaching on a back road. Astonished at seeing troops coming up from that direction, the leading battalion instantly turned back to meet them. At the same time, Washington detached Mercer to seize the main road, while he himself pushed on with the rest of the troops. This movement brought on a spirited combat between Mercer and the strong British battalion, which had just faced about.[8] The fight was short, sharp, and bloody. After a few volleys, the British charged with the bayonet broke through Mercer's ranks, scattered his men, and even drove back Cadwalader's militia, who were coming up to their support.

Other troops now came up. Washington himself rode in among Mercer's disordered men, calling out to them to turn and face the enemy. It was one of those critical moments when everything must be risked. Like Napoleon pointing his guns at Montereau, the commander momentarily disappeared in the soldier; and excited by the combat raging around him, all the Virginian's native daring flashed out like lightning. Waving his uplifted sword, he pushed his horse into the fire as indifferent to danger as if he had really believed that the bullet which was to kill him was not yet cast.

Taking courage from his presence and example the broken troops re-formed their ranks. The firing grew brisker and brisker. Assailed with a fresh spirit, the British, in their turn, gave way, leaving the ground strewed with their dead, in return for their brutal use of the bayonet among the wounded. Finding themselves in danger of being surrounded, that portion of this fighting British regiment[9] which still held together retreated as they could toward Maidenhead, after giving such an example of disciplined against undisciplined valor as won the admiration even of their foes.

While this fight was going on at one point, the second British battalion was, in its turn, met and routed by the American advance, under St. Clair. This battalion then fled toward Brunswick, part of the remaining battalion did the same thing, and part threw themselves into the college building they had used as quarters, where a few cannon shot compelled them to surrender.

Three strong regiments had thus been broken in detail and put to flight. Two had been prevented from joining Cornwallis. Besides the killed and wounded they left two hundred and fifty prisoners behind them. The American loss in officers was, however, very severe. The brave Mercer was mortally wounded, and that gallant son of Delaware, Colonel Haslet, killed fighting at his commander's side.

After a short halt Washington again pushed on toward Brunswick, but tempting as the opportunity of destroying the dépôt there seemed to him, it had to be given up. His troops were too much exhausted, and Cornwallis was now thundering in his rear. When Kingston was reached the army, therefore, filed off to the left toward[10] Somerset Court House, leaving the enemy to continue his headlong march toward Brunswick, which was not reached until four o'clock in the morning, with troops completely broken down with the rapidity of their fruitless chase.

Washington could now say, "I am as near New York as they are to Philadelphia."

 

Footnotes:

[1] Cadwalader seems to have done all in his power to cross his troops in the first place. His infantry mostly got over, but on finding it impossible to land the artillery--ice being jammed against the shores for two hundred yards--the infantry were ordered back. Indeed, his rearguard could not get back until the next day. This was at Dunk's Ferry. The next and successful attempt took from nine in the morning till three in the afternoon, when 3,000 men crossed one mile above Bristol.

[2] Thomas Rodney's letter.

[3] Heath was ordered to make a demonstration as far down as King's Bridge, in order to keep Howe from reënforcing the Jerseys. It proved a perfect flash-in-the-pan.

[4] Part of Donop's force fell back even as far as New Brunswick.

[5] Stark made a personal appeal with vigor and effect. His regiment had come down from Ticonderoga in time to be given the post of honor by Washington himself.

[6] In a letter to his wife, Knox gives the credit of this suggestion to Washington, without qualification.

[7] These were the Seventeenth, Fortieth, and Fifty-first.

[8] The hostile columns met on the slope of a hill just off the main road, near the buildings of a man named Clark, Mercer reaching the ground first.

[9] The Seventeenth regiment, Colonel Mawhood, carried off the honors of the day for the British.

[10] The position at Morristown had been critically examined by Lee's officers during their halt there. Washington had therefore decided to defend the Jerseys from that position.

 

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